You are on page 1of 8

Better connection design using information technology

Bainbridge, R.J.1, Milner, M.W.2 and Mettem, C.J.3


ABSTRACT
The transfer of timber design codes in the UK to the more transparent, formula-structured limit states basis of the
Structural Eurocodes can be seen as an additional incentive for development of user tools on an IT platform for timber
design, as a modern alternative to tabulated design solutions which pervade the British Standards design codes for timber.
This paper showcases recent developments of Information Technology to support timber engineering through which
dissemination of best practice in timber connections is demonstrated.
Theme(s):

Conceptual Design and Architectural Issues


INTRODUCTION

Information Technology is widening the boundaries of engineering. This has been the case for a number of years, with
cheaper computer technology and competitive analysis packages making complex modelling accessible to even the
smallest businesses. In the UK, there is a clear lag in the uptake and development of computer packages dedicated to
timber design, with the majority of packages delivering Steel and Concrete solutions. Opportunities for timber to be used
are being jeopardised due to lack of appropriate timber engineering software. Put simply, in todays market, where speed
of design is the difference between an engineers profit and loss, timber as a structural material will not be competitive
against other materials unless a software design tool is available.
THE NEED FOR IMPROVED TIMBER CONNECTION SOFTWARE
Connections consume a significant proportion of a timber designers time and of the manufacturers efforts, impacting
strongly on potential profitability, typically accounting for about 33% of the total design/manufacture costs for relatively
simple forms of architecture. The cost of the connections can substantially exceed the costs of the timber or structural
timber composites (STCs) themselves, particularly in cases of more ambitious projects favoured for public access
buildings. Pre-digested and simplified codes and other supporting guidance covering other structural materials are readily
available to practitioners. These commonly include the connection aspects.
To improve performance and competitiveness of timber structures, there are strong arguments for concentrating effort on
the connection zones. Initiative by practising designers to innovate is likely to be frustrated by complexities, the lack of
standard but adaptable solutions, and the need to press ahead to meet demands of cost and time. Thus the timber
solution loses a place in the preliminary design scheme, and henceforth is totally eliminated. Recent market research
(Bainbridge and Milner 1999) has revealed connections as an area in which there is lack of knowledge and absence of
design support.
Excellence in connection design increases overall structural efficiency - for example better connection details may yield
material savings in member sizes. It also contributes to realisation of client/user benefits - space/layout optimisation,
good aesthetics, and reduced recall risks. Realistic designer awareness of manufacturing alternatives is also essential for
economy of fabrication, delivery and erection. Professional education in timber design is generally lacking, and nowhere
more so than in the area of connections. The perception of designers at recent CPD events is that connections pose a
difficult challenge, with around 70% of responses to a survey identifying the subject as troublesome.
1

Research Engineer, TRADA Technology, Stocking Lane, Hughenden Valley, High Wycombe, UK
Engineering Manager, TRADA Technology, UK, Stocking Lane, Hughenden Valley, High Wycombe, UK
3
Chief Research Engineer, TRADA Technology, UK, Stocking Lane, Hughenden Valley, High Wycombe, UK
2

It has been recognised that there is a need to develop an IT based design toolbox providing guidance to minimise
difficulties in timber connection design, an area clearly stated to be onerous by construction professionals and SME
manufacturers. This will enable designers to relate better to client needs within acceptable time scales, through an uptake
of existing knowledge of excellent standards and practices. Necessary design procedures include rapidly developing the
best connection configurations; producing the optimal detailing arrangements through the use of practical software; and
whilst doing so, being aware of the most efficient manufacturing methods.
IT TOOLS FOR DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
Existing examples of IT exploitation
Perhaps the most impressive example of the potential for improvement through use of IT design tools in the UK is that
derived through the CIMSteel project. The project also recognised that the major influence on the overall economics and
buildability of steelwork frames is connection design and detailing (Garas and Hunter 1998): a challenge paralleled in
timber structures and a major barrier for the up take of timber (Bainbridge and Milner 1999). Other outputs from the
project-described herein are also relevant to the timber industry:
Best Practice dissemination, sharing knowledge from the supply chain into the design process.
Demonstration of the benefits of Eurocodes.
Linking to clear business benefits of an integrated approach.
For timber, the potential to advance is limited by the need to address the lack of basic product knowledge on the part of
the designers. This fact adds to difficulties in producing a stand-alone timber software package that can address the
complexities of the UK and European Codes in a user-friendly way. Consequently, available timber software either
becomes very narrow and specialised, with little wide commercial interest, or is at a level at; which the program is limited
to simple configurations. Table 1 provides a generic guide to scope and range of information software options with key
benefits, whilst the limitations of current timber engineering software are identified in Table 2.
Table 1 Range of software types to address user needs
Analytical Software
2D / 3D Visualisation
Multimedia
Expert systems
Internet electronic mail link
* Only if no hard copy available

