The State of the Industry Assessment
In this annual special feature, the National Insulation Association (NIA) provides a broad-based assessment of the state of the mechanical insulation industry, which is based on the insights and expertise of leaders from different industry segments. With the timing of this issue of Insulation Outlook magazine coinciding with the very beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the United States, our experts’ responses were based on the information available in the first several weeks of the outbreak, which later escalated to a global pandemic. Our panel of highly engaged members of the mechanical insulation industry represent various aspects of the supply chain and have hundreds of years of combined experience and industry knowledge. We hope their perspectives are helpful to your company in this unusual time for us all.
NIA’s Panel of Experts
Dan Bofinger is the Regional Vice President, East, of Specialty Products & Insulation (www.spi-co.com), a distributor and fabricator specializing in the domestic and global distribution and fabrication of mechanical, industrial, commercial, building, metal building, and HVAC insulation systems; OEM products; passive fire protection systems; architectural/acoustical products and wall systems; and a wide range of specialty products. Mr. Bofinger is the Immediate Past President of NIA, a member of the NIA Board of Directors and Executive Committee, Co-chair of the Foundation Steering Committee, and a former Chair of NIA’s Distributors/Fabricators Committee.
David Cox works in Strategic Business Development, North American Technical Insulation
for Owens Corning, (www.owenscorning.com), a manufacturer of insulation, roofing, and fiber glass composite materials. The business is global in scope, with operations in 33 countries and headquarters in Toledo, Ohio. Mr. Cox has 40 years of experience in industrial and commercial insulation marketing. He currently serves as NIA Secretary/Treasurer, a member of the NIA Board of Directors and Executive Committee, Chair of the 2021 Convention Planning Committee, and Co-chair of the Foundation Steering Committee.
Mike Feehery is the Regional Vice President, Central, of Specialty Products & Insulation (www.spi-co.com), a distributor and fabricator specializing in the domestic and global distribution and fabrication of mechanical, industrial, commercial, building, metal building, and HVAC insulation systems; OEM products; passive fire protection systems; architectural/acoustical products and wall systems; and a wide range of specialty products. A Past President of SWICA, Mr. Feehery has 44 years in the industry, is Chair of the Distributors/Fabricators Committee, and represents SWICA on the NIA Board of Directors.
Steve Luse is CEO of Luse Thermal Technologies (www.luse.com), an industrial and commercial insulation and asbestos abatement contractor/distributor (dba Amerisafe Inc.) servicing the greater Chicago area and Midwest region. The 5th generation of Luses are now working in the nearly 100-year-old family business. A current NIA Past President Advisor and member of NIA’s Executive Committee, Mr. Luse is the current Chair of the Union Contractors Committee.
Rudy Nigl is Vice President of L & C Insulation, Inc. (www.lcinsulation.com), a merit contractor specializing in commercial and industrial insulation and firestopping in Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, and northeast Iowa for the last 30 years. He is a member of the NIA Board of Directors, Chair of the Merit Contractors Committee, Vice Chair of the Young Professional Advisory Committee (YPAC), a member of the 2021 Convention Planning Committee, and Vice President of MICA.
Darrell Peil is the Business Development Manager/Commercial & Industrial for Knauf Insulation (www.knaufinsulation.com), serving North America. Currently a member of ASHRAE and ASTM, he serves on several committees related to mechanical insulation, systems, and components. He is the current Chair of NIA’s Technical Information Committee, a past chair of ASHRAE’s TC 1.8 Handbook Subcommittee, and a member of the editorial committee for the National Commercial and Industrial Insulation Standards Manual (MICA manual). Mr. Peil has been associated with the building mechanical systems industry since 1982, holding various roles in the contracting, distribution, and manufacturing segments of the industry. During that time, he has served in several positions requiring in-depth work with business and product development, systems design, specifications, standards, and codes applying to a wide range of applications.
Sandy Shattles is the Business Manager of Insulation for the United States, Mexico, and Central America for Armacell, LLC (www.armacell.us). She started her career as a Research and Development Chemist for a leading rubber manufacturer, and has been with Armacell for 14 years, holding positions of Process Engineer and Plant Chemist, National Sales Manager for Retail, Sales and Marketing Manager Southeast Commercial, and Eastern Regional Sales Manager. Ms. Shattles is Vice Chair for NIA’s Associates (Manufacturers) Committee, a member of 2021 Convention Planning Committee, and has served as the Associate Member Delegate for SEICA.
