For the last decade in my eight-part series for SNIPS, the 2010s, due to the pandemic interruption, I will include the first two years of the ‘20s as well. 

The Growth of Fabricators

With the 2000s conclusion, I discussed the growth of fabricators – contractors who fabricate duct for other contractors to install. As mentioned, this began in the ‘70s due to contractors purchasing expensive new ductlines for the first time – some that only ran a few hours a day. Owners thought: Why not put the machine slack time to use by offering to sell straight duct to other contractors? One problem: Most contractors did not want to be beholden to contractors they were also bidding against.  Hence, this model didn’t get off the ground until the ‘80s when entrepreneurs realized that if they set up complete fabrication facilities with the latest equipment and did not bid on jobs – just fabricate – well that’s when the picture changed.  

By the ‘90s, companies such as Sheet Metal Connectors in Minneapolis; OMNI Duct and Superior Duct Fabrication in the West; M & M, Ft. Worth; Northeastern Sheet Metal in New Hampshire and now many others have grown into large duct manufacturers cementing for good this business model. Today, I’m guessing about 25% of all rectangular duct installed in the North American market is produced by fab only manufacturers verses companies that fabricate and install. For a comparison, Australia has very similar methods and equipment as here in the US and Canada, but about 80% is fabricated instead of ductwork built and hung by fab and install contractors.

Pre-Assembled Duct

Next, the huge growth in pre-assembled, sometimes referred to as “manifold” or “pre-fabricated” ductwork. During my years in the industry, I was always told that field labor is three times more expensive than shop labor, and I have no reason to doubt that. It could be higher. So, then, why did it take decades to put this into place?  

Trucking was always an issue. By revising shipping using modified trailers and rearranging shops to pre-assemble – that’s what’s happening today, period. It has had a huge impact in the industry. Now, trucks can be scheduled to arrive on site with multiple “assembled” duct sections ready to be lifted in place.  Some contractors such as Boston based McCusker-Gill have built new on-site buildings just to pre-assemble. (See photo)

Alternatively, these sections would normally be assembled one by one on a job site by matching up duct sections and securing tools and accessories such as “drift-pins”; “vice-grips”; “gaskets”; “nuts and bolts”; and a drill-gun, well I’m sure you get the picture. Having multiple joints all sealed, transvers sections gasketed together and fastened at the corners saves hours of job-site labor – serious money.

Film-wrapped duct

One trend just seems to “have happened” that increased labor costs is the requirement to film-wrap duct ends. This started in the 2000s, but by decade’s end, became mandatory.  I’ve tried to ascertain what drove this, but no one has given a definitive reason. The most likely story I’ve been told are hospitals not wanting dirt in the ductwork, but why it spread to all construction is a mystery to me. It was seeing garage exhaust duct film wrapped about fifteen years ago that really got my attention. One of my industry contacts said it was the Clean Air Act, but I can’t confirm. If anyone knows, I think SNIPS readers would like to know.

Further Industry Consolidation

Also mentioned in the 2000s was the acquisition and consolidation of machinery manufacturers and wholesalers; most recently, the long established N. B. Handy Company of Lynchburg, Virginia. This trend continued with the purchase of Gripnail, my alma mater, by Carlisle and now with new players in the industry, private equity firms purchasing well established industry icons: Duro-Dyne; Elgen; and most recently, Design Polymerics, leaving only Ductmate independent. Big changes from the family owned businesses of yore.  

New Products

In the last decade’s recap, I mentioned there was not a lot of new equipment developed. That changed in the 2010s along with BIM technology, Revit based platforms and Trimble hardware in the field which encapsulates the estimating, detailing and downloading of constructable drawings for CAD/CAM use. This has further revolutionized the industry from a software to hardware perspective. New labor-saving machinery, a brand new design for inserting corners into TDC/F/X ductwork, laser cutting machinery and a new way to connect the four corners used in rectangular Slide-On and TDC/F/X duct construction entered the market…I was involved with a couple of them.

The E-Z Connector: Having had personal experience with field connections of both Slide-On and Rolled-On flange construction during the ‘80s and with the development a special corner for Systemation’s Cornermatic machines in the ’90, I know first-hand the difficulties and labor involved.  

The process requires the use of a drift-pin to align the two opposing corner bolt holes; a pair of vise-grips to squeeze the corners tight; and to complete the connection, a 3/8th carriage nut and bolt driven home with a drillgun. If a bolt, or something similar, could drive through both corners eliminating the drift-pin and vise-grips and replacing the standard carriage nut and bolt, well the field labor savings, in my opinion, could be significant a game changer. While there were other products in the market to reduce this labor, none replaced the tools needed or eliminated much time.

