90 years of roll-forming excellence

voestalpine Metsec, the UK’s largest specialist cold roll forming company, officially celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. Its roots, however, can be traced back much further than 1931.

Located at Oldbury, in the heart of the Black Country region of the English West Midlands, Metsec’s existence owes much to the long tradition of innovation, engineering expertise and skilled metalworking which proliferated in the area since, if not before, the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Large-scale steel manufacture in the Black Country probably truly started in the mid-late nineteenth century. A harder, stronger material than iron, steel created even more opportunities, broadening the number of products that the region could offer as well as the applications in which they could be used.

It is on this fertile ground of innovation, ingenuity and enterprise that Metsec’s early seeds were sown in the late nineteenth century.

The Broadwell Road site currently occupied by Metsec was originally used by the Oldbury Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Limited for the manufacture of railway carriages in 1869. Later becoming The Metropolitan Amalgamated Railway Carriage and Wagon Co Ltd, the company continued to produce railway and tram carriages until 1930 when it was closed for restructuring.

A significant development in the company’s future was the formation of Tube Investments Limited (TI) in 1919. An amalgamation of some of the Black Country’s leading industrial companies, including Simplex, Credenda, Accles and Pollock and Tubes Ltd. The TI Group would become one of the country’s largest industrial corporations, growing through acquisition until it was itself bought out by Smiths Industries in 2000.

In 1932, having been empty for two years, the Broadwell site was bought by the ever-expanding, acquisitive TI. The site formed an integral part of the conglomerate’s operations and was occupied by various group companies between then and the Second World War.

At around the same time, TI bought Metal Sections Limited, a small company formed by Leonard B Henderson in 1931. It is this event which truly marked the birth of Metsec.

Metal Sections was cold roll forming profiles from steel strip using machinery designed and developed by Leonard Henderson. The technology complemented the processes that were used within the TI Group and the new acquisition became part of Accles and Pollock’s operations, initially based at the Paddock Works, less than a mile away from the Broadwell Road site.

The operations focussed on the manufacture of automotive components for cars, buses, railway coaches and commercial vehicles. Metal Sections profiles were used to form the skeletons of train carriages and buses.

The expertise in cold roll forming also opened other opportunities, including roller shutters, shop fittings, permanent and temporary buildings, furniture and even hoops for tobacco containers. The building components, with which the Metal Sections name would later become synonymous, were limited to decorative rather than structural products and included picture rails, skirting boards, dado rails and fireside kerbs.

Marketing was under the Accles and Pollock umbrella, with products branded as ‘A and P Metal Construction’.

During The Second World War halted the company turned its metalworking expertise to meeting wartime demands. Along with other military equipment, the company manufactured frames for Lancaster bombers and ammunition wagons as well as ammunition tracks for Halifax and Stirling heavy bombers, and runners for belts feeding the guns of Spitfires, as well as components for sten gun and ‘bunker buster’ rockets.

On the home front, the need for furniture was met by the Utility Design scheme and metal sections were used for chairs and settees.

Post war changes

Commercial production resumed after the war with Metal Sections Ltd. becoming a separate company within TI and moving to the Broadwell site.

The company continued to be heavily involved with the automotive industry, cars and buses in particular, but post-war market conditions were different to those before the war. Demand for buses was increasing due to investment in public transport, but the car market had dipped and the market was becoming more competitive.

The company recognised the need to improve efficiency and productivity to contain costs and maintain competitiveness. It also knew that diversification into other markets could help to fill the gap left by decline in others.

One of these areas was construction. There was a desperate need for new homes and the government saw prefabricated buildings as a potential stop-gap measure whilst new traditionally constructed houses were being constructed. Amongst many different designs of ‘pre-fabs’ were the aluminium house and the Airey house, both of which used metal sections to create the frame, which was then infilled with sheet materials. Using cold-rolled sections to form the structural frame was proved to deliver a more versatile and cost-effective solution than using traditional hot-rolled sections.

Metal Sections role in providing structural and decorative sections for these frameworks was significant for the company at the time and proved to be a precursor for things to come, although today’s technology, materials and methods are a far cry from these early post-war constructions.

The principles established in the construction of homes from metal sections were soon extended to schools, offices and industrial buildings. Metal Sections became a major supplier of construction solutions to the building industry.

The Big One

A landmark moment in the use of Metal Sections for industrial buildings came in 1954 when the United States Airforce commissioned 71,000 square metres of new warehousing at Burtonwood, near Warrington. It was the largest construction project in Europe at that time and within Metal Sections it was affectionately referred to as ‘The Big One’.

