Software for Cold-Formed Steel Sheds and Canopies

Whilst some suppliers are advertising and promoting their software (Shed/carport) as revolutionary the reality is the suppliers are all playing a game of catch-up, and they have some 30 years of technology to catch-up with.

In the late 1980’s Pro-Engineer introduced parametric modelling, later in the 1990’s arrived Solidworks and SolidEdge. Whilst in the late 1980’s ArchiCAD introduced an object oriented modelling approach to building design, potentially the first implementation of a Building Information Model (BIM). Parametric modelling not coming to architecture until Autodesk Revit in the early 2000’s. Also early in the 2000’s the use of internet based sharing of drawings arrived. So architects and engineers which typically work as independent businesses could share their data, and make use of the most current and up to date project data. Whilst Tekla XSteel/Structure provided means of working with the same stick diagrams used in structural analysis, but able to generate work shop details and CNC code for automated beam lines.

Parallel to the development of Computer aided drafting and design (CADD) was the development of structural analysis software, primarily matrix structural analysis (MSA) for 2D and 3D framed structures. MSA was developed in the 1930’s, and apparently some places did employ armies of people to do the calculations. However it didn’t become practical until minicomputers, in the 1970’s, were affordable to aircraft companies and similar large designer/manufacturers. Then by the 1980’s MSA had moved onto microcomputers and personal computers (PC’s). The finite element method (FEM) and finite element analysis (FEA) software was available for PC’s in the 1990’s and by the 2000’s computational fluid dynamics (CFD) had become practical.

Much of this software has moved to annual subscription pricing, with hardware license dongles replaced by licensing over the internet (or in the cloud). Further more some of the software is moving online, and being provided in the form of software as a service (SaaS). Such an approach is something of a backwards step to the old main frame computers, dumb terminals and leasing computing time.

In any case some 20 or more years back software like Master Series Master Portal had the facility to generate wind loads, snow drift loads, and provide detailed interaction connection design within their MSA software. Bentley RAM Build/structure also had similar capabilities. This is software specifically optimised for design of building structures as opposed to structures in general.

Whilst CAD and so called computer aided engineering (CAE) were developing Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) and computer aided production management (CAPM) were also developing, along with enterprise resource planning (ERP), management information systems (MIS), and product data management (PDM).

There is software like vertex systems, and frameCAD can go from 3D model of cold-formed steel buildings, to material lists and computer numerical control (CNC) instructions for roll-forming machinery.

Beyond product design, the next step is to be able to customise a product to meet customer needs, this is done by software commonly referred to has a product configurator. Autodesk provides Configurator 360 which works with Inventor models.

The software for sheds and carport design on the other hand seems barely capable of displaying little more than a pretty 3D picture on the screen, and every chance most of the software suppliers/developers won’t be around in a few years time. I’m predicting they will largely disappear because they have little knowledge of the area of practice they are intruding into: they are neither architects, engineers, or even qualified drafters or qualified production managers. qualified computer scientists and computers systems engineers maybe be familiar with CAPM and similar, but the people the software is being developed for are not even familiar with formal methods of production and operations management (PO/M). Most of the people involved are in sales: as often there is little need to fabricate anything in-house and so also no trades people or technicians involved.

So these salespeople, whilst good at sales, have little knowledge of drafting, design and “engineering”. The drawings produced by shed/carport companies are typically freehand sketches on order forms, so they have never got to using drawing instruments and producing formal drawings, moving them to CAD is thus a big step. In the main they are not supposed to be drawing, they are supposed to be just entering a few dimensional and geometric parameters, and the drawing should be generated for them. But increasingly there is expectation that can draw what the customer wants at the point of sale. When it comes to the detail the software is not adequate, and neither is the training of the salespeople for the new task expected to perform.

Now before any of this shed/carport software catches up with the technology they have to implement from scratch, it is likely that the mainstream software will over take them. We already have online businesses offering 3D printing services, with their own CAD viewers and/or modelling software. There are also free and opensource software like FreeCAD, LibreCAD, and OpenSCAD.

Now this free (no fee) software means it is easy for many people to produce models which can be shared, and by sharing models, people can easily adapt to suit their needs then get the item 3D printed and shipped out to them.

On the other hand the opensource nature of the software means it is not necessary to build software from scratch. So FreeCAD provides the building blocks for 3D paremetric modelling software, BIM, CAM and sheet metal unfolding, along with FEM/FEA.

However whilst opensource makes source code available, it otherwise requires a significant amount of time to become familiar with before any changes and modifications can be made. On the other hand the scripting capabilities of software allow adaptation of the software without becoming familiar with the source, and only need be familiar with the use of the software. For example many are familiar with customising AutoCAD via macro’s, scripting, AutoLISP or COM automation (vba). Or customising Microsoft office via visual basic for applications (vba). FreeCAD offers customising via python programming language.

Now the shed/carport industry seems opposed to free (Libre) and open source software (FLOSS). They seem to think this will help their competition, which seems myopic.

