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Working with Subcontract Detailers

Subcontracting the Right Steel Detailer: 6 Questions all Fabricators Should Ask Before They Hire

So you’ve decided to subcontract a detailer for your next structural steel project. The company you choose to hire—and the tools they use for the job—can have a major impact on the overall profitability of the project. The accuracy and reliability of the detailer’s work affects everything from your production timelines to efficiencies in cost, material, and labor. 

In this post, we’ll outline the most important questions you need to answer before you sign your contract. 



1. Who will be responsible for connection design?

If you will be responsible for connection design on the project, you want to make sure your detailer has the right experience and tools to do the job right and deliver design calculations. When 90 percent or more of the work done in your shop involves cutting, drilling, and welding steel connections, you need a detailer that’s going to design connections that are constructible, meaning you can get the project through your shop without costly issues, and erectable, meaning the project will fit up in the field without site errors that could send rework back to your shop. 

Better yet, your detailer should build connections that play to your strengths and preferences—but we’ll cover that more in Question 3.

Want to hear more about optimizing your shop with automated connection design? Check out Ep. 3 of our Steel & Whiskey Podcast >

Automation can play a big role in catching potential shop and field issues early in the design process, and it’s essential if you’re looking to optimize connections for material and labor efficiency. 3D detailing solutions come with various levels of automation—SDS/2, for example, offers a unique all-in-one solution for detailing and connection design. Most other options require users to import connections from a third-party software, which limits their adaptability and increases the potential for errors. 

2. Can they handle the timeline and project size?

This may be the most basic question to ask when selecting a detailer—can they get the job done—but there are a lot of factors that go into the answer. Do they have a big enough team to meet your deadlines? Does their specialty area—miscellaneous steel, commercial, industrial—match the project? And, of course, are they equipped with the right detailing solutions?  

The size of detailing companies’ operations range dramatically—from one-person shops to teams of a hundred or more. There’s no magic number here, but tools matter. If you’re working on a large processing plant with simple geometry, for example, a single detailer might struggle to meet a tight deadline with 2D software but breeze through it with an automated 3D detailing software capable of batch connection design.  

On the other hand, a large team working with a 3D software might be more prone to conflicts within the model and in managing piecemarks, but that can be mitigated with features like automatic piecemarking or a live, multi-user modeling environment. 

Read More: Learn How Mold-Tek Technologies utilized SDS/2’s automatic piecemarking when they split detailing responsibilities to meet tight deadlines on the Parkview Health Core Tower Expansion in Fort Wayne, IN. >


3. How can they help me save time and money?

The faster the detailing gets done, the sooner your fabrication shop can start producing, but productivity and profitability aren’t just about speed. 

A good subcontract detailer should be responsive to your shop’s needs and strengths. Detailers using SDS/2, for example, can input setup options based on your shop preferences. This allows them to fast track their own processes through automated connection design, but more importantly, it’ll help them design a model that’s optimized for you.   

Standardizing materials such as plate thickness, for example, or tailoring the connections to your equipment can save you thousands in material and labor costs. If they’re using an automated detailing software, they might be able to quickly compare alternative designs for cost-optimized connections. 


Want to learn more about subcontracting detailers? Download our complete guide now to keep, print, and share >

Subcontracting the right detailer for your structural steel project: the Complete guide. Get the Guide


4. How will they manage project data and communication between stakeholders?

Optimizing designs for your shop requires approval and buy-in from other stakeholders on the project. 3D models can be a valuable tool in communicating your design suggestions and changes in project coordination meetings and throughout the project. 

SDS/2 detailers can share their model and drawings easily with the free SDS/2 Viewer. They are also well equipped to champion design suggestions and navigate RFIs with the engineer, as SDS/2 provides expanded calculations to validate things like connection strength, limit states, and more. 

In addition, your detailer’s ability to transfer data to and from your own MRP, MIS, and other tracking systems can save you time and effort in inventory management. Being able to import and export data with other stakeholder’s software, such as Autodesk® Revit®, Integraph Smart 3D, or RISA, can further streamline communication and workflows. 


5. Will their drawings be accurate and reliable?

Quality is ultimately determined by output—the shop drawings the detailer delivers at the end of the day. Good drawings must be correct, complete, and clear, providing all the information necessary for manufacturing and assembling the materials in a format that adheres to your shop standards and that your personnel can easily understand. 

To ensure trust in the accuracy and reliability of the detailer’s work, it’s always advisable to ask for sample drawings and verify the company’s software license. Contracting a detailer with pirated software can sabotage your project, your computers, and even your company.  

If they’re using SDS/2, you can ask for their unique SDS/2 Legal ID and confirm that it matches the name of the company through the simple license verification tool on our website. If you’re left with any further doubts or questions about the company, contact an SDS/2 sales representative.  

Going with a live, cloud-based solution like SDS/2 Cloud (formerly SDS/2 Edge) is another way to ensure that legal licenses are being used.   


6. Are their CNC integrations compatible with my shop?

CNC files are another critical deliverable that affect a detailer’s compatibility with your shop, especially as digitalization and automated fabrication solutions become more common. If the detailing software can’t handle a direct CNC output that’s up to your standards, your operators will be left with a lot of manual programming, which slows down your processes and leaves more room for error. 

An established detailing software provider is likely to have better relationships with the industry’s top machine suppliers and so provide the settings necessary to meet shop standards, such as preferences for scribing piecemarks, weld information, material outlines, corners, etc., and avoid issues with machine limitations. 

It’s important to note here that your detailer’s software version matters nearly as much as the software itself. Detailers running an outdated version of a software aren’t likely to have compatible CNC output with the latest shop equipment and updates. 

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Finding the right subcontract detailer for your project is not merely a matter of finding the cheapest, best, or biggest. It’s well worth the time to look closely at the detailer’s experience and toolsets. Their reliability, accuracy, and compatibility with your shop can have a major impact—for better or for worse—on your profits, time, and reputation.  



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