Like housing starts and factory orders, capital investment in roof machinery is a barometer for future activity and the outlook for metal roofing and construction is shiny.

The image of a grungy sheet metal shop employing artisan skill and brute strength is gradually evolving into an automated plant that churns out precision components with high efficiency. The enduring boom in metal construction shows no signs of slowing down, particularly when polling the makers of metal equipment and panels. Like housing starts and factory orders, capital investment in roof machinery is a barometer for future activity and the outlook for metal roofing and construction is shiny.

Over the years, the collective marketing efforts of metal roofing system producers, associations, equipment providers and contractors have paid off handsomely as metal roofing captures a larger portion of the roofing market. From high-end residential projects to mansards on shopping centers to restoration work, one can almost feel left out if there isn’t a sheet metal crew working full time fabricating and installing. Those contractors that do have the capacity are finding the transition into other fields of metal fabricating much easier with equipment producers offering computerized controls and versatile machines.

High Hopes

Over the last 20 years, metal has seen a steady growth in market share. While metal is only a small portion of the overall market (7.3 percent in 2001 according to NRCA figures), its growth has sustained itself through tough business cycles by making inroads in a variety of markets. Metal is an ancient building material that is being applied in new ways to attract new roofing contractors as well as broaden the offering of traditional sheet metal shops.

Metal is a known quantity in the design community and has a robust distribution system that crosses over into different markets, both of which were important when metal roofing became enormously popular with consumers. Demand could be met while attracting new products that improve productivity. And what is driving this demand?

“It’s all about fashion,” says Geoff Stone, president/owner of Metal Forming Inc. based in Peachtree City, Ga. “We see metal becoming the preferred method where there’s a sloped roof.” Stone believes that residential projects are driving much of the trend, which often translates into nearby retail projects. The high-profile nature of metal roofing promotes the product’s aesthetics year round to consumers who then make inquiries. When metal roofing gets added to the list of possible options, then other factors are considered: longevity, appearance, availability and finally, price.

The last factor is not so critical when considering metal roofing, according to Stone. “Price elasticity is different when fashion comes into play,” he says. He has parlayed his two decades in metal roofing into a partnership that offers equipment from a variety of manufacturers. Most of them are based in Europe where the market for metal roofing is older and much larger. From snips to roll formers, the company, founded in 1997, offers virtually every kind of tool to fashion metal construction materials. “The sheet metal process is not just one thing,” says Stone. “We give somebody a turn-key approach. (The contractor) discovers that he’s so productive that he can provide components for others. Once you’ve bought the equipment, you have the same production capacity of some of the big companies.”

The productivity is possible through highly automated machinery that uses computer technology to fabricate a wide variety of profiles. Controls are graphics-based to address the increasing number of non-English speaking workers. In addition, on-site training is available from a variety of companies to get crews cranking out metal components in a matter of days.

Also impacting metal roofing are building codes. More municipalities are strengthening their codes and enforcement, so Metal Forming made a significant investment to obtain UL and FM ratings for its metal roofing systems that are fabricated on site. The company is also working with the Texas Department of Insurance and Miami-Dade County on certifications. “We wanted to give the contractor the opportunity to bid on anything,” says Stone. “What we decided to give the contractor is a roof system and not just a metal panel former.”

Lab Work

A sheet metal shop is a considerable investment that can eat up profits if it’s idle, so like the artisans of the past, all kinds of products are fashioned from today’s equipment. Even though the consensus seems to be that metal roofing is still at the early stages of a growth curve, roofing contractors can find that a whole universe of business opens up for them once they have a decent sheet metal crew.

“Once they have our products, sometimes the work comes to them,” says Brad Marsden, vice president of sales and marketing for Roper Whitney of Rockford Inc., Rockford, Ill. “They’d say, ‘I could never do that before.’ It keeps them busier and gives them more flexibility.” Since 1910, Roper Whitney has been offering that flexibility to sheet metal and roofing contractors, graduating from hand punches to the futuristic folders that look like an MRI.

Three years ago the company introduced Orion, the industry’s first touch screen, and it has revolutionized the way metal is formed in some of the most modest sheet metal shops. Pre-loaded with 50 profiles, old projects can be saved for future reference and programs can be updated with a diskette. Machines are also free-standing and quieter than in the past, so that shops look more like sheet metal labs. “It gives the opportunity for more flexibility,” says Marsden. “It all leads to efficiency and speed to get more and more production. It’s just going to continue to grow.”