First of all just because software is developed and licensed under the GPL does not mean the software has zero price and it is available to everyone on the planet. If you have just spent $200,000 developing software you don’t go giving it away. Second, if an employee notices the software is licensed under the GPL they cannot grab themselves a copy and setup in opposition, as that would still be theft: they are not the licensee. The freedom is granted to the licensee, if you don’t want to give it away then don’t. If want to improve the software and don’t want to sell it, then don’t. But once it passes onto others, then the others have the freedoms the license grants them. If they improve and attempt to sell, then they are required to make the source code available to the licencees. If you don’t buy the software then you don’t become a license and therefore don’t have access to the new source code.

Getting a community to develop the software is another matter. In such case, typically want a charitable type foundation to manage and fund the development, so that the community of volunteers developing the software can retain ownership and otherwise be compensated for contributing. When a community develop the software then, the copyright is no longer held by an individual.

However, if a community develops the software, then in 5 years time or so when businesses supplying specialist software have disappeared, the FLOSS will still be around. The software can be updated to national standards, which may not be required for 10 or so years after original development. New features can be added, and multiple users can provide feedback, and such software can be customised to suit the needs and brand of individual companies. Consider the use of wordpress and woocommerce for websites for example.

The use of the web is also another problem going to face. As with 3D printing it is not necessary for the public to buy a specific brand. The so called “engineering” or sheds/carports is little more than routine structural design to national standards. If we consider engineering takes place at the frontiers of science and technology, then their is no engineering involved, the engineering was over some 50 years ago.

With CNC automated beam-lines the fabrication of hot-rolled sheds is becoming no more complicated than fabrication of cold-formed shed. The structural analysis is no different, the design of members requires changing from AS4100 to AS4600, and similarly for connection design. Though there are more test data and reliable methods of designing hot-rolled moment connections than cold-formed moment connections.

Whilst constrained to some simple rules, much of this can be fully automated, and product configuration software can be used by people online without need of intermediate salespeople.

Further more more local councils are accepting online development applications and there also services being developed online to help with DIY compilation of development applications and checking completeness before submitting.

In short it is being increasingly possible for the public to specify a shed/carport online, prepare their development approval application, get it pre-checked and then submit to local council. Once approval is granted, order can then proceed to factory where the shed/canopy is fabricated. No need for local agents. Once shed/canopy is fabricated it is delivered to the construction site for DIY construction or a builder can be appointed at the time of ordering.

But assuming would be preferable to have online help, then we have the drop shipping model. So now have a multitude of local businesses, each with their own website, sales are made online via the website, unless more extensive custom design is required. When order is placed it goes direct to the manufacturer. The manufacturers in such way extends their customer base.

The software currently available however is not capable of performing full structural assessment of members and connections, nor is it any where near being a parametric modelling package. Main stream software is likely to over take its capabilities first unless the developers make use of FLOSS.

With increased online services, then in next few years likely to see an increase in the number of site and house plans generated and accessible online. The online models will be used by designers, to document renovations, and builders to determine prices, and councils to grant approvals. Owners will use to plan and manage gardens. The new shed they want in the garden they will simply drop and drag into place, and then set its properties to customise to their needs. This will be possible because of differing levels of detail (LOD) in the models used.

Architects and engineers likely will be operating behind the scenes, called in on as needs basis in response to switches triggered by the objects drop and dragged onto the models of owners properties.

Attempting to catch up with some 30 to 50 years of software development is a big ask. Shed/canopy manufacturers and sales agents should have a proper and more through look at the mainstream software used for CAD, CAE, CAPM and CAM.

Another important issue for shed/canopy suppliers is the capabilities of those using software like FrameCAD, whilst this software is primarily for steel framed housing fabricated from sections ranging from 65 to 90 mm depth, these sections can be fabricated into trusses which can be used to construct buildings with large spans.

Shed manufacturers often running around complaining about cannot compete because such and such manufacturer is using smaller section. But none of them understand the differences in structural form which make the smaller section viable. Whilst complaining about C20015 versus C20024, they miss that C10010’s can be used to build a 32m span sheds, if they are fabricated into 900mm deep parallel chord trusses.

Some of the users of FrameCAD are aware of such things because they don’t have salespeople using this software, they employ designers on staff.

And this is only with respect to steel. The manufacturers of nail plated timber trusses have also been moving forward with 3D software for whole building design of timber framed structures.

There is no engineering involved, it is routine structural design, the software, ultimately will not be limited to houses. After steel and timber will come precast concrete, and masonry, followed by less used materials like aluminium and glass.

Main stream parametric modelling software will be increasingly available online with models connected to product configurators. Branded products will become increasingly customisable via 3D printing capabilities. Factories will become increasingly automated by the industrial internet of things (IIoT), increased use of modular design, and design for assembly and design for maintenance. Will change the spare parts market which in turn will change the nature of new product assemblies.

Whilst there maybe issues of copyright and other intellectual property (IP) rights, in the main it will simply be creating new things from kits of flexible purpose building blocks. So the creators of the assembly will or should own IP rights for the assembly, whilst inventors of the components retain IP rights for the components.

So before considering writing your own software or is more often the case employing someone to write the software for you, you should first properly evaluate the software available in the market place, and your real needs. Given the likely desire with respect to meeting what ever the customer wants, really need to employ designers on staff and use main stream software. The software can be customised to meet specific needs, and increase speed of supply: and often by the user once they have a grasp of the repetitive nature of their work. If you can use FLOSS then probably in an even better position.

References:

  1. History of CAD software
  2. Structural analysis

Revisions:

  1. [02/04/2020] : Original