In the late 2000s I had an idea for what now is the Duro-Dyne E-Z Connector. What I didn’t know was that in the early part of the decade Herb Fischer, formerly head of engineering at Engel and a good friend of mine, had a similar idea. My attempt, circa 2010-12, was crude and did not work, but I knew I was on to something. Furthermore, I also didn’t know that Herb already had a working design and a patent application filed.  

In 2003 Mestek Machinery purchased Engel and continued a relationship with Herb, hiring him in 2010.  He offered the E-Z Connector rights to Mestek Machinery and that’s when I found out I might have problems: Herb’s design that worked and my consulting relationship with Mestek; hence, I backed off.  My consolation was thinking along the same lines as Herb, whose engineering expertise I have respected for decades; now seeing my original idea get to market…but a day late and lots of dollars short – long story.

Although the E-Z Connector was on the market in 2012, it took Mestek awhile to figure this all out; eventually teaming up with Duro-Dyne and entered the market officially in 2019. It pleases me to see many leading contractors around the county adopt the E-Z Connector and further pleased that my market intuitiveness is still in-tact after all these years. But there is life after my similar attempt at an E-Z Connector: the new Systemation Cornermatic machines. At the same time I was working on a similar design to Herb’s, I was thinking about updating both the original Single and Dual-Head Cornermatic machines to address fabrication needs left wanting from the 1st Generation.

The Cornermatic Plus: I mentioned way back in the ‘90s commentary that during the original development of the first corner inserter machine, the Single-Head Cornermatic, I thought inserting corners into offset fittings was impossible or would be really challenging from an engineering perspective, due primarily to many offset fittings hitting the corner hopper that hold the corners above the work surface.  

Next, combining a Pittsburgh seam-closer with a Dual-Head corner insertion machine was an idea very early on during the development of the First Gen. However, ductlines at the time did not have full wrap capabilities necessitating two Pittsburgh seam passes. Contractors thought a combination machine would slow down overall straight duct fabrication; hence, passed up on, but not forgotten.   

In 2012 I discussed with Bruce Dewey, President of Mestek Machinery, Systemation’s licensee that I would like to make a run at both. First a small new Cornermatic machine specifically designed to handle TDC/F/X fitting ductwork; then a combination machine. I would take on the first myself, but wanted to work with Mestek on the combination machine due to Iowa Precision having developed the first ever Pittsburgh seam-closer in the 1980s – the WhisperLock.

By late that year I had a design that addressed offset fittings first by re-positioning the corner supply hopper below the work surface instead of above. This cleared out real estate by getting the hopper out of the way of ductwork hitting it. Systemation’s first generation machines and all others on the market today use axial, or straight downward pressing on corners to seat into the flanges. To accommodate less than 90° offset angled fittings a new press head had to be designed. It moves in an angular, offset motion to press the corner into the TDC/F/X channel – an angled press head that uses its leading edge to guide and drive the corner tight into the flange.

Additionally, from my knowledge of the 1st Gen Cornermatics, this new design added two outside flange clamps that grip the flanges, open them up while pulling flat to the machine work surface. These three new features result in a much better operation regardless of duct shape, virtually ensuring a successful corner insertion each time. In 2015 patents were issued and subsequently licensed by Systemation to Mestek Machinery, its long- time partner, and sold under the brand name Cornermatic Plus, or (CM+).

This first (CM+) went to R. F. Knox in late 2013. In 2016 another Iowa Precision model, the “Versa” was developed that offers in-ground, pit installation; yet, with a hydraulic scissor lift that rises up allowing contractors to use for both strait joints and fittings. Collectively, they have been big hits selling hundreds around the world.

The Combo: In 1992 when Bill Goodhue and I were developing the Single and Dual-Head Cornermatics, as mentioned we looked at combing the Pittsburgh seam-closing, but that was before ductlines, both IPI and Engel’s had breaks that could fold the duct at three positions; what the industry calls “wrap duct” where only one seam closure is required as compared to two (2), “L” shaped duct, or four (4) sided. Today, while not scientific, I hear that up to 80% of straight duct joints fabricated on a ductline, is wrapped duct. That means that combing seam-closing with corner insertion, 80% of straight duct only needs one pass to close just one Pittsburgh lock. This eliminates any potential bottle necks that contractors told us in the early ‘90s would or might develop.

