Companies with in-house metal shops enjoy advantages in quality control and customer service, plus increased opportunities for expanding operations.
Like the stars of box-office hits, fabric usually gets all the glory as the most noticeable player (especially when emblazoned with colors and custom graphics) in structural protective coverings. But just like those high-grossing stars of stage and screen, fabric relies on supporting players for structure and effect. Where would fabric be without a supporting framework to fulfill its mission to protect people and objects from the elements—and look great while doing it?
Some crafters of fabric-based structures are so attuned to the critical role of metal components that they operate in-house shops for frame fabrication and metalworking. Just look at the website of a St. Louis, Mo.-based company and note the scripted addition of “& Metal” to the company name.
“We added in-house metal fabrication in 1982,” says Jerry Grimaud, until recently the owner of Lawrence Fabric & Metal Structures Inc. (The company has implemented an Employee Stock Ownership Plan [ESOP] and is now owned by its employees.) “That’s when we started manufacturing fixed-frame awnings. Originally, we subcontracted framework to an ornamental iron company. We were selling an awning, and half of the manufacturing cost was going to them. We were sending half our profits away.
“We changed the company name in 2010 to promote our metal awning capabilities, which is a different marketing model than fabric awnings,” he says.
“We also added ‘& Metal’ for search engine optimization,” adds company president Mike Bowman.
“By expanding with a metal shop,” Grimaud says, “we were able to do more complicated shapes for awnings. Plus, when you put [metal fabrication] under your roof, you have way more control on delivery.”
Lakeside Marine Canvas in Buford, Ga., has always done its own metalwork. “I do not like depending on another person for timing or quality,” says owner and president Daymon Johnstone. “I have a new project that is an extremely unusual design. Since I am doing both the fabric and metal work, I don’t have to bring in a separate person or company to discuss what needs to be done.”
Carole Bellon, president of The Bellon Prestige Group in Montreal, Canada, makes a case for having in-house capabilities when a company specializes in custom applications.
“We sometimes have to make a product as we go,” she says. “But we are able to judge its fabrication along the way. If we just sourced it, we might end up seeing the finished product and thinking we wouldn’t have done it that way, or that we don’t like the shape.”
Steve Eannarino, manager of the metal shop for Canvas Designers Inc., Riviera Beach, Fla., echoes the sentiment about control being a prime advantage of in-house framing fabrication.
“We’ve always done our own metal work,” he says. “We can control all aspects of design, manufacture and quality control. We have high standards for our products. By controlling the processes, we can ensure we meet those standards.”
Talent, training and safety
Deriving those benefits, however, doesn’t come easily.
“Finding dedicated and qualified individuals or individuals willing to learn the trade is a challenge,” Eannarino says. “Metal work is nearly an art form. It takes a lot of time and investment to get workers up to speed on the latest design trends and techniques.”
Grimaud agrees, especially because complex awnings can be difficult to manufacture. “When we advertise for a fabricator, we get a lot of welders coming to us,” he says, “but they can’t read our blueprints.
“Another challenge that is ever-changing is in painting the frames. To keep work in-house, we paint in an automotive spray booth. We have to adhere to environmental issues and comply with fire marshal codes.”
For companies like Lakeside Marine Canvas, a four-person operation, the difficulty in finding qualified help is doubled by the fact that the company may need employees who can work in two completely opposing mediums: fluid fabric and rigid metal.
“I have had to train people,” Johnstone says. Another challenge that might be less readily overcome involves working space.
“I have an 8,000-square-foot shop. The metal fabrication room is separate from the fabric room,” he says, pointing out one clear danger: you do not want metal fabrication debris falling onto fabric cutting and sewing tables.
Miami Awning Co. makes a range of fabric-and-frame products, including retractable awnings, canopies, walkway and entrance covers and cabanas. President Michael Reilly notes that “frame design has become more complex and robust.” His Miami, Fla.-based company employs between seven and 15 people in metal fabrication, depending on the time of year. “We need certified welders with the ability to read blueprints; someone who is detail-oriented, neat and skilled at what they do,” he says.
Canvas Designers, which provides metal services and sells its sunflies to other marine-based companies, cross-trains employees.
“Metal is an integral part of our business,” Eannarino says. “Our metal department has a staff of six working with saws, grinders, sanders, buffers, mills, lathes, punches, pipe benders and welders. Each worker is cross-trained in the use of those tools.”
Lawrence Fabric & Metal Structures cross-trains employees and has a staff of 12 working in its metal shop. Equipment includes CNC machines, so employees need CAD training. “We use CAD, AutoCAD® and Inventor®, which is a 3-D version of AutoCAD,” Bowman says.
Lawrence makes awnings, canopies, walkway covers, cabanas and sail shades. “If there’s a growing market, it’s the more difficult, custom-fabricated work,” Grimaud says. “Since we have had our own metal shop for 35 years, we have added a lot of equipment—lathe, routing table, mill machines—so we can do the custom work that architects are requesting.”
Lakeside Marine Canvas makes shade covers for a range of boat areas, including the entire tops of houseboats. Having its own metal shop allowed the company to design a rigid door system with a doorknob and hinge.
“A lot of high-end boat owners don’t want a zippered door. I do more doors than party tops; I have eight on my calendar as we speak,” Johnstone says. “It took me six to seven months, and building dozens of them, before I got to the concept I have now. But it has put me in a market that my competitors can’t get in. Most of them do not have their own metal shops.”
