Part XII: Walls Get in the Way
Just because two CEOs agree to build a computer model of a house in 3 years doesn’t mean it’s feasible. And barely a year into the agreement between TrusJoist and MiTek to merge software, we realized that we couldn’t do it. Meanwhile our competitor, Tommy Wood, had a workable “parametric” solution. Our “OptiFrame” effort seemed to be aimed at the executive suite, while Tommy was targeting truss and panel designers.
Before Tommy hawked his IntelliBuild solution, few CMs sought more than a strong truss program. Most applauded our OptiFrame efforts, but the bulk of them avoided (or had been burned by) the highly-cyclical wall panel market. As a result, our 1990’s attempt at whole house design, called eFrame, had received mixed reviews from both truss designers and panel designers. eFrame users complained that we had strayed too far from the simplicity of our (A.C.E.S.) roots, and that we failed to deliver increased productivity. Thankfully we gained a reprieve during this period as heavier designer workloads mitigated against software changes. Most eFrame users had to stumble along until the “better mousetrap” arrived. But we couldn’t ask them to wait too long, as IntelliBuild had the added backing of Illinois Tool Works (ITW). And similarly, MiTek had become part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. The stage was set for a competitive clash.
When Illinois Tool Works purchased Tommy Wood’s business through its Truswal subsidiary, ITW had a solid shot at whole house leadership. Tommy brought with him an intense focus on wall panel technology, including an impressive wall panel equipment line and automated machinery know-how. He had begun partnering with Makron, an advanced European wall panel machinery vendor. This alliance gave Tommy an industry-leading link between design software and automated machinery, and a “PlantNet” shop floor control system.
Meanwhile, the developers at our OptiFrame office faced daunting challenges. Our partner’s program, TJ Expert, was an outgrowth of Keymark’s legacy software. MiTek’s contribution, eFrame, was largely based on older Panel Builder software (see diagram—See PDF or View in Full Issue). Both programs had limited capabilities and a vastly different internal architecture. In early 2002, the decision was made to scrap the old and write brand new, state-of-the-art software. However, no one, including MiTek’s CEO Gene Toombs, who had launched the partnership, speculated on the market-ready date.
While component design software plodded along from 2001 to 2005 without noticeable accomplishment, housing starts were reaching all-time highs. 2006 marked the 15th year of housing expansion, and both ITW and MiTek were generating enough capital from truss plate sales to fund software development. ITW added a leading truss design program, View, when it purchased Alpine. MiTek/TrusJoist continued to add programmers to the OptiFrame project. Yet even with a nearly $10 Million annual investment, we hadn’t yet produced a marketable product. Instead our partnership was on the rocks. T-J’s grand vision of designing every element of a structure seemed unattainable. We at MiTek just wanted a good framing plan that was connected with our truss design program. We worried that T-J’s purchase by Weyerhaeuser would adversely affect their continued investment in OptiFrame. And could Truswal/Alpine/Comsoft software code be successfully merged faster than we could create a brand new program? Also, would we be able to keep our 70 OptiFrame developers when the great recession devastated our industry?
The Unfinished Whole House