Roll formers and the importance of research

Roll former owner/operators insist the key to success is related to their pre-purchase research

By Jim Austin, senior editor

roll former

Good decisions are made every day. Two things can help you make good decisions for your business: Knowledge and luck. One you can control and the other you can’t. Put your faith in knowledge when you’re making any decision for you and your business.

Among the major purchasing decisions a metal roofing contractor/installer can make is a portable roll former. Once you decide you need a roll former, there are quite a few manufacturers to choose from. And each manufacturer will offer a variety of machines — some for residential panels, some for commercial and some that produce both or even a variety of both.
Roll formers are as durable and long lasting as the metal roofing panels they produce. Nine owners of portable roll formers shared their research strategy and purchasing decisions.

Take your time
Stan Novak of Stan Novak Builder in Holden, Maine, bought a roll former because business demanded it. More and more prospective customers were asking about metal roofing. A couple years ago, he estimates two out of every 10 calls was an inquiry about metal roofing. Now it has completely flipped — eight of 10 calls are about metal roofing.

Novak started investigating roll formers through trade magazines and says an article from Metal Roofing Magazine in 2006 caught his attention. That October-November issue, the annual roll former issue, featured stories on single-profile and multi-profile machines. It inspired Novak to attend METALCON International to investigate the purchase of a roll former.

“I’m real slow when it comes to making decisions like that,” Novak says. “The magazines were very informative and I decided to go to METALCON in Nevada. We were exposed to every machine at METALCON, but I was still undecided. Ultimately I went with Roll Former because it seemed simpler and more versatile. “And it was perfect timing. We were breaking records for snowfall last winter. All the calls we were getting for metal, they were because of the snow.”
Novak’s Roll Former can manufacture panels from 9-24 inches wide. In Maine, he says the residential customers like the 20-inch pan, produced from 24-inch coil. “That’s what they want,” he says. “It looks elegant, I guess. It’s got a shaker look, it’s simple lines.”

Ask a lot of questions
Andy Anderson, CEO of Interstate Panel in Hamilton, N.J., currently owns and runs a fleet of roll formers — two SSPs and a soffits machine from New Tech Machinery; a Quattro Pro, a RBM50 Curving machine and a RBM25.38 Curving machine from Schlebach; a structural panel machine from Roll Tech; and a batten machine, quick hem, batten curving and U-panel curving machine from Roll Former.

“Years ago, I was impressed with and motivated to buy portable roll form machines that could produce multiple profiles from a single base machine,” Anderson says. “I thought I was getting better value for a machine that could do more for less money. Experience has shown this to be not quite true. Changing panel profiles was never as easy as advertised, and usually resulted in considerable time and money to change back and forth. Moving roller sets in and out of machines caused additional unanticipated wear and tear on the cassettes and the drive units. Valuable coil material was lost in the set up process. Job costs were calculated and increased on the basis of whether roll form profiles needed to be changed.

“Today I try to limit the profile changes on our machines. A panel machine dedicated to a single profile will produce a more consistent product faster and with less damage to the machine. It is enough of an effort to maintain polished roller alignment and a smooth drive mechanism without the complications of profile changes. If profile changes do need to be made, I favor the EZ change removable rack system as featured by New Tech Machinery in its SSH and new SSQ line of roll formers. New Tech has done a great job of designing equipment to overcome the problem of precise roller alignment.”

You can never ask too many questions before you plunk down thousands of dollars for a portable roll former or any equipment for that matter. Anderson recommends a few questions to ask manufacturers when you’re researching your purchase of a roll former. He says you have to ask about the kind of support you can expect with regard to the long-term maintenance of the equipment? Are all parts readily available? Do you maintain a complete parts inventory for this machine? Do you offer clear drawings of the roller sets, electrical and mechanical drive systems? Who do I contact for help when this thing breaks?

