By Brad Smith | Jul 17, 2017
Metal roll-forming machines
Founded: 1957 (incorporated 1966)
Industry: Built Environment
Products: Metal roll-forming machines
It's a story written throughout American history: An inventor's garage or basement is the incubator for a successful business. So it was with Colorado's Knudson Manufacturing, a 60-year-old company based on an idea of how to better use metal in construction.
Metal buildings had been around many decades when Arthur Knudson came up with an innovative way of doing things in 1957. Sheet metal for buildings mostly had been fashioned into roofs, gutters and other components at a central location and then transported and assembled at the construction site. Knudson thought it would be more efficient to locate that process on-site. At his home in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Knudson created a portable machine that would do just that.
Knudson's first portable machine was used to create metal rain gutters for buildings. It would take rolls of sheet metal and precisely form them into gutters at the construction site. The idea was a success but the market was limited in northeastern Iowa, so Knudson moved himself and the business in 1959 to the Denver area, where building construction was booming.
Those portable gutter machines became the core of Knudson's business, with more than 12,000 of the company's machines sold around the world over the next 50-odd years.
When Arthur Knudson moved the business to Lakewood in 1959, his son, Gary, was attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. Gary got his degree in geology but never became a geologist. Instead, he started helping his father design and build metal-forming machines.
"I had been in the National Guard and in pharmaceutical sales," says Gary, "but in 1965 I started helping him." Gary's passion, probably learned from his father, has been in the design and development of new machines. He's been awarded more than 100 patents.
Arthur incorporated Knudson Manufacturing soon after his son joined the business. By 1970, Gary bought out his father and has been running the company since as president and CEO, as well as chief designer. Gary moved the company in 1979 to its current headquarters, on 16 acres in Broomfield where he also created a 50,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.
Knudson became a world leader in producing portable gutter machines. But, as the 21st century began, the profit margin declined and the company started phasing out their production. Instead, Knudson focused on other roll-forming machines used to make metal roofs and framing materials.
Knudson added computerization to its line and its Framemaker machines became a global leader. The Framemaker series handles a wide range of sheet metal gauges, with varying widths, heights and flanges. There also are roofing panel machines.
"Basically the machines are progressive roll stations put together and synched by drive mechanisms," Knudson says. "Each station bends the metal a little more than the one before it. We make all our own roller dies. They are so easy to use. People can buy the coil stock of painted or galvanized steel anywhere in the developed world."
Until recently, most of the framing machines Knudson has sold had gone outside the U.S. because contractors in the U.S. preferred working with wood.Gary says metal framing has taken a quicker hold in developing countries but is becoming more widespread in the U.S., especially as the price of wood has risen to the point that metal isn't as relatively expensive.
An illustration of increased interest in using metal in building construction is that the carpenters union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters International, has added the subject to the curriculum at its huge training center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Knudson Manufacturing is changing now. Gary, who is now 79, brought his daughter, Erin, into the business in 2017 to develop a marketing plan. Erin has a master's degree in behavioral health care and experience running her own jewelry business.
Knudson declined to specify annual revenues but said this year's numbers would be less than an $5.3 million estimate by an online site. "We've been there off and on but won't do that well this year. Our target is to get back there and beyond," he says, adding the company is preparing to manufacture a new product based on one of his ideas.
Challenges: "It's a business that has certain demands -- the idea of taking finished coil stock and rolling a custom length for whatever you're doing on the jobsite is a challenge," says Gary. "I take pride in turning things into a practical solution. We turn metal into money."
He also says there is a challenge in the U.S. construction market because metal framing has not been common and "contractors have to be informed. The carpenters have cut their teeth with nails and a hammer and a saw."
Opportunities: "The opportunities are mostly the American market," says Gary. "Framing has taken a quick hold in developing countries than in developed countries like the U.S. Most of the people in our business are overseas. That's where the market has been. Now we're coming into the U.S. [because contractors] are realizing that using metal is a better way than wood. Wood comes in boards and you have to saw them up. Metal comes in a coil and its galvanized and it will last forever."
Needs: "We've rested on our laurels for the last few years," says Gary. "We need a good marketing program" -- which is exactly why Knudson recruited his daughter, Erin, to join the business.