June 2017
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Just Another Pick in 'The Wall'?

Demand for expanded metals is growing. Will 'The Wall' deliver an even bigger boost?

By Dan Markham, Senior Editor

Expanded metals have enjoyed a solid 2017 so far, with first-quarter demand showing no signs of slowing. The cause is a bit unclear, however. “Business is good, a lot of customers are confident, but nobody’s really sure why,” says Rick Bahner, president of Expanded Solutions, Oklahoma City. “That makes it a little interesting.”

Expanded metal is produced from sheets of plate that are slit and stretched into a diamond pattern. The product offers considerable strength and is often used for gratings and catwalks. It also allows air, water and sound to flow through the openings, making it useful for a host of other applications, such as filtering liquids.

Some observers point to the strengthening oil and gas market as a source of new orders for expanded metal, “but that doesn’t seem to have made much difference,” says Bahner. Others point to the new administration in Washington and its effect on the economy, “but we began to see stronger performances before the election,” notes Mike Gilboy, president of Spantek Expanded Metal, Hopkins, Minn. For the most part, suppliers say, the uptick in demand has been across the board with distributors, fabricators and other end users all benefiting.

One plank in the Trump administration’s agenda that excites the industry is “The Wall.” The president’s proposal to strengthen security on America’s southern border is a potential boon for expanded metal, executives say. Most of the talk about the proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border has conjured images of a brick or concrete structure spanning the nearly 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. But given the varying terrain along the border, more than a single material will likely be needed, in whatever form the additional security takes.

Bahner points to an existing 17-mile stretch of expanded metal fencing that protects the border near San Diego, which illustrates the role the product could play in border protection. “Of the proposals that have been made, I don’t think there have been any specifically including expanded metals, because everybody’s been talking ‘wall.’ But the diversity of the land is going to require different things, and expanded metals can certainly have a place to play in that arena,” Bahner says.

“There’s not one product that will be able to handle the length of the wall, or all the areas it will cover. It will be different in every segment,” agrees John Holliday of Accurate Alloys, Irwindale, Calif. Expanded metal is also an economical option, compared with other building materials, he adds.

Greater security-consciousness is a good omen for the expanded industry, whether the material is used in a border wall or to protect airports, railroads, energy facilities or water treatment plants. “Security has been a steady growing business segment,” says Bill Phillips, president of Niles Expanded Metals, Niles, Ohio. “It is still a relatively new market for our products, a ‘clear blue ocean,’ if you will.”

In residential and nonresidential construction, the material serves purposes both functional, such as in sun screens, walkways and room dividers, and aesthetic, such as on building exteriors. The industry continues to promote the material as a building option.

“The architectural market is an area with room for growth, and competing mesh products are firmly entrenched,” says Phillips. “While expanded was often perceived as industrial, it offers built-in aesthetic features not found in other mesh products.”

The Expanded Metal Manufacturers Association, the trade group representing the industry, has embarked on a multi-pronged marketing campaign to promote expanded metal in a variety of different construction applications.

“Areas like architectural and concrete reinforcement. They’re not groundbreaking new technologies, but areas where our product is not used as it could be. We want to make a commitment to see that it is, or at least get a chance to tell our story,” Gilboy says.

EMMA has been collecting expanded metal shipment data to provide industry participants with a better understanding of the markets and trends. The association also is engaged in a campaign to revise specifications for its products. The push, which will synchronize ASTM F-1267 and EMMA 557-15 standards, will provide service centers and other customers with the necessary information to ensure the products being purchased have consistent diamond dimensions, strand widths and thicknesses.

The standards are important for quality control, particularly in markets with a heavy influx of foreign products. The West Coast, for example, sees a lot of imported material, and a consistent standard will allow service centers to make more informed purchasing decisions, Holliday says.

The supply base itself has seen substantial change in the past year. Alabama Metals closed three of its facilities, then sold its bar grating assets to Nucor’s Fisher & Ludlow division. A small producer, Oklahoma’s Metal Spand, shuttered operations. “That’s quite a lot of turmoil in a fairly small pond. Whenever there’s a change in the marketplace, it takes a while to digest,” Bahner says.

Despite the closures, Phillips believes the domestic supply chain is running efficiently. “Raw materials are readily available, mills and service centers are well stocked and there doesn’t appear to be any reported capacity issues.”



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Monday, October 23, 2017