No machine is perfect and no machine operator is perfect. Problems will arise and need to be solved. Make sure you know who to contact to help you solve those problems. Anderson also suggests inquiring about the notification of design changes and improvements in the machine you purchase. Will these changes be easily incorporated in my machine and at a reasonable cost? Manufacturers constantly work to improve their machines. You should be offered the opportunity to upgrade to the best equipment available.

Remember what you learn
About three years ago, Brian Miller of Miller Sheet Metal in Dallas purchased his fourth portable roll former from Berridge Manufacturing. Before he purchased his first Berridge machine, he leased roll formers from the company to use at jobsites or in his shop, while purchasing coil form Berridge. When he decided to purchase his own machine, there was no doubt what kind of machine he was going to buy.

“I’m kind of a common sense guy,” he says. “I can recognize quality. I took a walk-through at their plant and I could see the quality built into each unit. This is not just thrown-together equipment.

“It was a no-brainer to go with Berridge. They’re a quality outfit. They taught me a lot about the benefits of owning a machine and they’ve been good about maintaining their price on steel. It seems like every time the ground shakes the price of steel goes up at some places.”

From generation to generation
It was good enough for dear ol’ dad — that’s all you gotta know. Doss Briggs runs BRB Roofing in Fort Gibson, Okla., operating five roof panel roll formers, four from Knudson Manufacturing and one from Zimmerman Metals.

The first roll former the Briggs’ owned was from Knudson, purchased in the mid-1970s when the company was operating as Briggs Rainbow Buildings. The P120 from Knudson formed a curved standing seam panel used for Quonset hut style buildings. In the early 1980s, the company purchased a P24-1 to manufacture 1-1/2-inch standing seam panels for light commercial buildings and schools. “It didn’t take us long to figure out those panels weren’t suited for open framing,” Briggs says. “In about 1991, we bought a KR-24 for a 2-inch standing seam profile. That opened up all sorts of opportunities.”

Briggs says when BRB was purchasing roof panel machines, there were few roll former manufacturers out there. BRB bought a fourth Knudson machine — another KR-24 — in 1995, simply because the company was busy and needed a second machine. BRB was enjoying success with its Knudson machines. “Even then, the other companies out there didn’t have the history Knudson did,” Briggs says.

In 2001, BRB was sold on some unique features of the roll formers from Zimmerman Metals. Still the company runs all its machines, purchasing coil from Coated Metals Group. About 90 percent of the panels produced by BRB are for commercial or institutional buildings, with about 75 percent of its roofing being for retrofit projects.

Know you market
Harvey Industries invested 6-9 months in research before purchasing a roll former, investigating the markets in Maine and Vermont with the goal of serving as a supplier to installers. “We went in with a preconceived notion that we were looking at a 16-inch snap lock, but we quickly determined we were heading in the wrong direction,” says Bob Delisle of Harvey Industries says. “We also got a little guidance from Drexel Metals.”

Harvey Industries purchased two New Tech Machinery machines from Drexel; one to produce 1-inch standing seam panels with a 21-inch pan in Maine and the other to manufacture 1-inch snap lock panels with a 16-inch pan in Vermont.

“There’s been a learning curve with the machines and we’ve had to make adjustments on the fly,” Delisle says. “We made some mistakes, but now we’re constantly checking the machine to make sure we’re running good panels, sometimes two or three times on a job, depending on the size.”
Harvey Industries distributes to about 50 customers, some who only do a couple metal jobs a year. Delisle says with a portable machine he can take to jobsites, he can offer seamless roofing and short lead times. He also stocks trim packages in 12 colors. “It’s a huge competitive advantage,” he says.

Experience is the best teacher
Barry Bonkowski of Eagle Ridge Metal Roofing in Carstairs, Alberta, didn’t have to investigate much when he decided the time was right to purchase a roll former — a sister company he worked with had been running panels off machines from Knudson for more than 12 years. “They were basically trouble-free during that period,” he says. “There was very little down time.”
Still, Bonkowski invested some time to learn all he could. “We actually looked at all the other manufacturers we could find,” he says. “We read the details on their machines — we just liked what we saw with Knudson, so we weren’t going to step out of that box.” Bonkowski is happy with his decision to purchase two Knudson VP-21M Varipan roll formers about a year ago.

