Technology has made an undeniable impact on the HVAC industry, and those who work with sheet metal are thankful for that.

With the introduction of innovations such as plasma cutters, 3-D drafting, building information modeling (BIM), and more, sheet metal shops across the nation are accomplishing their goals quicker and more cost-effectively.

Angie Simon, president of 53-year-old Western Allied Mechanical Inc., Menlo Park, California, said the company usually fields about 12 employees in its shop and builds the vast majority of its ductwork on site.

“I’ve been here 27 years. When I first started, for the first 10-15 years, we’d have a guy, typically a shop person, in the shop. We’d call them layout guys, and they were hard to find because they were very good at what they did. They did the layout of the fitting under the metal and then took it over to the cutting machine,” Simon said. “It was all done by hand. The foreman detailed the ductwork by hand, put it on a piece of paper, and sent it over to the office while the layout person was laying it out on the table, marking it up with his T-square and ruler, and laying out the fittings. From there, it would go over to the cutting table. That was a very slow process, especially if the design was complicated.”

Rick Freeman, executive vice president, Stromberg Metal Works Inc., Beltsville, Maryland, said technology has made the company far more efficient than it once was, but it’s also brought on a different type of problem for the company.

“It’s really made us more productive, but it’s been good and bad. The nonunion guys have the same technology, so we really haven’t gained much of an edge as far as being competitive. In fact, it’s probably hurt us more than it’s helped us because our guys were superior with the training they had before this technology came about,” Freeman said. “Now, the playing field is more leveled. Everyone has access to the same automation; they can buy the same machines. We were highly skilled on the fabrication side, where it was all done by hand. You had to know how to do all that, which required significant skill. Now, you hit some buttons and the machine cuts it all out.”

While sheet metal technology offers numerous benefits, those advantages come with a cost, including capital upgrades for new machines, computers, training, and more. For Butch Welsch, president, Welsch Heating & Cooling, St. Louis, this investment has not been a problem whatsoever.

“We’ve absolutely made our money back and then some,” Welsch said. “The plasma cutter was a new thing, which was very interesting for us because we’d been in business a long time. The guys kind of poo-pooed it, and said, ‘Well, it’s fine, but it won’t replace the guys laying out stuff.’ It took about two days for those same guys to deem it the best thing since sliced bread. About six months later, the cutter went down and you thought the world was going to come to an end because we didn’t have it. Since then, we’ve never looked back. It probably does what two guys could do. I’d pretty safely say that. And, it does it more efficiently with less mistakes. When cutting by hand, there’s a lot of room for error. The computer typically doesn’t make those errors.”

Moving Forward

The shift in technology has allowed Simon to expand her shop into other areas, which all started from using a plasma cutter with computer-aided design.

“Now we design in 3-D,” she said. “Many, many of our jobs are designed in 3-D and BIM. Today, the person who details it is a sheet metal worker and once they confirm everything’s going to fit in a virtual world, they can send it to the plasma from the office or job site, wherever they’re at. It eliminates the middle man. Even on projects that are not done fully BIM, we have what we call remote entry, where our foreman, in lieu of drawing fittings by hand on a piece of paper, puts them in on his iPad or laptop and sends them into the office.”

At Stromberg, Freeman said the company is known for doing jobs of various difficulties. Technological advancements have allowed the company to spread the work out over multiple shops, if it so desires.

“We can have multiple shops working on one job. We’re a large sheet metal contractor and when we have to be productive and turn material around quickly, we can do that. Technology has had a big impact on that,” Freeman said.

“Technology has also allowed us to work quicker. On a lot of the older projects, we used to have four or five years to do a building. Now, we’re doing ball stadiums in less than a year. Without the technology, there’s no way we could do them as quickly.”

Welsch said he’s amazed at the amount of labor and material he’s saved since implementing the machines. “The focal point of the sheet metal shop is the plasma cutter rather than the layout table. Now, we lay the stuff out, download it to the table, upload it, and press play. The stuff is located on the design to be the most efficient from a material standpoint.”

While the use of new technology has created a few issues for contractors, Simon said it’s a necessary adaptation sheet metal contractors must make.

“You have to make a constant investment,” Simon said. “I’m sending people to user conferences, constantly upgrading software, and providing new tablets and laptops. The investment in the technology has cut into the profit level of the company, but in the end, I think it’s going to be well worth it. And, really, we don’t have a choice. If you don’t invest in that technology, you’re going to get left behind. We’ve determined that. We’re in the Silicon Valley, so we need to be as current as possible.”

Publication date: 5/19/2014

Want more HVAC industry news and information? Join The NEWS on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn today!