In the first section of the ‘90s, I mentioned there were some positive developments. One I had a hand in: the first totally automatic machine for inserting both TDC and TDF corners into TDC/F flange constructed ductwork – the Cornermatic® machine. The other is the addition to the rectangular duct construction tables in SMACNA’s 1995 DCS (Duct Construction Standards) as T-25a/b, known in the trade as TDC/TDF.

There were other developments with duct line additions: in-line tie-rod hole punching and new breaks (wrap) that would break the duct three times eliminating one seam to close up. Later this would set the stage for an additional Cornermatic® machine, the Combo. But first, the corner inserter machines.

The Cornermatic® Machines: As I have mentioned, sometimes the life decisions you make either turn out positive or negative, and sometimes you just land in the right place at the right time. My 1987 decision to chase the new hot HVAC “thing,” computers, certainly did not turn out as planned. When I was laid off in the spring of 1992, I had nothing, absolutely nothing going for myself. Then, a May dinner with Dave Palmer in Newport, Rhode Island instantly changed all that.

Dave Palmer was President of Palmer Sheet Metal a large Hartford, Connecticut based HVAC contractor. Dave had a second home in Newport. During my Estimation tenure, I had sold Dave a couple of CAD systems. I lived outside of Providence, but spent much of my leisure time in Newport. We would occasionally get together socially when he was in town and, of course, talk some business.

At that dinner he told me the most time-consuming and b/s job in his shop was pounding corners into his TDC flange construction. Immediately I knew what he was talking about. It was similar to installing Gripnail fasteners or weld-pins into ductliner by hand, manually…something I was very familiar with due to the 1970s development of the Gripnail Automatic Fastening Center, the AFC – still sold today – and Duro-Dyne pin-spotters. And so began development of the Cornermatic® machine; now a full product line of Mestek Machinery.

The next day I headed to Bill Goodhue’s East Greenwich, RI home with a TDC corner in hand. Bill was a retired mechanical engineer with a long history of successful machine development along with an up-do-date machine shop in his basement. I knew of his talents; that this was right up his alley.

We visited sheet metal contractors around the Northeast including Harrington Bros., now part of Boston based J. C. Cannistraro, Inc. mechanical contractor, and Kleeberg Sheet Metal of Ludlow, Massachusetts.  To our surprise, both Hartington and Kleeberg told us they would put money up front to be the first to take delivery. We didn’t have a drawing. Not even a concept. Just an idea. Tim Harrington did show us a crude press operated contraption they had developed, but discarded. Bottom Line: we knew we were on to something; that there could be huge potential.

By August, we were well on our way with a prototype and incorporated Systemation. We came up with the name, Cornermatic®. It seemed the best description to what ultimately became the Trademark for both the machines and the corners that run in them. Throughout my career I’ve always liked product names that suggest what they do: Gripnail, Ductmate, Lockformer, Estimation, Quickpen, WhisperLock, and of course, SNIPS.

By September, we had a working machine, but faced a huge problem: How to feed the corners.  One by one would not work. Defeated the purpose. In 1992 there were multiple TDC/TDF corner manufactures: Iowa Precision; Ductmate; Bullock; Elgen; Ward; Century; some contractors making their own and various international companies. While all similar to fit TDC/F flanges, each was slightly different. You would have thought each manufacturer wanted to differentiate from the other, but why? They were all 16ga, chevron in shape and had just one function.

However, we faced a much more difficult issue. We needed a corner that could feed either from a stack or drop in place, and that meant – not nesting within the next corner. Without exception every corner on the market nested; therefore, impossible to slice off a stack. One thought we had was to let contractors use whatever corner they preferred by stacking in a chute down to a point just above the slide that would advance the corner for pressing into the flange and crimping. We would use additional side cylinders to move in and out dropping the corner into the slide while holding the next one in place. Nice try, but no consistency. It then dawned on us that we might have to design a specific corner just for our new machine, and that’s exactly what we did.

Many a day, I glued tiny wooden blocks into the legs and bolt hole area setting up three points that separated each corner; stack a few and see how they would feed. Problem solved: the “generic” “Stacked Corner” as they are called today. However, in time I would get industry blow-back for the life of the patent (2013) that “Daw was trying to corner” the corner market. To set the record straight, this was furthest from our thinking. It was not only the preferred way; it was the only way. Thirty years and after two generations of Cornermatic® corner insertion machines later, including others now on the market, every machine, every, is designed to run only Stacked Corners – a problem Herb Fischer ran into while developing his “E-Z Connector” system. More about that in the 2010s.