David Shong, a Certified Insulation Energy Appraiser, is President of Thermal Pipe Shields (www.thermalpipeshields.com), a company founded by a 4th-generation mechanical insulation family member. He developed an early passion for insulation and has spent his entire 25-year career in the construction materials industry. Mr. Shong’s experience includes working with engineers, contractors, distributors, manufacturers, and fabricators.
NIA’s Education and Training Committee
NIA’s Education and Training Committee helps to identify instructional and informative
subject areas that would benefit the mechanical insulation industry, with the goal to provide added value to the industry and NIA members through new education and training program offerings. The committee has been active, providing direction and working with NIA staff on NIA’s Thermal Insulation Inspector Certification™ Program, launching a new Introduction to Mechanical Insulation course, developing content for a new Specification Reading for Mechanical Insulation course, and creating a new edition of the Estimator’s Handbook, which will be available later this year.
We asked 2 leaders on the Committee—Committee Chair and NIA President-elect
John Lamberton and current NIA President Dana Vlk—a few questions about NIA’s
What NIA resource do you use most often, and which do you usually recommend?
NIA President Dana Vlk: NIA offers so many wonderful resources! We have used the online training modules as part of our training for new sales associates. It gives a great overview of the products and technology in our industry. In addition, NIA meetings offer technical and educational sessions, as well as networking functions, that are valuable to anyone in our business.
NIA President-elect John Lamberton: As part of our educational process for employees, we use the Mechanical Insulation E-Learning Series quite a bit. Two new great additions are NIA’s Thermal Insulation Inspector Certification course and the new Introduction to Mechanical Insulation course. My company plans to use both.
Which current NIA program/offering are you most excited about?
NIA President Dana Vlk: All of our programs are fantastic, but the Thermal Insulation
Inspector Certification is something that really enhances our entire industry. The program was created at the request of engineers and end users, and it was developed by the members of NIA. It not only educates the members of our industry, but it also educates facility owners and inspectors on the proper way to inspect a mechanical insulation system to ensure that the proper materials have been installed in accordance with specifications. Webinars also offer an opportunity that our industry should embrace because they are free remote learning for members, offer a variety of educational topics, and are a cost-effective and time-efficient way to learn from your office or home office!
NIA President-elect John Lamberton: Obviously, the Inspector Certification and Introduction to Mechanical Insulation courses! There is serious pent-up need in our industry for this kind of education. There is also a need for properly trained Inspectors. Finally, we now have the ability to offer what the industry needs.
What is the committee working on now and considering for the future?
NIA President-elect John Lamberton: In addition to the new introductory course, we are working on a number of add-on modules that could be used to teach specifications reading, estimating basics, and project management, plus a series of programs that will prepare participants for career advancement or to become a business owner. It is difficult to develop training tailored specifically for our industry. All of this is way down the road, as we need both the time and the funds to make it all happen. But the goal is to get there.
I encourage everyone to contribute to the NIA Foundation for Education, Training,
and Industry Advancement to help fund these programs. Since this is a small industry
in comparison to, say, the plumbing industry, the cost per person is high; but through
contributions to the Foundation, we can offset some of the development costs in our
effort to keep course pricing low.
NIA President Dana Vlk: John has noted some great opportunities ahead of us! I think it is important to emphasize that we create programs based on member feedback. If there is a program you think we should offer, let’s discuss it at our next meeting! What always surprised me, especially as I went around the country speaking in the various regions, is the fact that so many in our industry have no idea of the massive amount of resources available from NIA and the Insulation.org website. If you are not aware, call the NIA staff. They are happy to walk you through the vast array of resources specifically tailored to our industry.
NIA President Dana Vlk is a Senior Advisor for Distribution International, Inc. (DI)(www.distributioninternational.com), which fabricates and distributes insulation materials for the industrial, marine, commercial, and government sectors. She currently serves as NIA President, a member of the NIA Board of Directors and Executive Committee, and is a
former Chair of NIA’s Distributors/Fabricators Committee.
