In­te­grat­ing in­no­va­tive think­ing into a wood prod­uct busi­ness

Case Study – Tak­ing a New Pre­fab­ri­cated Light­weight Tim­ber Ground Floor Sys­tem to Mar­ket

Australasian Timber - - WOOD INNOVATIONS - Dr Alas­tair Woodard TPC So­lu­tions Pty Ltd

At the re­cent Wood In­no­va­tions con­fer­ence held in Mel­bourne at the Bayview Ho­tel, Dr Alas­tair Woodard of TPC So­lu­tions pre­sented a case study: Tak­ing a New Pre­fab­ri­cated Light­weight Tim­ber Ground Floor Sys­tem to Mar­ket.

When he opened his talk he was quick to point out that he speaks very fast, this was no ex­ag­ger­a­tion since he packed as much into his pre­sen­ta­tion as it would take an­other per­son two ses­sions to com­plete. Hence this is a long but in­for­ma­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what he dis­cussed.

In­no­va­tion and the norm.

As Dr Woodard said this case study is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of not just in­no­va­tion but just as im­por­tantly in­dus­try col­lab­o­ra­tion.

“In­no­va­tion is the mech­a­nism that al­lows busi­nesses to change their prod­ucts and ser­vices to adapt to the growth in the mar­ket place,” he said. “In­no­va­tion re­quires new ways of work­ing, bet­ter col­lab­o­ra­tion and im­proved skills.

“I’d like to take you on a jour­ney of investigation, ex­plo­ration and change.”

He said that his jour­ney started with a ques­tion: why were builders no longer con­struct­ing el­e­vated tim­ber sub-floors – par­tic­u­larly on sites where this op­tion was sim­ply far su­pe­rior?

“We’ve al­ways pro­duced tim­ber sub-floors … it was the first con­struc­tion sys­tem un­til we lost out to con­crete slabs,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing the Dr Woodard, Wood Prod­ucts Vic­to­ria ap­proached the mar­ket about three years ago to ask why builders con­tin­u­ally use con­crete slabs de­spite them not of­fer­ing the right so­lu­tion in ev­ery sit­u­a­tion.

The feed­back was re­ally good, it was con­sis­tent but with­out any sur­prise. Wood Prod­ucts found that the con­crete slab is the norm and builders sim­ply don’t con­sider or think about any­thing else.

“The build­ing in­dus­try likes what the con­crete slab of­fers, it’s re­ally sim­ple for them,” said Dr Woodard. “So if we want to com­pete with that we have to supply and in­stall.”

Builders in Aus­tralia pre­fer slab-on-ground to sus­pended tim­ber floor sys­tems be­cause;

Slabs rep­re­sent over 95% of the new res­i­den­tial mar­ket in some states

Builders today are used to, and want – one con­tract to de­liver a work­ing plat­form, on a site, on a spe­cific date, for a spe­cific cost.

Builders have con­cerns with tra­di­tional built-on-site joist and bearer tim­ber sys­tems par­tic­u­larly be­cause:

• Mul­ti­ple trades and con­tracts are re­quired

• There are longer con­struc­tion pe­ri­ods com­pared with the slab-on-ground sys­tem.

The chal­lenge

So this is the chal­lenge for the suc­cess­ful take-up of easy-toin­stall, cost ef­fec­tive light­weight tim­ber ground floor sys­tems, which is what Dr Woodard’s case study cen­tres on. The key is­sues to ad­dress in­clude: Of­fer­ing a to­tal sys­tem that in­cludes the pre­fab­ri­cated tim­ber floor, the sup­port­ing sys­tem (with a num­ber of op­tions de­pend­ing on site con­di­tions) and a sim­ple, ef­fec­tive and quick in­stal­la­tion process

De­vel­op­ing an ap­proach that has broad supply chan­nel po­ten­tial – an ap­proach that does not re­quire spe­cial­ists to de­liver, it must se­cure en­gage­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion by the frame and truss sec­tor to de­sign/fab­ri­cate/in­stall the sys­tem so that this pro­vides a whole new value-added chain

A prod­uct line to man­u­fac­tur­ers and a next step to­wards fur­ther pre­fab­ri­ca­tion of­fer­ings (fully fin­ished wall sys­tems, fab­ri­cated roof mod­ules etc). “It’s hard to get hard num­bers, the FWPA is work­ing on that, but anec­do­tally par­tic­u­larly in the east­ern states about 95% of new res­i­den­tial con­struc­tions are on a slab,” said Dr Woodard. “The builders don’t re­ally like how we build the tim­ber floors they think there’s too many trades in­volved.

