A niche known as railing has processors wide-eyed with anticipation.
The surprise growth category has caught the attention of composites and plastics manufacturers. Players such as TimberTech Ltd. and Owens Corning introduced new systems recently at the International Builders Show in Atlanta.
``The railing market turned out to be one of the hidden jewels in the deck and fence business,'' said Bud Bootier with Wexford, Pa.-based Pure Strategy. ``When plastic and composite decks began to develop a following, there was little necessity to have a matching rail system. The new plastic deck products were already eliminating a major maintenance item; not having a matching railing was not considered a problem until the new materials alerted homeowners to the new possibilities presented by alternative-material decking products. Now, they want a rail system to match as well.''
Bootier said the residential and commercial rail markets in the United States combine to use about 1 million lineal feet per week.
``Vinyl is ideally suited to many, if not all, of these applications,'' he said. ``Capturing the full railing opportunity on a large scale would be difficult due to the fragmentation of channels and diversity of applications, products, materials and processes.''
Making an entry
Firms that already extrude deck and fence profiles are introducing most new railing products. The uses are extremely varied, officials said. Some sell their product for commercial applications; others deal primarily in residential. In the industrial area there are applications such as factory railings. Some sell through distributors, and others sell directly to retailers. For others, a mix of both is the best approach.
Whatever their ways to market, firms are expanding in tooling, machinery or processes to penetrate a market typically dominated by wood and metal.
``We saw huge spikes driven by broadening distribution and using our existing distribution base,'' said Doug Rende, vice president and general manager of Alside Inc.'s fencing, decking and railing division.
Officials from the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, firm expect to expand in tooling for different profiles and will smooth production by using two facilities. Currently, railing is only produced at the firm's site in West Salem, Ohio.
``We may shift a portion of that to our Ennis, Texas, facility,'' he said. The company is moving into different technologies, which he did not disclose.
Toledo, Ohio-based Owens Corning's product, marketed under the Generations brand name, is a coextrusion of acrylic-capped fiberglass fitted with PVC components, said Scott Muldrow, marketing manager for fence, decking and railing. Owens Corning did not build new lines for the product. Muldrow said the company will launch the product in the Southeast, a strong market for its vinyl siding.
Macon, Miss.-based Outdoor Technologies Inc. reconfigured its plant to make PVC guardrails.
``We're big into continuous improvement, so we moved some lines from one location to another,'' President Brian Hammerbacher said by telephone March 6. ``We added some routing capacity in January in order to facilitate 10-foot and 12-foot railings.''
The firm, owned by Perrysburg, Ohio-based Jancor Cos. Inc., operates one extrusion facility and fabricating locations in Macon and Reno, Nev. Officials project growth will go from last year's 8 percent to 15-20 percent this year in that segment, he said. By the end of March the firm will add another coextrusion line. The company has a total of 13 lines, 10 of which are for coextrusion.
Wilmington, Ohio-based TimberTech has introduced a railing system to complement its composite deck product. The firm is owned by Crane Plastics Co., based in Columbus, Ohio.
President Stu Kemper said TimberTech has the capability to extrude railing on existing lines. In a process called media blasting, plastic beads are pelted at the railing to create a surface that looks like wood and helps paint and stain adhere.
The variety and combinations of materials require processing diversity. Across the industry, manufacturers are using extruded PVC, cellular PVC, cellular polystyrene, glass-reinforced polymer composites, pultrusions, wood-polymer composites and highly weatherable acrylic capstocks, Bootier said.
``[They] are all being processed, either independently or in combinations, through crosshead extrusion, or conventional coextrusion and tri-extrusion,'' he said. ``There may be a wide variety of demanding railing applications, but there are a great many vinyl solutions being applied to them. This plastic market is just beginning to unfold.''
Tri-Ex Composites has set up shop in Newnan, Ga., just outside Atlanta, where the company produces railing profiles using a patented triple-layer technique. The firm produces railing from a wood-alloy core, with a PVC capstock and substrate.
``We bring together the rigidity of composites and impact resistance of vinyl,'' Kevin Fidati, chief executive officer, said in a Feb. 7 interview at Tri-Ex offices.
Jack Cuttle, Tri-Ex vice president of sales and marketing, said the company does not consider other plastics processors to be the competition.
``We're all emerging here,'' he said. ``The competition is wood and metal.''
As of February, Tri-Ex was on target to meet $4 million to $6 million in sales for 2002, with plans for expansion at the 20-employee facility, which currently operates one line.
``We'll add another line this year and add one line each year in the next five years,'' Fidati said.
Some firms are using more than one process to achieve more detail in PVC profiles, such as Plastival Inc. in Laval, Quebec, which extrudes PVC and then blow molds the profile into a curved colonial design.
``The general mind-set has been that with PVC, you're locked into a look,'' said Alan Townsend, Plastival marketing supervisor.
Describing the effect the firm can achieve using two processes, he said: ``It's dramatic. The whole idea is to give people choices. It's got style to it.''
There's one hurdle with bringing railing to market: Unlike decking or fencing, the product is a fall barrier and must pass code requirements that can be costly and cumbersome for manufacturers, Bootier said.
``A mix of building codes and aesthetics drive the growth of railing sales into the residential and commercial markets,'' Bootier said. ``Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements may be added to the equation in the industrial market. Producers of railing systems test their products under various applicable codes and certify their suitability for specific applications.''
Processors currently work to meet standards set by Building Officials and Code Administrators International Inc., the International Conference of Building Officials, or Southern Building Code Congress International Inc. Depending on where they are selling the product or the application, firms may have to meet more than one code, officials said.
``The dedicated nature of plastic and composite systems often makes system certification an expensive requirement, but at the same time it provides a product that an architect or builder can easily and confidently specify,'' Bootier said. ``Code-compliant railing systems also provide a means to organize new distribution channels in a highly fragmented market.''
Winchester, Va.-based Trex Co. Inc., for instance, has delayed the release of certain railing products while awaiting code approval, said John Burns, Trex marketing director of residential decking.
Kemper stated it this way: ``If a wood railing fails, God made the tree.'' However, the liability for a processor is great should failure occur.
Industry officials are working together on the code problems. By November, they hope to have a uniform standard through the American Architectural Manufacturers Association in Schaumburg, Ill.