With today’s high wages, every employee must be kept working as efficiently as possible. Having an efficient shop layout helps you and your employees work more efficiently. The purpose of this article is to point out positive ways to make improvements in your shop production. This means making ductwork fabrication as quickly and as cheaply as possible; it does not necessarily mean investing a lot of money in new equipment. However, after you analyze your operations, you might find that purchasing some new equipment is the best way to increase your production.

A shop layout problem does not always involve the entire shop. After analyzing a specific problem, you might decide that its solution only requires one of the following:

  • An enlarged work area for a specific operation.
  • A smaller sheet metal works area for a specific operation
  • A relocated work area for a specific operation.
  • An entirely new shop layout.
  • An entirely new facility or building.

Maybe it is necessary to relocate only some of the equipment in your shop. Examples are relocating a machine or a bench, adding a few electrical outlets, removing a wall or opening up a wall as a doorway.

When you purchase a new machine, it is sometimes placed anywhere there is space available in the shop, with the good intention of later really “setting up the shop.” But as the months go by, somehow this just never gets done.

An efficient shop layout

Very few sheet metal works shops are built to an HVAC construction contractor’s specifications. In most cases, a building is adapted to meet the needs as well as possible. There are a variety of efficient shop layouts, depending on the characteristics of the building you are located in. Basic examples of efficient shop layouts for different sizes of shops are shown in this article. Many of the sheet metal machinery manufacturers also provide shop layout services.

A proper shop layout should result in producing the largest amount of work with the least amount of time, taking into account the machinery you have available. For maximum efficiency in shop production, you must do all the operations in their proper sequence. The main idea is to eliminate unnecessary movements, keeping the amount of footsteps you and your employees must take to a minimum. Remember: Wasted space and wasted time are wasted money.

By having your shop set up in a logical manner, it sets a good example. It sets forth in the minds of your employees that you are concerned with the amount of time that can be saved. Both the employees and the owner benefit from time being saved, as will be discussed later in this article.

Shop inspection tour

Take a physical inspection tour of your shop. Jot down some notes of items that need improvement, changes or additions, or even the possible removal of outdated, broken and never-used machinery and equipment.

Having a specific place for everything can save time and money. This includes a variety of hand tools, electric drills, uni-shears, drill bits, and all hardware such as nuts, bolts, hinges, sheet metal screws, rivets and damper hardware. This way everyone knows where to look when they need a specific item, and does not have to go around asking others where it is.

Keep in mind:

  • Is there wasted movement that you can economically avoid?
  • Is there something you can do to remove a hazard or to improve safety?
  • Is there unused space that you can put to good use?
  • Is there anything not being used that you can dispose of?

Principles of shop layout

More specifically, sheet metal contractors should consider the following general principles when determining a new or better shop layout:

  • Workflow. You want to arrange each work area in the sequence in which it is performed when making the specific items.
  • Minimum distance. You want the materials to move the minimum distance possible between operations.
  • Satisfaction and safety of employees. You need to be sure that the layout is basically satisfactory to your employees and definitely safe for them.
  • Space available. You can be economical by using all available space carefully, including space above head.
  • Flexibility. You want a layout in which you can make minor adjustments or rearrangements with minimum cost and inconvenience.
  • Overall integration. You need to arrive at the shop layout that integrates or merges the above five factors in the best way.


Analyze each of the following operations individually, and then consider how the work flows from each operation to the next operation. Does it go in a logical sequence without wasted footsteps? The operations in their usual sequence are:

  • Receiving
  • Storage of raw materials
  • Shearing (blanking)
  • Layout
  • Cutting and notching
  • Punching and drilling
  • Forming
  • Insulating or lining
  • Assembly
  • Shipping

Continuous flow line

The best shop layout provides a continuous flow pattern. Technically, this means that materials move through the various operations from receiving the raw materials to shipping the completed items without interruptions. This is from receipt of flat sheet metal or coil stock to the complete duct, fittings, and miscellaneous items that make up the various duct-run systems. The pieces are not handled back and forth from one operation to the next, and the paths from operation to operation do not cross each other. Due to the size of your existing building, this often is not possible, as you see in some actual shop layouts in this article.