In a departure from traditional methods, the buildings were to have no internal supporting walls, providing an open structure which maximised floor space and optimised operational efficiency. Received wisdom was that cold-rolled sections could only achieve spans up to 7 metres. This fell well short of what was required at Burtonwood.

Fortunately, Metal Sections had already done some groundwork for the project in 1949 when its technical team had designed and successfully tested spans of cold-rolled sectional members up to 33 metres for a project in the West Indies, which did not materialise.

The design team had also developed a three-pin arch design for the roof supports, eliminating the need for freestanding intermediate walls. This was an innovative approach and, to prove its viability, a full-scale structure was manufactured and tested to destruction.

The project was completed in twenty months, a record for the time, and the success led to the formation of the ‘building department’ at Metal Sections. It also established the company’s reputation and pre-eminence in this field.

Construction opportunities

The success at Burtonwood heralded the start of the company’s move into the design and manufacture of construction solutions. A development team was established to identify opportunities and develop products to meet the industry’s needs.

Over the years, the company developed new products and manufacturing techniques, as well as acquiring new companies which added to its knowledge and expertise

The range of building products designed and manufactured by Metal Sections continued to grow through the sixties and seventies.

The ‘Metsec Wall System’, a composite infill panel consisting of a pumped polyurethane core sandwiched between plasterboard and plywood panels was introduced in 1966. The panel delivered enhanced thermal insulation as well as efficiencies in construction. Initially, interest in the product was slow, but it soon became adopted for use in hospitals, petrol stations, offices and mobile classrooms.

In 1977, Metal Sections changed its name to TI Metsec Ltd, formalising the use of the Metsec name which had been used in some product branding.

Other products introduced in this period included Helitube, a helically wound tube with a variety of applications, Venetian blinds and suspended ceiling systems. It also saw the introduction of the TI Metsec + Hambro’ system for creating concrete floors.

Cars and buses take a back seat

From the fifties to the late seventies, the building products division was just part of the company’s total product offering. Metal Sections continued to produce car components and bus sections.

Steel bus sections were proving more and more popular thanks to their strength and rigidity. Complete kits, affectionately dubbed ‘The Bus in a Box’, were shipped around the world for local assembly onto chassis.

In the ten years after the Second World War, business in the car and bus sectors had been buoyant. However, in subsequent years, both were subject to the vagaries of the world economy, the ever-more onerous demands of customers in the car industry and increasing competition. By 1981, TI Metsec had divested itself of both these sides of its operations.

The car and bus divisions were eventually sold-off in the early eighties but they were indicative of the challenges faced during the sixties and seventies. Some parts of the business were profitable whilst others were not. TI had tried to improve performance and profitability but without any lasting benefits. By the early eighties radical action was required.

The TI Group did not see the profitable building division as being part of its long term strategic plans and would not back the investment that the division needed.

A new beginning

In 1981, a management buyout saw the company return to its original name, Metal Sections Limited, with the team acquiring custom roll forming, purlins and lattice beams.

The early days for the new company were not easy, but by the second year it had started to return a profit, a trend which would continue on an upward curve.

The new company continued to develop and expand, with a variety of ventures and acquisitions which complemented its portfolio and added to its pool of knowledge and manufacturing resources.

Digital opportunities

The move away from TI meant that the company had to become self-reliant for a number of its services. One of these was computerised systems. Desktop computers were just breaking into the market and the company became proficient in developing solutions using proprietary software and software developed in-house. The success led to the formation of Metsec Business Systems to sell the solutions and expertise to third parties.

One of the in-house solutions developed by the company’s IT department was software to assist in the design of purlins. The first version of what was subsequently to become the hugely successful ‘MetSPEC’ was developed in 1982, although it would not be branded as such for another seven years.

The software was given to customers to assist in the design and specification of Metsec purlins in projects. It was an innovation that put the company a step ahead of its competitors and has continued to do so ever since. It is updated regularly to incorporate new standards and design requirements and is now on version 14.

Framing comes of age

With its reputation for excellence in beams and purlins, it was only natural that Metal Sections would turn its attention to steel-framed buildings, an area where it had gained some experience in previous years, with frames and infill panels using the ‘Metframe Steel Frame Building System’.

With timber-framed construction receiving a bad press, Metal Sections saw an opportunity to expand the market for steel-framed structures. The first Metframe building, a family restaurant in Norfolk, was constructed in 1984.

The company was set to take advantage of the building boom of the eighties. After a slow start, Metframe’s popularity grew and Metsec’s reputation grew with it.