Back to late summer, early fall 1992 turning wood stock “stacked” corners into production corners and the need for packaging. This took some time. Before we could select a company to make the die, we had to design it. If you know anything about dies, you really need to get this right as it’s difficult to correct or modify dies once completed. After coming up with a design that would not nest and not lock into the next corner – not an easy first try – we signed off on the die; then tackled the packaging: five by five side rows of (25) corners each; 250 to the case.  

I never liked this packaging design due to the stacks of corners falling over once the carton is opened and a few are loaded into the machines, but nothing better came along until much later, the Strap-Pak®. That will be part of the 2010s and the second generation Cornermatic® machines. To this day, every TDC/F corner manufacturer uses this 1992 packaging, save Ductmate that offers corners in “Strap-Pak® packaging – eighty (80) strapped corners that easily load into every Cornermatic® machine – much quicker than stacked and much more efficient.

To the patents. In the previous ‘90s discussion about CTI’s cutting software lawsuit, I mentioned I had some knowledge of patents. The Gripnail® fastener was a patented product; so was Ductmate’s DC-35 and my knock-off product, QUIKDUC, so to a degree I was familiar with patents. Bill’s previous patent work was with a small DC based firm: Breiner & Breiner. One day during the development, we flew to Washington. I met Ted Breiner and his father, Al, who passed away way too soon, but not before getting Systemation what in patent nomenclature are called “pioneering” patents, as I mentioned in referring to Dick Levine’s CTI patents.

Prior to the introduction of TDC and TDF in 1982 there were no flanged duct systems. Some were flanged, but not complete systems and none using manufactured corners. Hence, there was no need to automate; therefore, little of what is called “prior art” and certainly none pertaining to sheet metal flange ductwork. Therefore, Systemation’s patents are pioneering since no similar product preceded the 1982 TDC/F introduction.

After the patents were filed with the US PTO (Patent and Trademark Office) and internationally, the patent office separated the patent application into three parts; one being the “stackable corner”. And it became a separate patent, the famous or infamous ‘100 patent depending on which side of the many lawsuits Systemation faced over twenty years – winning everyone. To say Systemation has been well served by both Al and Ted would be an understatement and I’ll leave it at that. To those who know Ted, you understand.

With patents filed and a prototype running in Bill’s garage – far from the first or last successful product to developed in a garage – Kleeberg and Harrington came to see; subsequently writing deposit checks for both Single and Dual-Head machines in the spring of 1993. By year’s end, the die was producing Systemation’s Cornermatic® corners. The first two Single-Head machines were delivered in early 1994; first to Harrington; then Kleeberg. Now, how to market.

We could have continued on as a company selling machines and corners, as I certainly knew the market and distribution channels. We owned the die and contracted out the stamping of the corners. We used a contract manufacturer to make the first two machines, and they were willing to continue as a business partner. However, in the early development stage we knew that a Pittsburgh seam-closer might one day be another Cornermatic® machine design (Combo), but at the time, both IPI (Iowa Precision) and Engel Industries had seam-closers on the market, and as previously mentioned, there were many companies stamping corners. I suggested to Bill we look to licensing both machines (tie in with seam-closing) and corner stamping, and that’s exactly what we did.

Through my previous industry relationships with Lockformer and IPI; Engel; Duro-Dyne; and of course, Ductmate, we approached all at the 1994 New Orleans ASHRAE Show, now the AHR Show. Because of IPI’s international reach and dealer network, many of whom I knew from my early Gripnail years, I told Bill I thought IPI would be a better fit. IPI had also developed the first automatic Pittsburgh seam-closer, the WhisperLock.  

A side note: Tom Koenig was head of Engel at the time. He told me he would be amenable to sharing the license with IPI. Jim Heitt, who was running IPI at the time, told me in no uncertain words to the effect: exclusive with me or take a hike! Looking back today, I think I could have forced the issue, as it would have avoided multiple patent lawsuits with Engel, but a bird in the hand as the saying goes; and today, the Engel brand is a part of Mestek Machinery.  