“Some­one has to come and ex­ca­vate strip foot­ings, some­one pours con­crete, if it’s a brick ve­neer you’ve got to build the brick sub-wall then some­one comes and does brick piers or stumps de­pend­ing on what state you’re in, then lays floor joists, then we lay bear­ers, then we lay floor­ing – now we’ve got a flat sur­face.

“The con­crete guys do that in one con­tract we’ve done it in mul­ti­ple ones. They don’t like that, plus they think it takes a lot longer, we don’t think it does but that’s their per­cep­tion.”

What builders want is one con­tract, and a work­ing plat­form on a spe­cific date for a spe­cific cost – that was the clear mes­sage. If the tim­ber in­dus­try wants to com­plete in that mar­ket­place then what has to be on of­fer is an easy to in­stall, cost ef­fec­tive floor sys­tem.

What came out of the re­search was that builders have to be of­fered a to­tal floor sys­tem not just the pan­els, one that in­cludes the piers and foot­ings in the ground.

What’s the mar­ket?

What is hap­pen­ing cur­rently is that con­crete slabs are be­ing used ev­ery­where, even when they are the least ap­pro­pri­ate con­struc­tion method be­cause it’s the norm.

Dr Woodard pointed to a house set against a mas­sive hill­side de­scrib­ing how ridicu­lous it was to build a con­crete slab con­struc­tion on this type of house block.

“You can’t be­lieve that any­one thought this was good con­struc­tion prac­tice let alone the poor con­sumer who got this house,” he said. “Have a look at the back wall, the cut and fill, those re­tain­ing walls are the height of the sec­ond storey win­dows.

“The cost today of a house and land pack­age is worth so much, half the cost of this land is worth noth­ing, you can’t do any­thing with that back­yard. You can’t be­lieve the coun­cil al­lowed them to do that, yet you see it all the time.”

So one area where a pre­fab­ri­cated cas­sette ground floor sys­tem would work is on slop­ing blocks, an­other he pointed out was in flood prone ar­eas where the house can be raised. And yet an­other was build­ing on re­ac­tive clays. “For those in Vic­to­ria the two great­est zones are to the south and to the west, which is all highly re­ac­tive clay,” he said.

“Waf­fle pod slabs have been in­tro­duced in the past 10 years. For those from Vic­to­ria they’ve been in drought for 15 years. So re­ally the dirt they’ve been build­ing on has seemed like rock but now that the mois­ture has come back that soil is mov­ing all over the place. “So those waf­fle pods are flex­ing and they’re get­ting cracks. Cracks in walls, doors are jam­ming, there’s all sorts of prob­lems for those peo­ple.

“This is some­thing we would pitch against on a flat site and clearly on those re­ac­tive clays there’s real ben­e­fits in be­ing able to come back and ad­just the house into shape af­ter­wards.”

How does it work?

A flat site is not a big mar­ket for this but there are op­por­tu­ni­ties, how­ever, builders all loved the con­cept on a slop­ing site where you have ad­justable steel piers.

“There’re a cou­ple of those on the mar­ket Uni-Pier and Ad­vanta-Pier,” said Dr Woodard.“They both op­er­ate on the same sys­tem.

“You can also get ad­justable tops and we think they are go­ing to be the crit­i­cal ones for the re­ac­tive clays. They’re very sim­ple to ad­just.”

The con­crete guys can’t do any­thing to make ad­just­ments, added Dr Woodard.

He said that his aim was to keep to the KIS prin­ci­ple (Keep It Sim­ple) so quite sim­ple foot­ing sys­tems were em­ployed such as con­crete piers or con­ven­tional strip foot­ings.

To test the sys­tem it was taken from the draw­ing board and run as a full sized house project with Bowens.

“We found them to be a re­ally good part­ner be­cause they do sub-floors al­ready,” said Dr Woodard. “So we got good feed­back. The house de­sign was pretty sim­ple.

