July 09, 2019

Tent Industry questions with Gery Warner

1.  How has technology changed the structure of tents today versus five years ago?

I cannot speak for the industry as I could so long ago as chair of the Tent Renters Association, but I can tell you about how technology has changed our Tentnology tents. They’ve morphed over the years, reflecting our experience, our clients’ feedback, refinement in our analytical tools and response to foreign code demands. We make tents for stock to ensure rapid delivery to global markets, so we try our best to make them for some 85% of situations to which that particular tent type may be exposed. In this way, we facilitate sales and hope to minimize technical and bureaucratic issues for the user. Our primary concern is physics, of course; codes are secondary but becoming increasingly an obstacle for events. We find the design of big, permanent structures relatively easy regarding code, as the value and known fixed location make it worthwhile. Itinerant structures are a horse of a different colour as they must be designed to be located anywhere as well as for rapid strike, transport and assembly.

Many of our structures have changed, some in subtle ways barely detectible. Stronger alloys, thicker materials, along with design enhanced by our Darwinian software can tune an already good design into something better, yet stronger and more effective. 
For France, Germany, Canada, Australia or USA, to mention a few, we have to provide documents, But with the array of Tentnology structure families, doing so presents great challenge. And, of course the code folks, in their wisdom, change the rules of the game at a whim. Then too, bizarrely, an engineer’s seal in many American states must be renewed annually. There is no good reason for that rule; it’s just the way it is. That’s very unfair for local engineers in my view. Are they not trusted professionals? Is a local government inspector to be trusted any more. It’s the engineer that has professional liability and professional ethic, unheard of for government. Then, from our standpoint, take 50 tents, arrange them in 20 different configurations … each …, produce a report for each, get a local engineer to certify it, then do it all again next year, and you begin to understand the enormity of the bureaucratic burden foisted upon the rental industry by the code mandarins. The whole process can dampen any creative spirit one might have. Having said that, we carry on, come up with another brainwave and away we go again. So, just keeping up would be impossible without that software we developed over the past 30 years. Of course, fancy software alone is not the answer. 

The rental industry has quite a few special demands: 
1. Strength: rental tents must be strong enough to withstand the weather, 
2. Durable: robust to handle repeated installations, 
3. Elegantly simple: brain-dead simple enough that it can be assembled at 3 a.m. with a new crew … in a rainstorm, 
4. Light weight: light enough to be easy to handle, 
5. Compact: store compactly for easy shipping, 
6. Economical: And of course, all at Walmart prices expected by the industry. 
7. Competitive: Oh, and if you don’t throttle the price, understandably your faithful customer will send his precious dollars to the competition who has just as faithfully copied us. Because, if I’ve done my job, I made a product that is so simple yet effective, that any of those so inclined can just as faithfully copy it. 
8. Quality: Of course, it’s all fun until someone loses an eye with an inferior product and then the code asylum wakes up and makes matters worse.
It’s a challenging game that our Tentnology CAE software helps us play.

2. How and why does engineering play a bigger role in developing new styles of tents? 

In Europe, the original TentHall makers had engineers, but the North American industry had few. In Europe, the now modern tent industry was born out of a German aircraft manufacture that was prevented from making more aircraft by the rules set up by the allies. So, their very advanced aluminum industry was relegated to making window frames until some bright fellows morphed the steel and wood keder system into what we have today. The American industry developed out of the covered wagon supply trade. No engineers needed. So, when we entered the business, knowing nothing about tents, their markets, we just took a blue sky, yet engineering analytical approach.  Engineering has always played a role in my world, so tents were no exception. I respect the discipline and actually at present have on staff many engineers, as well as myself. In our beginning 45 years ago, we would not have developed our first tent had we no desire to make something, anything. Call us little beavers. That’s what engineers do; we make stuff. Then, bit by bit we went deeper, further. We were curious about tents. Since most of the physical world as we know it, behaves according to natural forces, we figured a tent ought be no different. So we set out to purchase software that would help. An ambling journey through Europe yielded nothing but what was already obsolete software that we could only lease, that ran only on already old hardware. So, we came home, gathered some smart people around, and made our own. The investment was big, never-ending, but deeply satisfying and has paid off as we became able to create new structure, modify existing and document the process well. Of course our field experience is invaluable, always keeping it real.

