Fasteners – technology reshapes the market

The fasteners market in Australia is mature, competitive and more innovative than ever, writes JOHN POWER. And, as major manufacturers vie for market share, new technologies are continually reshaping traditional fastening sectors.

Whenever new materials or building systems enter the marketplace, the fasteners industry has to adapt its product ranges swiftly to satisfy ever-evolving customer demands. Indeed, even users of traditional timber and metal materials are constantly on the lookout for fresh fastener designs and capabilities to increase construction efficiency and quality. Add the challenges of (often erratic) global supply shortages, commodity price fluctuations, as well as changing aesthetic sensibilities, and it is clear that the industry is in perpetual motion.

These dynamic challenges, however, make the fasteners sector one of the most vibrant product categories in retail hardware, demonstrating a huge appetite for new designs based around the latest manufacturing processes and coating chemistries. In fact, technological progress has been so rapid in recent years that many builders have been forced to rethink traditional product classes: there are now nails that perform as well as old-style screws, screws that behave as well as bolts, etc.

In this article we talk to several leaders in Australia’s fasteners sector to learn about their newest releases and discover their opinions about the state of the industry, the market forces affecting it, and future challenges.

So, what is the current state of the market, and why is innovation so strong right now?

“It is a saturated market and will continue to be so,” says Tynan Murray, National Sales Manager, Airco Brands. (In addition to owning Airco-branded products, Airco Brands is the exclusive Australian distributor of Senco fasteners, and added Otter to its stable in 2016.)

“Also, the shortage problem with timber has seen an increase in steel frame homes, which are becoming a more efficient option.”

Rod Bran, National Retail Sales Manager, Bremick Pty Ltd, adds that “the market overall is quite competitive, with pricing continually being challenged by Bunnings and their chosen supply partners.” Furthermore, Rod points out that rising steel costs and environmental law changes in China represent additional challenges for our fastener market. Specifically, he notes, Queensland felt the national shortage of cyclone rods strongly during the latter part of 2017 and early this year. This delayed construction on some projects.

While recent regulatory reforms in China, Rod stresses, are environmentally imperative and long overdue, it is fair to say that stricter compliance requirements, longer timeframes and inspection requirements did cause interruption of supply for some suppliers. Thankfully, these supply problems have since been resolved.

As a result of these kinds of peaks and troughs, coupled with increasingly discerning customer bases, manufacturers have been quick to differentiate themselves from competitors by offering stronger, better-engineered products to suit a wider variety of applications.

Fresh trends, according to Mark Camilleri – Senior Product Manager of Fasteners at ITW Proline, are emerging in response not only to the utilisation of new building materials and a reliance on technology and tools to get the job done faster, but also to tradespeople themselves becoming much more aware of more efficient building techniques and fixing solutions than in years past.

“An example,” says Mark, “is that the market has shifted to using lightweight and panelling sheeting systems, prefabrication and modular construction and multi-substrate materials, each requiring new fastening solutions. The sustained growth in housing demand means tradespeople are time-poor. This explains the rise in time-saving tools that also deliver higher levels of quality and assurance.”

Mark goes on to say that impact drivers, for instance, have been increasingly popular across job sites because they offer a light, inexpensive and more powerful driving option with additional torsional force. Screws that are compatible with impact drivers and are self-drilling are therefore in high demand at the moment.

Furthermore, he explains, quality, finish and precision are more important to tradesmen than ever before.

New technologies and new products
In light of these sorts of trends and user demands, it is no surprise that new products are hitting hardware shelves at breakneck speed.

Bremick has continued to release new products such as their new Sharks Tooth decking screw range, along with a range of Square Drive self tappers in both Pan and Countersunk head. Rod Bran says square and Torx drive fastening solutions are growing in popularity, so ranges complement a contemporary look when completing decking and outdoor projects.

Another company with strong credentials as an innovator is Simpson Strong-Tie, which has been in the industry for 60-plus years in the US.

“And within Australia we believe we are renowned for bringing innovative solutions into the market,” says Joshua Dalla Santa, the company’s Marketing Manager for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Joshua says the original Simpson Strong-Tie structural screw – the SDWS Timber Screw – had outstanding success in the Australian market following its launch here in 2016.

“Now, Simpson Strong-Tie is excited to announce the launch of its second-generation SDWS Strong-Drive® Timber Screw,” Joshua said.

“It is a result of extensive research and testing and has an improved design with its patented SawTooth™ point. This new design ensures faster starts and less driving torque over the original SDWS, and eliminates the need for pre-drilling in framing applications. The 6-lobe T-40 drive reduces the driver-bit cam-outs for easier installation as well as longer driver-bit life. All of these features save money for the user.”

According to Joshua, this versatile structural screw has a 5.6mm diameter and is available in lengths from 75mm up to 250mm, making it suitable for a broad range of applications, ranging from structural framing, including ledger installation, multi-ply timber beam connections, and wall plate tie downs, through to landscaping jobs.

The large 19mm washer-head provides a broad bearing area for superior clamping of the timber whilst the low profile head provides less interference after installation. It is this low profile head, Joshua adds, that makes it ideal for framing applications where protrusion of the screw may affect ease of installation of the framing onsite. In addition, plasterers do not have to contend with any metal connectors protruding down the face of the wall frame, so it is easier to obtain a clean finish.