NIA President-Elect John Lamberton is the Chief Operating Officer of Irex Contracting Group (www.irexcontracting.com), a contractor that provides various specialties, including installation and maintenance of mechanicalinsulation, sheet metal lagging, architectural finishes, passive fire protection, energy audits, and the removal of lead-containing materials, mold, and other hazardous materials. Mr. Lamberton currently serves as NIA President-elect, a member of the NIA Board of Directors and Executive Committee, Chair of
the Education and Training Committee, Chair of the 2020 Convention Planning Committee, Co-Chair of the Union Contractors Committee, and on the Foundation Steering Committee.
NIA’s Young Professionals Advisory Committee (YPAC)
What are you looking forward to accomplishing in the YPAC in 2020 and beyond?
Collin Smith: I am looking forward to working toward promoting diversity and inclusion efforts both within my organization and the industry in general. As the workforce continues to diversify, it is important to understand the needs of new groups of workers in an effort to create an inclusive environment people enjoy working in.
If someone was interested in joining this industry, what would you tell him/her about its benefits?
Collin Smith: I would tell them that the industry offers unique experiences that you can cater to your personal preferences. The industry is both highly technical and highly practical, which allows you to gain experience not only in theoretical concepts but also
in hands-on applications.
Collin Smith is a Product Manager at Owens Corning (www.owenscorning.com), managing the portfolio of industrial accessory products for the FOAMGLAS® insulation business. He has been with the company and working in the industry for 2 years.
Industry Predictions and Economic Outlook
Looking back, what is your business/economic perspective on 2019 now? What do you predict for 2020?
David Cox: Besides my Tarheels basketball team coming off the rails, 2019 did not have too many surprises for me. Last year I mentioned that my greatest surprise for 2018 was the challenge of transportation. That problem largely has worked itself out. A pleasant surprise for me was how quickly and efficiently NIA worked to develop and bring to market the Thermal Insulation Inspector Certification™ and how well it has taken off. Our association works hard to bring value to its members, and this program is an excellent result.
As far as what I predict for 2020, surely no one thinks I am an economist! My viewpoints are shaped by my optimistic nature and by what I learn from various news sources and customers. This has been a bizarre March by any standard in my 40 years of employment, and predictions are tough as events are changing daily. From what I have read, U.S. first-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth is likely to be close to nil on an annualized basis. For second-quarter GDP, many economists are anticipating an annualized decline of 6% to 7% (some are predicting up to a 12% to 24% decline) mainly due to the United States largely grinding to a halt. For third quarter, the general consensus is a decline of about -1% to -2%, pointing to a soft, V-shaped recovery as pent-up demand ramps up. Technically, though, we still will be in recession, as projections point to 2 quarters of negative GDP growth in a row. Focusing more on our industrial and commercial markets, I suspect we will see markets slowing down near term, but not across the entire United States as a whole, which will be more impacted by service industry employment numbers.
The good news to offset this bleak outlook is that the federal government is stepping in with a massive stimulus program, the Federal Reserve is moving fast and generously, and our trade agreement with China and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) will take effect. How these programs work will impact the degree of recovery slant in the “V”! The good news for our mechanical insulation industry is that, by and large, I understand that insulation manufacturers, distributors, fabricators, and installers in the United States are being designated as an “essential”/critical manufacturing and public works force, which means we keep working (intelligently and cautiously) during the shelter-in-place directives. This is good for our employment and the business of our member companies, as our industry generates more than 550,000 jobs in the United States and collectively supports a $33 billion payroll.
What are the 3 project challenges you saw during your 2019 projects? Do you expect those challenges to be present in 2020?
Mike Feehery: Insulation is normally one of the last items to be installed on projects, most notably after mechanical completion and testing of these systems are complete, which happens in phases. Projects in 2019 were no different, as slippage and delays during construction prior to releasing systems for insulation provided severe challenges for the insulation contractor and the material supplier, who are expected to make up for the delays. These time pressures can result in needing many more insulators to install the products, material availability challenges, storage at site, and all the inefficiencies and production losses that come with these challenges. It takes a lot of planning and sharing of information with all parties involved in an effort to minimize labor on site and increase productivity. We identified a way to keep track of material on site and provided many prefabricated parts. Our approach sped up the installation process, reduced site labor, and enhanced safety. I do not see this need going away anytime soon.
