Constructed Futures

Henry Lederman: Transforming How Structures Get Connected

Episode Summary

Henry Lederman, founder of Qnect, has been driving innovation in the structural steel sector for decades. Learn about how changes in structural steel fabrication quality have made it possible to much more accurately design the connections that make our buildings stand and stay standing.

Episode Transcription


Hugh Seaton [00:00:08] Welcome to the Constructed Futures podcast. I'm Hugh Seaton. Today, I'm here with Henry Lettermen, co-founder of Qnect, a software that integrates Connection engineering and steel, detailing that goes back into 3D models really, really quickly, extraordinarily fast, in fact. Henry, thanks for coming on our podcast.

Henry Lederman [00:00:30] Thank you, Hugh, it's a pleasure to be here.

Hugh Seaton [00:00:33] Hey, I'd like to start with connection engineering and how it all began. I think when we spoke before the podcast, you'd mentioned Bethlehem Steel and a couple of other companies sort of invented that. But I found it fascinating. Tell us a little more. 

Henry Lederman [00:00:48] Well, they actually didn't invent it, Bethlehem Steel and American Bridge were the major steel fabricators in the United States back when I started in the business, which was 1972. And so if you can imagine at that time period, American Bridge, Bethlehem Steel, they had huge, huge drafting rooms with huge seven foot tables where everything was done with pencil. In fact, US Steel had a large plant in Ambridge, which is right outside of Pittsburgh. But in those days, first of all, much of the connection engineering was done from the use of the AISC tables and the engineering was a lot simpler. And the combination of engineering and detailing prevalently was done in one group. Right like at American Bridge. 

Hugh Seaton [00:01:50] So before we dove in too much further, I think it might be helpful to talk about what we mean when we say connection engineering. So I mentioned that this is steel detailing. So we are talking about steel. But when you say connection engineering, what does that mean? 

Henry Lederman [00:02:05] Well, when when you put up a steel building, every member of steel member has to connect to another member. The mechanism for which it does that is where Connection Engineering comes in, designing the joint that holds the pieces together. That could be a sheer plate with bolts, double angles with bolts; so it's the connection that holds the two together and obviously transfers the load imposed on those beams. And it's a obviously a very critical piece of putting up a building and having it stay up. 

Hugh Seaton [00:02:44] So you're talking about, among other things and I think this gets to what we might talk about in a couple in a couple of minutes, but you're really engineering how load is going to go from one part of a building in the structure to another and making sure that you've got the right amount of strength to handle that. 

Henry Lederman [00:03:01] Yeah, the right amount of strength in the connection that could include loads coming in from wind or seismic, the loads from humans, concrete slab, file cabinets, all of that has to come into each piece of steel and then transfer into the next piece of steel, ultimately making it down into the foundation. 

Hugh Seaton [00:03:22] So bringing it back to the story we were telling before, somewhere in Pittsburgh, there was an army of people with seven foot desks who were engineering how everything that went into the Empire State Building in terms of girders and connections, they're sitting there with a pencil and paper. And these these tables you were talking about that helped to solve some of the presumably the equations. Is that right? 

Henry Lederman [00:03:44] Right. But there are two things happening. There is connection engineering designing those joints. But then those joints become part of what's called shop drawings, shop drawings that show all of the dimensions, the hole sizes that then goes to the shop, the fabricating plant to cut the steel, punch the holes based on those drawings, the production of those drawings of cold steel detailing. So you have to connection engineer and it's critical for the end connections and then detailing, detailing that connection back onto today into a model. And a combination of those two things is how we deliver the information to the steel fabricator and then to the erector to build it. 

Hugh Seaton [00:04:32] So how did it how did I don't want to lose the Bethlehem Steel story because I just find that fascinating. It was done a certain way and then they kind of broke apart and then other things happened. You want to talk a little bit about that history? Well, sure. 

