Part IX: Windows into Truss Design
Two unstoppable waves merged to form the tsunami that swept over truss design in the 1990s. The first was the mass commercialization of the PC, accelerated by Michael Dell in the late 1980s. The second was the graphical user interface (GUI), exploited by our David McQuinn in the early 1990s. Though the GUI was destined to multiply the power of the PC, the adoption of new technology was clouded by the failing economy. Housing starts were at the lowest levels in our lifetimes, depressed by 10% mortgage rates as we entered the Nineties.
Truss designers were gaining new tools, but were also coping with more complex designs and unproven technology. Most had PCs in front of them, but they were unreliable, and were limited by antiquated programs and inadequate “horsepower.” We introduced new design tools, like “Profile Input,” but they yielded only incremental improvements. Much design time was lost tweaking computer hardware, just to get cutting lists to the shop. All the while, a vast array of new peripheral hardware was entering the fray. New printers, plotters, monitors, and mice promised to improve our productivity, if only they would “talk” to our clone computers!
Behind the scenes, truss industry computer gurus were sorting out this ever-changing wave of technology, and most were biased by their twenty-year investment in legacy software: all except our David McQuinn. Dave had come to us from outside our industry with a fresh outlook, which was affirmed by our new ownership which recognized the pre-eminence of software. Dave himself had been assembling clone PCs and sending them out to us in the field, and he said in retrospect, “We wanted to build this new app around the ‘IBM compatible PC’ hardware standard which seemed to be evolving and standardizing. The price / performance point was about right for our market.”
While all of us embraced the PC, Dave also knew designers craved great graphics. As he aptly stated, “Fundamental software design issues limited our ability to describe the types of geometry that modern truss manufacturers wanted to build. (E.g. every board had to exist entirely on the top chord, bottom chord, or webs – this made it impossible to describe a studio vault – where the vertical piece of wood acts as a vertical bottom chord and then transitions into the interior of the truss and becomes a web.) Attics designs were very limited, etc.”
While we recognized the “good news” offered by PCs and their graphical capabilities, we had to deal with the “bad news” of our antiquated software. As Dave surmised, “So this gave us an opportunity to switch from a character-mode application to a graphical UI. We evaluated three choices: IBM OS/2 Presentation Manager, Windows (it was called Windows 386 at the time), and some Unix variants (Linux).” And Dave did his homework, “We actually developed early prototypes using all three Operating systems and Windows worked the best for our developers. It supported a large enough memory model (no more 640K memory limit) and the graphical UI (user interface) worked really well for describing two-dimensional geometry required to describe wood trusses.”
MiTek was one of the earliest adopters of Windows in the entire engineering community – but how long would it take to shape this new technology before designers would benefit, and David McQuinn would be showing Bill Gates his work?
Windows Works Its Magic