What do the Panama Canal, the Kennedy Space Center and the famous practice-field tower once used by Alabama head football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant have in common? They all included metal fabrication components created by Alabama Metal Industries Corp., or AMICO.
Forged out of Birmingham’s steel-producing heyday, AMICO has been manufacturing metal components since 1939. These components are then used worldwide in a variety of ways, from the construction of buildings and houses, to floorboards for trucks and trains, to the creation of such smaller items as utility carts and picnic tables.
“Our products are used in a lot of diverse applications,” says Dean O’Donald, vice president and general manager of AMICO US. “Many of them are in people’s everyday lives, they just don’t know it. But they benefit from them.”
For decades, AMICO was able to steadily grow primarily through its production of expanded and perforated metals. But things began to change around the beginning of the 21st century. First, it increasingly became easier for companies to acquire similar metal components that were less expensive from overseas.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on using high-quality steel, and it was getting harder to do that and still compete against China and India,” says Gary Baltz II, AMICO director of marketing, innovation and business development.
Then came the Great Recession of 2008-09. After that, O’Donald says, many companies scaled back on the amount of products they purchased. At the same time, smaller metal producers were entering the marketplace, providing additional competition.
“After the recession, the market dynamics changed,” O’Donald says. “A lot of distributors decided to just buy what they could sell quickly instead of buying truckloads, so they were not stocking products at the level they had before. You also had more people entering the market, and these products became heavily commoditized. Any time that happens, the price goes down.
“With these commodity products, we don’t control our destiny. We’re too dependent on the underlying costs of the raw material, which is steel. And we’re now in a highly competitive environment where price matters more than anything. We struggled trying to adapt to all that.”
So about five years ago, AMICO officials decided to branch out and start also offering actual products instead of only the basic metal materials, focusing on the areas of construction and security.
“We needed to be more of a solutions-oriented company,” Baltz says. “We needed to develop technology and add some value to our products to where we weren’t just selling panels, we were selling solutions.”
This transition did not happen immediately. O’Donald says it took time for the company to analyze the various markets and determine the types of products AMICO could produce that would also be in high demand.
“We did a lot of brainstorming and prototyping. Some of the ideas didn’t pan out,” O’Donald says. “We went out into the field and talked to customers about what they were struggling with, so we could go back and develop solutions.”
AMICO already has gained national attention for one of its newest creations, a self-draining vented wall system called HYDRODRY. In January, the product was given the 2020 “Green Innovation of the Year” award by Green Builder Magazine.
The need for this system came about, ironically enough, through the development of greater energy-efficient buildings and homes. The implementation of more stringent energy codes resulted in the tighter insulation of new construction, restricting the amount of air able to flow through a wall cavity.
While this improves energy efficiency and lowers utility usage, there was an unintended consequence. Condensation can still accumulate within the walls, primarily due to the disparity of temperatures between the outside and inside of a building. In the past, this condensation usually would dissipate. But now that buildings are tighter, the water can’t leave so easily, resulting in mold, rot and mildew within the walls.
“When they increased the energy efficiency by getting rid of the air leaks, the exterior cladding couldn’t breathe anymore,” O’Donald says. “The drainage plain within these new walls is literally the thickness of two pieces of paper. If there were any wrinkles, it created a dam. So when natural condensation occurred within that wall cavity, it couldn’t escape, and water would soak into the sheathing. Usually by the time people started to notice a problem, there was already a massive amount of damage done.”
AMICO’s solution was the development of a product that provides a dedicated drainage channel at the bottom of the wall and over any openings, as well as a continuous venting system that allows evaporated moisture to escape from the top of the cladding. This basically creates a convection system within the wall cavity that prevents the accumulation of moisture without affecting energy efficiency.
“We developed a solution for an industry problem,” O’Donald says of HYDRODRY, which is one of a series of products the company plans to produce focused on moisture management and sustainability. “So rather than just making components that go into products that other people engineer and build, we’re now taking our knowledge to build the components, do the engineering and provide solutions.”
AMICO also is producing a series of security products involving fencing, crash gates and bollard posts. The products, which O’Donald says are “aesthetically pleasing but also offer a high level of security,” are being used around power stations, railroads, seaports and data centers. In addition, the company has introduced a retro-fit product that enables high-security fencing to be installed using existing chain-link fence posts, reducing the replacement cost for the customer.
“We offer basically anything you’d need for a high-security application,” Baltz says. “Security over the last 10 years has gotten to be really important, and we’re growing with that market.”
Such growth in various markets is the primary goal of AMICO officials moving forward, as the company attempts to build upon its foundation of metal manufacturing to ensure long-term success.
“There are not many industrial manufacturers like this one left (in the United States). They’ve all gone overseas,” Baltz says. “But our solutions-oriented model is really going to help us. That’s where the future is, and what we’re doing as far as technology and innovation. We want to be known as an innovation company, and that’s what we’re working towards.”
Cary Estes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.