Henry Lederman [00:04:45] It's really interesting because you have to imagine these large drawing rooms with extraordinarily competent people building the Verrazano Bridge, Empire State Building, using rivets and on paper and pencil. But as time goes by, many of these drafters in some cases were tied to the steel mill pricing. What they got paid was tied to union contracts. And so that got more expensive and more expensive. Bethlehem Steel and Steel had to compete. Nucor came into the picture and eventually these drawing rooms went away because they got too expensive and independent subcontract firms were more competitive. And so it navigated towards that direction. Bethlehem Steel and American Bridge also closed down. They just for whatever reason, they couldn't continue to be successful. But but also germane to the story is the fact that these people became the, these big firms were the training grounds for detailers and at those times details who also knew connection engineering. So we sort of grew up in my early days understanding, detailing and learning connection engineering. As the subcontractor system started to grow, we then had a split where steel fabricators would hire a connection engineering firm that specialize in connection engineering and a separate detailing firm that simply inserted into the model, or at the time into the drawings with pencil, the connections that were done separately. And as time evolved, detailers knew, less and less about connection engineering. And each group became more and more a seperate profit center. 

Hugh Seaton [00:06:56] And that kind of brings us up to right now, or at least the last 10 years or so, how do you see that? Where have we gotten to now? 

Hugh Seaton [00:07:05] And, you know, it sounds like some real some expertise and knowledge, as often as the case, was lost. What does that mean? Where did that get us today? 

Henry Lederman [00:07:14] Well, you definitely had just a tremendous knowledge base disappear and the arrival of global detailing services and 3D systems like the one we work with, the Tekla software, that one could then produce drawings without necessarily understanding fully the engineering and which in and of itself, you know, creates a sort of a Quality Control issue because today connection engineer is still the two separated, the connection engineer still designs it, gives it to the detailer, and the detailer, interprets his or her information, puts it in a 3-D model. The Detailer has to then, their checker has to make sure that, that was correctly done. And for most of the time, the connection engineer who created the first output never gets to see what ended up into the 3D model. So that is sort of where it is today. And in the scenario I've just described, there is always the connections always use a bolt pattern that's been used for one hundred years, a vertical bolt pattern using a three inch spacing. So the connections are not optimized as we, at Qnect, do today. 

Hugh Seaton [00:08:42] And you talked about this when we were kind of doing our pre game about some of why things were standardized, had to do with them kind of working when you got to the job site, right. Wasn't there? Yeah, some inconsistencies in other things. 

Hugh Seaton [00:08:57] They just knew it would work, so they went with it. Is that right? Tell me a little more about what what you were talking about then. 

Henry Lederman [00:09:03] Well, most of you know, if you think about a fabricating plant 30, 40 years ago, it was mostly human beings in a plant operating equipment that wasn't, and isn't, as sophisticated as it is today. So conformity was crucial because the way we measured the success of the steel project in those days is that it fit in the field, meaning the detailer didn't make a mistake and the fabricator didn't make mistakes, right? So that was the criteria. Now, once 3D systems came into place. Jobs fitting in the field no longer became a problem because you were fitting it into a 3D system, but everybody kept the three inch vertical spacing because that conformity helped make sure that our human resources made the fewest number of mistakes. They can always count on a three inch spacing for every connection they can visually see it. And they manufactured it that way. And so we have this old system that is throughout our industry, all around the world.Primarily, also because there is really no software until Qnect that could give you the computing power to do it in a different way, in particular, optimizing it. 

Hugh Seaton [00:10:32] So this is ,you know, this is kind of the story you see with technology over and over again. Is that an advance in one area? In this case, it's a computer control to some degree fabrication that has way better tolerances than, you know, even really, really efficient and, well, well-trained and experienced humans. 

Henry Lederman [00:10:50] That's right. 

Hugh Seaton [00:10:51] Means that you can count on tolerances that are so much tighter than before that now you don't have to be allowing for those those kind of fuzzy tolerances. And that that's sort of kind of opened up a whole new possibility, is that right? 

Henry Lederman [00:11:04] Yeah, that's right. The accuracy of the equipment in the shop now and how it's controlled and managed has produced this opportunity where we can now move away from this concern and move into the technology that's available to enhance the delivery of projects. 

Hugh Seaton [00:11:26] And that winds up some of the things we've talked about, is that really winds up mattering. Right. Is in the past, if you didn't know any better, you just you added the five bolts or the six bolts for whatever the reason. 

Henry Lederman [00:11:38] Yes. 

Hugh Seaton [00:11:38] For some reason, in my head I have five bolts. But you did that because you didn't know any better or that's what you did. That's what you did to make sure that plus or minus it was going to be safe. But now you're able to look at it a little bit. This opens up the ability to look at it in a more sophisticated way. Is that, is that how you'd say it? 

