Building materials dealers are capitalizing on new features in computer-aided design (CAD) and related software programs to offer more automated services to contractors, who, as a result, are benefiting from having to make fewer decisions and use less labor on job-sites. While the specific information technology tools and features being used vary today from dealer to dealer, the general trend emerging is that systems are being enhanced to complete more of the design process before lumber, trusses, or other materials are delivered to the jobsite. With greater precision and fewer variables to respond to, there's less waste, less delay, and less modification needed on site.

Grimes, Iowa–based Beisser Lumber, for example, now is doing all of its residential home design work on a CAD program called BuildersCAD from Sigma Design. Beisser's design department handles 225 to 250 projects per year, mostly single-family homes.

The $50 million firm—and its contractor customers—now benefits from integration with newly enhanced “sizing” software from major lumber manufacturers, including Weyerhaeuser and LP. These programs let Beisser optimize lumber lengths and lay out joists as part of their building plans; they also help determine up front how much load a particular joist can bear. “If you're going to support a granite countertop, we'd input all the weight information with the software and it might say you need to go to the next series of joists,” says Rob Walker, manager of Beisser's design department.

The software can use the information in the design to meet the needs of a particular customer while working within the confines of the company's inventory. “We may be heavy in 48-foot lengths of lumber. We may convert the layout the software has given and condense it to where it works best with our inventory,” Walker explains.

Similar productivity enhancements are being realized at Ruff Quality Components, a division of Hundman Lumber in Monticello, Ill. The company, which manufactures roof trusses, uses engineering software to design roof planes and outside profiles of walls, and to fit trusses to planes. CAD programs of this type are helpful because they allow designers to put a roof on a wide variety of ceilings: cathedral, tray, vault, virtually anything, says Mike Ruff, general manager. “My specialty is custom work,” he says. “With CAD, you can do the real nasty roofs that are hard to visualize.”

The engineering software program used by Ruff Quality Components, from roof truss plate supplier Alpine Engineered Products, will be enhanced in the coming months so it can analyze window and door headers, as well as size floor joists and beams, Ruff says. That will enable pro suppliers to take a significant step toward providing whole-house engineering services. “Since we provide I-joists, headers, and floor systems, we transfer loads by hand, starting with the roof,” he explains. “With the new software, you'll see walls and floors with a 3-D view; it'll self-load and transfer loads. And it will size a header accordingly to hold up a particular load.”

As another example, Knecht Home Center in Rapid City, S.D., performs whole-house design using two different CAD systems, both of which recently have been updated with more automated functions, such as the ability to automatically set window dimensions and place electrical outlets, says Wally Bork, general manager of the $49 million, 280-employee home center that has a full-service drafting and estimating department.

Indeed, the trend toward more CAD automation is on the upswing across the spectrum of the dealer market, and the productivity enhancements that it promises are attracting more and more companies to plug in.—Tom Smith is an Amherst, N.Y.–based freelance writer.