Steve Luse: Labor, Labor, Labor. Whether you are a union or merit shop contractor, or even a distributor, good labor is hard to find. I’m not just talking about field application labor, although that is probably the most difficult. In this booming economy, finding good project managers, estimators, and accountants is difficult.
Rudy Nigl: Labor shortage was the biggest issue, followed by unreliable construction schedules and partial/incomplete design and drawings. Yes, labor will continue to be our biggest hurdle, and hopefully the economy continues to prosper to where there is so much work that we are constantly juggling project schedules and deadlines—good problems to have!
Darrell Peil: A lack of lead times allowed through the chain of authority in the project management structure hampered the ability to effectively supply projects in a timely manner. In addition, more and more projects being released with more and more incomplete design work, which contributes to the above dynamic. It is not clearly understood what will be needed until last minute; and last-minute labor and material management results in project delays in reacting to the need, since nothing is final until the plan is in the construction documents. Even then, changes happen as the project is executed, resulting in an as-built condition rather than a planned project execution, as used to be the norm. By all accounts, the strategy of more and more incomplete project documents being released with less and less detail is expected to continue to grow. This release of highly incomplete project plans and specifications creates new challenges for project management and execution that requires a new set of skills and expectations. Inaccurate construction documents continues to be a top problem that causes delays and extra effort to make sure that what is really desired actually happens. Further, while partial documentation is a part of the issue, documents that are vague or contain outdated information, inaccurate material specifications, designs that cannot be executed, defunct selections, etc. all require significant effort devoted to clarification and/or correction. Again, because of on-the-fly solutions necessitated by shrinking levels of completion on project designs and documents, these problems can be expected to continue to grow.
What do you see as the 3 biggest challenges for 2020?
NIA President-elect John Lamberton: Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is still projected to be a major player in 2020. What effects the current coronavirus and the breakdown between Russia and Saudi Arabia will have are still yet to be seen, but they could be major.
Dan Bofinger: The current events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the volatility of oil prices will negatively impact our business in 2020. When events like devastating storms or other natural disasters occur and workdays are lost, we typically do not get enough lift after the event to make up that lost business. Prior to these recent events, our country was enjoying a robust economy and almost full employment, the latter posing challenges in itself. The challenge we face in 2020 is managing through the current volatility so we are positioned to capitalize on the opportunities that will resume once these current events stabilize.
Sandy Shattles: Prior to mid-March, I would have said an expected slowdown in growth as compared to recent years, uncertainty of international trade relations, and overall weak labor productivity. Currently, the biggest challenge that I believe faces us is the impact of COVID-19.
Recent years have seen a boom in LNG and modular construction. What industry segments are poised for growth in 2020?
Darrell Peil: Power generation is still on a significant growth curve as we convert energy used for power generation and develop our national strategy for meeting power needs as the need for increasing amount of power continues. Energy development of all kinds will be critical growth areas: LNG, compressed natural gas, oil extraction and refining, and a significant increase in petrochemical development. The pharmaceuticals production segment also is expected to be strong again for 2020.
Sandy Shattles: I would agree that there is a boom in LNG and modular construction. In addition, medical and recreational marijuana growing, wind power in the United States, and ship building are industries where I am seeing growth.
Do you currently predict a slowdown for the industry, and if so, when do you think it might occur for the insulation industry?
NIA President-elect John Lamberton: If I had answered this question prior to the current issues, I would have predicted a very solid 2020. Now, I just do not know. If things get under control, this may only be a short-term disruption; but we will have to wait and see how this plays out over the next couple of months at least.
Dan Bofinger: The construction business has always been cyclical. Fortunately, we see a shallower curve of ups and downs in the commercial and industrial sectors versus residential construction. Prior to the global current events, we were confident the industry would remain strong through 2020 and well into 2021.
David Cox: As I write a response to this question in mid-March 2020, there are several “shocks” that are impacting our world and thus my views. And these shocks came out of nowhere for the most part: the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to “flatten the curve,” the sudden and quick retreat of the U.S. stock market, an untimely oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia that is depressing oil prices to their lowest in 18 years, and many Americans sheltering in place and working from home, as schools and non-essential businesses are closed. Certainly, there is a lot going on, and these are interesting times we live in.
