Surviving the storm

Hurricane Sandy causes damage, strengthens resolve of metal fabricator

April 24, 2013
By: Dan Davis

Hurricane Sandy wasn't kind to Architectural Grille, Brooklyn, N.Y., in late October 2012. Waters from a nearby canal flooded the shop and ultimately destroyed all fabricating equipment, which was paid for. The insurance companies and local officials didn't offer much help either. The Giumenta family didn't throw in the towel, however. They are determined to rebuild and do it with the latest technology available.

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Figure 1: Saltwater flooded Architectural Grille’s Brooklyn facility after Hurricane Sandy’s high-powered wind blew down a roll-down door. Photos courtesy of Architectural Grille.

Architectural Grille was a company on the move in the fall of 2012. The manufacturer of custom grilles and decorative metalwork had just installed a modern powder coating line a couple of years earlier, was on the verge of installing solar panels on its roof to generate its own electricity, and had made plans to invest in automated fabricating equipment that would help it to be more competitive. Brooklyn, N.Y., which hardly has any manufacturing left, was going to be home to a fabricating shop that would rival any in the area.

A 100-year storm, however, put the five-year plan on hold.

Sandy Storms Through

On Oct. 28, the Giumenta family and the Architectural Grille employees who worked for them were preparing for a storm that they knew was going to be big. Hurricane Sandy was slowly moving up the Atlantic coast, growing larger as it moved toward the northeastern U.S. By the time it reached the Jersey shore, it had become the largest Atlantic hurricane on record.

Unfortunately, when you don’t live through hurricane threats on an annual basis, you really don’t know what to expect. The shop employees had created a barrier of sandbags about 3 feet high around the shop, which sat only about 20 ft. away from a canal on the building’s one side and 150 ft. away from another canal on the building’s other side. Both canals fed into Gowanus Bay, part of the Hudson River.

Some people expected to get some water in their basements because of the heavy rains associated with the storm. But, again, no one was sure. Architectural Grille had been in the same Brooklyn location for 12 years, and during that time, no one there—and perhaps in the entire borough—had been through a hurricane preparedness drill.

As everyone was about to depart to hunker down in their homes, Stephen Giumenta, vice president, moved the company’s tradeshow exhibit to the top of a steel shelving unit, at least 4 ft. off the ground. His father, Anthony Giumenta Sr., president, turned to his son and asked, “You sure that’s high enough?” The son quickly replied, “If that’s not high enough, we’ve got a lot bigger problems.”

On Oct. 29 the storm hit the Northeast like nothing before. As winds, estimated to have reached close to 100 miles per hour, tore across the Hudson Bay, water leapt from the canals and battered nearby buildings. One of Architectural Grille’s two roll-down doors couldn’t stand up against the wind and blew down as if it were a sheet of paper. From there, the water filled the shop.

As soon as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge reopened on Oct. 30, the Giumentas returned from their homes on Staten Island to the shop in Brooklyn. They found everything, including their future plans, wrecked. About 5 ft. of water had entered the building, moving everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor (see Figure 1). The saltwater from the bay had trashed the sophisticated electronics on the multimillion-dollar pieces of machinery. Rusting of every piece of metal in the shop became a concern (see Figures 2a and 2b).

“We were a disaster site,” Stephen Giumenta said.

Time to Rebuild and Rebound

Almost 70 years of manufacturing history was trashed by one historical storm. Architectural Grille officially was founded in 1983, but traces its roots back to Anthony Giumenta Sr.’s father’s business, Utility Brass & Bronze. Federico Giumenta Sr. founded his company in 1945 and focused on handcrafted ornamental metalworking. Even with the addition of modern laser and waterjet cutting equipment, Architectural Grille hadn’t strayed far from the high-quality, specialty fabrications produced by Federico. It was still being called upon to create custom metalwork for all sorts of high-end applications.

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Figure 2a: Punching tooling inside a storage cabinet couldn’t escape the corrosion brought on by the saltwater.

Architectural Grille circa November 2012 had one more thing in common with the beginnings of Utility Brass & Bronze: It was starting from scratch.