In 2014 the Combo was licensed to Mestek Machinery with the first one sold to Mid-Atlantic Mechanical in Millstone, New Jersey – still running strong. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t say there were issues with the first few produced. Because ductwork is produced on very different manufacturers’ machines of varying years and over a gauge range of 18 to 26, it took some time to smooth out the wrinkles. Today I’m pleased to say this is the most rewarding machine I’ve been involved with developing. One machine to perform two previous operations that manually could take (8) to (10) minutes now can be completed in less than (60) seconds. Also, sold under the brand name Iowa Precision.

The In-Plasma: This is a plasma cutting option installed near the end fabrication in a ductline. Why would a contractor want the ability to cut straight duct running in a ductline: access holes. The in-line plasma doesn’t fully cut out the piece. It cuts just enough so a worker can “punch out” after assembled. This saves cutting access holes manually in the shop or field.

For an example, take the Iowa Precision Pro Fabriduct width Full Width In line Plasma Cutting via “X” and “Y” axis. This feature accepts downloads via the CAM station by the way of the CAD department for stitch cutting holes, taps, collars, access doors, etc.

Full Width Longitudinal Production Capabilities: And just recently, another innovation by Iowa Precision is the forming of the Pittsburgh male/female lock that eliminates the daylight, or small hole where they meet at the corner of the transverse joint. This significantly ensures the ductwork to have less leakage at the longitudinal seam.

Laser Cutting: The last item that entered the market in the 2010s is, again, another innovation by Mestek. Sold under the Lockformer brand, the “Vulcan Fiber Laser”, it is the first coil-fed laser developed exclusively for the sheet metal industry. Until Lockformer developed this game-changing machine, all lasers used in the industry were enclosed. This means that to load sheet metal a contractor has to use sheet stock in lieu of coil, a time consuming process.

The Lockformer Fiber Laser has a patented shield over the laser beam that allows for an open work area around the machine. This enables contractors to use to coil-fed metal – multiple coil stations – just like a plasma machine. As a consultant to Mestek Machinery, I was present for the early discussions on the decision to proceed with development. I thought this had huge potential and could be another game changer for the industry – lightning fast with an almost perfect cut quality – that also significantly reduces wear and tear on roll-forming machines. Since its introduction in 2016, Lockformer has contracted with many Mechanical, Sheet Metal Contractors and Duct Fabricators. Its success has forced other manufacturers’ attempts to enter the market.

The Future

As I close out 2022, what’s next, I don’t pretend to predict the future, but certainly robots might make the cut. If there ever was an industry ripe for robots that could handle some repetitive, labor intense operations, they may just have a place in the fabrication of sheet metal for heating, ventilating and air-conditioning.

Think picking up pieces off a laser or plasma table; orientating to feed into a beader; then positioning to run through the Pittsburgh or snap-lock roll formers and finally through TDC/F/X machines. Another operation might be spraying glue for fiberglass, elastomeric or other materials for lined duct, such as adhesive-backed liner that just might obviate that function.

Contractor National Market: Is there an industry trend? I’ve discussed the regional wholesaler consolidations, but what about the mechanical/sheet metal contractor? Southland Industries, based in Southern California has operations throughout the West and one outside DC; and they just purchase Dallas based Brandt Engineering. That’s pretty much a national footprint. Add Minnesota based Harris and ACCO in the West. Is this sustainable?

Bendermatic: And for me, one last success? As mentioned in SNIPS 2021 Icon story, I am involved with what may be my last development project. One that has taken way too long and way too many dollars to complete. But, now that it’s finished, I’m not sure contractors will pay for a machine that addresses small part TDC/F/X fitting fabrication due to few contractors not fully understanding the costs and processes involved, a ROI calculation. The machine will be displayed and operational – running duct – in Mestek’s Booth (B-3075) at this year’s Atlanta AHR Expo in February. Come see and let me (us) know if this machine makes sense for the industry.

One final note

Over the half-century of my commentary for these SNIPS articles, I can state without reservation, absolutely nothing is the same since that September day in 1968 when I was hired by GRIPNAIL – except that ductwork is still being made from sheet metal in spite of the 1970s prediction that fiberglass ductboard would replace it; and in this century, phenolic.  

Perhaps someday, but I certainly suspect that over the next fifty years, much will change in HVAC sheet metal industry from designs, methods and fabrication techniques and the equipment used to fabricate ducts – particularly addressing how moving air through a building can help what we’ve all been through since March, 2020.