Time
Reduction

Potential for Promotion of


supply chain

Communication
of design

Knowledge
Transfer

Interactive

Table 2 Scope of commercial timber software


Commercial UK Timber Software Types
Spreadsheets/ mathematical processors
Purpose made software - analytical
Purpose made software - drawing

Design/check
simply supported
beams

Design/check
Joints

Complex
frame elements

3 D visual/
design

Knowledge
support

Knowledge transfer scope of software for timber and the use of multimedia
The skill of the engineer is to apply knowledge in an appropriate way to unique situations. The input is product
knowledge, behaviour and performance, and the output is application understanding. For most engineers, knowledge is
first obtained at university. This knowledge is then supported from work experience and 'learning by doing'. The lack of
university education in the use and behaviour of timber means that most knowledge is gained from work colleagues or by
specific project experience. With the pressure of work and reduced manpower availability, together with the economic
need to undertake projects without the luxury of learning, timber as a construction material is at a disadvantage. If this is
combined with the readily available software support for competitive materials like steel and concrete, it is no wonder that
timber is often not seriously considered.
For timber engineering software, the importance of basic knowledge is essential for the product to be used to the best
effect. There is a need therefore for timber engineering software to provide both fast and cost effective designs routines

and to provide knowledge back-up when required. The appropriate use of multimedia software is considered to be an
important route for timber to address the lack of education and breadth of knowledge in timber engineering. The
multimedia environment can widen the range of interaction between a group of users. At least one of the varieties of
methods of obtaining information from a multimedia presentation has a greater chance of being accepted by a user.
Multimedia should not be a simple transfer of text, pictures and sound taken from books and videos. The information to be
effective in the new approach must be structured in a hierarchical manner that is layered in a way that users can interact
positively, and not become frustrated by the apparent slow pace of scrolling text compared to the human eye that is
capable of speed reading books. Good multimedia software is founded on flexibility and ability to respond interactively to
user inputs.
THE IT TOOLBOX APPROACH TO STRUCTURAL TIMBER CONNECTIONS
An IT toolbox concept has been developed, to contain the information necessary to give designers a practical
understanding of the joints and fasteners within the total connection, and hence how best and most economically to
conceive the whole structural connection solution. This is a key area where such tools have definite scope for actual
benefit through application, since excellence in connection design increases overall structural efficiency - for example
better connection details may yield material savings in member sizes. Realistic designer awareness of manufacturing
alternatives is also essential for economy of fabrication, delivery and erection. Professional education in timber design is
generally lacking, and nowhere more so than in the area of connections.
The toolbox concept is illustrated in Figure 1. As can be seen, the functionality comprises a number of discrete connection
issues related to a structural form and applicable connection systems. The functionality of the software must also be
integrated with a user interface applicable to a range of persons and easily navigable. Failure on either part will result in
decreased value of the other, and the toolbox as a whole.
Required Functionality
Assembly
Descriptors

IT Toolbox Platform

Relative Cost
Indicators

User Interface

Structural Forms

Illustrative Examples

i
Alternative Solutions

Information
Links

Calculation Tools

Figure 1. Overview of software toolbox concept


USER INTERFACE
The toolbox structure is under construction in an html format compatible with standard Microsoft navigators (e.g. Internet
Explorer). A number of connection examples will also use vrml and avi files, as described later, to allow virtual reality
and construction animation sequences to be communicated graphically in fully rendered format.

Navigation through the toolbox will be primarily via an 'organic' navigator.


This form of information linking has been shown to be effective by other IT
based construction tools, such as CIMSteel for example, from which an
example user interface screen is shown in Figure 2.
The html format also allows coupling of the organic structure with active
forward/back and home buttons facilitated by the navigator environment,
together with an information resource link directly to a subject-linked list of
expanded key references. This produces an overall structure whereby users
can instinctively progress through a complex interrelation of subjects for
which text and visual information is required. This minimises the amount of
information on screen whilst navigating the toolbox, presenting immediate
subtopics related to a major topic, which in turn branch out to form the next
level of major subject and so on. The overall structure is illustrated in
concept in Figure 3.

Figure 2 Example of navigation format


intended for connection IT toolbox

Information Resource

Alternatives

Calculation
Tools
Alternatives

Cost &
Function

Calculation
Tools

Cost &
Function
Connection
Type

Assembly
Animation

Virtual
Joint

Connection
Type

Assembly

Asse
Animation

Virtual

Figure 3 Schematic overview of organic navigation structure for toolbox


REQUIRED FUNCTIONALITY
Structural forms
There is a range of common structural forms that can be used as a starting point for referencing and cross-linking
connection solutions within defined structural applications. There are a large number of connection solutions and diversity
of options for consideration in even the simplest of structures. A key functional requirement of an IT Toolbox is the ability
to cross reference information, in this case providing systematic identification and reference solutions applicable to
structural type and location. The basis of such a system is presented in Table 3.