Continuous flow provides the following advantages:

  • Increases production
  • Reduces fatigue
  • Minimizes floor space of square feet
  • Reduces storage areas

Within a continuous flow line, there can be a primary flow line and a secondary flow line. The primary flow line basically handles the pipe or duct, which is usually 75 percent of your volume of shop work. The secondary flow line is for the other 25 percent, which includes fittings and miscellaneous sheet metal specialty items.

Advantages of efficiency

At the same time that an efficient shop layout is of benefit to the contractor, it also is of benefit to employees.

Advantages for employees:

  • Reduces their efforts.
  • Reduces the number of times they handle materials.
  • Uses specialization where possible, each person doing what he likes to do or does best.
  • Permits efficient working.
  • Provides better working conditions with the least interference.
  • Reduces accidents.

Advantages for contractors:

  • Increases output per hour.
  • Reduces distance of moving materials between operations.
  • Reduces lost time waiting to use a machine.
  • Reduces number of handling operations requiring no skill.
  • Being practical.

In an ideal situation, you can plan the best shop layout for the specific machines and equipment, materials and work areas you need and then you can design the building around this layout.

Most sheet metal works contractors, however, find that they must plan in the opposite manner: they must fit the best possible work flow into an existing building. This means working around existing structures and facilities such as doors, loading areas, beams, columns and walls.

What is a shop layout?

Basically, a shop layout is a floor plan showing all the machinery, equipment and materials needed, beginning with the receipt of the raw materials (sheet metal and other items) and progressing to the shipment of the completed products (pipe, fittings and miscellaneous sheet metal items). The best shop layout permits the quickest flow of materials at the lowest cost, with the least amount of handling. To arrive at the best shop layout, sheet metal works contractors must consider numerous factors, including the building available, current machinery and equipment, items made in the shop and the number of employees.

If you are planning the layout of a smaller shop or a section of a larger shop, you could use a drawing board or drawing table for your new layout. For a larger shop plan, you might consider making the complete shop layout in sections. This permits easy access to any section when working on it separately.

The best scale to use is with a quarter-inch equal to 1 foot for the shop layout. This way, it is large enough for adequate detail yet not so large as to be difficult to work with. When making the preliminary sketches of large work areas for the first general plans, you might find it advantageous to use a smaller scale such as one-eighth equal to 1 foot.

When laying out smaller areas or when you need to show considerable detail, you could use larger scales such as three-eighths or a half-inch equal to 1.


When making the scale drawing of your shop floor plan, do not locate any movable items such as machinery or material racks. Follow these steps:

  1. Locate all existing walls, columns, power sources, doors and loading areas.
  2. Draw to scale the equipment or machinery you now have, such as benches, material racks, shears, brakes, notcher, etc. Draw these preferably on colored paper and label each piece.
  3. Cut them out and proceed to place them in the best possible order. Keep the previously mentioned “principles of shop layout” in mind.

If you use quarter-inch graph paper, you will be able to save the time and trouble of measuring.

Sometimes a movable table or machine can solve a space limitation problem. For example, a movable table with several small bench machines attached to it can be moved to different work areas as needed. The table could have a cleat turner, easy edger, slip roller and bar folder.

Having more than one of the same tool or machine can save time in looking or waiting for the one tool or machine. For example, having two or three electric hand drills can avoid a lot of time that would have to be spent looking for or waiting to use an electric hand drill. This can also apply to cleat turners, hand punches and other small tools.

Quite often, purchasing a few extra pieces of equipment can avoid tying up a large machine. For example, you can use a 4-foot brake rather than the 8-foot brake or power press for many operations. You can use a foot-operated squaring shear rather than interrupting people using the power shear.

