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Steel has been around for hundreds of years, and while the product itself has not undergone major changes for structural grades since the 19th century, the construction-focused industries that utilize steel are transforming rapidly.

Designers and owners of metal buildings are seeing numerous resulting benefits. One major change centers around efficiencies in the manufacturing process, as plants are increasingly tasked with finding ways to produce larger quantities while also cutting costs. Other changes, such as energy-saving paints and coatings technologies, as well as enhanced insulated metal panels, are contributing to other efficiencies in energy usage and the subsequent operating costs.

Streamlining processes

Because manufacturers in the metal building industry cannot change the base price of steel, the cost benefits they bring to the end-user need to originate with the identification and removal of costly system inefficiencies. The past 10 years have seen a notable shift toward lean manufacturing and a trend toward those processes that can reduce waste, cycle time and inventories.

Many of these efficiencies can be achieved through changes to plant layout. For example, in a facility that produces building trim, adoption of a “single piece flow” system means that a unit can travel through the requisite series of machines with a minimum of sidetracks or diversions. If a plant is producing a piece of gutter, the ability to line up the machines and processes in an orderly, concise way means that the final product completes its journey faster, eliminating the need for travel to different ends of the plant, or space to store any quantity of incomplete product.

It may be that capital expenditures are required to purchase the equipment that allows for such a configuration, but single piece flow--especially in a labor-intensive environment--does result in a reduction of manpower per ton and brings a proven return on investment.

Energy-saving paints and coatings

Energy-saving paints and coating technologies have played a vital role in metal roofing. In the past, builders and architects were limited to white and other very light colors for roofs if they wanted high solar reflectivity for energy efficiency. Recent improvements in paints and coating technologies allow for a broader range of colors for roofing that still offer a relatively high total solar reflectance. Special coatings help to lower long-term energy consumption, as the reflected solar heat leads to a reduced amount of air conditioning required to keep the inside temperature at a comfortable level.

Lastly, because these advanced coatings allow for greater emissivity of UV or ultraviolet radiation, they have a greater resistance to degradation associated with absorption of that radiation, resulting in a longer service life. Because the advanced, energy-saving coatings technologies keep the roof cooler, they also decrease the overall thermal contraction and expansion of the roof, reducing potential wear and tear.

Insulated metal panels

Insulated metal panels (IMPs) are an increasingly popular solution for the metal building industry. IMPs, which have one layer of insulation in between two metal panels, provide a highly effective way to construct a sustainable and energy-efficient building. Offering the simplicity of one-step installation, IMPs help building owners increase energy efficiency while cutting costs through a shorter duration of the construction process. The panels can also carry a higher R-value (per inch of thickness) than traditional fiberglass insulation, translating to some of the best savings and efficiency benefits that today’s metal construction industry can offer.

Where the metal building industry is headed

With history as a guide, these advances are only a bellwether for things to come. Expect to see more photovoltaic systems, which already have a high degree of compatibility with metal buildings. In an extension of the innovations recently seen in advanced metal coatings, the industry is keeping an eye on theoretical work to develop solar cell media that could potentially be applied directly to substrate metals in coil coating applications, similar to how paint coatings are currently applied. Expect more incorporation of skylights and natural lighting in buildings to provide further reduction in energy costs.
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