Henry Lederman [00:11:54] Well, that's that's exactly correct. And I'll make a distinction at this point, which is that any job that's done by a connection engineer today still has inefficiency in it because connection engineers don't, and can't actually do the design of a joint one by one. It just doesn't happen. So they do a range of loads. If they have a member that has same member sizes but different loading, they'll take the largest load and use that. 

Hugh Seaton [00:12:32] Right. So putting that into some perspective, we might think about a five story building and I'm going to get into dimensions because I'll embarrass myself. But it's it's not crazy to think that you quickly get into dozens and hundreds of connections. And what you're saying is they're going to say, look, on this floor, the highest amount is going to be, I don't know, ten thousand of something, or whatever. So you say everything's going to be all of 50 joints are going to be that or connections does that sound, right? 

Hugh Seaton [00:13:09] Yeah, it's it's more like the beam depth so 8 inch beam depth or a 12 inch or you know, we have a we have twenty 16 inch beam depths that are ranging from 20 kips to 40 kips let's make them all 40. 

Hugh Seaton [00:13:24] And KIPP's again is a thousand pounds per square inch. Is that right? 

Henry Lederman [00:13:28] A kip is a thousand pounds. 

Hugh Seaton [00:13:31] Ok, I told you I shouldn't be doing math. 

Hugh Seaton [00:13:35] If you're, if you weighed a thousand pounds you would be in, you stood on a beam, you would be placing a thousand pounds, a kip into the end connection if I have that right. 

Hugh Seaton [00:13:48] Got it. Got it. 

Hugh Seaton [00:13:50] So, the point you're making is in the past, because it was done either by hand or it may as well have been done by hand, they would they would absolutely minimize the number of times they do that calculation. 

Henry Lederman [00:14:03] Well, I'm not just saying in the past, that's how it's done now. In most of the cases, except for Qnect. Connection engineers still continue to take a range of loads if they're not using Qnect. That's correct. 

Hugh Seaton [00:14:21] Right. And so that gets us to the point we made four or five minutes ago, which is the fact that you've now have better predictability in the materials that come in. And it's 2021 and you invented, this earlier than that, but where we have the computing ability to do it and we know the inputs and outputs, so you're able to do this. And, you do it on an individual basis? 

Henry Lederman [00:14:43] We do! Qnect will take the load for every single joint, either from the design or figure it out ourselves through different mechanisms and design it joint by joint. Within parameters that we can still provide some conformity depending on a fabricators need, but primarily we're doing it joint by joint. So we're removing that immediate inherent extra waste. And in addition, because we're doing it a certain way through the use of the AISC formulas, we get added benefits to reduce the cost to a number of bullets in the joint and optimize it. 

Hugh Seaton [00:15:29] Well, yeah, it seems like there's a few things that that get better here. One of them is, is what you just talked about, right, is steel isn't cheap, and especially when you're talking about across big,big jobs and big installation's, so, what does that look like?  What's an example of you do this, use Qnect, we can pull out some number of bolts, but also presumably sometimes smaller plates and so on. How does that wind up aggregating and rolling up? 

Henry Lederman [00:16:02] Well, a job in Boston, we're saving 23,000 bolts, you know, jobs in New York we're saving anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 bolts. Installing a bolt in the field in New York is $40 dollars to $70 dollars per installation and that varies around the country. So, when we where we're basically, say, cutting the number of bolts down 20-50%, it has a tremendous impact. 

Hugh Seaton [00:16:33] That's hundreds of thousands of dollars! 

Henry Lederman [00:16:35] Oh, and over a million, and even more in some cases. But you can imagine, if you've got 10,000 fewer bolts, each bolt goes through two pieces of material. The connection that's holding it up and the member itself. 10,000 fewer bolts means 20,000 fewer holes to drill, 10,000 fewer bolts to buy, which has a energy component. Right? Because we're trying to improve climate impact. So you have an energy component. That means the shop has less time and energy to spend and better productivity. And then in the field when they're erecting the building, they simply can do it quicker. If you've got 10,000 fewer bolts, you can imagine that without you know, as a layperson, it's it's you know, it strikes you. Right. 

Hugh Seaton [00:17:30] Right. Well, speaking of time, one of the other things that immediately springs to mind is that people make changes in the process of designing and pricing out and the preconstruction all the way up until when things are being put in place. The fact that you guys are actively calculating all this, I assume, makes it faster as people are going through some of those rounds. 

