Even after years of excellent growth, there is still a lot of room for metal roofing to expand. According to the National Roofing Contractors association’s most recent annual survey, in 2005 the overall share of metal roofing was 4 percent of low-slope new construction, while the share for new steep-slope installations was 28 percent. While metal can be found on virtually any roof, it still takes an investment not only to buy it, but to sell and install it as well.
To fashion all that metal, contractors need the right equipment. While snips and benders are still in the tool belt, more and more computerized folders and portable roll formers are turning out production quantities of roofing, siding, flashing, gutters … all things metal. A critical shortage of skilled labor increases the need for precisely fabricated materials that don’t require extensive manipulation in the field. Roofing contractors and manufacturers are getting creative since the outlook for metal continues to be bright.
“You can’t be in the roofing business and not have sheet metal as part of what you do,” says Greg Wallick, president of Best Roofing in Pompano Beach, Fla. “Large roofing jobs require a component of sheet metal somewhere.”
Pedal to MetalThe metal forming segment of the roofing industry has a reputation for innovation and a bit of duplication. It can take years to develop and fine-tune precision machinery like a new portable roll former with multiple profiles, but the first one off the assembly line will reveal its secrets to all. One recent development is geared to an area that is becoming more attractive for many roofing contractors: gutters.
What seems like a natural for any roofing contractor that performs residential work, gutter fabrication has been an elusive segment for a variety of reasons. There were specialty contractors who made the investment in equipment and expertise. Concerns about keeping machines humming and thin margins kept many out of the business, until they discovered how much other companies were impacting their cash flow.
“A roofing contractor would not get paid until the gutters were installed,” says Patric Wright, director of sales and marketing for New Tech Machinery in Denver. “When they started to install gutters, they were able to get paid.”
His company spent four years developing a gutter machine that can go from 5-inch to 6-inch widths with a changeover that takes 15 minutes in the field. Versatility and dependability have been critical features for all forming equipment as manufacturers continue to look for new ways to bring the machinery to the jobsite.
The gutter machine from New Tech is the first to employ polyurethane rollers for the drive system. Those rollers are a company innovation that is also used for its portable roll formers; only the drive is powered, not the forming rollers. The result, says Gary Battisella, sales consultant, is a versatile and dependable machine that allows contractors to form different panels on the job.
“This roll forming machinery can accept different thicknesses of metal without adjustments. It’ll eat anything,” he says, adding that contractors can experience markups as high as 40 percent on finished goods. “Roof coil is cheaper to crate in, especially to length. If you look at a 40-foot panel, you practically have to have special permits to get it to the job.”
Buying and using roll forming equipment can be a pretty significant investment for contractors, so New Tech helps out with warranties and support to keep the machine humming for years to come. There’s a limited lifetime warranty on the polyurethane rollers, plus programs for upgrades, improved engineering and refurbishment of forming rollers.
“We could show you where the first machine we built in 1991 is still operating today,” says Battisella. “Our growth has been based around customer service. We have a great service program. Most problems can be handled over the phone.”
One issue that’s been getting a lot more attention lately is code compliance. Hurricanes and other events have stiffened the building codes in hard-hit areas like the Gulf Coast, as everyone grapples with making buildings more storm resistant. Equipment makers like New Tech have their profiles tested to ensure their customers that the installed product complies. “We pass along our UL testing for our profiles,” says Wright.
High-Tech HelpKeeping new products rolling is a driving concern among machine producers. Metalforming Inc., Peachtree City, Ga., plans to introduce two major products at the International Roofing Exposition in March: a fully automatic up-and-down folder and the Schechtl Max Too, an “entry-level” version of the popular bender. But Geoff Stone, president of MetalForming is most excited about what comes with the new equipment.
The company is launching a computerized system call MFI Direct Link that will aid the contractor in the installation and maintenance of its sophisticated equipment. With a software package, camera and headpiece, the customer can get expert installations and diagnostics live via the Internet. This greatly reduces the cost of installation and training because Metalforming experts perform their jobs from the home office in Georgia.
“The customer would really like to have the training but didn’t like to pay for the travel,” says Stone, who was conducting a demonstration with a Houston roofing contractor the morning he spoke to Roofing Contractor. “It’s going to allow us to service them at the speed of light with no travel time. We’re down there face to face, and it’s all being done over the Internet.”
The requirements for contractors is minimal: 128 kps Internet speed or higher, plus a computer that can interface with the headpiece and camera at the same location as the sheet metal equipment. Stone’s technicians can now spend more time training and addressing maintenance instead of traveling. He even anticipates webcasts that can be received by contractors in several locations at the same time.
This educational effort is designed to serve the increased business he expects in 2007. Despite a downturn in the housing market in some areas, Stone anticipates growth in commercial roofing (and, to a smaller extent, increases in the soffit and cladding markets) to offset slower housing sales. The idea is to make the equipment versatile and keep it humming, using all the tools available.
