Part VI: Desktop Engineering Rocks the Design World
One man, an accomplished CM, set out to ramp-up the efficiency of truss designers in the Eighties: Mr. Leonard Sylk. He did it by pioneering the in-house computer, and its user-friendly software. By use of this tool, he envisioned a plant requiring less skilled technicians, cranking out truss designs by the minute. He also aimed to reduce a designer’s workload via a computer filing system. And he demonstrated the success of both systems in his large component plant outside Philadelphia.
Mr. Sylk, like Mr. Trump, is an unconventional figure. Both are Ivy Leaguers, products of the Wharton School of Business. Both are rough and tumble, second generation entrepreneurs. Mr. Sylk distinguished himself, however, in a brand new venue: our component industry. He was among the first, in the early 1970s, to dramatically improve production processes and costing at his Material Fabrication, Inc. facility. By the late 1970s, having addressed shop labor, he turned his attention to office labor, namely by improving designer productivity.
Innovation, like that marketed by Mr. Sylk, was especially appealing to CMs in the turbulent 1970s. Mid decade, housing starts had dropped more than half from their all-time record level in 1972, but by 1978 were again rising toward that record. Vietnam was behind us, and Americans craved the more affordable housing that our industry facilitated. But using the cumbersome manual systems of that day, like pouring through reams of standard engineering designs, designers couldn’t keep up with increasingly complex truss requests. Enter Mr. Sylk’s Hewlett Packard 9845 Computer, a self-contained, all-in-one workhorse.
Three innovations made the HP 9845 ideal for truss design: computer prompting, graphical display, and integral printing. The first made input much simpler: replacing the exacting data entry formerly required (see our old input form pictured). Designers, for example, had to recall and enter the correct (cryptic) identifiers for top chord materials: ‘343’ for #2 2x4 Southern Pine lumber, ‘345’ for #1 2x4 SYP, etc. Obviously this method was error-prone and required a skilled technician. Contrast this to answering simple prompts on the 9845 like “span=?”
The second innovation assured the correctness of input. The HP 9845’s first-of-its-kind graphical display replaced the crude ‘dots and dashes’ on the output of timesharing terminals. Even mainframe computers weren’t capable of accurately displaying properly scaled drawings. Consequently, there was no rapid method to verify the accuracy of non-standard truss profiles, resulting in, at best, increased checking, or, at worst, cutting errors in the shop.
The third innovation automated the production of truss submittal drawings. The HP 9845’s integral thermal printer eliminated manual drafting and/or the use of separate plotted output to produce a scaled drawing. I was able to seal this truss output with little modification, and no longer had to cut and paste truss details to supplement printed calcs.
Unfortunately, this ground-breaking technology wasn’t yet economical for most CMs. The HP 9845 and its successor, the 9836, were still expensive, about $30,000 in today’s currency. Thus most CMs weren’t able to afford a computer for every designer. This lessened the capability to perform interactive design, and the utility of making design corrections “on the fly.” And computer-based truss design retrieval systems, such as Mr. Sylk’s, were rendered ineffective by increasing truss complexity and by changing building codes. But help was on the way from Steve Jobs and company.
Still in the future was an even more beneficial innovation, automating truss layouts and “take offs.” By the time Mr. Sylk earned SBCA’s Hall of Fame Award in 1990, the computers on designers’ desktops were still doing little more than he originally conceived: designing individual trusses. Unassisted by the computer was the most complex task, 3D visualization, which constituted the bulk of a designer’s work. For instance, on a 2400 square foot hip-roofed house like that shown, determining truss profiles was an onerous manual task, requiring well-developed designer skills. Raising selected wall heights multiplied the complexity, and demanded better tools. Help, here, was also on the way from South Florida.
A Computer for Every Designer