Actually, Architectural Grille might have had it worse. The initial cleanup of the 55,000-square-foot shop was done by flashlight. The fabricator wouldn’t have electricity for almost three weeks after the storm (see Figure 3). Even without the lights, it was painfully obvious that most of the equipment was unsalvageable.

“We lost a waterjet, an F1 Amada laser, an EMLK combination machine, a 3510 punch press, eight Lincoln Electric welding machines, an automatic polishing machine, several dust collectors, and a Timesavers finishing machine. Those are things we lost to scrap,” Stephen said. “We had to repair our shear, brake, and rollers.”

The company also had major work to do in its finishing area. Stroke sanders and bumping wheels had to be repaired. The three-stage washer in the powder coating line had to be completely rebuilt.

While cleanup was being done, the fabricator notified customers of what had happened and what they could expect from Architectural Grille. The company’s customer base runs the gamut from a multinational retailer ordering thousands of decorative grilles to an interior designer searching for a one-of-a-kind piece of metal artwork. What the customers have in common is that they come to Architectural Grille for something they can’t find easily elsewhere. With that type of relationship, most understood that some orders would be delayed as the fabricator got back on its feet.

For those customers that needed orders in a timely fashion, the shop had to get back to some sort of fabricating. It needed equipment, and it needed it quickly.

Steve Schneider, sales engineer, Amada America Inc., was called two days after the storm hit. He visited the shop the very next day.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in terms of damage. This was the first time anything like this has happened in my area,” Schneider said. “I’ve heard of rivers overflowing in other areas, but not like this.”

Before Sandy wreaked its havoc, Amada officials were slated to visit Architectural Grille in early November and take a day to observe how the fabricator conducted its operations, according to Schneider. The goal of such a visit is to collect production data and then make recommendations related to material handling and production automation.

Initially the Giumenta family, including Anthony Jr., a vice president, thought perhaps the equipment could be repaired. But as they thought about the money and time needed to repair machine tools that could never be sold as used because of the water damage, they decided to embark on their modernization campaign without the data related to material usage and handling and machine uptime. It was time to rebuild, and the company didn’t have much time to sit around for data collection on equipment that no longer worked.

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Figure 2b: Even limited saltwater exposure proved too much for the fabricator’s machinery, such as this CNC saw.

“Before they knew that their punch/laser combination could not be replaced, they’d already determined that they would get rid of the stand-alone punch press,” Schneider said.

Amada had a 2,500-W EMLK 3610 NT in a New Jersey warehouse ready for delivery. The equipment-maker hurriedly processed the financing with helpful terms for Architectural Grille and had it up and running in a little over two weeks (see Figure 4).

“So maybe mid- to the end of November, we were producing again with some sort of normalcy. Work-in-process, we were trying to get out,” Stephen said.

The new punch/laser combination machine didn’t have the 4,000-W resonator that the damaged unit had, but it was available. Stephen said he didn’t fret much about it because the company also had placed an order for a new 4,000-W F1 laser cutting machine that was to be installed during the holidays at the end of 2012. Future plans call for another punch/laser combination machine.

“So eventually there will be an upgrade, but right now we still haven’t fully ramped up to where we were,” Stephen said.

Whereas the punch and laser machines weren’t salvageable, the Architectural Grille management team thought they might have some success with rebuilt welding units. The cleaned-up power sources, however, wouldn’t work for high-frequency welding, which is necessary for working with aluminum.

That led the fabricator to order eight new Lincoln Electric welding machines, which its distributor, Airweld Inc., was able to turn around in 48 hours (see Figure 5).

“There’s no chance to rehabilitate the equipment because we don’t know the effects of the saltwater on them,” said Vin Cusumano, an Airweld salesman. “These machines can get wet. At first I said, ‘Just wash them out, and they should be fine.’ But they weren’t. They had problems. Machines today, half of them are computers. The circuitry gets eaten by saltwater.”

