For many timber industry businesses, the single most impactful and affordable change to productivity can come from reassessing your software needs and solutions. By Donyale Harrison
Felix Choo spends his days thinking about what the Australian timber industry needs. “Obviously, getting enough timber is the first thing,” he says, “but very close behind would be more willingness to automate. People underestimate what technology can do for them in terms of improving profitability, getting higher turnover or generating leads and so on.”
As the CEO of TIMMSanywhere, a timber industry specialist business management solution, it’s no surprise that Choo would say that, but he’s right. Whether business solutions or powerful design tools, quality software is at the heart of growing every part of the timber sector, from forest management, to mills and merchants, to fabricators and builders.
We talked with software users and suppliers about how they deliver value to their customers. Some of these programs may also be the right options for you; all will help you identify ways in which your business could benefit from automation.
Everyday design tools
Most readers would already be familiar with the packages offered by the major timber and nailplate suppliers. Although each has distinct goals and interfaces, they all have a common theme.
“We make it easier to design something that will work, and much harder to get it wrong,” says Craig Kay, national product engineer for Tilling (and author of TTN’s regular In the frame column).
“Our SmartFrame software is third-party audited to meet the ABCB software engineering protocol, which means it does deemed-to-satisfy solutions,” Kay says.
“So for our users, it’s equivalent to them looking at a span table in AS 1684 and gives the same level of confidence. We use the same loading pictures as you’ll see in 1684, it’s the same modelling, the same load widths. We keep it very close to the Standard for ease of translation, while at the same time the software does the work they would have been calculating themselves and then delivers that information in more usable ways.”
The precise floor joist layouts it delivers can be printed in ways that are easy for builders to use or for certifiers to follow the load paths and the accurate take offs ensure correct ordering.
“We keep that program very current with what materials are available,” says Kay. “And if materials aren’t available, they’re not in the software. For example, some new glulams have just come onto the market, GL15s, that we have design guides and so on for. For people using the software, they can get access to those. They might not even have realised they existed before.”
In this time of rapidly changing supply, both SmartFrame and the SmartFrame app can check that alternatives or last minute design tweaks will be acceptable in the design. Kay says, “SmartFrame gives the full analysis or, for changes that are just at the level of checking span tables, the SmartFrame app can do it on-site from your phone or tablet.
“In the program, you have the full design and analysis ability, so if you’ve previously designed a floor in one original element that you found you couldn’t use, you can find an available option that will do the same thing. You can check that they have the same serviceability limits, deflection limits and so on. So users can design confidently, knowing that they’re doing the same thing.”
For more complex jobs, SmartFrame includes a ‘designed by Tilling engineers’ option that allows for Kay and his team to deliver individual solutions. “The engineers here often use the SmartFrame software, because they wrote it,” says Kay, “but it is limited. In order to meet the ABCB software protocol, you can only do certain things in it. We use higher level programs like cadwork and other CAD programs and higher order structural analysis programs, including the background analysis program that runs SmartFrame. Those mean that we have far more flexibility in our designs.”
While these programs require a high level of engineering skill to navigate, they deliver seamless results. “For example, we’ve used cadwork mainly for cassettes,” Kay says. “It feeds seamlessly into the cassette-making machine and creates a component list. So it’s a very powerful tool in the right place.”
Mass timber solutions
For Danny Watson, structural engineer at ASH’s MASSLAM division, cadwork is a core partner in his design solutions.
“Our work is predominantly mid-rise commercial, so four or five storey, as well as residential,” Watson says.
In the architect-driven space in which the MASSLAM team works, Revit is the industry standard for many, “which is great if you want lovely architectural renders,” says Watson, “but we’re not really interested in that. We’re interested in being super accurate and in having our program talk to our robots.”
MASSLAM runs a Hundegger CNC system that operates on Cambium. “We’ve found cadwork, as a specialist timber program that knows the importance of things like dovetails, mortises and tenons, is the best option in terms of translating a design to a language that Cambium can understand,” Watson says.
