Industry figure reviews what's available in the fastening market.

There are several niches within the commercial construction arena. Interior framing, exterior finishing, panelized wall systems, structural framing, metal buildings and steel housing are just to name a few. Although seemingly disparate in nature, they all have at least two common threads: first, they are expanding their use of light-gauge steel members, and, second, they are seeking more productive methods to produce quality end products. The latter calls for advancements in fastening systems, yet little gain has been made in this arena since the advent of self-drilling and self-piercing screws technologies approaching a half-century old.

As a contractor, take heart. The fastener and tool industries are aware of these needs. There is an explosion of new fastening technology on the horizon. To aid these gains, your direct support and participation are essential.

Try new things

Seeking something other than "tried and proven" methods has led to the greatest productivity gains during the last eight years that this nation has ever experienced. Lab testing and in-house mock-ups may provide information, but the field is where improvements and next generations of new product derive.

We are all looking for the fastening ideal for light-gauge steel attachments. Some hailed fastening without a mechanical fastener at all. Welding, adhesives and clinching all showed promise, but they have their drawbacks. It appears that the immediate and near future still include mechanical fastening. Ironically, the fastening methods used in the wood era are going to play a key role in the steel era.

The following describe many of our goals in achieving the ideal mechanical fastener. Not all new products will incorporate every item, nor will they all strive to accomplish the same points. You will have to be the judge as to how many and how well new systems contribute the following achievements:

? Blind-side fastening.

? One-step, one-second fastening with the pull of a trigger.

? One-person application.

? Instantaneous penetration, clamping and gripping.

? Cleanliness.

? Versatility for all gauges and all substrate thicknesses.

? Lightweight, strong packaging with large fastener quantities.

? Light tools with long lives.

? No accessory installation parts to wear out.

? Self-contained power units.

? No operator fatigue caused by fastening methods.

? No operator training required.

? No hazardous materials or safety issues.

? Infinite number of fastenings without reloading.

? Close to 100-percent quality, 100-percent installed fastenings.

? Cheap fastener price.

? Cheap tool price.

As a contractor, perhaps your wish list includes some items not mentioned above. All of us in the tool and fastener industry are anxious to hear them. However, the above seem to be the main points that are being aimed for in present developments. Yet it might be helpful to understand where fastening systems stand today and to what degree the above goals are, or are not, being met.

The twist on threads

Self-drilling and self-piercing screws were a great advancement for light-gauge steel fastenings. For more than 40 years, they have remained a mainstay. Self-drillers (as they are now referred) were a clever combination of two pre-existing technologies: a screw thread tap and a drill bit point. No longer was drilling, tapping a hole and fastening a three-step operation. Now considered old art, this fastener was quite a crowd-drawer at industry conventions of the early 1960s. Worker productivity was so greatly impacted that the premium price these fasteners carried was never questioned. Fasteners selling in the $3- to $4-per-thousand range today were sold at prices over $20 per thousand then!

Self-piercing screws were another advancement. First designed for drywall to light-gauge steel attachment, they were a marked improvement over the Type A tapping screw being used prior. So many of the old style were left on the floor due to burned points. So much installation time was lost that the two-to-three-times cost increase of new vs. old fasteners appeared a small price.

Even though major improvements for their time, installation of these fasteners required training and acquired skill levels for installers. Additionally, installation relied upon continuous, physical pressure from the operator. A large contributor to worker fatigue, this subsequently led to loss of productivity. Also, a worker used both hands, one for application of the fastener to driver end and the other to hold and operate the installation tool. All of the above is past tense. The near future will erase this.

An improvement of the installation method, yet still using self-drilling and self-piercing screws, is a collated fastener system. Freeing the hand of the installer is a benefit and does increase productivity. What it doesn't do is reduce operator fatigue, as the same pressure of installation is required. In fact, the addition of a stiff spring in the tool indexing system adds pressure to the overall activity in order to use the operator's energy to advance the next fastener. The addition of the indexer and fastener strip does not appear to add discernable weight to the tool. However, extending the tool nearly another 30 percent throws it out of balance from the original toolmaker design. A few of these indexers sport a good lack-of-jamming record, yet fastener jamming is inherent to any indexing system. With a price several times greater than non-collated product, each potential buyer needs to measure price vs. presentation of fastener ease.

Unthreaded varieties

Nails and pins are products that appear to have an increasing amount of activity in new developments for light-gauge attachment. It has always been the cry of wood-worker turned steelworker, "Why can't I nail to steel like I did with wood?" As was addressed earlier, this plaintive cry bodes the future. Yet as it relates to nails, they are unhardened, low-carbon steel. They penetrate soft materials, like wood. But they can't penetrate harder materials, namely steel.

Pins are a different story, however. They are made from hardened, higher-carbon steel and have been penetrating not only thick steels, but also even harder concrete for many decades. Pins are tried and proven for certain applications. Yet when they meet light-gauge steel, they remind this author of the book "The Art of War."

