Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Hidden Cost of Low Prices

  So you finally decided to pull the trigger on your new fence. You did the research and found the best fence product for your application and price range. Because you want this fence to reflect the level of investment you have in your home, you bought a top quality, American made fence. But what's holding it together?

  Whether you chose ornamental aluminum, or steel, or even chain link, wood or vinyl, all those components have to be held together with something. All of the fasteners, brackets, post caps and gate hardware added together represent just 10% or less of the value of all the materials used in the fence. Did you know that these components are also the ones most likely to be imported in bulk from overseas?

  Why does that matter? Common opinion holds that American products cost more than imports because of labor costs. The fact is that American labor is more expensive per hour than labor obtained overseas. Another fact is that the American labor used in manufacturing these items is much more efficient and has a much lower rate of substandard parts than those from overseas.  In the U.S., the cost of labor per unit is actually lower on many items.

  So why are imports so much less expensive to buy? That's a great question. Especially when you factor in the cost of shipping all that distance. There are several factors that factor into the price difference.

  First, the imported parts are made to lower quality standards than most American made parts, resulting in more rejected parts, (which the contractor had to pay for, and you can be certain that price is passed along to you), and shorter usable life spans for those components due to incomplete parts and poor fit and finish.

 Second, the imports are made of inferior materials. In some cases the total amount of material that goes into an imported part may be as much as 30-35% less than an American made part.

  Third, and possibly most importantly, quality American made parts often carry Manufacturers Liability Insurance. Most importers in the states don't carry this insurance, and neither do their suppliers. Most people think that the insurance is to protect the manufacturers, but actually, it protects everyone in the chain, from the factory, to the installer and end user from damages resulting from product failure. Imports typically don't offer that level of service and protection. They instead count on you not knowing that.

  Keep in mind also that American manufacturers are involved members of communities. They contribute far more than just a good post cap or fence bracket. They participate in local service projects, the jobs they provide support families, and they are tax paying members of the country you call home. So while the price might initially look higher, consider the cost of not using American made accessories to assemble your fence, and demand the best. In most cases, the cost of owning a fence that is 100% American made will be far lower than that of one using imported components.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sell American!

  I've written a lot on this blog about why you should buy American made, but what if you are in the position to sell American made products? Is it worth the trouble to source American made products? Aren't they more expensive and therefore harder to sell?
Apparently not, according to this article in Consumer Reports. It seems that American retailers are slowly coming to the realization that their customers are most concerned about price when they believe they are buying inferior quality. When offered an American alternative, an overwhelming majority of customers are ready to shell out significantly more money. And that's not just in America! Even among Chinese consumers, over 60% would rather buy American goods.

So what is stopping you from taking advantage of the increased market share you can win by offering American made products? Think about it. Even if you pay slightly more for an American alternative to supply your customers' needs, your margin is computed from that higher base, so you are earning more real cash per transaction, and your customer is looking for you, because you care enough to offer what your competitor won't...quality!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Did he really say that...out loud?

  Does your supplier pee on your leg, then tell you its warm rain? Or, to put it more delicately, are you getting everything you're paying for when you buy fence materials? Chances are, unless you know your supplier and check each delivery, what you get is what you get.
  The easiest way for anyone to get your business is to offer you a “better price”. I won't go into that loaded term here, but let's just assume for now that means a lower price per unit. There are a couple of ways for a supplier to do that. One, is to buy in such large quantities that they can save money on the unit cost, as most manufacturers and distributors offer quantity discounts. This is unattractive to all but the very largest of companies because of the high cost of storing and paying for inventory. Most companies trying to drive down unit price do so by seeking out a supplier that offers a lower price per unit for the parts they need.
To do that, the supplier must remove something from the product.
  It takes a measurable amount of material costs and labor costs to manufacture anything, along with transportation cost to get it to the end user. To reduce the unit price, one must reduce either the cost of labor, i.e. “outsource”, or the cost of materials, or the cost of transportation. In the age of spiralling fuel costs, cheaper transportation is very scarce, and the cost of transportation is largely out of the control of the supplier. Labor can be found elsewhere, much cheaper than in the U.S., but that usually means additional transportation costs. Recent increases in the relative wages in common outsource supply countries has led to a closing gap in the cost of goods sourced in Asia when compared to American made goods.
  This leaves only material costs as a means of controlling unit price. Many manufacturers are succumbing to the pressure to drive down unit price by reducing the amount and the quality of the raw materials they use. The alternative is to continue making top quality products at reasonable prices to compete with the poor quality, lower priced alternatives being dumped on the market.
  Unfortunately, for most contractors, the alternatives are to buy poor quality, and hope the check clears before the product fails, or try to figure out how to win a bid against someone selling lower priced, (inferior) products. The key is to help the customer see that by buying lower price, he is getting lower quality, and will not be satisfied for long. It can be a difficult sell, but Bill Gates didn't get rich clipping coupons. The key is to teach the customer that though a component looks like the one you are selling, it will not perform the same.
  No one likes to spend too much money for what they buy, and saving fifty dollars today and finding out that you'll pay hundreds to repair the problems caused by the poor quality component that you saved money on is absolutely painful. Insist on getting what you pay for, and be ready to pay a fair price for quality, or prepare to pay for a lot of broken promises.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Hey Look Ma, No Wheels!