As for a slowdown for our mechanical insulation industry, there will be some of that in the near term as cities such as San Francisco, Boston, and New York have temporarily halted commercial construction activity. We have seen temporary shutdowns at a few large job sites, such as a Shell Chemicals job in Pittsburgh, which affects 8,000 workers. Additionally, several oil and gas companies (Exxon Mobil, EQT Corp., EOG Resources Inc., Whiting Petroleum Corp., Husky Energy, and Arc Resources Ltd., to name a few) are responding to low oil prices by cutting back capital spending by as much as 30%. This will certainly impact our member insulation companies, but the questions to be answered are for how long and how severely. The Associated General Contractors of America did a mid-March survey that revealed that about 25% of member firms in the United States have already halted or delayed work on projects due to COVID-19, while only 11% of firms report possible delays in jobs scheduled to start a month or more out. It is especially difficult now to make projections.
Darrell Peil: Before the coronavirus pandemic, based on all economic forecasts and
the activity at the design stage, we would probably have seen a bit slower market over 2019 from about the second half of 2020 to the first half of 2021.
This is not translated to mean bad, just a bit less aggressive. Most forecasts are looking for a 2% to 3% growth in non-residential construction for 2020 over 2019. The design community is reporting billings and design contracts on the upswing in most areas of the country in the past 4 to 5 months. This change, positive or negative, is typically experienced by our industry 12 to 18 months later.
Sandy Shattles: For commercial construction, I believe we will see an impact on insulation within 2020 and through 2021. The industrial segment could continue to be carried by LNG and modular building construction well into 2023.
Is the industry taking advantage of the green business movement?
NIA President-elect John Lamberton: Not as it should be. We have made significant strides, but our industry’s value to the green business movement is still largely unknown or underestimated. Unlike residential insulation, which the general public sees and understands, mechanical insulation is a mystery to most people. Getting the word out is still a monumental challenge for us.
Dan Bofinger: This is a complex question to answer. The United States has certainly become more energy independent with the oil and gas resources available to us. The gas resources have been used to displace coal in many areas, lending itself to a greener energy. Wind and solar continue to grow, but often through subsidies. One area our industry has
benefited from the focus on the green business movement is in specified insulation thickness. Newer codes call for increased R-values that translate to greater thicknesses of insulation. This turns into a more efficient (greener) mechanical system and more value to our business.
Darrell Peil: The green movement has taken a turn in the past couple of years. The number of projects being registered and certified is slowing because of cost versus benefit. Owners are developing their own programs that fit them, avoiding the more market-wide sustainable/green programs. Are we taking full advantage as an industry? I always maintain that insulation is the original sustainable industry. We have been telling the story for so long that it has become expected and not embraced by the construction industry. It is almost an attitude of, what else would you expect from insulation? More promotion of the sustainable nature of the industry and the products of the industry should be considered. It is almost a case of having to make the old new again. The story needs to be reframed. Developments that enhance the sustainable nature of our industry need to be promoted. Contrary to popular belief, there is quite a bit that is new in our business, much of it focused on sustainability features.
David Shong: The industry is benefiting from the increased focus on energy conservation because that is what we do! I am personally seeing many more requests for quotes that involve higher thickness requirements than historic requests.
What will be the next big industry disrupter?
Steve Luse: Surprise—the coronavirus! As a distributor, I wish I would have stocked up with more dust masks. I could have retired this year.
David Shong: In my opinion, 1 major source of disruption is manifesting itself in 2 ways within the mechanical insulation market. First, the broad trend of consolidation of manufacturers and distributors, which has the effect of decreasing competition. On the flip side, the market will always try to self-correct the decrease in competition by organic efforts to increase competition. There are many entrepreneurs in the market pushing to disrupt the status quo by introducing new or improved versions of traditional products. This increase in competition will lower costs and increase output, thereby allowing the market to sustainably grow as the demand for thermal insulation increases over time.
In 2020, how do you think NIA members and the insulation industry should prepare for the next decade?