Pins are a strong solution to conquer such a weak opponent as 16-gauge, let alone 25-gauge. That is until one appreciates the flexibility of this foe. Light-gauge steel flexes. It moves away from the intruding fastener, spacing substrate from steel or steel from steel. Gaps between materials provide a loose fastening. (Sun Tsu would have been proud of this evasiveness.) Pins find even greater adversity in fastening substrates to light-gauge steel or fastening light-gauge steel to light-gauge steel. This is because they tear a hole in the light-gauge steel as large as their major body diameter. Penetration is accomplished, but without gripping or clamping.

In thicker steel, pins are successful because the increased thickness creates friction such that the pin body welds itself within the surrounding material. Yet 16 gauge and thinner provide not enough surface area to allow for this friction weld. The addition of spiral flutes, nibs or other surface protrusions from the pin body do nothing but tear a larger hole.

Although many pin systems are seen at industry conventions today, be advised to carefully look at pullout values offered. Many of these values are attained through the method of applying two or more pins in opposing pattern.

Installation tools

A fastening system requires using a tool that mates with the fastener to accomplish the fastening installation. So let us take a look at the tools available for these systems.

Electric screw guns accomplish 99.9 percent of all self-drilling and self-piercing fastener installations. (There's probably someone, somewhere using a hammer or a very fast screwdriver, so we left them 0.1 percent.) These power tools have developed over many years. With new models come new improvements: clutches, triggers, motors, housings and power have improved dramatically since the early years. With the advent of powerful, longer-life batteries, even greater market segments are opening.

The problem with electric screw guns is the requirement of force by the operator to install the fastener. The tool turns the fastener, but the installer must still push the fastener through the steel. Electric motors wear quickly. This is primarily due to the quantity of moving parts, the heat and friction generated and, in some applications, the constant running of the gun. Additionally, electric screw guns require accessory parts to install the fastener. These items wear quickly and must be replaced on a continual basis.

Pneumatic (air) tools are a different breed. Their main drawback is the requirement of a power generation unit: an air compressor. Additionally, they need to be connected to this power source via a large air hose. The positive side is that pneumatic tools have few moving parts and last for many fastening cycles without problems. They run cool and are relatively quiet compared to the constant whine of electric motors. They have tried and proven magazine feed systems that are less prone to jamming vs. screw indexing systems.

Although they are generally heavier than an electric screw gun, their weight is distributed below the worker's hand, providing a greater balance than a pistol grip style. The per-shot cost is very cost competitive and is far lower than powder actuated or gas guns. With the driving force available via compressed air, a pneumatic gun solely performs the installation effort required to drive a fastener, thus greatly reducing operator fatigue vs. screw guns. Pins are installed primarily using this method.

A new fastening system making large gains is the ignited-gas system. Commonly called gas guns, these systems use an on-board gas canister of compressed, ignitable fuel combined with an electronic (battery) ignition system. Although an outgrowth of prior technology more than 20 years old, these new guns now incorporate a fan for proper gas dispersal, along with a sophisticated circuit board for proper metering of gas and determination of ignition timing. A magazine similar to pneumatic systems is used to feed collated pins into the nozzle.

These guns generate impressive power, yet are far below the decibel level of powder actuated. Currently, the per-shot cost and collated pins are several multiples over a pneumatic system. But their growing popularity speaks to increased operator productivity. The tool appears large and bulky, yet is surprisingly lightweight. Some magazine articles have been written about gas fumes from these guns fouling enclosed areas. This author has not noticed any significant level of offensiveness. Costs of this system may appear steep, but productivity gains appear measurable by end users. Other large manufacturers have done work on gas guns. Perhaps with their entry into this area, prices will reduce.

Installation--the true cost

The fastener and installation tool are only a fraction of the total cost of installation. Installation costs also must include:

? Operator hourly wage.

? Payroll taxes and benefits packages.

? Operator training time.

? Safety costs and medical leaves.

? Disability costs.

? Operator daily down time.

? Driver accessories cost.

? Dropped fasteners.

? Unsuccessful fastener installations.

? Finishing time of marred or dirty surfaces.

? Operator productivity--quantity of work accomplished.

New fastening systems will never rival your current fastener and tool cost only. But if this were the last consideration, self-drilling and self-piercing fasteners would never have become available. Forty years ago, productivity gains and reduced operator fatigue were valued to exceed the true cost of fastening: the installation cost.

Just as one must look at one's total installation cost, there is an area that companies developing new products must realistically measure market price against: increased productivity for the end user.

Who's there?

The ideal mechanical fastener and installation tool may not come in one grand arrival; it may come piece-meal. Companies working on unreleased systems are going to divulge few, if any, details at the moment, but significant efforts in fasteners are underway.

So the next time a company presents you with a new fastening system and advises that use of its system requires you re-tool to take advantage of this new, emerging technology and pay more for the new fastener and tool, ask the rep to show you what productivity gains to expect. Measure this against your true installation cost. If it looks promising, then work with the vendor to tweak the new technology, and encourage your installers to embrace it.

We can all watch the future unfold along with the advancement of this industry we share. Technology moves step-by-step. That knocking you hear is the next step. Invite it in!