“The biggest issue for customers is downtime,” say Stone. “If we can diagnose you online, we can fire out a part that day. The event resolution is much faster.”
SidelinesFrom coping to canopies, the versatility of metal means a variety of work, including some outside the traditional boundaries of the roofing industry. Metal is going vertical as businesses and even some homeowners want to extend the look of metal down the walls. Zimmerman Metals, a metal equipment manufacturer founded in Denver in 1935, introduced machines to produce panels for soffits and walls three years ago as building owners look for cladding that is attractive and easy to maintain.
“There just seems to be more and more metal used for aesthetic purposes,” says Bruce Pearson, project manager for Zimmerman Metals. “It’s also used on a lot of walls just to add something to the building.”
The company has expanded the number of profiles for its portable roll formers - one has nine options - that take less than an hour to switch. Contractors are finding that the curb appeal of metal roofing is expanding to other applications, like sprucing up a shopping center with a curved panel mansard or elaborate portico.
“We’re seeing a movement with shopping center owners going towards metal,” says Wallick of Best Roofing. “We’re seeing owners choose that over tile. It’s all about aesthetics. I think that’s the biggest driver.”
Durability is a key motivator as well. Owners who still want the look of tile are turning to stone coated metal tile that has the look of metal but can withstand impact better than concrete or clay tile - an important feature when a hurricane whips debris around. Wallick says that when factoring in the freight and labor savings, stone coated metal tile is competitive and available. The real estate market has cooled a bit in Florida, but there is still reroofing work that was put off during the insanely busy years of 2004 and 2005.
A lot of that work is going to metal, and roofing contractors are weighing their equipment options. Wallick has looked at portable roll formers, but in the past he never did enough panel work to justify the capital expense. Different profiles, warranties and testing were a big deal since his company is just north of the strictest code body in the country, Dade County.
Wallick buys prefabricated panels that snap-lock from suppliers like Una-Clad, but he has his own metal shop to fabricate trim, flashings and other components. He was one of the first companies in Florida to buy an auto brake, which has turned out to be an excellent investment.
“That’s an invaluable machine,” he says. “The payback on that is very quick. You take one step of the process out and one person out. I swear by that technology.”
Serving the Metal MarketFrank Callis of Engage Machinery, Fairburn, Ga., is a sheet metal veteran who has seen contractors improve their efficiency through upgrading their equipment time and time again, and he maintains that today’s metal machines represent a great return on investment. Callis explains that machines can make production two to five times more efficient. “It’s sheer throughput,” he says. “I’ve never had a guy yet that came up to me six months after buying one of our machines and said, ‘I wish I had my old handbrake back.’ They always say, “We should have done it sooner.’”
The company’s newest offering is the HMR automated coil retrieval machine, the HMR 48, also known as “the Hammer.” Callis notes that his company caters to both markets, offering coil retrieval systems and high-end double folding machines for those completing metal projects at the highest level and supplying handbrakes and hand tools for those entering the metal market. “We want to help people get their metal business started,” he says. “And we’ll train people and explain what it takes.” There’s more to a profitable metal business than simply producing parts efficiently, notes Callis. “We’ll take people to a sheet metal shop, we’ll talk about pricing, we’ll talk about buying metal - the right kind in the right amount.”
High-Profile MetalJerry Iselin, president of Metal Roof Specialties works exclusively in metal for a variety of reasons. The Tacoma, Wash.-based roofing contractor has spent 30 years in metal roofing, half of them with a manufacturer. He also rarely bids on projects, working directly with building owners and high-end residential developments. He likes the fact that he doesn’t have to make a huge investment in equipment to install metal shingles like the tin knockers of bygone days.
“You can pretty much do anything with that product line with tools you can carry on you,” he says. “They’re light enough to be snipped on site. That’s one of the real beauties of them. The selection of tools is quite small.”
His preference is MetalWorks, a product line from TAMKO that mimics shakes, slate and tile. Most of the training is conducted in-house and he can get new hires rolling a 90 degree bend by hand in no time. That’s important, since a custom job for an expensive residence can mean some on-site modifications to make the materials fit.
As a member of the Metal Roofing Alliance, Iselin is excited about the association’s new training programs to meet the insatiable demand for skilled labor that affects the entire construction industry. He relies on his workers to use time-tested skills on the jobsite to keep the rain out.
“All these trades are so important and needed, but can not be duplicated by equipment,” he says. “It really takes skilled and talented workers to make it work and ensure it is waterproof.”
There are no signs that demand for metal roofing and siding is going to let up, so future metal equipment development will concentrate on automation and labor savings. Iselin is looking at plasma torches to cut light recesses for a stainless steel soffit he’s going to install. As the colors, shapes and textures of metal roofing spill over the entire building, the success of the system comes down to the roofing contractor tasked with installing it. Whether it’s a computerized folder or a hand brake, it’s how those tools are used that makes all the difference.
“The barriers to entry are quite low as far as expense, but the real barrier is skill because metal roofing is an entirely different animal to install,” says Iselin.