A new year historically presents managers with the opportunity to improve their shop operations.

Many would agree that the most valuable commitment for their shop operations is to raise efficiency, which improves productivity and ultimately increases profits.

If we take a look at the development of sheet metal technology over the last 75 years, it becomes clear that new efficiency technology is coming faster than ever.

For example, duct fabrication in the early 1950s was not very technically different from the mid-1930s when the first primitive Pittsburgh-seam roll formers were introduced. But in the mid-1950s, improved sheet metal technology began appearing, slowly at first, with the introduction of the original - and very dangerous - powder-actuated stud guns. They revolutionized the task of attaching duct-hanger straps to concrete by replacing hand-hammered star drills and lead shield inserts.

A few years later came duct hoists, which allowed several sections of ductwork to be assembled and set into place more efficiently; button lock machines; high-speed Pittsburgh machines; and by the end of the 1960s, automated coil lines.

The 1970s brought dramatic impact with the introduction of the microcomputers to sheet metal estimating and fabrication. With that event, new technology started coming quicker and more frequently.

The following is a list of eight important technological advances that will increase your shop’s efficiency.

These large ducts and fittings are stacked on pallets and shrink wrapped. Smaller items, banded together or boxed, are placed toward the center to protect them. A “drop zone” number should be written on the bundle to ensure it gets to the right place. Photo courtesy of Jim Segroves.

1. Field-to-shop communications

All shop supervisors should know that field-to-shop communications and information exchange can be inefficient and error prone. Not all of us are good communicators and misunderstandings on field-generated fabrication orders can be extremely costly.

Those misunderstandings are often caused by differences in terminology, experience levels, and quite commonly by hearing disabilities, unfortunately an all-too-common condition experienced by many older sheet metal workers. There are currently several very practical ways to establish more efficient communications, information exchanges and fabrication orders.

The use of laptop computers with wireless Internet connections can be used to efficiently create and e-mail work orders for ducts and fittings. The trick is to install a copy of your plasma duct-cutting input software on the laptop computer at the jobsite. The entering of the fitting dimensions and other specifications by the person that measured up the piece greatly reduces the chances of data input error.

Second, laptop computer e-mail applications can be efficiently used to provide job-progress reports and payroll labor hours to management.

2. Establish a ‘virtual' platform for feedback

There is a story about a worker in an automobile assembly plant who was awarded the traditional gold watch and service pin at his retirement. During the proceedings, he was asked if he knew of anything that engineers could have done over the years to make his job more efficient.

His response was instantaneous and blunt.

“Yes,” he quipped. “They could have asked for my suggestions.”

Shop managers should constantly invite efficiency feed- back from shop and field workers. They are the true experts and can be invaluable in the identification and elimination of inefficient procedures, materials and equipment. Hold periodic meetings with your people to seek out operational inefficiencies and to receive input and ideas.

3. Upgrade equipment

Significant advances have been made in computerized shop equipment. This new generation of equipment offers incredible improvements in overall efficiency, speed and accuracy.

An example is the latest models of computer-controlled, programmable bending brakes used for architectural sheet metal. These are faster, more accurate and more flexible than past models.

Another example of changing technology is the rapidly increasing acceptance of laser cutting machines, which have started to replace plasma cutting technology for speed and accuracy. Replacing a 300-inch-per-minute plasma cutter with a 3000-inch-per-minute laser cutting machine represents a huge increase in metal-cutting efficiency.

This new plasma table from MultiCam Inc. uses a “smart knife” to cut duct liner. Its design allows liner to be cut while metal fittings are processed. Photo courtesy of Jim Segroves.

4. Insulation operations

The price of crude oil flirts with $100 a barrel. This means record-high energy costs, which can turn into even more stringent ductwork-insulating specifications from the mechanical and sheet metal design engineers. One resulting insulating problem for most shops in the last couple of years has been the shift to 1 ½- and 2-inch duct liner.

The liner cutting and gluing is not much of a problem, but the pinning certainly has been. For example, the shafts of the longer 1 ½- and 2-inch pins are 50 percent and 100 percent longer, respectively, which can cause conductivity voltage drops on the weld-type pins.

This problem is now being addressed by pinning machine manufacturers. Many are retrofitting some existing machines and building appropriate technology into the new machines.