The company’s extensive Web site offers lots of photos along with tech information. While products can be ordered on line, Roper Whitney has a knowledgeable sales force and maintains its traditional distribution network. Marsden sees the Internet as a great marketing and research tool, but his typical client will always have questions when it comes to new equipment purchases. “We find a lot of our customers like to call in and talk to the plant,” says Marsden. “Roper Whitney kind of prides itself on working with distributors. We like the personal touch you get with them.”

One of the services that Roper Whitney and other companies offer are guidelines to determine the feasibility of equipment. Rather than strictly adding to a contractor’s existing repertoire, metal roofing equipment can be viewed as profit centers that bring in additional work. Certainly it pays to have experience with metal roofing before buying a $40,000 machine, but the cost savings in producing gravel stops and gutters in-house can be enormous. With several leasing options, Marsden’s team can even break down equipment to an hourly rate. Some machines can cost less than an entry-level laborer. “We can do some time studies for them on how much they can save,” he explains. “We don’t think it’s a plunge. If the customer’s busy and has steady work, we think it’s more of an advantage to upgrade their products.”

In addition, roofing contractors fashion components for other contractors in the area who don’t have their own shops. There are also unlimited opportunities to fashion items like chimney caps, gable vents, kitchen hoods, cornices, etc. Contractors almost have to pick their battles and then focus on a particular market. Historical renovation work is also a large segment of the industry.

“It really broadens the owner’s or the marketing guy’s horizon to get out and sell more product,” says Rick Wester of RAS Systems in Peachtree City, Ga. He knows of about a dozen roofing contractors that no longer install but just fabricate metal for former competitors. “He will buy multiple machines and he’s not getting on the roof anymore. Not everybody wants to make the investment.”

That investment can be paid back in as little as one year, says Wester. His company provides customers with a calculation sheet that compares manual folding machines vs. automated ones. Wester foresees an end to stout tin knockers who wrestle sheets into place and guess at the prescribed angles. Machines can now fold 20-foot lengths up and down, taking the place of four manual machines and reducing labor costs. Training takes days instead of years and Wester calls the end results “clones” — perfectly fashioned metal components that fit the first time. “Through the software side of the machine, it become easier for the roofing contractor to do things he couldn’t do on a manual machine,” he says. “It just made it so other companies can get into the business. It’s really an art to work with metal. These machines have certainly improved the process quite a bit.”

Savings are experienced in shipping, labor, installation, materials — even energy consumption. Despite all the gadgets, RAS Systems folders consume less energy than older products and transformers can adapt to a range of power sources. Any upgrades to the software can be downloaded by customers for free from the company’s Web site.

Metal Market

“It’s an educational process,” says Bruce Pearson, product manager for Zimmerman Metals in Denver. “The contractors that are successful at this are ones that are very good at communicating the product’s long-term value as well as the aesthetics.” Zimmerman Metals, founded in 1936 to provide architectural metal and steel fabrication, offers portable roll formers that help contractors control deliveries, reduce waste and handling, and keep panels in house and not at the job site where there is always the danger of damage, vandalism and theft. Pearson, who introduced the company’s first roll former in 1900, doesn’t see saturation of the market despite years of steady growth. The smooth lines of a modern standing-seam roof are a far cry from exposed fasteners or corrugated tin on old factories and barns. That mindset is slowly fading from public memory, allowing metal to make inroads outside its home base in the Sunbelt, like the rainy Northwest where fungus is a problem or mountain regions where snow loads can be serious.

The durability, strength, and light weight of metal is making it a popular choice among designers, commercial building owners and homeowners. Profit margins are large enough for residential projects that commercial roofing contractors are creating divisions, and not just for preferred clients. Zimmerman assists with training of the production equipment as well as installation of panels themselves. Bringing the entire operation in house can realize savings of 25 to 30 percent over preformed panels. The potential of the machines is enormous even when there’s not an established market for metal. “Typically, they create a market of their own,” he says, adding that the majority of roll former customers has experience with sheet metal. “We do recommend they research the particular area they service. Also, to determine the best profile to use.”

Value and service may close the deal, but fashion is bringing them in the door. At last, roofing is getting some recognition, maybe not to the point of being sexy but at least attractive. The trouble is, how long will this trend last? The investment and innovation by both equipment providers and contractors shows no indication of a passing fad. “I think the fashion (of metal roofing) it at a very early stage,” says Stone of Metal Forming. “It’s got great legs and a long way to go.”