Volume 35, Number 11, November 2000
Dealing with the Controversial Problem of Transporting Architectural Metals
by Penny Beverage
Freight travels through numerous terminals, highways and airports across the country,
and along the way, it is sometimes dropped, damaged or even lost. The person who has
ordered the shipment has no idea where it has been on its journey.
Although shipping problems occur in all facets and modes of life, it is a particular problem for glass shop owners who require architectural metals for the projects upon which they are working.
And, with only a few suppliers of architectural metals, glass shops have little to no choice in where to order these much-needed products. Thus, they are compelled to order the freight from distant sources, despite what it may endure on its trip.
Among glass shop owners, it seems that the problem of damaged freight is the normnot the exceptionwhen ordering architectural metals from suppliers across the United States.
This happens on almost every shipment, said Richard L. Smallwood-Roberts, commercial manager for City Glass Co. Inc. of Janesville, Wis. Im sick of wasting all of my time dealing with re-orders and freight claims.
A recent order demonstrated the breadth of the problem for Smallwood-Roberts. On one particular project, I had to order materials and the original materials came in damaged.
Then, the replacement materials came damaged. Then, the replacement materials for those came in damagedall for one project!, he lamented.
Mike Lingle, owner of Lingle Glass Co. in Joliet, Ill., has endured a similar fate when ordering architectural metals. Lingle said he finds that his shipments are damaged nearly 95 percent of the time. This isnt stuff that can be pulled off the shelf, Lingle explained. A lot of the shipments I get are in stock lengths, and it never seems to fail that the stuff damaged is a custom-painted product that Ive been waiting eight to ten weeks for.
On the other end of the matter, Steve Green of Tubelite Inc. in Reed City, Mich., said that of all the complaints his company receives, freight ranks at the top of the list.
We actually have surveyed our clients over the last several years and the number one complaint that comes back is freightfrom the price of freight to damaged freight, he said.
Despite the seemingly high frequency of damaged-freight complaints, others in the industry find that this problem is small or even nonexistent. Don Armentrout, production coordinator for Imperial Glass Structures in Wheeling, Ill., said he finds the problem has decreased greatly in his ten years in the glass industry.
The person who handled freight before me had a lot of problems with this, but I havent, Armentrout said. Its not that complex of a problem.
Despite how often it happens, the fact is freight sometimes remains damaged. However, before searching for a solution to the problem, the industry must first discover its cause. Packaging is at the top of the list of probable causes. From the size and color of package labels to the composition of the packaging materials, the packaging issue reigns high on the list of problems for the transportation of architectural metals.
Ana Arevalo-Goodman, branch manager for Taco Metals Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla., says her company packages architectural metals in corrugated boxes, strong enough not to break en route to the customer.
Theyre made to support 200-pounds per square inch, so they should be sturdy enough not to be damaged, she said.
Similarly, Kawneer ships aluminum extrusions in 24-foot corrugated cardboard stocklengths, doors in corrugated cardboard or shrink-wrap and parts and accessories in multi-dimensional corrugated boxes. Recently, Kawneer even reduced its average box weight from 200 pounds to 150 pounds, in an effort to ease the handling of each box, according to Robert G. Leyland, vice president of sales and marketing.
However, the strongest cardboard has proven weak for Lingle. There are times that Ive asked that the boxes be double-boxed and extra-packed to alleviate shipping damage and again, you pay a premium, and it gets here and its still mutilated, he said.
Smallwood-Roberts has had similar luck. If someone has something that is very prone to damage, its crated, he said. But if these boxes inevitably are going to be moved around by forklifts, then they need to make these boxes forklift-proof or build some sort of wooden box around it to make sure its not damaged.
According to Leyland, architectural metal manufacturers would have to increase prices in order to offer the sort of packaging glass companies desire. The packaging can be increased, but at a direct cost to the customer, Leyland said.
In what seems to be an unanswered debate, glass shop owners like Smallwood-Roberts say they wouldnt mind the extra cost if it meant the freight would surely arrive undamaged. If it costs a buck more, Id pay it to make sure it doesnt get damaged, he said. I think the manufacturers should have to box the materials so they wont get damaged to give a reasonable person the peace of mind that Im going to order it and its going to get here undamaged.
Armentrout, however, said he would have to debate whether the price increase would be worth it, considering the small amount of damaged freight he has received. Its a calculated risk, he said. They estimate about 5 percent damage, but it could cost
15 percent more to package it better.
Tom Minnon, sales and marketing manager for Structures Unlimited in Manchester, N.H., and a former employee of metal suppliers Kawneer and U.S. Aluminum, suggested that the companies could ship freight in smaller stocklengths or could increase their use of shrink-wrap, a clear plastic wrapping. Ive always thought there was a market out there for architectural aluminum companies to offer stocklengths of 12- to
14-feet, Minnon said. The main problem is that 20-foot stocklengths are fragile and if they bend, they ruin the aluminum.
Minnon continued, Maybe architectural aluminum manufacturers need to come up with some sort of recyclable packaging. One of the things that comes to mind is maybe something inflatable to wrap the
In addition, Minnon suggested that if freight-handlers could see what they were handling, they might be more careful. I found that after we started shrink-wrapping, the claims actually went down, he said. We thought that they might go up because the plastic might not protect the stocklengths as well, but the opposite happened.
Smallwood-Roberts also suggested that architectural metals suppliers take a lesson from the window shades industry, which packages its shades in triangular, strong, hard-to-crush boxes. If you used that same concept with metal, with three pieces on the bottom, two pieces on the top and then one more piece on top, I think it would mitigate a lot of the damage, Smallwood-Roberts said.