Henry Lederman [00:17:59] Well, for sure. If you're using our software because it's so extraordinarily fast and you're using it during the estimating phase and in fact, the same as in production, we will actually engineer and connect a building 9 different ways, looking for what is the optimal joint. What's the optimal bolt diameter. What's the optimal configuration, so that during estimating we can understand as a bidder, what is it that we're going to end up with? 

Henry Lederman [00:18:33] That kind of information is simply not available... except for Qnect. Well, who knows in the future, but it currently is simply not possible. But because we can do it so fast. We will do a 60 story building in a couple hours. So that kind of data is what creates the opportunity for what we provide in our analytics, where we can study data, which is something that is very, very exciting for our industry. We just don't have time to think, breathe or plan. 

Hugh Seaton [00:19:08] Right.

Henry Lederman [00:19:08] We got a job today, we're two weeks behind. 

Hugh Seaton [00:19:11] Yeah.

Henry Lederman [00:19:11] And anybody listening to this who is in the industry will know exactly what I mean. And so with this kind of speed, and with this kind of data available, you now, in the industry have the opportunity to have data for the best decision making. And, you know, it's a story of technology, right? We used to draw by pencil, and when we drew by pencil, AutoCAD came into play. And, you know, I'd argue then--because I was freaked out-- that I could draw one hundred pieces of steel on one picture, right? But Autodesk, AutoCAD said, yeah, well, that's nice, but you can't turn that into a file to run equipment in the shop. And I said, darn it, you're right! 

Hugh Seaton [00:20:02] Yeah.

Henry Lederman [00:20:03] And then when 3D systems came in AutoCAD people freaked out and you got more and more sophisticated. And and the movement was productivity, data enhancement, efficiencies, less mistakes, and an industry that started to move and grow. Right? I mean, that's a story of technology, and technology like Qnect, you know, is a disruptive technology. And therefore, the same thing is occurring. We're able to move from this world of two discrete elements, (1) Connection Engineering and (2) Detailing, separated, bringing them together into one, at a speed that is just unbelievable. And to be able to analyze information that we just couldn't do before. It is a beautiful progression of a technology's use. And in fact, you know, if I may, AISC has an initiative, the industry standards that by the year 2025 we can erect steel in 50% less time than we currently do. Well, how do they do that? Well, better equipment in the shop, better technology that improves the engineering, just a more comprehensive, systematic look at the whole system. And that's something Qnect is always doing, has done in the development of the software. What's the whole picture? Not what's this part. 

Hugh Seaton [00:21:44] Right.

Henry Lederman [00:21:45] Our evolution has been in parts. This part is a profit center, Connection Engineering vs. Detailing. And now we're trying to bring it all together in one system. 

Hugh Seaton [00:21:55] Which is one of the benefits of digitizing and and making things as fast is as you've made them. And so are you finding, and I think you kind of answered this before, but I want to clarify; are you finding that people can effect, in effect, simulate different things with Qnect and make decisions on that basis? That, well, what if we tried it this way? How would how would it look? And what if we tried it that way in terms of how the connections would work and how it would all come together? 

Henry Lederman [00:22:25] Absolutely! That's the core of our analytics. 

Hugh Seaton [00:22:29] Right.

Henry Lederman [00:22:29] Where shops / fabricating plants will say, well, we're 3/4 in bolt shop, meaning they used to using 3/4's or 7/8's, but maybe 1 inch is better. We've got many jobs where 1 inch bolt was the best bolt for that job. 

Hugh Seaton [00:22:46] Right.

Henry Lederman [00:22:46] Where, we'll go from 40,000 bolts to 17,000 because we evaluate it. But we're doing the evaluation while we have space to think and plan. And we're providing data so quickly, that we can start making sense of it and use good leadership skills. 

Hugh Seaton [00:23:06] And that actually, the mention of fabricators thinking of themselves as one thing versus another. How have you found as you integrate into and kind of work with  different parts of the ecosystem, are you finding there's a bit of an education, or is it is it people get it immediately? 