“They were go­ing to do it with stumps, which would have been about 45 times to ground, with our sys­tem and nine pan­els we only went 16 times to ground.

“This is on a re­ac­tive clay and the geotech­ni­cal en­gi­neer said those foot­ings have to be at about two me­tres be­low the ground sur­face. It was quite a sav­ing just in the foun­da­tion sys­tem.”

In­stal­la­tion hap­pened in Fe­bru­ary 2013 in Heath­cote north of Mel­bourne on re­ac­tive clay and a slightly slop­ing site.

“The most im­por­tant thing is the ini­tial set out since you have to get those piers in ex­actly the right place as if they are in the wrong place you don’t want to be hang­ing around with a panel on a crane.”

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Woodard, in­stalling the stumps was very quick, maybe five min­utes a stump, and they were lev­eled off us­ing the sim­plest of items, a level. It all went re­ally quickly.

“In this in­stance the truck was able to get close to the site and the crane on the back of the truck was used to lift the pan­els into place. From the first panel you can line up all the oth­ers.

“It all went very smoothly, prob­a­bly half a day to do the piers and half a day to do the pan­els. That meant it was just one day to do the floors.

At the end of that project the team de­vel­oped a tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sory man­ual, which has been writ­ten for the frame and truss man­u­fac­tur­ers that in­tro­duces the con­cepts of the sys­tem, and shows them how to select and op­ti­mise the ap­pro­pri­ate sys­tem.

“There’s some good in­for­ma­tion on de­sign, some in­for­ma­tion on fab­ri­ca­tion and in­stal­la­tion, and then the Heath­cote case study.

“Nor­mally with the FWPA project doc­u­ments are made pub­licly avail­able, in this in­stance we asked the FWPA to re­strict the ac­cess … we didn’t want this out there so some­one could have a go at it do it badly and wreck the whole sys­tem be­fore we had chance to take it to mar­ket,” ex­plained Dr Woodard. “We wanted a log­i­cal mar­ket­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion phase. That’s the stage we’re at, at the mo­ment.”

The low hang­ing fruit

“A cou­ple of years ago the frame and truss sec­tor was re­ally strug­gling, the mar­ket was down,” ex­plained Dr Woodard.

“Too many of them, all un­der­cut­ting jobs, no one was mak­ing bucks on it. They had about 98% of the roof frame mar­ket and 80% of the wall frame mar­ket that’s prob­a­bly all they’ll get be­cause out here we still like to stick build. There was no po­ten­tial to move.

“So when we pointed out that they had none of the ground floor mar­ket they were pretty in­ter­ested, that was the key - bring­ing them in and get­ting them in­volved.”

It was im­por­tant to im­ple­ment a strat­egy to man­age the in­tro­duc­tion of the sys­tem so that the in­dus­try could pro­vide a high qual­ity so­lu­tion from the get go.

Ac­tiv­i­ties have in­cluded the de­vel­op­ment of a de­tailed im­ple­men­ta­tion pro­gram and re­lated ac­tions.

Stake­holder fund­ing and sup­port was sought while in­for­ma­tion sem­i­nars for frame and truss man­u­fac­tur­ers were pro­vided in Queens­land, New South Wales and Vic­to­ria.

From there in­no­va­tive and high qual­ity frame and truss

man­u­fac­tur­ers were in­den­ti­fied na­tion­ally for par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pro­gram. A mar­ket im­ple­men­ta­tion group (MIG) was con­vened with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the three nailplate man­u­fac­tur­ing companies – Pryda, Multi­nail and MiTek as well as frame and truss man­u­fac­tur­ers – three from NSW, three from Queens­land, one from Tas­ma­nian and seven from Vic­to­rian.

“Cer­tain pri­or­ity generic ac­tiv­i­ties need to be ad­dress in­clud­ing an assess­ment of the dif­fer­ent State re­quire­ments for li­cens­ing, OH&S, crane us­age and in­sur­ance.

“Along­side this it was im­por­tant de­velop an in­de­pen­dent busi­ness case and value propo­si­tion, and to be able to pro­vide as­sis­tance with in­di­vid­ual job de­signs. The nailplate man­u­fac­tur­ers had to de­velop pre­fab­ri­cated floor de­sign tools.