Handling the Freight
Even with increased packaging, many still feel the problem lies in the handling of the freight. As the stocklengths travel on various trucks and through numerous terminals, it is often moved from platform to platform several times by forklift or crane. In the process, it is often broken, bent or scratched. Despite suggestions that companies simply label their packages FRAGILE or HANDLE WITH CARE to lessen the risk of damage, many still feel that those handling the freight do not care about a boxs contentsno matter how it is labeled.
Packaging them with bright labels is not going to do a thing, Smallwood-Roberts said. You have to make sure the freight companies do their part and that they give it special care and make sure it doesnt get damaged.
Lingle said he personally has asked many of the freight carriers why they treat his freight so roughly, and has been given answers such as we dont know whats in those boxes and if its that precious, they should ship this stuff in wooden crates.
When I handle a product for a customer, I treat it like its my own and I think these shippers need to do the same, Lingle said.
However, Kawneers freight is moved rarely by human hands due to the large size of the stocklengths in which it is shipped. When I was there, Kawneer utilized an overhead crane to move the product from a staging area to the shipping dock, said Minnon. The stocklength product was hung from the crane at two pick-up points utilizing nylon straps, not only for safety reasons but also to prevent the product from flexing. Once at the shipping dock, a forklift with a special pole crane attachment lifted the product into place on the trailer.
Green agreed that the fewer people who handle the freight, the better its chances of arriving undamaged. Youve got to find a cost-effective way to get it there without anybody having to handle it, he said.
Whether handled by forklift or human hands, Armentrout insists that the likelihood of damage is in the manufacturers hands, not the hands of the freight company. Its just a matter of what the supplier does with the package that minimizes the damage. Armentrout added, though, that his company usually orders only from companies that have their own trucks.
Modes of Transport
Smallwood-Roberts said he has ordered metals from companies that had their own trucks and from companies that were compelled to use various shipping companies, and the former had a much better record of shipping freight without damage by far.
I used to have a local distributor for the architectural metals I use, but it went out of business, he said. I could just order from them, though, and theyd send me the stocklengths on their own trucks and it would come right to me undamaged.
Lingle, who operates his storefront curtainwall contracting business from Illinois, said he has thought about shipping his own freight to ensure that it gets to him unharmed. Ive contemplated sending my own truck out there to go get my shipments, Lingle said.
According to Leyland, Smallwood-Roberts and Green, smaller orders of architectural metals are moved from carrier to carrier more often than larger orders, due to the costs of shipping.
If we have a large order, we can justify putting it on a truck by itself, Green said.
Kawneers Leyland said his company handles freight similarly. Many smaller orders are shipped on the LTL [Less-Than-Truckload] carriers that consolidate Kawneer freight with other freight destined for the same area, he said. Kawneers freight is often handled multiple times, off-loaded, cross-docked, reloaded and bottom-stacked.
When a glass shop receives damaged material, it is up to the customer to file damage claims with the freight company. However, often these damage claims go ignored or the customer needs the product in such a hurry that he has to find another way to obtain the necessary materials. When that happens, the customer often is not reimbursed for the original materials, because damage claims only cover replacement materials from the same company.
On some of the claims, Ive gotten reimbursed for parts that I could wait to have replaced, but for parts that I couldnt wait for and had to do here, Ive never seen a penny of it, Lingle said. He added that his shop loses approximately $2,000 a month repairing and replacing freight damage.
Smallwood-Roberts suspects the architectural metal companies actually make money on the damaged freight, because they have nothing to do with paying freight claims. Once it goes out their door, they dont care, because theyre going to bill you for it whether or not its damaged, he explained.
In an attempt to relieve the problem, Lingle said he has even paid for identicated shipments for his last two orders. That means the only thing that goes on that shipment is mine. But, the problem is to do that from Texas to Illinois costs $2,700, Lingle said, lamenting the financial burden costs like those place on his business.
The trucking companies handling the freight also are facing financial burdens, according to Minnon, who dealt directly with the companies during his time at Kawneer and U.S. Aluminum. We used to have a lot of trucking companies saying they didnt want our business anymore because of all the claims they got from it, he said.
Green expounded upon how freight companies deal with these financial burdens. Freight companies traditionally make very little money, he explained. When they have all these damage problems, a lot of the companies flat-out refuse to pay the claims. The glazing company is the one who gets the short end of the stick then.
Whats the Solution?
Although everyone seems to have an opinion on the controversial topic of damage claims, all are in agreement that the problem must be solved for everyones sake: the glass companies, the metal manufacturers and even the freight companies. Smallwood-Roberts says to solve the problem, the metal manufacturers must force the freight companies to abide by certain agreements or else they must begin shipping their own freight.
On the other end of the matter, Leyland says Kawneer currently is working to revolutionize the problem and decrease the amount of freight damage its product often endures. We filled the new role of manager of transportation and logistics to focus on this very issue, Leyland said. Kawneer is currently developing new shipping practices to minimize freight damage. We are testing a 24-foot, reusable metal shipping crate/container to protect the stocklength product in-transit. We are performing analysis on the material handling of our freight with LTL carriers. We are looking at packaging alternatives that would not increase the price to our customers.
Likewise, Green said Tubelite is working to reduce freight damage as soon as possible. Were diligently looking for ways to deal with the problem so that we can deliver the product without damage, he said. However, Green could not reveal the current status of this process.
Relief cannot come soon enough for shop owners like Lingle and Smallwood-Roberts, though, who
continue to lose money due to freight damage. Its going to end when someone starts exerting pressure to change it, Smallwood-Roberts said. Otherwise, its never going to end.