Mike Feehery: We all see more and more focus on climate change and the fossil fuel industry, which is a major source of opportunity for our industry overall. Finding a balance and reducing greenhouse gases is an area where we can have a meaningful, positive impact. We need the positive press coverage and should take every opportunity to get the word out. In addition, attracting new people to our industry—especially on the production side—will continue to be a challenge. Skilled and semi-skilled labor, whether in warehouse distribution, fabrication, drivers, or insulators, pose a problem for all NIA members. So many times, I hear, “I never knew this industry existed; this is exciting!” With all the talk about free college tuition and the debt that is stiffing our youth and those who front the bill, there are many rewarding careers in our industry where people can be challenged every day, grow and learn something new every day, and get paid for it, rather than paying someone else.
Steve Luse: We must find a way to hang onto good employees once we do find them. They need to be shown a career path that they can visualize and be shown clearly how they can attain the next level, how long that might take, and what they need to accomplish to get there. They need to understand the company’s culture and be told what is acceptable and not acceptable in the workplace. At Luse Holdings, we interview for cultural fit and, once someone is hired, our on-boarding process does a deep dive into our corporate culture. Even our annual review process has a large cultural component concentrating on how well employees have embodied the culture at our company.
Rudy Nigl: Hire and do all you can to retain your quality employees. Those that are skilled and loyal will help carry our businesses for the next 10 years.
Darrell Peil: Adopt new ways of getting projects completed. New materials, new combinations of materials, and new forms of materials that all save labor. Look for ways to employ technology, such as building information modeling (BIM), to avoid additional time devoted to on-site, on-the-fly corrective actions that cost in terms of downtime or rework. There is little room in the schedule or the project budget for costly changes or rework, or
stopping the project to figure out solutions that could have been anticipated using technology.
We have a project management presentation at the next NIA meeting that will address creating efficiency through employing a newer project management philosophy designed to create higher levels of efficiency in executing projects. It is a new way of thinking.
What do you think is the most important issue facing the insulation industry, and why?
Steve Luse: Not to beat a dead horse, but I think finding and attracting good people for the field, warehouse, or office is the most important issue facing the insulation industry and almost every industry out there. This is not a “sexy” industry, so we as owners or managers have to find a way to make our workplace stand out from others; and we can do that by presenting an honest career path for potential new hires and making sure they fit into our culture so they will be happy once they get here.
Rudy Nigl: Labor shortage has been and will be the biggest issue we all face. With unemployment at all-time lows, the pool to find new employees is small, and the competition is fierce. We all have to do more to create a more appealing industry for the
Darrell Peil: Like all sectors of industry, the big challenge is to find qualified and capable staff members to join the team in roles that require highly physically demanding efforts on a daily basis, in less-than-ideal environments. Labor supply is a huge issue now and will continue to be in the foreseeable future. We have been talking about recruiting strategies that elevate construction to a career with a future instead of a paycheck with no long-term opportunities. All trades in construction are dealing with this, and many creative approaches have been employed by various trade associations with an interest in recruiting to construction. The insulation industry has to try some of these, since it is apparent there is no silver-bullet approach to the problem. Organizations within the industry will need to make this subject a major focus and delve into it on a long-term basis, not just at convention times.
The Engineer’s Perspective
How has the design of mechanical systems changed, or are there changes coming?
Rudy Nigl: We continually see drawings that are incomplete—perhaps only 50% to 70% complete. The engineers are expecting the contractors to “fill in” the rest of the systems and quote accordingly. This bidding process can be unfair, as one contractor sees a project differently than the next, and then they are awarded the work because they designed a “cheaper” system, rather than the best system. Bid day then has numbers that are not truly comparable.
Darrell Peil: Mechanical design is struggling with the same dynamic as all facets of the building process: Do more, deliver more, with less space devoted to the systems. The goal of the mechanical industry is to deliver services that meet needs, whether for space conditioning, plumbing, or process systems, in less space. The particular problems we see related to our industry center around providing greater insulation efficiency through increased thicknesses. This is a problem because spaces for mechanicals are becoming smaller. Therefore, insulation systems are requiring more space, in direct opposition to the direction the building industry is trying to go. Another problem is mechanical systems that use construction practices that leave minimal to no space for insulation, like compression fittings for copper pipe, mechanical grooved coupling systems for steel pipe and fittings and flanged connections/4-bolt connectors for duct systems.