The business was hit hard by the recession of the early nineties but from the mid-nineties it started to grow again. Improvements in design and manufacture made the product more efficient and cost-effective, whilst the introduction of computerised design systems reduced lead times and improved accuracy, giving Metframe a distinct competitive advantage.

In 1998, Metsec bought SFS from British Gypsum, a designer and manufacturer of loadbearing dry wall studs. It fitted perfectly with the Metfram side of the business and a new ‘Framing Division’ was formed, comprising Metframe and SFS.

Private to public

In the early-eighties, Metal Sections was still leasing the Broadwell site from TI and sharing it and its services with other TI companies. The arrangement was holding the new company back and preventing further development. TI indicated that it would be prepared to sell the site, but the £1 million asking price was beyond the reach of the privately-owned, still-young business.

The solution was to float the company on the stock exchange. This was undertaken in October 1985, with Metsec plc being formed. The flotation valued the company at £8 million. It also raised £2.5 million, enough to finance the purchase of the Broadwell site and future investment plans.

Metal Sections Ltd. was retained as part of the new company, continuing the Custom Roll Forming business, where the name was well-established.

Onwards and upwards

The business continued to go from strength to strength during the eighties, with a number of acquisitions being completed.

1989 saw the beginnings of Metsec’s dry-lining division, Hepsec with the purchase of Coventry-based HEP Cold Rolled Sections Ltd. Originally formed in 1967 by Hubert Price, it had started out rolling profiles for use in suspended ceilings but later expanded into dry lining systems.

Downs and ups of the nineties

The early nineties saw a recession in the UK economy. Like many other companies, Metsec’s strategy was one of survival; getting through the difficult times, but making sure that the company was in a strong position when market demand returned.

A number of organisational changes were made; Custom Roll Forming (CRF) had been making profiles for use as reinforcement in PVCu doors and windows systems since the mid-eighties, serving some of the industry’s leading manufacturers. The industry’s demands for short lead times and product stocks were unlike those of other CRF contracts and it was decided to create a separate windows division.

Other areas of business were also reorganised, creating a structure of five divisions; Building Products, Engineering Products, Construction and Electronic Products and Information Control Systems.

Using Metframe, the company also constructed a new headquarters building and two additional office buildings at the Broadwell site.

Computerised systems were also becoming more accessible and the company’s expertise continued to grow, becoming an early adopter of Computer Aided Design and, later, Computer-Aided Manufacture, with design information being passed to CNC machinery to ensure precision in production. Design and manufacture of beams and purlins was becoming more efficient in time and cost.

In 1992, Metsec launched a new product range for supporting electrical and mechanical services around a building; Metstrut cable management systems. Products were initially manufactured by CRF but as demand grew, the division was provided with its own manufacturing facilities.

Metstrut is now a major supplier to the mechanical and electrical engineering industry, supplying a wide variety of support systems for building services, including cable ladder, cable tray and cable trunking.

Custom fitting

Alongside the company’s growth and development of its own building systems, Metsec has retained its Custom Roll Forming (CRF) operations, providing customers with a bespoke design and manufacturing process.

CRF’s role in Metsec’s evolution can be traced back to the company’s beginnings and has been at the core of many of its product developments. The design and manufacturing techniques employed by CRF together with the skills and experience gained in their application enables the division to offer customers a true concept to completion service.

Expert consultation and design, including a Design and Manufacturing Feasibility Assessment, provide a disciplined approach to product development, tooling requirements and budgeting.

In addition to section forming, CRF processing can include profile manipulation, high frequency induction welding and in-line piercing as well as additional engineering processes such as drilling, laser profiling and fabrication.

A sense of responsibility

Throughout its history, Metsec has taken its responsibilities seriously, as an employer, community member or designer and manufacturer of high quality, high performance products.

As an employer, Metsec is a proactive investor in personnel development. Its award-winning apprenticeship scheme has been in operation since 1945, assuring a skilled and motivated workforce and producing company directors along the way.

As a community member, Metsec is committed to minimising the environmental impact of all of its operations, from energy usage to the manufacture, transport and delivery of its products. The application of many of the company’s construction solutions lends itself to more environmentally-friendly methods of construction by improving efficiency and minimising on-site operations.

As a designer and manufacturer, Metsec adheres to the highest standards of performance and quality, ensuring that its products meet the demands of the myriad uses to which they are applied and delivering the ultimate in customer satisfaction.

The company’s commitment to, and investment in, skills, knowledge, processes, methods and technology in pursuit of this excellence, has been unstinting and is the reason that customers can have confidence when dealing with the company, safe in the knowledge that they can trust Metsec.

A timeline of Metsec’s 90-year history can be viewed here.