“There are two parts to that: the first is going from CAD to CAM, so that our CNC robot interprets cuts, tenon slots and drawings in the way that we want them to be interpreted. The second is that there’s a strong company relationship between the firms behind Cambium and cadwork. They know they’re often used together, so there’s a lot of finessing that goes on in the background. Cadwork’s also good at talking to manufacturers and suppliers of CNC robots and proprietary fixings to include libraries of screws and bolts and so on within cadwork. So instead of having to design up a custom bracket, it’s readily available in the library and you just pull it out. Similarly, if you need to change suppliers due to any issues, you can just import their library directly rather than having to manually update.”
The booming appeal of mass timber, particularly in commercial builds, has seen MASSLAM’s glulam in high demand and cadwork has made life easier for all stages of those builds, well beyond the design team.
“We partner with a number of site install teams,” says Watson. “With cadwork, we can model up each of our designs exactly as it is. Every screw, every bolt, every marking that tells you which face is top, which face is north. We can export these directly from cadwork to a set of shop drawings and to the model, so the installers know exactly what everything is and what it’s doing.”
The easy-access html model includes the installation sequence, whether each element will be coated or not, pre-attachments and fixings, all clearly related to the construction drawings. “So the installers can spin it around and have a look at how it goes together,” Watson says. “I often describe these buildings as kind of like a giant piece of IKEA furniture, you’ve got slot A, slot B, put your bolt through. And if you end up with bolts at the end of it, that’s probably not ideal. It’s the same concept, just the elements are bigger.”
This ease of understanding has helped to speed the uptake of timber design in larger builds. “A few years ago, many builders would add on a margin for mass timber, because they didn’t understand the process. These sorts of models have helped to familiarise the teams we work with and to educate new ones, as well as to solve problems in design long before we get to site.”
For the MASSLAM team, cadwork has also helped showcase their product’s abilities. As Watson says, “Using hardwood, we get quite a lot more strength than a typical European spruce glulam. So we can produce longer, more slender members that give greater spans with strengths closer to what traditional steel and concrete designers have worked with.
“It means we can help take even more mass out of a building, and therefore make it more sustainable.”
Integrated business tools
Of course, there’s more to the timber industry than design. Foresters, sawmillers, merchants, retailers and more all benefit from productive software solutions, too. One of the most widely used industry-specific programs is TIMMS, which was launched by CEO and Founder of the PNORS Technology Group, Paul Gallo, in 1982.
“Now, 40 years later, we also have TIMMSanywhere,” says Felix Choo. “It’s an open-source, cloud-based platform that’s accessible wherever you are.”
Like traditional TIMMS, TIMMSanywhere consists of multiple modules that can be purchased and installed as needed. Within these modules, each part of the team uses only what’s relevant to their part of the business, but information flows freely between silos. “It’s a very smart, collaborative tool,” Choo says. “And very easy to pick up, because each individual is only working within the few screens that are specific to their role.
“But in the background, TIMMSanywhere, pulls in all the relevant information from all the relevant parties, and updates constantly. For example, one of your sales team creates a sales order. That information is passed to the warehouse people, who say ‘We can do this bit, but we’ll need to substitute for that or they’ll have to back order.’ At the same time that message goes back to sales, the information is automatically passed along to the accounts team for the invoice and then it’s automatically updated again depending on what the customer chooses.”
While many customers are timber merchants, where the various stock management tools shine, TIMMSanywhere has modules designed for all parts of the industry. Choo says, “For foresters, we can add-on community developed apps to help with tracking plantations; growth, harvesting and more. For retailers, the program incorporates an ecommerce store within the system. There’s a customer portal as well, so customers can log in and pay or look up when deliveries are coming and so on.”
One function that Choo highlights is marketing automation: “Everyone in the industry is after more sales, so we have a function you can choose to install within TIMMSanywhere that will automate responses to email campaigns. More than MailChimp-type reports, I can pre-set a follow-up action. So if people are reading about a new product, it triggers a salesperson to follow up with the potential customer. If they’re opening up information on something you’re not currently selling to them, we can design an action to flag that.”
TIMMSanywhere is very affordable compared to the multiple software solutions many enterprises use to manage different parts of their business, such as ERP, CRM and MRP solutions. And it comes with the cost and time benefits of being fully integrated.