Movable hand trucks or carts can eliminate carrying ductwork and fittings to the shipping area. Having a material drop-off rack arranged in an orderly manner near the shearing area offers two advantages: it saves time and it minimizes scrap.

Making an extra doorway in a wall or completely removing a non-bearing wall can sometimes save many footsteps.

Installing additional electrical outlets can sometimes eliminate the need to move from one work area to another.

If you have a large enough volume of work, you should consider having a specific area with benches for mechanics who handle louvers, dampers, canvas connections, access doors and other sheet metal specialty items. In this way, all the materials and hardware needed can be conveniently located for them. These mechanics can then become very efficient due to the frequency of making these items day after day.

It may be economical and convenient to have the receiving and shipping areas next to each other or combined into one. This is especially true for a smaller contractor who only has one large door or who only needs one employee to handle both operations. A larger contractor might find it advantageous to have them separate so that the trucks arriving know where to go and so that people performing the two different operations do not get into each other’s way, causing delay and confusion. These areas might be at opposite ends of the building if a straight-line flow of work is convenient due to the size and shape of the building.

These are but a few of the many ways you can improve your shop layout. As you begin to examine your present shop layout, you will think of other improvements you can make.

Volume of work determines machinery requirements

Years ago the majority of sheet metal contractors were involved in just residential work. In recent years, the trend has been toward the residential contractors doing light-commercial and light-industrial work. This is because manufactured sheet metal products such as fittings, ductwork and specialty items are available today. Since many of these sheet metal products specialty items are available from manufacturers, you need less equipment and machinery today to enter the heavy industrial and commercial market. To some extent this is good because all your jobs are not tied up with one market. If there should be a slowdown in one type of work, you still have the other types of work to do since you are established in the other markets.

List your shop objectives and the type and amount of work you do. Then consider if you will be going into the other markets, or possibly expand your present operations so that you can do a larger volume of the same type of work.

Generally the minimum requirements for machinery for the one- to three-person shop doing residential and light commercial work include: Foot shear; 4-foot hand brake; 8-foot hand brake; easy edger; slip roller; Pittsburgh machine; hand cleat bender; supply of hand tools, hand punches, tongs, electric drills, uni-shears, etc.

Shops that have a larger volume of work are faced with higher overhead — as your volume of work increases, so does your overhead. To remain competitive, you must have as much power equipment as possible, or as much as is available.

In some parts of the country, sheet metal work is not so competitive because there are not many sheet metal shops. In other parts of the country, there are many sheet metal shops, which make for a much more competitive market. What type of area you are located in will, in part, help to determine the amount and type of machinery and equipment you need. Regardless of your size, you must be able to remain competitive in your market. Frequently this requires additional machines, depending what your competitors are doing.

In the last decade, more and more HVAC construction sheet metal works contractors have completely automated their shops. To invest a large sum of money in this highly sophisticated machinery, it is obvious that a large volume of work must be done each year. When your volume increases, you cannot afford to handle ductwork operations piece by piece, particularly if there are quicker methods available that are being used by your competitors.

New developments

Years ago some of the operations that were performed in the shop required two people to complete them. However, this is all changed today. Sheet metal forming machinery manufacturers use the fact that much of all of their machinery can be handled by one person as a selling point, and they are willing to demonstrate this to you.

Sheet metal work used to be a highly skilled trade. One of the reasons was that everything used in the systems had to be made in the shop, which involved complicated layout work as well as skillful shop operations. Today, due to better engineering and planning as well as the new sheet metal machinery available, much of the skill is no longer needed. However, other skills are needed. Because of this trend, more air-conditioning shops are making and installing their own sheet metal. It used to be that the air-conditioning contractor would “sub” out all of the sheet metal work. Consequently, less work is available for the sheet metal contractor who previously did this work for the air-conditioning contractor.

For example, there is fully automated sheet metal machinery available today that can do all the following operations in one cycle, beginning with a coil of galvanized iron: cut to length, notching, beading, seaming.