Johnstone has built a couple of doors for competitors with whom he has a good relationship, but generally prefers not to provide metal services to other companies, because, he says, “If they don’t do their work to my specifications, I am still attached to it, and I’m not going to do part of a job and let somebody else put their name on it.”
Eide Industries Inc., which has been manufacturing metal-and-fabric products since 1938, makes awnings, canopies, tension structures, cabanas, portable shelters, and entryway and walkway covers.
“We have the facility, capacity and experience to manufacture everything in-house,” says Joe Belli, president of the Cerritos, Calif.-based company. “From certified welders, grinders and inspectors to project management and engineering and sales departments, over half of Eide’s workforce contributes to metal fabrication projects.
“We provide metal fabrication services to many construction and architecturally related companies,” he adds. “We welcome and encourage them to partner with Eide.”
Bellon’s five-member metal department concentrates primarily on the company’s own products, but will make complete awnings or just structural frames for other companies. Its line of products includes awnings, covers for sidewalks and passageways and winter shelters for cars. More recently, the company has seen market growth for retractable awnings on side tracks.
“That’s a new thing for us,” Bellon says. “It’s double the price, but that’s where the demand is. People want to live more outside, and they don’t want to be covered at all times.”
Awnings of Hollywood in Hollywood, Fla., makes standard and retractable awnings, canopies, shade sails, cabanas, entryway and walkway covers, community mailbox covers, parking space covers, electrically motorized solar shades, retractable roofs and awnings and hybrid trellis structures with fabric elements.
“Because of our ability to transform an outdoor seating area to an all-season dining or entertainment venue, the restaurant and hospitality industry has been a growing market for us and has given us the opportunity to expand our product line from fabric-covered metal structures to retractable roofs, electrically motorized solar shades and WEATHERSHIELD curtains,” says president Gerald R. Thompson. The company’s WEATHERSHIELD curtain system, which can enclose any covered space, has been its fastest-growing product.
Metal fabricating capabilities may expand a company’s repertoire beyond fabric-based structures. Between 20 and 30 percent of Awnings of Hollywood’s business, for example, includes products such as shutters, trellises/pergolas, aesthetic architectural frameworks, railings, screens for mechanical equipment and metal-louvered roofs.
“This was something we pursued as a team to broaden our range of products, to be able to assist our customers more frequently and give them a one-stop shop,” Thompson says.
Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.
The one-stop shop
Companies that make awnings and other fabric shade structures may build their own frames to give them control over quality and delivery time. But operating an in-house metal shop also creates opportunities to expand a repertoire beyond fabric-based structures.
Nontraditional metal work accounts for about 10 percent of business for Lawrence Fabric & Metal Structures Inc. in St. Louis, Mo. “Just recently, we completed a custom plenum for a construction site,” says Jerry Grimaud, who recently sold his company but remains at work during the transitional period. “The plenum, an air duct 40 feet long by 45 feet wide and 60 feet high, was designed using steel and sheet metal. The structure was too heavy and expensive, so the contractor came to us to design an aluminum and fabric plenum that cost the customer more than $200,000.
“Although we do not directly market ‘oddball’ projects, we are not shy about sharing our project successes on our website or through our electronic marketing venues,” he says. “We have a habit of saying ‘yes’ to any customer idea.”
Miami Awning Co. of Miami, Fla., has fabricated projects for clients that do not incorporate fabric. “Some have been marquee styles that others have finished with different metals, such as copper,” president Michael Reilly says. “It hasn’t been something that we have pursued in earnest, since we are busy with fabrication and installation of our core products.”
In addition to fabric-and-metal products, Canvas Designers Inc. of Riviera Beach, Fla., has manufactured swimming pool ladders, railings and anchor fairleads. The company, which specializes in marine products, has pursued these adjunct products as another component to its business. “It’s a natural fit to all of the other things we do,” says Steve Eannarino, manager of the metal shop.
Not all fabric structure companies with in-house metalworking capabilities are pursuing more metal work—it depends upon how that sort of expansion fits into the business strategy. There may be opportunities there, but focusing on the core business often comes first.
Adding a metal shop?
Some tips for those thinking of bringing metalwork in-house.
Make sure you have a separate place for it, because metalwork is very, very dirty. Provide proper ventilation. Hire a good welder. Make sure your employees are aware of accidents that could happen with flashes or pieces of metal that could spark. If you are big enough to be able to add that pleasure of doing your own work, do it.
- Carole Bellon, The Bellon Prestige Group, Montreal, Canada
You need to consider the return on investment of implementing a metalwork shop, such as employing experienced welders and foremen, maintaining inventory, the entire manufacturing chain and anticipated/actual customer base, and anticipated sales.
-Gerald Thompson, Awnings of Hollywood, Hollywood, Fla.
Put a lot of thought into your design before forging ahead with a project. Working with metal is tricky, and mistakes are costly. It takes a lot of practice to know how much heat and flexibility a grade of steel will have from one to another. Do your research and have patience.
-Steve Eannarino, Canvas Designers Inc., Riviera Beach, Fla.
If somebody wants to start a metal shop, they don’t have to start out in a big way. They can buy small equipment to start and subcontract for larger projects. MIG welding is simple and fast; TIG welding is slower, but much nicer looking. Start with MIG and graduate to TIG if you find it necessary.
-Jerry Grimaud, Lawrence Fabric & Metal Structures Inc., St. Louis, Mo.
You need to be organized, have all the necessary equipment, insurance and skilled welders. Training should be current and ongoing. Safety
is very important!
Michael Reilly, Miami Awning Co., Miami, Fla.