Table 3 Connection type identification and referencing system


Location
Base plate to foundation

Type

Ref.

Location

PINNED

BP

Cantilever/shear connection

Type

Ref.

SHEAR

Column to base

PINNED

CB

Moment resisting end connection

BENDING

SB

Arch or Frame to base


Beam to Column Side
Joist/purlin/beam to beam

PINNED
PINNED
PINNED

AB
BC
BB

Moment resisting eaves connection


General end connection
Arch or frame peak

BENDING
BENDING
PINNED

E
B
R

Beam to masonry

PINNED

BM

Radial Beams

PINNED

RB

Beam to column top

PINNED

BTC

Truss Nodes

PINNED

2DT

Tension connection

TENSION/
COMPRESSION

TC

Corner Frames and Wind Bracing

PINNED

3DT

Tie Anchorages

PINNED

TST

It is also desirable to couple the connection type location with one or more realistic structural forms. Table 4 provides an
abstract from information within the toolbox as a simple overview of the scope of structural timber products, presenting
tabulated typical structural solutions for a range of building types employing glulam.
Table 4. Example illustrative glulam structure scope summaries
TYPICAL LIMITS OF GLULAM FRAME STRUCTURES (4-10m Frame Spacings)
Component

Description

Pitch

Span Range

Approximate Proportions

Straight beam, simply


supported

<5

< 30m

h L/17

Trussed beam
(Warren type)

<5

30 80m

h L/14

Pitched frame, glulam or


steel tie

14

15 50m

h L/30

Trussed frame, glulam or


steel tension members

14

20 100m

h L/40

Alternative solutions and illustrative examples


For each connection identified within the general cases of structural forms, it is necessary to exemplify the range of
solutions. This can be achieved through sketches, diagrams and photos. An example set of alternative connection sketches
is shown in Figure 4, in this case a range of solutions for beam to column connections.

Figure 4 Connection alternatives beam to column connection


Assembly descriptors
Whilst much of the preceding information could equally be suited to electronic or printed copy guidance information
packages, the accessibility to virtual reality and high quality animation allows assembly processes to be described far more
effectively using an IT platform. Figure 5 illustrates some snap-shots from an animation sequence depicting a simple
double bolted lap joint.

Figure 5. Snap-shots from a 3D virtual reality assembly sequence of a simple three member bolted joint
Relative function and cost indicators
For the scope of systems to be presented, all of which are generic solutions: provision of absolute costs is neither
attainable nor appropriate, due to changing material and labour costs. Instead, a generalised cost versus functionality will
be pursued on a generic connection solution basis. The issue of relative cost descriptors has been tackled via indication of
cost benefit and cost disadvantage inherent in the production of each connection alternative. In order to place these in a
realistic context it is also necessary to qualify the relative scope for application. This will be done via generalised load
categories (see Table 5) and reference to typical service class limits, drawing from definitions as adopted by both EC5 and
BS5268. A simple functional classification system can thereby be defined for alternative connection systems with
reference to load category and service class suitability.
Table 5 Load category description system
Load Category

Code

Typical Uses

Light

Housing, small roof trusses, small agricultural buildings and warehouses, concrete formwork.

Medium

Large roof trusses, school assembly halls and gymnasia, churches, footbridges, large agricultural buildings and
warehouses, garden centres, swimming pools, marinas, chemical plants, small cooling towers, supermarkets.

Heavy

Large sports centres, large exhibition centres, road and rail bridges, airport buildings, docks, railway terminals.

The description of functionality can be placed in a fabrication context through description of the manufacturing issues for
alternative connection options, in order to derive a cost-defining assessment, which can be compared with the functionality
performance. Such an assessment should consider:
joint types within the connection whether mechanical or adhesive, as these choices have process implications
fixing components including the complexity and reliance upon custom manufacture of components
connection fabrication process e.g. machining slots in timber, drilling timber, machining other materials, specialist
processes and requirements for connection to non-timber material
assembly options whether amenable to full workshop pre-fabrication, partial pre-fabrication or site processing
These features need to be constructed in such a manner as to allow comparative performance to be ascertained. To do this,
the information will feed into a comparative performance model. Here, there are two possible approaches, which have
demonstrated use in evaluation of design options (McLeod and Hartvig, 1999) and which can be drawn upon in the case of
timber connection design connection. These are controlled convergence assessment methods (Pugh, 1991) and scoring
assessment methods (Chicken, 1994).
The basis of controlled convergence is to choose one option from a range, and set this as a datum. All other options are
then assigned a value of +(better), -(worse) or s(same rating). These are then summated to give an overall measure of
comparative performance. This can be taken through iteration to define a best solution. An example of such an assessment
is given in general form in Table 6. This allows comparison of overall performance through the +/-/s ratings and focus
upon specific issues, which might be of elevated importance in a specific instance. The relative importance of each of the
factors may vary through the scope of structures and individual cases. For example, a system with a low total comparative
rating may score extremely well in aesthetics and thus be the best solution for a case where visual impact is of paramount
importance.

