“Sometimes imagination is more important than knowledge.” —Albert Einstein
The sheet metal industry is experiencing a wakeup call from technological change and members of SMART and SMACNA cannot afford to ignore it. “It isn’t business as usual,” says Guy Gast, former SMACNA president and chair of the New Horizons Foundation (NHF), which produced the HVAC Sheet Metal Industry Futures Study (2016).
He says both management and labor must collaborate now to prepare for the future. Scenarios that are changing the nature of the work are emerging from “rapid” technological advancements and evolving energy standards, which are sometimes presented as “subtle changes in local codes and legislation.”
Rich McClees, SMART’s general secretary-treasurer, concurs, and is confident that new technology and other factors on the horizon won’t eliminate opportunities for the sheet metal trades. “The work isn’t going to go away; it is evolving,” McClees says.
“We have to be in front of that with training, though.”
He echoes comments by SMART General President Joseph Sellers who recently called on business managers and agents to look at the two- to five-year horizon in order to maximize training opportunities and capture work. An example is architectural metals contracts, which are projected to grow by 26 to 40 percent in the next few years.
Adapting training methods – on the fly, if necessary – to stay in front of change is critical. The International Training Institute (ITI) and the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) are tasked with developing timely training. The ITI’s strike force training initiative (covered in the last issue of Partners in Progress) is a prime example. SMART, meanwhile, is organizing a committee to examine strategies required to meet training needs for new technologies, McClees says.
Although many large contractors are able to stay ahead of the tech curve through capital investments, McClees is concerned that small and mid-sized contractors will lag behind without support from their labor partners. “SMART needs training in place so the workforce is ready when new technology hits the market,” he says.
Gast agrees, adding that the service/support sector and traditional supply channels are increasingly affected by equipment with embedded intelligence—the Internet of Things. For example, self-diagnosing components allow airhandling equipment to send alerts for issues like rising bearing temperatures.
“Contractors may be more valuable if they can advise on system alternatives, constructability, energy use, lifecycle costs, and service operation and maintenance needs,” Gast says.
As the new systems evolve, there will be a shift from large air handling systems to ones with less ductwork. “Those systems will require different skills and trade craft for installation,” he adds. “You have to pay attention to systems that are a by-product of energy choices.”
However, McClees says that the high cost of many technologies will keep them from spreading across the country overnight. “Partnering with contractors to figure out which technologies are up-and-coming and how fast they will arrive will be the key for us when it comes to training,” McClees says.
One technology already making a mark is modularization because it allows for quick and efficient installations. SMACNA President-Elect Angie Simon sees prefabrication and modular industries, including spooling and sub-assemblies, growing significantly in the next 5 to 10 years as the result of technology improvements, which will help soften or fill the gaps in shortages of skilled craftspersons in some regions.
“If you are a mid-sized contractor or larger and you are not doing prefabrication, then you will be relegated to smaller jobs,” she says.
The Waldinger Corporation, where Gast is president, recently completed a Hilton convention hotel featuring pre-fabricated, modular hotel bathrooms. Major prefabrication opportunities are common in new hospitals, which increasingly use largescale multi-trade racks for corridors and prefab head walls for suites. Marriott rolled out its modular initiative in 2015 and has completed or is scheduled to complete five projects this year—in California, Washington, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. Meanwhile, companies such as Trane, York, and Daikin turn to fabricating modular chilled water plants that are “plug-in ready.”
“Many SMACNA contractors have invested a lot in their shop fabrication capability,” says Gast. “It is no longer a leap of faith to prefabricate because contractors are starting to see the gains from their initiatives.” He believes anyone who tries to do business the old way will find it difficult to compete.
While prefabrication technology is not new, adoption has been slow. Many industry pundits thought it would have taken off five years ago. McClees believes SMART will be prepared with training workers as it grows. “We’ve done the detailing on systems for 50 years or more as part of our craft, so I think we are well suited to it,” McClees adds. “We already recognize what needs to go in a space and what components have to come together into a system.”
Regardless, moving to full modularization will be a sizable transition and the speed will vary by region. How fast SMACNA and SMART partners adapt to this trend will define the signatory percentage market share of fabrication. “Fabrication is the strength of our industry,” McClees says, “and I think modularization could help us, as far as man-hours go, as long as we are positioned to take on that work.”
Simon believes the SMACNA and SMART team must be “nimble” to keep a sizable stake in the game. “Don’t be a Swiss watch when everyone is wearing Apple watches,” she says.
Apprenticeship programs may even need to change format to respond to rapidly changing times, Gast says. “The key is to quickly deploy a team that is ready to work safe and smart.”
“Partnering with contractors to figure out which technologies are up-and-coming and how fast they will arrive will be the key for us when it comes to training,” says Richard McClees, general secretary-treasurer, SMART.
McClees says adding new technology “training modules” within curriculums is one answer. “If a technology is coming in now, don’t put it into the fourth year of a program; put it in the first year. I think it is something that trainers can easily adapt to.”
However, adjusting training to address technological change will require SMART and SMACNA to work as partners, especially at the local level. “Contractors on joint apprenticeship committees need to indicate early on what direction they are moving so training can be directed that way,” McClees says.
Further, according to Gast, technology can be a selling point to bring in more apprentices. “There is more technology in this industry than ever before, and if 10 to 15 percent of the hours on an HVAC job are spent on the technology, then we should be selling this as a career opportunity for young people to consider,” he says.
Jack Knox, president of R.F. Knox Co. Inc., Smyrna, Ga., and immediate SMACNA past-president, believes technology initiatives need to come from both the national and local levels. “By putting our labor and management talents to work today, we will make a difference, for our industry, our employees, and ourselves tomorrow.” •