As Architectural Grille tried to get its fabrication operations up and running, it turned to other metal manufacturers for assistance—specifically Bassett Industries, Pottstown, Pa., and Linda Tool in Brooklyn—in processing orders. Stephen called this “manufacturers helping manufacturers” one of the keys to helping them get back on track as quickly as they did.

Bret Milks, a manufacturing engineer with Bassett Industries, actually knew Stephen from their days as college students at Syracuse University in upstate New York. Bassett mostly works with tube and metal 0.125 inch and thicker.

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Figure 3: Extensive cleanup efforts were hampered in the early days after Hurricane Sandy hit because employees had to work under the power of flashlights.

“I was talking to Steve and said, ‘I wish I was closer so I could help more,’” Milks said. “He said, ‘If you were closer, you’d be in the same situation!’ Well, that’s true.

“These kinds of situations work better that way. If it’s competition, it wouldn’t fly,” he added. “You have to have that level of trust.”

Milks said that he was able to offer any free time on his seven laser cutting machines to the Giumenta family. They sent some flat work his way, and the only thing that Milks asked was for them to pick up the parts. When you live and work out in the country, driving in New York is not a task that is quickly embraced. Payment would be addressed at a later time.

“It’s definitely amazing the way he has rebounded, and I’m glad things are working out for him,” Milks said of Giumenta and his company.

Fighting for the Future

For a company that lost almost $6 million in equipment and raw material as a result of Hurricane Sandy, Architectural Grille looks to be in fighting shape (see Figure 6). In addition to the punch/laser combination and the laser cutting machine, the fabricator bought a brand-new 4- by 8-ft. waterjet, and one of its four CNC saws was rebuilt and back in operation at the end March. About half of the company’s 50 employees, which were laid off shortly after the storm hit, are back at work, and most of these employees represent core talent who have the manual skills to create one-of-a-kind grilles, which are hard to replicate without years of experience, according to Stephen.

“We repainted and cleaned. The shop actually looks better less a couple of machines. We’ve gotten them all organized,” Stephen said. “We’ve gotten leaner because we’ve been forced to throw things away. We were keeping little scraps, jigs, and fixtures for jobs we haven’t done in five years. We got rid of everything.

“We’re going to find a silver lining to this eventually,” he added. “It will be better. It will take time, but it will be better.”

Architectural Grille still is trying to work with its insurance companies. The fabricator thought it was fully covered for an event such as Sandy, but it’s still waiting to hear back from its main insurance provider. A payout from a smaller flood insurance policy has helped the rebuilding effort.

“Water was the eventual killer to the machines, but it was the wind that was the driving force that blew in our door and caused the water to surge into our facility,” Stephen said.

Architectural Grille also is hopeful that city officials recognize that getting small businesses up and running is integral to the local economy because these firms put people to work. Anthony Jr. said the company has received a small grant, and letters have been sent out to New York City and other local authorities exploring similar grant opportunities.

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Figure 4: The arrival of the new laser/punch combination machine in November was a turning point for Architectural Grille. For the first time since the storm, the fabricator was able to produce parts on a limited but regular basis.

Meanwhile, a metal fabricator can’t run its business based on hope. That’s why Architectural Grille is preparing for the next 100-year storm.

As part of its equipment purchasing process, company management is not only inviting rigging specialists and electricians to help with the installation, but also its insurance broker. They will know exactly how much the equipment is covered for and exactly what type of protection the policy offers.

The fabricator also likely will invest in a backup generator, so that its operations aren’t dependent on power being restored. Being without power for more than two weeks really stalled the shop’s ability to get back on its feet.

There’s even talk of setting up another production facility somewhere outside the New York area. Such a move would be made as part of a growth plan, but another facility also could prove helpful should the Brooklyn shop be forced to close again for an extended duration.

“We were committed to get the guys back to work, keep customers happy, and get vendors paid,” Stephen said. “We’re not going to just give up, declare bankruptcy, and let everyone else sort it out.”

This superstorm didn’t destroy Architectural Grille’s big plans. Hopefully, its tale of tribulation and recovery will help keep other fabricators from having to delay their own big plans for the future.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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