“And our costs are on a sliding scale, depending on the number of users and the modules you’re using,” Choo says. A full support team is consistently available and, as an open-source system, communities have sprung up to develop, trouble-shoot and share functionalities. “So when a need arises, I have immediately a library of functionalities I can go to,” says Choo. “What that means for the customer is they don’t need to start from scratch when they’re adding something new. Again, more cost savings.”
For Ashleigh Mileto, one of the founders of NSW-based BOM Building Supplies, TIMMSanywhere has been a vital part of the business from its earliest days. “We’re a brand new timber merchant,” Mileto says, “and before we opened, we talked with a lot of similar businesses and a lot of software suppliers while doing our research.
“We settled on TIMMSanywhere and it’s been up and running since April 2021, but we would have started talking with the team about 18 months before that.”
Two of the key factors in the choice were the support she received while researching and the options the program offered. “I found it to be the most flexible package,” says Mileto. “It can grow and adapt to the changes that may happen in our business, particularly because we plan to grow in what we offer as well as size and productivity.”
The modular aspect was particularly attractive as BOM could invest in and implement just what was needed at the company’s start, but would have ready access to expanded functions.
“The growth has been so rapid. We opened our first factory in December 2020 and we’ve already had to forfeit that lease because we outgrew the space,” Mileto says. “We’ve moved into an old Bunnings site. Right now we’re in the middle of planning our next expansion, which will involve us bringing new products to the market. TIMMSanywhere keeps up with our growth.”
A cloud-based system was ideal for the move and has been even more useful since. Mileto says, “We had hired a new inventory person and trained them specifically for our stocktake, and then they caught Covid at the worst possible time. But we were still able to make it work with TIMMSanywhere. Our team on the ground could do the physical stuff and then our inventory person had that information coming in live and made effective use of it.”
As much as the systems’ strengths have been appreciated, on some days the service has helped even more. “When you’re building a business, you want support that you can trust,” says Mileto. “I had a week where two key staff resigned to chase other opportunities and our TIMMSanywhere person picked up the phone and asked, ‘Ash, what do you need? What can I help you with?’ I would have probably had a heart attack without them that week.”
Tasmania’s McKay Timber has been using original TIMMS since 2010 and is planning to transition over to TIMMSanywhere
“We’ve got quite a diversified business,” says finance manager Mike Cotton. “And TIMMS has enough modules to cope with all the things we’re doing. We’re basically running the whole business through it, right through from sawmilling to accounts.”
Each section of the business interacts with its own part of the software, which either passes on actions immediately or integrates through a journal process overnight. “Having integrated systems is much better than isolated systems where you’re doing a lot of data entry,” Cotton says. “Without doubt, it saves us money, time and keying issues and reduces errors.
“At the same time, the information is also well siloed, so you can’t make a mistake outside your own module and pretty much any mistake can be reversed. That is one of the big features in TIMMS: you can back things out quite easily and fix up mistakes.“
The movement to TIMMSanywhere is in part because newer operating systems are less compatible with the original Unix-based system and also thanks to it offering more business opportunities. “Being cloud-based means better accessibility. Our sales teams will be able to put orders on the spot in using their mobiles,” says Cotton.
Even before the shift, the system is helping the McKay team manage recent industry challenges. “Trying to keep track of prices at the moment is very tough, but TIMMS has a fast system with lots of platform levels for the pricing set-up, and that helps us navigate the current volatility,” Cotton says.
It’s not just one stream: McKay Timber imports and exports timber, manufactures timber products and supplies to clients ranging from mums and dads to big commercial projects, high-end architectural jobs and even quality furniture makers at the same time as running an F&T plant.
“There’s a lot of variety,” says Cotton, “and that comes with a lot of changes with regard to timings, orders and movements. We use Excel to do our reports and ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) links directly into TIMMS and pulls information out directly. So whenever we do a refresh, it pulls the data back through again, and updates anything that has happened, keeping us informed and accurate.
“It takes a load off most of the business, freeing people up to deliver special projects all over Tasmania and beyond, where our timber comes up a treat.”
Image: MASSLAM’s GoodWood Victorian ash columns at the UTAS Burnie campus.