CHICAGO - When Gripnail Fastening Systems came up with a new Power Pinner 50 multihead pin welder for attaching insulation to ductwork, the first model went to Climatemp Inc. in Chicago. This was no accident.

Climatemp is one of the busiest hvac fabricating-installing companies in the country, and has a reputation for being heads-up on the latest technology and innovations. This is one outfit that doesn't wait to see what the competition is doing before it plunges ahead. In fact, manufacturers like Gripnail often work closely with Climatemp in trying out new equipment before it even hits the market, refining any rough edges and making wholesale changes, if necessary, before introducing the new equipment to the masses.

Climatemp, operated by the Comforte family, is located at 315 N. May Street in the heart of the Windy City. The company's workforce ranges between 250 and 400, based on current and upcoming projects. The majority are members of SMWIA Local #73, largest local in the country.

"When it was time to replace our existing five foot coil line we again chose Iowa Precision as the manufacturer and ordered a new 6-ft. Fabriduct coil line with every option that they offered," said V.J. Comforte, vice president and director of R&D at Climatemp. "It was imperative that the new line maintain the 50-ft. per minute line speed that we were accustomed to, and not affect our production output. Our old coil line was equipped with a Gripnail (mechanical fastener) multi-head that would handle the speed," Comforte explained. "Gripnail knew that we were a high-production duct manufacturer and that we had to maintain the 50-ft. per minute line-speed when manufacturing lined duct. We wanted them to produce a high-speed multi-head weld pin system that would operate at full line speed without having to slow down during the process."

Gripnail accepted the challenge to combine its recent single head welder success with its multi-head manufacturing experience to create the first multi-head weld pin system that would operate at 50-ft. per minute throughout the 10-ft. stretch-out length of a coil line.

Climatemp puts a great emphasis on the word quality; but also on a couple of others that keep coming up in conversations with Comforte: innovation and safety. And those aren't just buzzwords, because Comforte firmly believes that when several bidders are bidding on a single construction project, "All things being equal, they will go with the company they feel most comfortable with." He adds: "If you go into a restaurant and you see a filthy kitchen, you don't want to eat there. No, you walk out."

Mike Flynn down at the receiving end.

Yellow, red and clean

The Climatemp facility is neat, well-lighted, and open enough to walk about - despite the frenzy of activity. Yellow and red are the predominant colors; the machinery is clean and well cared for.

Things have slowed down just a bit. But there was a time just a few years ago when Climatemp was doing the ductwork for the expansion of McCormick Place North, the city's huge convention center, as well as half a dozen major high rise buildings. "We were running at 200 miles an hour," Comforte recalls. The list of bidders able to handle some of these high-profile projects is a rather short one.

Despite their pioneering efforts towards better manufacturing machines, Comforte said one of his company's mottos is: no surprises. Every Monday, contract managers meet to status current work; a long-range planning meeting is held every Wednesday. It takes time, but everyone knows where the company is headed¿ and what it has to do to get there.

But back to the new Gripnail machine: the first prototype was delivered to Climatemp in September 1999, according to Gripnail's vice president of sales, David Ashton. "Soon after installation, Gripnail engineers Sandy Scott, Walter Neary and Bob Stahlbush started a program to simplify the design."

The soul of the new machine included a mandate to keep the coil line running at 50 feet per minute. Most coil lines are capable of running at 50 feet per minute but have to slow down to 25 when applying welded duct liner fasteners. Busy facilities like Climatemp's can't afford the slowdown.

In fact, Comforte tells a story about calling another contractor in Texas to find out just how they managed high production using the multi-head weld pin system that was currently available for coil line production. Comforte laughs when he says, "I found out, all right." Turns out, they were running two coil lines at 25 feet per minute - and that's how they were able to maintain "high production."

In 1984 Lockformer (Lisle, Ill.) first introduced its then-new Vulcan 1200 plasma cutter. They offered the first Vulcan 1200 to Climatemp. "At the time we were so busy we didn't want to introduce a new machine and process into the production department," Comforte said. But this machine proved itself. It purchased a Vulcan 1200 in 1985, and it's still in use today. It's not unusual to find equipment at Climatemp that is 15 or more years old, running fine alongside brand new machinery still in the prototype stages.

Testing under fire

And Climatemp isn't shy about testing manufacturers either. If a product is tested and isn't right for them, for whatever reason, the manufacturer is informed of the positive and negative points of the machine's operation and suggestions are made to improve its performance.

Some products that undergo limited testing by the manufacturer get pushed to the limit at Climatemp, which often runs the machines 16 hours a day under vigorous load conditions. Wear patterns surface that wouldn't normally show up elsewhere.

"We serve as a sort of operational showroom for the machine manufacturers," Comforte said. In fact, Comforte said he is "passionate" about this side of the business. "A lot of our competitors seem to have tunnel vision when it pertains to new technology and that's why a lot of them aren't around anymore. They are reluctant to change."

Gripnail's patented mechanical fasteners permanently attach insulation to galvanized steel and aluminum in the fabrication of ductwork. Driving the tapered teeth into the softer metal causes the point to take a permanent set. Fasteners withstand a tensile pull of 80-120 lbs. in sheet metal. A hardened steel backer is used, and a preattached cap holds the liner in place to prevent insulation from pulling loose or delaminating.

Welded fasteners are welded in place with up to 165 fasteners per minute for each driving head, fed by vibratory feeder bowls placed above each driving head and holding up to 1,000 fasteners at a time. They are triggered automatically, working with either Iowa Precision or Engel electronic controllers. Each driving head is hinged so it can swing as the metal passed beneath it. Either four, five or six driving heads can be operated simultaneously, or in any combination.

One key feature on the new machine is a voltage compensator. A lot of manufacturers can't be sure what current is coming out of the wall: it could vary according to load or other variables. Most electrical equipment is unaffected. But this can change the dynamics of a weld, so this machine has its own automatic voltage regulator.

Soon after initial installation at Climatemp, a necessary change was immediately apparent. Gripnail engineer Sandy Scott said, "The only way to fasten liner on 6-in. centers, maintain 50-ft. per minute and not be limited in the duct girth dimension is to reset the weld carriage after each row of pins. The best way to do this is by reducing the weight of the weld carriage and moving it with a high speed servo motor."

Backup available

The second machine arrived at Climatemp in August of 2000 and has been used daily ever since. The original mechanical multi-head remains directly behind it as a backup, just in case any problems or downtime with the new machine were encountered. It hasn't been needed, and eventually will be removed. Climatemp plant superintendent Don Dudzinski, maintenance supervisor John Warner and coil line operators Bill Granias and Mike Flynn kept detailed notes on the machine's performance during this time. These notes were an important part of the final design, according to Ashton.

Two more machines are slated for delivery to sheet metal shops in Portland, Ore., and Baltimore. More and more projects are specifying liner, according to Comforte. "A few years ago it looked like duct liner was on its way out. Silencers were starting to be specified for sound attenuation and duct systems were wrapped for thermal protection. But now it looks like more and more engineers are specifying lined duct."

Gripnail Corporation was started in Providence, R.I. in 1966 by Peter Hallock and his wife Peggy. The company's first product was a mechanical fastener for attaching fiberglass insulation to the inside of sheet metal ductwork. Fasteners were applied using an ordinary hand hammer. The concept of "nailing" insulation to sheet metal quickly caught on because it was quicker and easier than welding studs and applying clips. Automatic equipment to apply the fasteners was developed, and soon larger shops began acquiring them.