If your shop has not prepared in advance for this situation, your first 2-inch duct liner job may very well be done using the extremely inefficient hand-applied stick-on pins with push-on caps, and the additional labor costs may be more than the cost of an upgraded machine.

This job data flow chart represents using a universal, interoperable transfer file to import and export data from different vendors’ software programs. Vendors have to provide a file-converter program for this arrangement to work. Diagram created by Jim Segroves.

5. Jobsite distribution

Sheet metal shop operations in general have become significantly more efficient over the past few years, at least for those shops that take advantage of newer technology. Unfortunately, the field operations have not advanced as far, due to the lack of control over jobsite factors such as other trades, weather and access.

However, there is at least one area of jobsite operation where efficiency can be easily increased.

Historically, jobsite distribution systems have been structured around the use of cardboard boxes, which generally proved to be impractical except for the handling of the smaller, high-quantity items such as small sheet metal ells and fittings. Putting larger, shop-fabricated rectangular and round sheet metal duct and fittings into cardboard containers is simply not practical. Large cardboard boxes require a great deal of storage space, are costly, are labor intensive to assemble, not reusable, subject to weather, difficult to move and not easy to dispose of.

Medium-sized and larger sheet metal contractors are just now beginning to realize that it is much better to use stretch-wrap machines to protect duct. Duct pieces stacked up to 7 feet high and up to 14 feet long on pallets can be stretch-wrapped in less than five minutes by a single machine operator.

But this is only the tip of the shrink-wrap-efficiency iceberg. Additional advantages include:

• Moisture and dust protection during transporting and at the jobsite. This is becoming increasingly important with the “healthy building” movement.

• It eliminates lost pieces during transporting and blowing off of the truck.

• It allows large pallets of ductwork and accessories to be quickly and efficiently moved by forklift or pallet jack from truck off-loading area to where needed.

• It is important to implement a system of assigning “drop zone” identification codes to the mechanical drawings and to have the wrap operators mark the appropriate code onto each pallet prior to shipping. This will enable the jobsite distribution person, having a set of prints with drop-zone codes, to spot every pallet in the matching zone.

• Shrink wrap discourages others from pilfering contents.

• The pallets can easily be returned to the shop and reused.

6. Advanced duct liner cutting

The process of manually cutting duct liner to match the irregular-shaped duct fittings - transitions, curved offsets, radius ells, etc. - has been labor-intensive and even primitive. Even with the development of the earlier plasma machine adaptors that required the use of plywood and rubber backup plates and swivel-knife blades, the process was not much better.

That has changed dramatically with the development of the new “smart” rotating liner-cutting heads. This new technology actually incorporates a motor-driven insulation-cutting knife that precisely duplicates the irregular path of the fitting perimeter.

These liner cutters are very high speed and accurate and can revolutionize your fitting cutting process, making it one of your most efficient shop tasks.

7. Software compatibility

This is a huge sheet metal efficiency concept that is finally moving forward and attracting attention from the right people in the right places, thanks to the initiatives of forward-thinking individuals from the New Horizons Foundation, an affiliate of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association.

Numerous sheet metal operations have experienced and continue to experience endless frustration and cost due to the non-compatibility of the companies’ data-input files for various sheet metal fabrication, drafting, estimating, costing and accounting tasks.

A common example is when a contractor purchases sheet metal estimating software from one company and a plasma table from a manufacturer that uses different software. That means every job has to be re-input into the plasma table software after estimating.

This represents one of the most significant areas of inefficiency in sheet metal operations today, representing more than 3 million labor hours annually by some counts.

In 2008 contractors need to work together to correct this inefficiency by supporting the use and development of interoperable, compatible software.

New high-pressure airless pumps make applying duct sealant neater and easier. Photo courtesy of Hardcast.

8. Duct-sealing technology

The duct-sealant product providers are committing substantial resources to the development of new “super sealants” and application systems that are designed to more efficiently and thoroughly seal duct seams and connectors externally after erection at the jobsite. Traditionally, ducts have been sealed at erection time using a variety of brush-on, wet tape and more recently, dry press-on tape products.

Recent research has produced duct-sealant compounds suitable for applications using specially designed high-pressure airless pumps. This technology has proven to be very successful in the coating of the inside of round seams. The adoption of this new duct-sealant process will eliminate the inefficiencies associated with brush-on sealants and pressure tape sealing.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.