Trade show research
Patrick Faint at Renaissance Sheet Metal of suburban Detroit purchased a New Tech Machinery SSP Multipro almost three years ago, after a fact-finding tour at a trade show. “We really checked with a lot of different manufacturers and a lot of different people who had roll formers,” says Faint. “We saw the SSP at METALCON and liked the way it was set up. We were impressed with what the machine could do and that it could run on gas or electric power.”
The only problem Faint ever had he took care of himself with experience. “The changeover takes a little time at first,” he says. “Now we’ve done it so may times, it goes a little quicker.”

Make the machine pay for itself
For some, the decision to purchase a roll former is made for them. A single project — a project that requires panels be run onsite — can pay for the machine.
Jim Hofegartner of Central Roofing in Luther Okla., landed a job to install metal roofing panels on a church in northwest Oklahoma City. The longest panels were going to be 165 feet long. Hofegartner did some investigating, trying to figure out what machine would best serve him for this project and other commercial projects. One of Central’s subcontractors had a small machine from Zimmerman Metals for residential jobs. Hofegartner like what he saw and purchased a commercial machine from Zimmerman in March.

“We’re just a little business out here in the backwoods of Oklahoma,” Hofegartner says. “We pay attention to everything. That was a big investment and we can’t afford to make a mistake.”
Careful research helped Central Roofing successfully complete the job. “The biggest challenge for me was getting the machine and the coil 42 feet off the ground so we could run the panels at the right angle,” Hofegartner says. “Getting the panels to run right was the easy part.” That’s just as it should be. Hofegartner has since purchased another die to run residential panels on his roll former from Zimmerman Metals.

It beats hand bending
How long would you hand bend roofing panels before you’d consider buying a roll former? Tim Pins of Pittsfield Standing Seam in Pittsfield, Vt., did it for 10 years, or “until I couldn’t stand up straight anymore.”

It all started with a chance meeting with a representative of ESE Machines. Eileen Stellrecht, wife of Ewald Stellrecht at ESE Machines, was purchasing hockey pucks at a sporting goods store in Philadelphia. (The hockey pucks were part of an experiment — could they be used as drive rollers in a roll former? Turns out it wasn’t a great idea, but that’s for another story.)

That chance meeting over hockey pucks led to the eventual purchase of approximately a dozen ESE roofing roll formers, some of them custom made. Eileen Stellrecht explained to Pins how the roofing roll formers could simplify life at Pittsfield Standing Seam and Pins’ partner ordered one sight unseen. Cost was no object either — anything had to be better than hand bending.

So without comparing ESE equipment to other roll formers, Pittsfield Standing Seam made its purchase — drove to Coatsville, Pa., and picked one up. Pins wouldn’t change a thing about his initial purchase or any ensuing purchase from ESE. It’s been a great relationship. He says his business is one of the largest fabricators on the east coast, delivering roofing panels all over New England. Pittsfield Standing Seam also has shipped panels to California and Puerto Rico.
“Those machines are bulletproof,” Pins says. “I’ve owned other machines and I’ve sold other machines. Nothing holds up to our ESE roll formers and they’ve treated me good.”

Just do the research
OK, every once in a while you’ll get lucky and end up making a good decision without all the knowledge available, but how often are you going to run into someone buying hockey pucks?
When we first started working on this story, we weren’t sure what kind of research and investigating was being done before the purchase of a portable roll former. The more research you do, the better off you are and the better off your customer is. That’s good for the metal roofing industry. Roll former manufacturers will provide you with answers to any questions you have, so make a list of questions you need answered before you’re going to buy. Take the list to METALCON and get your questions answered. If something in this issue helps (and we hope it does), hang on to it to refer back to. Do what you have to do to make the best decisions for your business.

For a story on single-profile roll formers vs. multi-profile roll formers from the October-November 2006 issue of Metal Roofing Magazine, visit Is One Profile Enough For Your Business.

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