The sheet metal forming trade may be one of the oldest in the country, but the industry does not eschew technology.

Autodesk’s AutoCAD and Navisworks, robotic total stations and other tools make it easier to design HVAC systems, communicate with job-site supervisors and collaborate with other building trades.

The software and equipment also make work order changes, which once would have been nearly impossible, much easier.

Greg Greene, a detailer and designer for Metropolitan Mechanical Contractors in Minnesota, marvels every day how technology has changed the industry since he started in 1980. In 1999, he traded his snips and sealant bucket for AutoCAD and Navisworks software when degenerative arthritis in his back didn’t allow him to work at the same pace after nearly 20 years in the trade.

Greene now combines 37 years of industry experience with technology to help design the HVAC systems at U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings, which opened in 2016, and his current project, the BMO Harris Bradley Center, home of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. Working on that project from his office in Minnesota would not have been possible five, 10 or 15 years ago — the job site is 400 miles away.

Using Navisworks, designers, supervisors, architects, engineers and anyone associated with the project have the ability to virtually walk around the building as if they were a first-person player in a video game.

“It allows you to tour the facility and make changes in the 3-D virtual world instead of waiting until the building is finished, and you wish you could have done something different,” Greene said. “It eliminates questions and any unclear details.” 

Collaboration in the cloud

Collaboration can take place without paper plans, allowing everyone to be in the loop and ensuring no detail falls through the cracks.

“I’m updating the model four to five times an hour, so they’re constantly getting those updates,” Greene added. “We are constantly working with the other trades. There is a lot of back and forth, especially when you’re working on remote projects. Without technology, it wouldn’t be as easy. You would have everyone working on the same model at the same time. It would’ve been a lot harder.”

Another piece of technology is the robotic total station, a surveying tool often used in HVAC construction, which  allows duct and pipe hangers and floor openings, for example, to be placed using land-based positioning devices through the design and coordination software. Because of the exact placement, there are fewer mistakes.

“On a lot of drawings, we aren’t dimensioning anymore because we know the hangers are done before the deck floors,” Greene said. “Most trades are getting on board with coordinating the hangers. If you do it from the get-go, you really save time.”

While this may sound cool to younger sheet metal workers, including upcoming and current apprentices, such building information modeling — as the process is known ­— takes a skilled hand with expertise only experience can provide, said Ron McGuire, BIM specialist for the International Training Institute, which handles education for the Sheet Metal Workers union. While the technology may seem like a video game, it’s very different from Xbox or PlayStation.

Not for play

“They came (grew) up in the gaming age, and that has influence on a generation,” McGuire said. “But you can’t teach experience. Someone who has spent 10 years in the field understands how a job runs. It’s hard to re-enact that in a classroom setting.” 

For Greene, when the opportunity came to transition his skills, knowledge and experience from the job site to the BIM world, he took it. It reinvigorated his passion for his career while saving it at the same time.

“I saw it as a way to be able to work until I’m 62,” Greene said. “I could see field work wasn’t going to be long term. When the offer was thrown in front of me, I thought it was a good plan. A lot of sheet metal workers don’t want to sit at a desk all day, but for me, it saved my career.”

Contractors are demanding the use of technology in the industry, and the ITI is working to make sure members are trained for the future. In 2016, training ramped up with at least 10 classes throughout the year on using robotic total stations. Courses teach instructors, so they can pass on knowledge at their local unions, allowing certain members to not only stay relevant, but on the leading edge.

For 2017, instructor courses include fabrication; using Revit and Navisworks; Bluebeam, BIM 360 and robotic total stations. All are taking place from May to July at union Local 88 in Las Vegas. For additional information on classes, visit www.sheetmetal-iti.org/catalog

This article and its images were supplied by the International Training Institute.