Corners. Since IPI and Lockformer had jointly developed the TDC, IPI got the task of stamping corners so Lockformer could sell machines; just as Systemation had to do to sell the first two Cornermatic® machines. Therefore, IPI’s licensing agreement included the Cornermatic® corner license. Jim asked for a “head start” as he liked the continued revenue stream. Knowing full well that just one supplier of corners would compromise contractors wanting to buy, not being tied into a single supplier of corners, I knew this would be an issue, and it was, but it came from a direction I had not anticipated – Ductmate. Nonetheless, I granted Jim’s wish.

Within three months of IPI’s August 1994 introduction, my friends at Ductmate imported a Japanese floor mounted corner-inserter machine – I called it a “tinker-toy” – with limited ability to feed corners. This led to a patent suit which was settled by licensing Ductmate…my plan all along, but not through a lawsuit. And if you read SNIPS December/January Icon story, you know that Duro-Dyne turned down a license only to beg for one ten years later, as Pat Rossetto confirmed.

As I told Jim, who was not happy with Ductmate getting a license, during the first year many contractors simply refused to buy Cornermatic® machines due to just one source of corners. (Ductmate didn’t get into the market until mid to late 1995.) While Jim was not pleased, I told him that having a second supplier would sell many more Cornermatic® machines, his core business, and it did.

In late 1994, Bill and I sent drawings to IPI for a Dual-Head Cornermatic® machine, which I knew from the beginning would be the big seller, and it was. In 1996 IPI designed and produced an Adjustable Dual-Head for the 2M EU market and the developing six-foot US market. In 1997, Bill and I designed and built a floor model named the Corner Cadet® machine for smaller contractors and field assembly that Lockformer took to market.

By the patents’ end in 2013, these machines had been sold all over the world – hundreds – I think on every continent. But there was one major issue: none could really handle fitting ductwork. With the industry moving to ever smaller and smaller ductwork using TDC/F, no machine could handle inside angled offset transitions, many elbows and overall angled fitting ductwork. That would have to wait another year or two and will be covered in the 2010s – the Cornermatic Plus® machine.

A word about Systemation’s Cornermatic licensees: From the first 1994 license with IPI; then the 1997 Corner Cadet® with Lockformer (both companies under Met-Coil’s corporate umbrella); to Mestek’s 2002 acquisition of Met-Coil and the original patents’ 2013 expiration; and then onto the second generation of Cornermatic® machines in 2014, working with Mestek Machinery (MM) has been an honor. MM has been a great corporate partner and having personally worked with the brands going back to 1970, it has been an awesome, to use an overworked word, experience seeing with my own eyes most all industry innovations developed over the past fifty years by the MM’s brands: Lockformer, Welty-Way (IPI) and Engel.

And Ductmate: From my first encounter at the 1977 Las Vegas SMACNA Convention; to becoming their Southern California rep in 1980; to being their V. P. of Sales and Marketing (1986); to granting Ductmate a Cornermatic® corner license in 1995 and a new license in 2015 for Strap-Pak® corners used in Systemation’s second generation of Cornermatic® machines – it has been a great run. Some personnel from my early ‘80s at Ductmate are running the company today and in my opinion, it’s the best run HVAC supply company in the industry.

TDC/TDF, the industry and SMACNA 

As many of you know, SMACNA does not approve proprietary products as with most all industry associations and standard developers. From personal experiences while at Gripnail, the Gripnail® mechanical fastener was eventually listed in SMACNA’s 1985 DCS (Duct Construction Standards) as a “CLINCHED PIN” (still today) as opposed to welded.

When Ductmate introduced the first truly functional 4 bolt connector system into the US market in the late 1970s – there were others, most notably K-Lock, but none that gained traction – they immediately faced questions about the product meeting SMACNA standards. SMACNA, however does allow proprietary products to be listed within their standards, but clearly spell out performance based in the FUNCTIONAL CRITERIA chapter.

What Ductmate did that was really extraordinary was not only to test the product, the DC-35 System, they published the results in an addendum that looked exactly like SMACNA HVAC – DCS rectangular construction tables. They even acknowledge SMACNA’s contribution and included a tie-rod section with tables listing W. G. (water gauges) duct sizes and metal gauges which the DCS did not spell out.

