Could Tariffs Lead to a Materials Tipping Point?

Since President Donald Trump announced his intention to impose tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum back in March, there’s been a bit of turmoil throughout American industry at large. This month, we’ve seen a number of U.S. manufacturers already seeking exemption from the 25 percent steel tariff and the 10 percent aluminum tariff.

Whether or not you agree with the president on the issue itself, the move has created some uncertainty. And no market likes uncertainty, especially when it relates to material sourcing and pricing. I’ve heard some stories lately of quotes on aluminum raw materials only being good for a couple of days, with no guaranteed pricing after that.

New implications for non-metal construction materials. Commercial construction and glazing professionals aren’t immune to the cost headaches this situation could potentially create. And while business in our industry is broadly looking good, new raw materials cost concerns are just one more challenge to deal with among numerous others. We’re already dealing with labor issues, efficiency concerns and capacity constraints. And perhaps most relevant to a conversation around materials challenges, our industry is also up against increasingly strict thermal performance criteria.

I pulled out the April 2016 edition of USGlass, which speaks to the issue of metallic materials’ ability to achieve those thermal performance goals. Here’s Tom Black, COO for the commercial glazier Walters & Wolf, quoted on the subject of vinyl’s potential applicability in the commercial market: “It has been my experience that economics govern these decisions. If the slope of increase in thermal performance requirements continues at its current rate, we will, at some point, exhaust the economics of the current applications/technologies.”

Non-conductive, non-metal materials including vinyl and composites can and do outperform their metal counterparts from a thermal performance perspective in a variety of applications. And often, non-metal choices can already be more cost effective. Add higher costs of steel and aluminum to this scenario, and we could begin to see new opportunity for vinyl and non-metals. As Black said: It’s about economics.

Effective applications. Of course, aluminum and steel will remain the material of choice for structural elements of commercial construction for the foreseeable future; non-metals like vinyl, today, simply don’t have the structural strength to carry out those duties.

But for other elements of a building, there are a number of applications where vinyl options have already showed significant promise, including architectural window, window wall, storefront and even some curtainwall applications. Between a new cost squeeze on metal and the necessity of ever-increasing thermal performance, non-metal could be getting a new look from construction and glazing professionals if it makes business sense.

Editor’s note: Joe Erb works for Quanex Building Products, which sells vinyl products.