Table 6 Example evaluation based upon controlled convergence assessment


Issues
Range of Material Options
Reliance Upon Bespoke Components
Adhesive Requirements
Complexity of Fabrication Process
Pre-Fabrication Assembly Options
Load Capacity Potential
Durability by Design
Aesthetics
Potential For Use In SC 2
Potential For Use In SC 3
Production Cost
Sum s
Sum +
Sum -

X1
Datum
Datum
Datum
Datum
Datum
Datum
Datum
Datum
Datum
Datum
Datum
-

Scoring Assessments might also be considered for this function.


ratings. This can be carried out in a number of ways:
Ranged scoring above zero (e.g. 1 to 10)

Non-consecutive scoring (e.g. 1,2,5,14 where 1 = very

good, 14 = very bad)

Connection Options
X2
X3
X4
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
+
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
S
9
9
7
0
0
1
2
2
3

Xn
S
S
+
+
S
S
S
+
5
3
3

Scoring employs a numeric scale instead of the +/-/s


Ranged scoring about zero (e.g. 10 to +10)
Criteria weighted scoring (employing a series of
multipliers to a ranged score)

All of these have potential application in this arena, but the need for a scoring system in the context of a wide variety of
applications for which reliable data does not exist, means that subjectivity comes to the fore. Hence it is believed that in
this context a controlled convergence method is preferable.
Calculation tools
The design of structural connections can be tackled in two ways through the employment of suitable features within an IT
toolbox for connection design. Worked examples can be used to demonstrate the application of design codes in a realistic
context. Simple calculation tools can also be developed which reduce the time spent upon largely repetitive calculation
processes, allowing designers to iterate details of connection designs to achieve a preferred solution in vastly reduced
times. These devices can also tackle user support needs as the new Eurocodes are brought into mainstream practice.
Information links
The IT platform can provide a navigable resource of detailed reference to main sources of information, including the
STEP series, TRADA Publications and other Research and Development papers and publications. This is a far more
effective tool for information communication than corresponding masses of printed material. Basic information on timber
and timber composite material properties, common section sizes of wood based materials, and common mechanical
fasteners (including common stock sizes) are extremely useful to designers. In addition to design information, IT
platforms also provide opportunity for direct information links to suppliers of guidance and materials or components to be
employed ion connection design.
CONCLUSIONS
Information Technology is widening the boundaries of engineering. This paper has outlined key features that can be seen
to define an IT Toolbox for design of structural timber connections. TRADA Technology are currently developing such
a software package to support timber engineering through dissemination and demonstration of best practice in timber
connections. The navigability of information will offer significant opportunity for improved practice and increase
accessibility to design professionals and hopefully convince them of the viability of timber options for construction.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This paper draws upon work performed under project PIF279 Communicating Timber Connection Design An IT
Toolbox For Professionals. This project was co-sponsored by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the
Regions (DETR) and TRADA. The project was also supported by contributions in kind provided by Buro Happold,
Cowley Structural Timberwork, Emergence Software and The Glued Laminated Timber Association (GLTA).
TRADA Technology gratefully acknowledges their sponsorship and thanks them for their support.
REFERENCES
Bainbridge, R.J. and Milner, M.W. 1999. Structural Timber Products - Technical Issues and User Need From A UK
Perspective. 4th Int. Conf. On The Development of Wood Science, Wood Technology & Forestry, UK.
Garas, F.K. and Hunter, I. 1998. CIMsteel (Computer Integrated Manufacturing In Constructional Steelwork) Delivering
The Promise. The Structural Engineer, 76(3), IStructE, London.
Milner, M.W. and Bainbridge, R.J. 1999. Timber User Needs Survey. Timber Trades Journal, 6 March 1999.
Milner, M.W. and Mettem, C.J. 1999. Timber Design Software Development And Validation. Proceedings
PTEC99,Rotorua, New Zealand. Volume 4, pp43-50.
Macleod, I.A. and Hartvig, S.C. 1999. Issues and Strategies For Evaluation of Structural Design Options. Structural
Engineering International, 3/99, IABSE, Zurich.
Pugh, S. 1991. Total Design. Adison Wesley, Harlow, UK.
Chicken, J.C. 1994. Managing Risks and Decisions in Major Projects. Chapman and Hall, London.