What is the best way to remedy the gap between current products and codes with outdated specs or boilerplate language?
Sandy Shattles: I believe that the answer is tied to education and awareness. We will see great improvement if the industry continues to rally together to commit to broader education and exposure to advancements in mechanical insulation products, applications, and advancing technologies.
David Shong: Our strong recommendation to update and streamline all material specifications is to universally adopt the use of ASTM material standard specification documents. Eliminating brand names and manufacturer names is the best way to ensure broad competition and will eliminate future issues when product names change, are discontinued, or when manufacturers enter or exit a product segment market. The use of generic ASTM standard specifications allows engineers and owners to benefit from competition to drive down project cost, and also will reduce the number of requests for information, substitution requests, and change orders. Generic ASTM standard specifications quantify objective, measurable physical property requirements and thresholds that can be independently verified by third-party laboratories during the bid submittal process.
Since engineers are our largest readership category, what would you like them to know?
Darrell Peil: This industry does change, and there are new products and practices introduced routinely. We may not be as vocal as some other industries about those developments.
Have there been changes in the engineering sector that have affected how insulators do their jobs?
Darrell Peil: Going back to the idea of partial construction documents, the insulation contractor has had to do a lot more guessing and increasing communication with the construction team to get an idea of what might be needed and try to forecast needs to complete a project within the project schedule.
Sandy Shattles: I have seen a lot more paperwork required over the past few years as a result of regulatory and green building initiatives. This has required insulators to invest in resources to support this demand. The use of modeling systems has helped to provide more accurate depictions of the reality of what the project will look like. I anticipate more digital and technological advancements in the engineering sector that will continue to improve project design accuracy. Also, I’m seeing a wider use of Internet research to inform design decisions, which is leading to the use of innovative and new products in the industry. This is great; however, trust but verify what you see on the Internet! Not all products are created equally or are readily available. It never hurts to call a professional insulator to get their perspective on your design consideration.
Where do you recommend engineers find out about trends, code changes, and nuanced mechanical insulation information?
Darrell Peil: Trade events, trade publications like Insulation Outlook, interaction with the mechanical insulation community. I am often surprised by our industry’s and the design community’s relatively low level of knowledge of each other’s work, environment, and requirements.
Sandy Shattles: Armacell has met the standards and requirements of the Registered Continuing Education Program, as do other insulation manufacturers. Leverage those presentation opportunities to educate your teams. Many in our industry offer them free of charge—and with lunch!
How has technology changed the way your business functions this year? And what has improved your business the most?
NIA President Dana Vlk: At DI, we started using podcasts as an additional communication method. This has been a great way to share communications from our leadership team to all of our associates. I find the podcasts user friendly and super convenient. I like listening to them while commuting or exercising so that I am 100% focused on the message. It is important to use multiple avenues for communication, and I find the podcasts to be my new favorite!
Rudy Nigl: We transitioned to electronic timecards using a smartphone app. Our employees have loved the switch. No more paper timecards that they have to fill out correctly, turn in on time, and have all the details included. Now everything is done in real time and all necessary information is collected immediately. Payroll has been streamlined, which also saves time and headaches internally for our office staff.
What new technology are you looking at for 2020-21?
NIA President-elect John Lamberton: We are considering drones for some unique aspects of our business, but I see software as the next big thing. BIM is becoming more widespread and in some cases is the only construction document issued. Being able to
work with models and modeling software will become the norm down the road. Blueprints are slowly becoming obsolete.
Steve Luse: We are looking into GPS fleet monitoring systems as well as tools for reporting labor on jobs using handheld devices, etc. If something is not available on your phone in the future, people will not use it.
In the next 5 to 10 years, how do you anticipate artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning will disrupt our industry? How should managers, installers, and engineers prepare?
Darrell Peil: I do not think of AI as disrupting our industry as much as adding to our industry. As much as we all strive to learn about the products and solutions to construction problems, the same focus needs to be given to how technology is being used in our industry. This will allow an understanding of how it can be beneficial to business.
Insulation as a Career
What is the best career advice you have received? Or what do you wish your younger self knew?
NIA President Dana Vlk: I had a great mentor in this business who taught me to hire smart people, train them well in our industry and our company, and then let them do their job. This advice served me well over the years. I also learned that when you take care of your teams, they, in turn, take care of your business.