Although not intended as a “marketing tool,” but a “must” to gain acceptance, it sure had the same effect. In my opinion, one of the most brilliant strategies I’ve ever seen employed in this industry. It instantly overcame mechanical engineers’ and large AE firms’ resistance. It eliminated contractor questions on project acceptance and usage. And it functioned as a vehicle to get “flat spec’d” with many engineering firms erecting barriers for many competitors that followed. I know as we faced much of this when Art and I brought QUIKDUC to market. But it accomplished much more. Later, because of the work that Ductmate did getting their product approved with the engineering community, it would help hold back the acceptance of Rolled-On Flange construction until the mid-90s.

Next up Lockformer and Engel’s TDC and TDF respectively: Both introduced in 1982, their “Rolled-On Flange” systems were patented proprietary products too and were forced to complete HVAC DCS testing to gain acceptance just as Ductmate and all others had done. By the mid-1980s somewhere around five or six Slide-On Connector competitors along with Lockformer and Engel all had basically copied Ductmate’s testing format and had published addendums.  

None of this settled well with, you guessed it, SMACNA: that they were losing control of their rectangular duct construction standards, for by now many in the industry thought SMACNA had, if not approved, accepted. I once had a smart-ass shop superintendent at a large SoCal based contractor tell me it was the “perception that counted; not the fact."

During a business meeting at SMACNA’s 1984 National Convention in Phoenix, there was an announcement that SMACNA was going to accept TDC/TDF as generic transverse connection systems in the forthcoming 1985 DCS. To say that statement was the equivalent of an industry neutron bomb would not be an understatement. Every slide-on manufacturer – almost all Associate Members, including QUIKDUC – wrote to SMACNA objecting in no uncertain terms. I’m sure you know why. Everytime a contractor purchases a TDC/TDF machine, the use of any 4 bolt slide-on connector diminishes.  

As I found myself in the early 1990s over the CTI industry patent lawsuit, I was again in the middle of an industry imbroglio! And that it was with SMACNA, an association I greatly admired, respected and had worked so well with while at Gripnail in the early 1970s with spec writing; and one of the three founding members who started the new Associate Membership, this was not a fight I wanted. Yet, if the TDC and TDF got into the DCS, well, this could be existential to QUIKDUC and all Slide-On Connector manufacturers.

SMACNA eventually tabled the convention proposal relegating it to “further study.” But the writing was on the proverbial wall. Eventually, the “Rolled-On Flange” systems were going to take business away from all the slide-on connector companies – serious business – QUIKDUC being one and one of the reasons Art Vlastnik and I sold out to Ductmate in 1986.

Over the next 12 years, contractors had much difficulty getting engineers to accept TDC/F and/or approved on many projects. During this time the remaining 4 bolt Slide-On Connector companies used their considerable leverage with the engineering community to limit the use of Rolled-On Flange transverse connections. The lack of SMACNA recognition allowed the Slide-On manufacturers to use their addendums to prevent both TDC and TDF from being approved or to gain further acceptance.

Enter Eli Howard. Hired by Dennis Bradshaw in 1995, Eli is now SMACNA’s Executive Director of Technical Services. SMACNA’s Technical Staff themselves contracted with an outside, independent firm to test TDC and TDF to their own “Functional Criteria” and referenced in the DCS both TDC and TDF as trade names of Lockformer and Engel, respectively.

They then published the results in the 1995 HVAC – DCS (2nd edition) – released in 1996 – with a Tie-Rod Addendum in 1997. Under Eli’s direction SMACNA added the new transverse joints in ascending numerical order as T-25a (TDC) and T-25b (TDF) and included a Slide-On 4 bolt Connector column (not rated) referring to “manufacturers for ratings.” When the 2005 HVAC – DCS (3rd edition) was published, it included construction tables listing pressure classes (W.G.), duct sizes and gauges thus ending industry confusion once and for all. By default, the TDC and TDF gained SMACNA approval.

And to those who know Eli or have worked with him, there is no one in this industry who better understands duct construction than he. He is also a class act guy – one who is accomplished, with interests in many outside endeavors. I am pleased know him, to work with him and to consider him my friend. To those who know me, many times I have said that when I grow up, I want to be Eli Howard!

Today other manufacturers have introduced similar profiles and tested to the same DCS Chapter 11 Functional Criteria standards. And this commentary about TDC/TDF, the industry and SMACNA is why all Rolled-On Flange ductwork is dimensionally the same and rated as T-25a or b. They had to meet SMACNA’s independent original TDC and TDF testing.