Airco, for its part, is also keen to keep its product inventory refreshed, “mainly through extensions to existing ranges,” says Tynan Murray.

“End user uptake has been good and support from dealers continues to grow as Airco Brands’ breadth and depth of range allows dealers to reduce the number of suppliers from which they source.”

When it comes to new products, many hardware retailers pay particular attention to the activities of ITW Proline and its many brands.

ITW launched nine new fastener products under the Buildex® brand in late 2017, comprising screws used in timber and metal fixing.

“There is a firm trend of trade end-users substituting traditional fixing options for self-drilling screws,” Mark Camilleri said.

“One innovation to facilitate this is the Buildex® Timber Construction Screw, developed as a substitute for the coach screw. This screw is the first self-drilling screw designed specifically for fixing metal hardware, such as brackets and post supports, to timber posts and framing.”

Steel construction, he concedes, tends to be more labour intensive and therefore more expensive. As such, fasteners for steel construction must be of premium quality to ensure an efficient, safe and secure connection. The solution, says Mark, is the Buildex® Metal Series 500 SuperTeks® screw, which serves as a versatile all-purpose fastener for thick meta-to-metal fixings, with a drill capacity of up to 12mm.

New material trends, as mentioned above, are another major driver of fastener developments. The new Buildex® Fiber Cement Screw is designed for fastening fiber cement sheeting to timber.

Fiber cement sheeting is widely used over metal framing. However, trade end users are currently using nails and liquid nails as the primary fixing choice. The new screw, being self-drilling, saves the hassle of this traditional fixing option. Versatility, it must be said, exerts an equally strong influence on new product development.

“For example, the Buildex® Trim Head Screw serves a similar function as its nearest substitute, the bullet head nail,” Mark said.

“However, it allows for the superior performance benefits of a screw while retaining the discrete finish and appeal of a nail.”

The new Buildex® Roof-Lok®, he continues, is yet another game changer. It is not only compliant with Cyclonic Building Standards for high wind and cyclonic areas, but it is also recommended by roofing professionals as an all-in-one solution for structurally critical applications of both corrugated and square rib roof profiles.

Innovative supply chains
Great products are only part of the equation for success. Indeed, all major suppliers nowadays appreciate that great products need to be matched with trouble-free distribution and aftermarket care processes for retailers and customers alike.

On this subject, Rod Bran says Bremick “is literally famous for our supply and service,” adding that the company’s national field sales team averages 24 years’ industry experience per person. The team offers same/next day delivery in all capital cities, and two years ago the company won National Supplier of the Year for Home Timber and Hardware.

“We have an industry-leading coating (B8), which is applied in our company-owned factory,” Rod said.

“This produces a coating that lasts up to four times longer than Galvanizing. We pride ourselves on being the number one value proposition for the independent stores and we continue to lift the bar higher with the best possible service, supply and quality.”

ITW is also setting a fine example for the way fastener companies interact with customers: “We’re working on developing our website to provide an intensive product information and training platform, know-hows, as well as inspiration to enhance consumer experiences with our products,” Mark Camilleri said.

Upcoming releases
All companies mentioned above have new product releases planned for the coming year. While most prefer to keep details confidential, Simpson Strong-Tie is a little more open about imminent releases in its Quik-Drive® auto-feed screw driving system and associated collated fasteners, which continue to grow in the Australian market.

Joshua Dalla Santa says Simpson Strong-Tie has expanded its range of collated decking fasteners to cover the broad range of decking applications from timber decking to steel joists, hardwood to hardwood applications, etc.

“In the next 12 months we will continue to develop fasteners with enhanced designs to make it easier for our Quik-Drive users to complete flooring and decking projects,” he says.

“Watch this space for more!”

ITW Proline’s Mark Camilleri, similarly, says the local market “can be assured that new fixing solutions to solve tradespeople’s biggest pain points are in the pipeline and under development.”

Future market trends
As for future trends, aesthetic considerations are worthy of specific mention.

“Finish technology,” Mark said, “has by far been one of the most remarkable points of difference of ITW Proline’s fasteners. They not only increase fastener performance and life expectancy, as well as add to our strong record of product innovations, but they also drive the trends. We stay at the leading edge of fastener product development by delivering what the market asks for.”

More generally, according to Airco’s Tynan Murray, fastener use in manufacturing is moving globally towards a more automated approach, thus reducing fastener waste, increasing productivity and improving turnaround times.

“We anticipate over the coming 12 months the Australian manufacturing industry will follow US and European counterparts by investing in new technologies,” he states.

Most crucially, adds Bremick’s Rod Bran, the Australian market needs to support its local suppliers to ensure the industry remains robust and responsive to local needs.

“It could be argued that market opportunities are contracting under the new Australian hardware landscape,” Rod believes.

“It is imperative that independent stores continue to support their best Australian-owned suppliers. These are the suppliers that understand their business, have a track record of performance and most importantly, understand the trade side of the business. This will ensure a vibrant and competitive market for all well into the future.”