“Ben­e­fits had to be put be­fore builders and con­sumers so that they were con­vinced of the ad­van­tages and a mar­ket­ing and pro­mo­tion pack­age de­vel­oped with the usual mar­ket­ing tools such as a web­site, brochures, work­shops etc.

“As we look to take this to mar­ket and we’re not do­ing that at the mo­ment,” said Dr Woodard. “This is the mar­ket de­vel­op­ment and train­ing phase with the in­dus­try to get their skills up.

“We won’t com­pete with the waf­fle pod slab on a sta­ble site -- it’s just too cheap. What we’re fo­cus­ing on is slop­ing sites, flood zones and re­ac­tive clays.

“To give you a feel for what that’s worth in Vic­to­ria for ev­ery 1% mar­ket share gained it’s worth $2.5 to $3 mil­lion a year in new tim­ber sales that we don’t get at the mo­ment. If you ex­trap­o­late that na­tion­ally for ev­ery 1% it’s prob­a­bly $10m to $12 mil­lion.

“We want to cap­ture that low hang­ing fruit ini­tially. Then we reckon builders will pick it up on the flat sites.

“If you take this to a builder the first thing they say is how much is it go­ing to cost per square me­tre com­pared with con­crete? And it isn’t that com­par­i­son,” said Dr Woodard.

“We’ve done stud­ies with builders to see the ad­van­tages from their per­spec­tive.

“The nailplate companies have started to de­velop de­sign tools them­selves. We need to give them time to do that and we’re about to move into a phase of mar­ket­ing and pro­mo­tions. “

The plan is to take it to the builders, spec­i­fiers and the broader frame and truss sec­tors.

The Pryda group has re­ally em­braced this and has a team called the in­stinct team, they’ve started up­grad­ing soft­ware so you can de­sign a cas­sette sys­tem on­screen. Ac­cord­ing to Dr Woodard they have some great sim­u­la­tions on their web­site.

In terms of frame and truss man­u­fac­tur­ers this project has moved much quicker than was ex­pected with two companies in Vic­to­ria hav­ing in­stalled ded­i­cated lines.

“What we al­ways knew about tak­ing this cas­sette floor to mar­ket is that it would be dif­fi­cult to get the ground floors but it would easy to get the up­per floors,” said Dr Woodard.

“What we said to the frame and truss guys was you’re build­ing your skills, you can say for a sec­ond storey we can give you the up­per floors as cas­sette floors.

“What this al­lows is the frame and truss guys to build the skills to produce these and demon­strate to the builder the ad­van­tages of a cas­sette build. That’s what’s hap­pened.”

Doin’ it Drouin

A small com­pany in Vic­to­ria, Drouin West Tim­ber and Truss em­braced the sys­tem and put it to work on its Corinella project and de­liv­ered a ‘dirt to lock in’, in un­der six days.

Pryda had been work­ing with a com­pany called SureFoot to mar­ket a non-con­crete foot­ing sys­tem; it doesn’t use any con­crete in the ground it uses a steel plate and you drive a num­ber of steel poles into the ground. Once they’re in place you can ad­just them.

“What the Drouin and Heath­cote projects prove more than any­thing is not sim­ply that the sys­tem works but that the companies work­ing with the sys­tem are in­no­vat­ing, and in­no­vat­ing fast. Tak­ing the sys­tem se­ri­ously, in­vest­ing in its fu­ture.

“This will mean a whole new prod­uct line for the frame and truss in­dus­try open­ing new doors for a wide range of tim­ber prod­ucts in­clud­ing sawn, LVL, i-beams, floor trusses, par­ti­cle­board and ply­wood.

“They will be able to de­liver high qual­ity prod­ucts be­cause they will be man­u­fac­tured in a con­trolled fac­tory en­vi­ron­ment with re­duced ma­te­rial waste. It won’t be just in­ter­nal floors ei­ther, the con­cept is in­door-out­door of­fer­ing pre­fab­ri­cated tim­ber decks and screens.

“There are op­por­tu­ni­ties too for ad­di­tional value-add such as pre-ink-jet­ting wall frame po­si­tions, pre-cut­ting holes for plumbers, pre­in­stalling plumb­ing pipes, fit­tings or shower bases, pre-fit­ting wa­ter­proof floor­ing and lin­ings, and for up­per storey cas­sette floors - pre-in­stalling guardrails.

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