At present we are intensely involved in honing our wind analyses to be as close as possible to real-world experience. Using the latest wind tunnel data and early results indicate we will be able to raise our wind ratings on some structures while lowering reaction forces. That may mean a tent user would need less ballast, or fewer stakes to hold his tent in place. We display graphs on our drawings so the user can make better decisions based upon local site conditions. The benefits should be quite important, especially multiplied over our whole customer base. Imagine if half the present ballast is needed. The cost saving would be significant on all those tents out there in the world.  After all, a truly new product lets people do more for less; or lets them do what they could not do before. Tentnology, does not make a “me too” tent.

3. How have the requirements for tents and structures changed and what have you done as a tent manufacturer to meet those requirements?

 The Building codes in many jurisdictions have changed recently with stricter wind load and structural requirements.  I do not agree with what they’re doing. The old ways were just as good in my view, serving the public safety very well. But we had already redesigned some of our popular models to meet the more stringent requirements so are prepared and ahead in that game.  We also employ six engineers, three of them Phd’s to meet the demand for engineering support – we have more engineers than sales folk!
 We are also investigating robotics to meet manufacturing demand with precision and advanced quality control. Steel welders are easy to find. Exotic metal welders are not. That’s how our interest started in robots. They can be employed to weld truss work. And ironically, use of robotics will lead to even more employment with a disproportionate increase in productivity. No one wants to weld forever, but a robot will; so long as it is set up, programmed, managed, and supervised by skilled people.

4. How have tent fabrics evolved? Early tents might have been canvas, then vinyl and now it seems sailcloth has gained in popularity? Why? What are the pros and cons of sailcloth?

Sailcloth these days, typically means uncoated tightly woven polyester cloth. It used to be cotton canvas, and before that cannabis (hemp) cloth … ergo the root of the word canvas. I can’t comment of what you call sailcloth as we do not yet use it, but wonder about structural longevity as the material has no PVC protecting those long chain polyester fibers from the sun’s propensity to break them.

5. What do you think is next when it comes to tents and technology?

Our rental customers benefit from creative demands of other markets such as experiential event marketing and the entertainment industry.  While rental customers want and need to stay remain with relatively conservative styles to suit a multiplicity of needs and to realize a quick return on investment, other sectors want structures that must command attention, are often customized and special.  By combining what are in actuality standard modules into various configurations and arrays, our clientele, even the renter, can let their creative juices flow. Then, large format custom printing make for quite a long menu for any designer. They can go wild in our IKEA-like world. In another next, we developed a large modular structure we call the Tentanium with some very novel features permitting rapid response to demand for wide span roof systems for and high snow load that we can morph in shape to withstand extreme wind and improved esthetic, as the client demand goes. As to what else is next, the future seldom fails to surprise.

6. What are some of the challenges your customers face in the tent industry and how are you, as manufacturers, helping them through those challenges?

Engineering demands made by by local authorities is are probably the most aggravating to the rental industry. But, we are well ahead of the bureaucracy on that score, having invested heavily over the past 30 years in large deformation finite element software. Tentnology CAE (Computer Aided Design) allows us to respond with confidence quite rapidly to demands for not only specialized structure, but documentation of any design.

7. What resources do you provide to your customers for training, education and how do you provide them? Via brochures, online training, videos, podcasts, etc.?

We just held our 3rd  Tentnology “tent camp” in California where we invite customers to watch our people install and work with many of the tents that cannot be featured at the ARA tradeshow.  In fact, we have had been asking the ARA for years to give us some outdoor space to put up tents that cannot be shown indoors.  At this tent camp, we hired a professional film crew to document installation and best practice procedures which will be published shortly for everyone’s viewing pleasure!  As well, we provide comprehensive product specifications, installation manuals and have standby online and phone assistance. The rental guy who needs an answer in the field can take comfort he won’t get a machine operator at Tentnology. We actually have real people!

8. Any trends you are seeing in the industry?

Happily our Marquee sales are trending up and so are our other tent type structures like the SaddleSpan, TSpan and Tentanium. But really, we don’t look much at trending. Following trends means, well, following, doesn’t it? We prefer blue sky. 

Gery Warner, PEng.
President, Tentnology
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