This drawing demonstrates the importance of keeping aisle ways clear. Poorly defined walkways are open invitations to inefficiency. Creating well-defined aisles ensure work will move productively to the shipping area. Drawing by Jim Segroves.


With every new year, many people think about resolutions.

Resolutions can improve life for ourselves and can even improve life for those around us. Resolutions for people are often relatively simple changes to one’s diet and exercise routines, to quit smoking or perhaps to spend more quality time with the family.

These are not complicated issues, but are in fact extremely important to our well-being and longevity as individuals. So why is it so difficult for most of us to stick with them? Humans are prone to habits, and habits of people or of shop operations can be very hard to break.

What does all of this have to do with improving the quality and profitability of your sheet metal shop operation? It has everything to do with having a better overall operation. Let’s look at some of those shop-fabrication and field-erection decisions that are perhaps better replaced with “rules” - not resolutions - that should seldom be broken.

1. Integrate the new duct-construction standards from the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association into your operations, and get everyone familiar with them.

Your field people may be sending in duct orders and specifying certain gauges that are not correct under the new SMACNA standards, or they may be ordering the wrong longitudinal seam types, sealing types, connector types or a wrong combination of them all under the new standards. Again, these are examples of bad decisions being made by hard-working, well-intended but uninformed workers. Give them new rules, not opportunities to make bad decisions.

The new SMACNA standards must also be applied to your computerized sheet metal estimating software, plasma-cutting software, and computer-aided drafting software and duct-construction tables.

Everyone, from office to shop to field personnel, must be coordinated in this critical application. That is why it has to be a rule.

2. Create fabrication tickets in the shop office, not at the jobsite. Have a dedicated shop office detailer convert the original HVAC mechanical duct drawings to fabrication tickets or lists. Depending on the size of your operation, you could have the appointed job supervisor make the shop tickets before relocating to the jobsite to oversee the erection team. The advantages of this system are numerous. First, it allows the jobsite lead person to concentrate on managing a crew when the job starts, not making shop tickets. Secondly, fabrication tickets created in the shop office are much more likely to be created using standardized duct construction technology. Third, it allows the shop manager to efficiently schedule fabrication batches relative to other jobs in progress through a designated person.

3. Schedule fabrication batches through an appointed person, typically an outside foreman or field superintendent. He or she has the responsibility of knowing the exact status of the erection progress at each jobsite and knowing exactly how much lead time is appropriate for fabrication and delivery of the various batches of ductwork to the jobsites.

Why is it important to have this person dictating the fabrication and delivery schedules? Just ask any shop supervisor who is regularly blindsided by several “got to have it tomorrow” fabrication requests every morning.

For example, “Joe,” the shop foreman, has one or more days of fabrication work scheduled for Tuesday morning. At 10:30 a.m., his office phone rings and a jobsite supervisor says he needs a certain order delivered no later than Wednesday morning. Joe accepts the order and plans accordingly.

Joe’s phone rings again at 11:15 a.m. and another person requests that his order be delivered by Thursday morning. Now Joe has a problem, and probably a considerable amount of stress.

At 2 p.m. Joe’s phone rings a third time and he receives an urgent request to deliver duct to yet another jobsite this week. The reality of duct fabrication and delivery scheduling is that the shop foreman is constantly blindsided by random orders from people who are not aware of existing fabrication work in progress.

This is why new “rules” for duct fabrication and delivery schedules are needed. They eliminate the constant blindsiding and minimize urgency of fabrication orders by working closely with both the field supervisors and the shop foreman to provide reasonable fabrication lead times. The bottom line is that scheduling decisions must be made efficiently and as a team, not randomly by single individuals.

A list like this is an example of why you should use every computer-generated list your plasma-cutting software creates. It contains more than 30 decisions that are done automatically and accurately. More than half of the return on investment from the purchase of a plasma-cutting machine comes from the increased efficiency the software creates. List courtesy of Shop Data Systems Inc.

4. Eliminate shop flow-path decisions for fabrication work in progress by laying out and painting dedicated aisle ways.

All shops have aisle ways, but in shops without painted aisle ways, they constantly change throughout the workday. Objects block the aisle, constantly changing the flow patterns. Create a simple, efficient, unobstructed flow path between the pattern origination point and the shipping dock.

5. Institute electronically controlled shop activities. Time studies have clearly demonstrated that manual signaling of start times, break and quitting times tend to be unfair to both management and workers, especially in larger shop operations. Many people prefer the “team” concept where everyone begins together, takes breaks together, and ends the workday together, as opposed to random coffee and lunch breaks.

6. Not many years ago, it was quite common for individual sheet metal workers to be handed a mechanical drawing. They would take it to the jobsite and mark up offsets and obstructions, coordinate with structural situations, coordinate with other trades, return to the shop, layout, form and assemble the ductwork, and return to the jobsite to install it.

Each worker had to make every decision related to the particular project. Those numerous decisions made by those well-intentioned individuals tended to be time-consuming and occasionally prone to errors. The advent of CAD/CAM plasma-cutting machines and drafting software introduced computer-based shop tickets, virtually eliminating the traditional decision-making processes.

Now all of the seams, gauge selection, connector applications and insulation data is determined by tables and shop standards set up in the plasma and CAD software.

7. Use the generated shop tickets and eliminate those decisions at the shop level. It is important to realize that about 50 percent of the increase in shop fabrication efficiency, and therefore return on a plasma machine purchase, lies in the use of the computerized shop tickets.

Even when making the simplest piece of duct, such as a straight joint, there are at least 26 decisions that have to be made relative to width, depth, length, gauge, connectors, insulation, stretch out, ‘L’ shape, wrap-around, notch data and others. Let the computer make these decisions and free your workers up to be more productive.

Finally, there is one important rule that should be adopted by every shop, and this is the most important one of all.

8. Do not “send” shop and field managers to trade shows like this month’s AHR Expo in Dallas. Take them with you. Give your “in the trenches” decision makers the invaluable exposure of the newest sheet metal technology, materials and equipment. It will help them be better managers.