After working in the lumber and building materials business for 22 years, Power Townsend salesman Steve Anderson knows how to gauge the correct span for a floor joist and is usually on target when he estimates the maximum load for a structural member. If he’s in doubt, he sends the plans to the truss plant he works with in Helena, Mont., for a design engineer to review and make recommendations.

“They have computer programs for the floor joists, but as far as doing most of it, it’s just a matter of knowledge of what we’re doing. That’s the basics of it,” says Anderson. “Unfortunately, everybody wants to go to computers.”

Indeed, wood suppliers estimate that as many as two-thirds of all LBM dealers use engineering design software—instead of their top salesman’s educated guess—to analyze loads as a first step in the takeoff process. Or they send their pro customers’ plans to a software-equipped truss plant to make the call. And before long, they predict, every dealer will rely on the software, which can do the analysis in half the time and with more precision than even the most experienced lumber expert who works without a computer.

Senior designer Anna Frantz of M.E. Supply in Columbiana, Ohio, is among those who count on the software to make quick work out of analyzing the structural needs of a pro customer’s building project. She says that using supplier-provided engineering design software has led to more sales to contractors who want a quicker turnaround and one-stop service.

“It gives us a one-up on the competition. Others might send it to a truss manufacturer, but we can do it quicker in-house.” Plus, she notes, the analysis is a service that adds value to the pro customers who buy engineered and dimensional lumber from the yard.

Until the 1980s, when Trus Joist introduced computer software to structurally analyze a floor system, design engineers and LBM dealers relied on Anderson’s tried-and-true method, using span charts and their experience to gauge loads.

As the size of homes, the height of ceilings, and the span of roofs grew over the next decades and spawned the use of engineered wood, “that gut feeling for how to build a house went away, and we needed help,” notes one wood supplier. Frantz, who consults her software for at least 80 percent of her pro customer’s projects, agrees: “You can’t really just rafter it anymore,” she says. “You still get the little ranches that don’t need much help, but the bigger [homes] are pushing all of those limits. That’s where we really have to check.”

Today, the common way to analyze structural veracity is via software; in fact, many code jurisdictions won’t even allow construction to start unless the builder shows a computerized layout that proves the plan is structurally sound.

Along the way, wood suppliers and software developers have re-created the programs to make them easier to learn and operate and to shave more time between a lumber sale and the delivery to a jobsite.

If your organization uses engineering design software or is thinking about it, consider this advice from dealers, suppliers and industry consultants:

  • Chances are, you are using or will use the software supplied to you by the engineered wood manufacturer you have chosen because of the quality of its wood products and the reliability of its customer service. In fact, dealers agree, the “buy” is about the wood, not the software.
  • Still, not all supplier-provided engineering design software is the same. In fact, notes one manufacturer, “The bells and whistles of software among manufacturers can be a game changer,” noting that the differences in capabilities among their software packages range from simple to stunning.
  • When choosing a supplier of engineered wood, consider the quality of the software right along with price, customer service, brand and your other usual benchmarks. If you’re using the software to add value for your own customers, know if the software your supplier offers is the one that will meet your needs.
  • Consider whether the engineering design software you use or are considering is compatible with your business’s other automated systems. For example, is it possible to interface the design software with your estimating software or your point-of-sale software? You might have to pay extra for those interface processes, but they will save you from redrawing, re-scanning and re-typing information into every program. In some cases, the interface is not possible using your supplier’s software. Knowing that could help you consider whether to stick with what you have or switch vendors.
  • Frantz notes that unless the dealer is going to outsource the structural analysis, someone on staff has to know how to use the software and interpret its results. That will happen through training on the basics, refresher courses, advanced training, and the availability of an expert at the supplier level who is on call to answer questions or walk an in-house designer through trouble spots. Find out whether your supplier offers this level of training and access to support.
  • Keep up with changes and new editions of the software, and continually quiz the maker about features that are beyond the basics—features your staff might not be using because they either don’t know how or don’t know they exist. As the software evolves, the drawings will be higher-quality and the transfer of data among structural, architectural, and office management tools is likely to become easier.
  • A software program that “knows” how to determine proper loads is a precision tool that can be a time-saver and sales-booster. The downside: The more your staff relies on technology to tell them the answers, the less expertise salesmen and designers will develop so they can figure these things out on their own. There may be some value in training younger staff in both the technology and manual analysis.

More from ProSales:

The Future of Wood

Market Remains Strong for Engineered Wood

Component Testing