Dan Bofinger: I was advised early in my career to learn all aspects of the business. You may not gain expertise in all areas, but you will benefit from being more informed as to how your industry operates. Experiencing the different facets of an industry, whether it be sales, operations, or finance, will show you what area is most rewarding to you and where you will excel.
Mike Feehery: Never stop learning and growing. When you are good at what you do, you can only go so far by yourself. When you can teach someone to do what you do, build a team and you will go even farther.
Darrell Peil: Develop and train memory capability. It will serve well in the future to connect the dots at the right times.
Sandy Shattles: Early on, someone said to me, “I love that you don’t know what you don’t know!” I was not sure how to take it at first, but it was insightful. I was not afraid to fail because I did not know failure was an option. I was unafraid to push forward to learn more because I did not know that there could be an end in sight that might discourage me. I was never afraid to ask questions, and that led to more questions, which led to more questions. My advice to my younger self would be to keep asking questions. There is always someone willing to teach you if you are willing to learn!
Why do you think people should consider the insulation industry as a career?
NIA President Dana Vlk: The mechanical insulation industry is a wonderful career option. We are an industry that benefits the environment and we offer a multitude of careers in businesses of varying sizes. Additionally, we are an industry that offers training and resources to help you learn and grow in your career. Our national association even has a committee dedicated to young professionals who are entering the industry!
Mike Feehery: Ours is a niche industry within the construction world that is not easily duplicated by the Amazons, Googles, or Home Depots of the world. It is still a people business. With constant change in our world, there are challenges every day to makes products and processes work. Saving energy and reducing greenhouse gases are just a few of the benefits of insulation with almost every product we touch. Somewhere in the process, insulation always plays a role. There are so many aspects of the business where you can achieve greatness.
Darrell Peil: People should consider our industry because there is a long-term opportunity here, if the candidate is willing to embrace the business for what it can provide. It does offer many of the same characteristics job seekers look for in other industries, such as sound income opportunity, peer interaction, opportunity to help in business/career success and growth, and long-term ability to build a secure future. And we have terrific conference locations!
David Shong: I have been involved in the construction materials industry for 25 years and found the mechanical insulation industry about 6 years ago. This is a very niche market with so many great people that are truly dedicated. It is amazing how many people I meet that have 30+ years in the industry. Our company’s founding family has 4 generations of engagement in the industry, dating back to 1942. We all want our work to be meaningful and rewarding, and mechanical insulation delivers on both counts.
What NIA resource does your company use most?
Sandy Shattles: Armacell uses the E-Learning modules as a part of new-hire onboarding. We also use the NIA product sample boxes so that employees can touch and feel the different insulation types.
Why is your company a part of NIA?
NIA President Dana Vlk: For me personally, networking though NIA has been a valuable part of my career. Success for us as individuals and companies in this industry is not a zero-sum game. In fact, we all achieve more as an industry when our members are successful. It is important for all of us to participate in NIA so that, as an industry, we can advance the message about the long-term energy efficiency, cost savings, safety benefits, and emissions reductions that can be achieved through proper insulation and installation. Additionally, it is important that we come together as an industry to create the educational tools necessary to share this knowledge with the design, specification, and inspection communities, as well as facility owners. A great example of this is the new Thermal Insulation Inspector Certification™ that was developed with and by the members of NIA. This is a great program that can educate not only members of our industry, but also facility owners and inspectors on the proper way to inspect a mechanical insulation system and verify that the materials have been installed in accordance with specifications.
Rudy Nigl: Being active members within NIA has provided our company with countless hours of educational sessions, helping us better serve our employees and customers. Attending NIA activities has allowed us to build relationships with industry leaders so we can all share industry knowledge.
Sandy Shattles: What we do as a body within NIA encourages awareness, education, development, and improvement in our industry; and it exposes us to other industries at a national level. It is important that we all work together to further the future demands for mechanical insulation. Together, we can achieve more!
Why are certifications important for your business/our industry?
Rudy Nigl: Separating yourself from your competition is a big part of the competitive construction industry. We value having employees with certifications and education on specific areas of the industry to better serve our customers.
Thank you to all of the panelists and their companies for their participation and support.