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BCMC Features New Ideas, Old Problems, and a Big Firm's Bid for a Competitive Advantage

Blake Schwieters, plant manager at Minnesota's J.L. Schwieters Building Supply & Construction, used the photo above on Sept. 20 to show attendees at the Building Component Manufacturers Conference (BCMC) how they can go beyond making simple roof trusses and wall panels. The picture was one of several eye-opening developments to take place in Indianapolis during the component industry's biggest annual gathering. Among others:

* Digging by The Misura Group revealed that Menards has purchased 13 robotic truss systems from Trussmatic as well as 51% of the Finnish company. It's using that majority control to curb any Trussmatic push to sell to Menards competitors.

* A Finnish professor regarded as one of that country's best inventors of truss plates displayed a floor truss system in which all the components are glued together.

* Discussions of robotics' future continues to be limited by concerns that timber mills can't produce lumber sized consistently accurately to be used by the machines.

* Artificial Intelligence reared its head in the form of a device that can inspect whether truss plates have been nailed in properly.

* Lumber prices will be far less volatile through year-end than they've been in previous years.

Back to Schwieters. His picture showed a stair unit inside a building module, ready to be delivered to a job site and attached to the rest of the project. The cube includes a precut stair, wall panels, a floor truss, and even a landing at the top of the stairs--a nice safety feature.

The module helped Schwieters and two fellow panelists at a BCMC session make a point about how to expand a components business: What you offer has to improve the framer's life, often in ways beyond reduced cycle time that the framer hadn't considered. For instance, Schwieters noted that cutting stairs is such a complicated job that the foreman often is the only person skilled enough to do it. The time recouped by not having to cut the stairs is time the foreman can use for more managerial tasks, Schiweters said.

Menards and Trussmatic

For several years, BCMC visits have seen Trussmatic officials promote a robotic truss machine that requires just one operator for two production tables. The response typically was skeptical, but one company bought in--big.

"Back in 2018, when many LBM leaders' idea of robotics stretched only to the Roomba vacuum, Menard's Midwest Manufacturing division started acquiring these cutting-edge Trussmatic systems," the Misura Group reported in a blog. "Menards now has 12 of them, churning out trusses to support its 336 big box stores from Wisconsin to Wyoming to West Virginia. I was shocked to hear they installed their 13th Trussmatic system in Sarasota, FL, 900 miles from their nearest store. It will be in full production November of 2023.

"Why haven’t we heard of this?" the blog continued. "Because Menards President John Menard Jr. now owns 51% of Trussmatic’s parent company, and he’s using that majority stake to pressure Trussmatic’s leaders to keep his ownership and 13 units a secret so he can gain ground on competitors. That may help explain why Trussmatic’s booth at BCMC was so modest."

Glue, Not Plates

Tuomo Poutanen spent many years as one of Finland's leading designers of truss plates. At BCMC, his booth didn't show any of them. Instead, he was promoting G-Joist, an open-web wood floor truss in which all the components are glued together.

Poutanen says his solution may cost more to manufacturer, but ultimately it's 5% to 35% cheaper than the alternatives because there's less need for supports and cross-bracing, as well as any time spent on the job site cutting holes for HVAC systems.

Crooked Lumber

While he's impressed by what robotics can do, industry veteran and truss historian Joe Kannapell adds a long-time caveat. "Whether robots can handle crooked lumber is another matter and has been a bone of contention since the first automated equipment came to BCMC," he wrote in the latest edition of the Component Manufacturing Advertiser.

Kannapell referenced a discussion during BCMC in which panelists noted that Katerra's failed automation attempts came in part because of a "mountain of culls"--wood that couldn't be used in Katerra's machines. "Given that Katerra was processing Western Woods, the chance of successful automated culling of Southern Pine at component plants seems impractical, and I would say futile," Kannapell wrote.

"Crooked lumber can defeat robotic systems, as occurred at Katerra, but doesn’t have to, as evidenced by the nearly two dozen robotic truss lines operating currently in the U.S.," Kannapell wrote. "However, all of these lines are somewhat compromised by bad boards, and their long-term success depends on how well they adapt to the material at hand. While the likelihood that another material displaces wood is remote, any practical technology that can lessen rejects will be increasingly important as the number of robotic lines grows."

Baby Steps

Designing a module like Schwieters' stair cube may lie beyond the capabilities of most component manufacturers, but he and the other panelists--Shane Soule, president of ProTec Panel & Truss, and Bryan Dorsey, VP of Operations at Innovative Construction Group (ICG)--had baby-step ideas. ProTec began by offering gables and pre-cut headers. ICG puts flashing on wall panels. "Start with building those wins from the cost-[savings] standpoint," Soule said. "Begin with the equipment you have."

ICG is owned by Pulte, so Dorsey is well acquainted with how focused big builders are on executing within a given time. He said ICG's constant challenge is: "How do we take the next bottleneck in the sequence of events and pare that back?" Even eliminating the need to pull out a tape measure for a particular task is a way to save time, he said.

The trio also stressed that, if you want to go beyond plain-vanilla components, you must include education with your value-add products. "You can't treat this like a commodity product, like you're dropping off a box of nails," said Schwieters, who has a staffer dedicated just to training. When ProTec ships out a value-added product, it sends employees with framing experience to show the on-site crews how to use that product. In some of ICG's service areas, it won't put its materials on the ground unless it can supervise the labor.

Some markets, such as Soule's in Indiana, traditionally haven't been big on value framing. Consequently, his sales campaign also includes enlightening the customer by doing things such as time studies. You also may need to provide free product to the framer. "Help them do the math," he said. "Sometimes it takes two or three jobs for them to see [the benefits]." Once they have that knowledge, the framer is much more likely to drop its price to the point where a component manufacturer can come in, create time-saving materials, and produce a profitable job for all concerned.

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