How many pounds of metal do you dispose of or recycle every year? That number translates into dollars. So think about how many dollars are you disposing of every year.

 Why is this happening? It’s simple. You are allowing it. Possibly because it’s always been this way. But times change, and so must you. While labor is more expensive than materials, there is still a lot of value in the material you are tossing. It’s time to redesign your material use strategy. It is possible to reduce your waste volume to near zero, if not zero. Zero waste should be your target.

You and your employees take extra care when working with materials such as copper, stainless steel and aluminum, yet you treat galvanized steel as an expendable commodity. It is just as valuable, and maybe even more. Most shops use more pounds of galvanized steel than the other products combined.

I have worked in many shops that have effected many different cost cutting methods, most of which involved labor adjustments. Staying competitive is a challenge, especially in this market. Labor rates continue to rise. Sometimes it is up to you to make more effective use of labor. 

With the cost of materials fluctuating as it has been doing, it is much more difficult to maintain steady pricing. Labor costs are the one constant you can depend on, and have some control over. It’s your job to provide labor with an effective plan to use their efforts in the best way.

I worked in a small shop where there was a plan. We used all but the smallest pieces of metal. These actually were “scrap.” Many things made in the shop required small parts. We had a list of standard pieces to shear for these parts. Sure, we had to store these pieces, but obviously, many were small and really didn’t take up that much space.

Another thing you could consider is your method of fabrication and the design of the products. Many can be changed to use less material. Blanking out your pieces can be easily planned with a calculator, effectively reducing waste by the bench person.

Many things that are accepted as industry standards can be changed to reduce the material used and the labor to layout and fabricate. For instance, plumber vent flashings. The typical cone shaped flashing requires a lot of material for the product produced. While that may be acceptable for those of you buying flashings off the shelf, it’s not if you fabricate flashings of other metals such as copper. A cone-shaped flashing is good for sloppy roofers, but is not needed when there are quality craftsmen on the job.

Making this fitting straight requires much less material not only for the upright, but also for the base of the flashing. This equates into dollars saved. Yes, I know that this makes the flashing roof pitch specific; however, I am assuming you are not doing tract work in copper or stainless. Even if you are, if you are working with a plasma this can be programmed and will still take less time to fabricate. It will also take the plasma less time to cut.

This can be applied to other flashings as well, such as kitchen vents and bath fan jacks. The products will cut better from the sheet, too. If it isn’t obvious enough, the base seam to be soldered will be much shorter too, all meaning less labor, less solder, smaller roof opening, and less potential for a leak !   Take some time to really think about the waste you produce now, and what you could effectively use it for. When you are out and about, look at roofs and their penetrations and flashings. Think about how you could make them better. Keep notes and sketches to develop when you have time. When you get to the metal process of the design, you’ll be using scrap, so this will limit the cost of design and development.

Most of the unused material from a plasma table is really waste. The discs from your round cut-outs are usually tossed, as are “square” cut-outs That’s a lot of waste over a year’s time. A 14-inch round is about 154 square inches. That’s more than a square foot of metal. Even figuring that roughly, that’s at least a pound of metal. That’s the cutout for a chase top. A 14-inch round will yield a 9.89 inch square. A 20-inch round will yield a 14.142-inch square piece. Every pound counts.

For a smaller shop that is not getting the volume pricing  a larger shop gets, this waste becomes magnified. A sheet of 26-guage metal weighs about 36 pounds. Throw away three 14-inch rounds and you have wasted about three pounds of metal. That’s over 8 percent per sheet. How do you feel about that? For every 12 sheets you use, you are wasting one. Now apply that same percentage to a skid of metal. It quickly multiplies. That’s a lot of money.

A lot of small pieces of solder are discarded needlessly. Keep a container for them. Even dirty pieces. When you melt them all down, you can skim the contaminates from the surface of the liquid solder before pouring it into a mold. The mold can be as simple as a piece of angle iron with ends welded on and base plates to keep it upright. This doesn’t take all that long, and at the price of solder it is well worth it.

It’s time to evaluate your fabrication practices, methods and material consumption. Is design overkill eating away at your profits? Possibly changing the dimensions of a product even slightly will save you from creating large pieces of drop. These, much of the time, become waste.  When shearing flashings this could give you an additional piece per sheet.  Minor changes can create substantial savings.

Open yourself to different markets. Rather than recycle your materials, consider selling them to those such as artists, sculptors and hobbyists. These people are always looking for suppliers of raw materials. This can be advertised free on the Internet and other ways locally. Promote relationships in different areas. Possibly there is a community college near you that could use material. Jewelry classes promote creativity. This requires small bits of copper and the like. You could sell boxes of small random pieces by the pound. Or even donate supplies, which could be a tax write off.

While you cannot control the price of materials beyond volume purchasing or buying when the price is down, you can control the selling price to your customers. This can help you stay competitive. Making more effective use of your materials will allow pricing modifications that may keep you more competitive. Ultimately, you need not “think outside the box,”  but rather, think about what is inside the box and how you can profit from it.

Design and promote products you have not previously produced. Promote metal as a viable alternative to all the plastic products now flooding the market. What is up with that? I have a galvanized steel bucket that I purchased in 1974. I still have it. I have had plastic buckets in the past, but they ultimately fail as a product. Plastic is not a long lasting product. Sure, plastic will exist forever but it is as waste, rather than the product you purchased. This ends up in landfills and our oceans. Not only is plastic waste, but it is surely not green. Metal is green. It is up to us to promote it.