To determine if the cost of the new machinery and new equipment are justified, you must consider whether the future savings with the desired new machinery would be large enough to make the change worthwhile. You must take into account your past, present and future business and shop objectives.

Some of your sheet metal trade journals, associations, and conventions can help you keep alert to new developments in sheet metal work. A definite way to keep yourself informed on any new sheet metal machinery is to request sheet metal machinery manufacturers put your company on their permanent mailing list.

Employee participation

When you first consider a change in your shop layout, especially a major change, you might think that your employees are an obstacle because they are reluctant to change. This is natural because most people think of change as meaning one of the following: their job will be different, their job will be difficult, they will no longer be able to work with the same people or fewer employees will be needed.

Some employees want to undermine a shop because they dislike change or because they feel it might affect their job security.

Therefore, you must go about the change very carefully. But realizing these factors about your employees makes your job a lot easier. The smaller your shop, the easier this is because the owner is closer to employees and knows them better.

Now you realize the reasons your employees are reluctant to change. As soon as you realize the next attribute of most people, you will see how easy making the change will really be. That is, people like to work in an atmosphere of understanding, participation and friendliness. They like to be given the opportunity to work toward their improvement.

For example, when you purchase a new machine to increase production, you should explain to your employees how it will help them. Tell them that you have invested a considerable sum of money in the new machine so that you can perform more ductwork fabrication in fewer labor hours.

When you discuss possible improvements with your employees as a group, you will probably find amazing results. Each person’s suggestions cause the others to think and come up with even more and better suggestions.

With this atmosphere, your employees will feel free to mention their new ideas with you whenever they think of something, not just when you specifically ask them. Having a suggestion box might be a good idea. But remember to recognize employees for their suggestions. A word of appreciation in front of other employees will go a long way.

What the people say is not as important as the way they say it. Not all of your employees’ suggestions or ideas will be actually good or workable. But having this discussion will open their minds to watching for ways of doing their job better, will establish friendliness and understanding among the employees and will make them feel more comfortable speaking with you, their employer.

What your employees do is not as important as the way they do it. Using more efficient work methods gets more done without actually working harder. The time spent in having this discussion provides many benefits, both direct and indirect.

Providing your employees with the desire to improve is broad, positive in nature and is easily developed through an open group discussion among your employees. This all comes about due to our desire to belong to a group, to have a feeling of importance, to have a feeling of accomplishment, to have recognition and to work with people who are understanding and appreciative. Do not hesitate to ask your employees for some suggestions. Remember, they are the ones who will be working in the shop.

Desired improvements

Usually you are not able to do everything at once that you would like to do to improve your shop layout. This is due to a combination of factors. You do not have all the funds available to invest at one time. Your employees are busy and don’t have time to make all the desired improvements immediately.

Keeping an annual shop-improvement list or a long-range shop-improvement list can solve this problem. Whenever you or an employee thinks of something that should be done, write it on your list. This way, you do not forget some of the good ideas, and you can read the list occasionally to decide what should be done next.

Another list to develop is for tools and machines you should purchase. Since you usually cannot purchase them all at once, make a list very carefully indicating which ones are most important. This way, each time you have a little capital you can invest, you merely take a look at your list, rather than spending time thinking and making a list each time.

Sometimes it is not possible for you to have your shop layout in a complete continuous-flow sequence, as desired. You should at least consider this type of arrangement. Try to work toward this desirable layout within the limits of your building. There is not one ideal sheet metal shop layout, but some layouts are better than others. Examining a drawing of a good layout, such as the ones in this article, can give you ideas for improving your layout. You must consider the machinery you currently have and plan to purchase, the type of work you do, your volume of work and your employees.

Understanding your employees is a good first step toward improving production. If you consider your employees in every decision you make, they will soon recognize and appreciate your concern for them.

Remember that improvements can always be made, but you have to look for problem areas and then determine the better methods of doing things. They do not usually come to you without looking for them.

For reprints of this article, contact Renee Schuett at (248) 786-1661 or email schuettr@bnpmedia.com