Henry Lederman [00:23:24] Well, it's a little of everything, right? The best of fabricators can't wait for new technology. They love being on the cutting edge. Although after seven years now, I don't know where. I mean, it's still cutting edge in terms of where it is in the industry. And so they grab on very quickly and then you run from there. Right. To folks who want to do it the way they've been doing it. And that takes them longer. Like any introduction of technology through time. You have that gamut. First, the first group and then, the last group and everything in between, you know. 

Hugh Seaton [00:24:09] Of course. And that's the exciting part of being in the pace a technologist. Technologies take sometimes decades. Now we're past that, usually. How about folks in the field? Do you feel that, because, you know, if it used to be the case that most joints and most connections were more or less the same? Is there a little bit of an education and a kind of different marking that has to be done so that people know what know what to put there? 

Henry Lederman [00:24:34] No, there's really zero impact to the field installation there. They're not seeing something different. 

Hugh Seaton [00:24:41] Right.

Henry Lederman [00:24:42] Right. But they don't know that they were going to get one particular bolt type and now they've got a different bolt type. They don't really care what bolt type. 

Hugh Seaton [00:24:53] Yup, they put in the thing that that's in front of them. 

Henry Lederman [00:24:55] That what's in front of them, they're, I'm sure, experiencing that the jobs are going faster and they can't tell why. 

Hugh Seaton [00:25:03] And getting home safer. And the other things that come along with it. 

Henry Lederman [00:25:06] Well it is for sure, I mean, it's safer in many ways. I mean, when you think of the Detailer interpreting Connection Engineering and they don't really know Connection Engineering charts, you've got a, you know, a bit of discomfort there. But with Qnect, there's no one interpreting. It's a perfectly engineered situation based on parameters. 

Hugh Seaton [00:25:31] I'd like to switch gears towards the end where this has been a fantastic conversation and honestly, I learn more about the superstructure and the kind of foundational structure of all these big buildings than I ever thought I might. You know, what is implied in what you're saying when you're saying, look, we can simulate things and we can show you how it would work, is that maybe people can start to build things and trust structures in ways that it wasn't true before. So I don't know that you've been asked to do this yet, although hopefully you have. But have you found that you guys, that this ability to rely on better fabrication and therefore make calculations that are individual as opposed to in aggregate allows you to create things that you couldn't create, not you, but allows the industry or designer in a construction firm to build things that that they couldn't have before? 

Henry Lederman [00:26:27] Well, we don't necessarily influence how they decide to design a building, but we do influence the efficiency of the building itself. And, one thing I'll say is that Fabricators have told us that with their robotic equipment, they absolutely love the position of Qnect. It does not vary as you might when you're doing it individually. 

Hugh Seaton [00:26:59] That's interesting. So it's all coming full circle, right? The precision of fabricating and the precision of the designs and now the connections. 

Henry Lederman [00:27:07] Yeah, what I would like to talk about. Well, where is all of this heading? And, you know, as we think about the whole, we often in systems do separate profit centers. And now, you could ask, well, how do you get the loads in the model? And the fact is, in the conventional system, the loads are done by the Connection Engineer where he does his thing and the Detailer does their thing, as I have described. But now as we try to really integrate all the parts, which is one of the tenets of Qnect, we're now working with Enigneers of Record, where the building is designed. Getting their files with the loading transferred into the 3D system, run Qnect multiple times, send them back information that helps them improve their design, which could include changing beam sizes, changing the framing, and they send it back to us again and we run it again because we're so fast. We can do this. We can round trip, integrate, and now move to the next stage without introducing a manual step in between. And we're doing that currently. And I think that as technologies improve, as we've seen through history, we start to see more integration of the whole, which I think is very, very exciting and a more seamless approach to productivity enhancement. And, you know, in our case, the building of a steel structure for owners. 

Hugh Seaton [00:28:52] This is super exciting, so we're coming to the end of the discussion, Henry thank you for kind of walking us through and me especially what connection engineering is kind of where it is now, where it came from, but also where you see Qnect taking it in the future. I really appreciate this! 

Henry Lederman [00:29:11] Well, thank you here for the opportunity. It's always exciting for me, having been in the industry now, that it's my 49th year and then watching my own internal conversation as I have gone through all of these changes in the industry and now landing here with huge excitement because it's such an integrated system that deals with the whole ecosystem. And that's particularly exciting for me. So thank you for this opportunity and I hope your listeners enjoy our work today. 

Hugh Seaton [00:29:48] Me too. Thanks, Henry.