BUFFALO GROVE, Ill. — McCormick Place wasn’t the only place sheet metal contractors were talking shop during this year’s FabTech. About 30 miles away, spiral duct machinery maker Spiral-Helix Inc. held an open house Nov. 13 at the company’s world headquarters in suburban Chicago.

It was the third such open house Spiral-Helix has held in conjunction with FABTECH’s Chicago visits. Company officials say instead of hauling equipment and employees to the crowded McCormick convention center, they prefer to bring show visitors to their facility, where hopefully they’ll have more time to talk and the chance to see the full line of Spiral-Helix equipment in action.

Customers were treated to lunch and the chance to talk to company President Torben Zerlang and Tom Munro, North American sales manager. But make no mistake: this was not just a social visit. “When (customers) come here, they’re not coming here for the lunch or the cookies — they’re serious about buying,” Zerlang said.

And buy they did. Zerlang said several machines were sold, with good leads on others, even if the number of visitors was a little below their expectations.

Along with other invited guests, Snips was given a VIP tour of the Spiral-Helix’s 38,000 sq. ft. office and production facility. This is where the company produces spiral tube formers, flat oval and fitting machines for shipment around the world. Spiral-Helix is one of the largest makers of spiral duct machinery in the world, with large clients all over North America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Perhaps that helps explain that while the U.S. economy is slowing, business at Spiral-Helix is still good, although Zerlang did say sometimes “it’s a little harder to get (customers’) attention now, since they’re focusing on their own business. We have customers that we know are going to be buying, but it’s been at a standstill because they want to see where the economy is going.

“It’s not a easy as (to sell) as it was a year ago, I have to say.” But he added the long-term trends still point to increasing use of spiral duct.

Part of the company’s plan is to keep existing customers by increasing the company’s product line so Spiral-Helix will be able to serve even more of their customers’ needs, he said. “We’re looking for growth, obviously,” Zerlang said. “There are constantly new competitors out there.”

Not surprisingly, customers at the open house were happy to say why they chose Spiral-Helix over the competition. Troy Jackson of Synergy Mechanical Inc., Hillside, Ill. was one of the customers invited to the open house. Jackson said the Synergy recently purchased a Spiral-Helix Tubeformer and loves it. “We like the speed, easy tooling changes and the reliability,” he said. “It’s the absolute Cadillac of tubeformer machines.”

Equipment like the Tubeformer, made at Spiral-Helix production plant, is built using cellular manufacturing, as opposed to a traditional assembly line. Instead of being stationary, each employee moves from station to station to complete his or her task and components are built in one location on the shop floor.

The next major event for Spiral-Helix is this month’s ASHRAE show in Atlantic City, N.J., where Munro said several products in development during 2001 will debut.