In the last post I pointed out that the wheel under a gate could be eliminated if the gate were built rigid enough to support itself. 'So what', you say? There are probably millions of gates out there with a wheel under the swing end. In this post we'll look at some of the reasons that may not be the best way to build a gate.
Rather than looking at gates with wheels and why they are built that way, let's look at sound gates and how they are made so they don't need wheels. No matter what material is used to build a gate, there are certain principles of physics that apply to all gates and will affect how they should be designed.
There is a lot of opinion about bracing on gates, and most of it is based on anecdotal evidence. You will often hear a gate builder say something like, “The man who taught me this business has forgotten more about fence than most other guys know, and he said do it this way.”
   That's great, as long as he forgot all that fence stuff after he taught you! All kidding aside, it is a truth in life that the worst reason to do something in a particular way is that it has always been done that way. There should be sound reasons behind what we do, not just tradition backed by emotion. Henry Ford's dad taught him to hitch a horse to a wagon to move stuff on the farm. Fortunately, Henry didn't let that stop him from building something far better.
  In order for a gate to be strong and long lasting, it needs to be rigid.  Flex in the system will tend to loosen the connections between components of the gate, and as this looseness grows, the gate gets weaker and starts to sag and flex and even lay over. Often it is at this point that a wheel is added to keep the leading corner from dragging. This is not a solution. If I break my leg, the doctor can give me a crutch, and I can get around. If he doesn't set the bone and cast it so it can heal, (be rigid again), I'll use that crutch the rest of my life, and the longer I do, the more I wear out my shoulder, and the other joints in my body because I'm compensating for the weak leg.

In the next post we will look at the geometry of a gate and how proper bracing makes a gate stronger, and improper bracing just makes it heavier.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Some is Good, More is Better? (part 2)

The question is, “How do I hang a heavy gate”? The answer starts long before that in the design phase of the job. Simply put, the farther apart you can place your two hinges, the stronger the overall system will be. This means designing a gate with hinge points as close to the top and bottom of the gate as possible.
  Whether you are building the gate from scratch, or you already have the gate, once you know the distance between the hinges, the next factor in the equation is the width of the gate. How big is the opening? With these two numbers, and the overall weight of the gate, it is possible to compute how much rotational force, or “moment” the gate produces. This is the force that destroys hinge systems. Choosing a hinge designed to carry a given “moment” is crucial to making a strong gate system.
  The wider the opening, the longer the gate, and the greater the leverage exerted by the gate on the hinge, and the gate post. Spreading that leverage over a larger hinge distance lessens it's overall impact on the system.
I only know of one manufacturer that rates hinges using these calculations. You can find their “Proportional Load Charts” by registering at their website, www.mftfence.com, and downloading their 2013 Catalog.

  I started this installment with the statement that the farther apart your hinges are, the stronger the gate system will be. There are several ways to optimize this distance. For ornamental gates, gusseted corners can help support that weight. Never place a hinge in an unsupported area of the upright, as it will flex under load. For wood gates, consider placing hinges where top and bottom rails of the gate meet the upright. Chain link can offer some interesting variations. In industrial and commercial applications, one way to gain strength for gates on very wide openings is to build an “extension”. Extend your gate post above the fence line to the distance you want to gain between hinges, then extend the gate upright to the same height, bracing it to the top rail with a brace at no more than 45 degrees, for rigidity). 

If you look closely at this gate, you can see that it is almost as described.  The gate builder has added an extension to the top of the gate to gain strength.  Unfortunately, he is not taking advantage of this height.  He has kept the top hinge just below the top horizontal rail of his gate.  It would be a much stronger system if the top hinge were at the top of the extension.  The other flaw in this design is that the angle brace comes down at an angle greater than 45 degrees, which prevents taking advantage of it's strength to keep the gate rigid.  Notice the addition of a wheel at the bottom of the gate.  It could be eliminated, and the gate would be much stronger, if the top angle brace were attached to the top horizontal rail of the gate at the point where the lower angle braces meet in the center of the gate.  But that's a topic for the next post!