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Wednesday | 01 August, 2007 | 2:46 am

Building up, up and away

By Abbe Miller

August 2007- Imagine a superhero performing an impossible feat. There are dozens of amazed onlookers watching with awe from below saying, "How'd he do that?"

It comes naturally to the Man of Steel, but when added strength isn't part of the genetic makeup, a little outside help is sometimes required. For Batman, it's his utility belt. For the Green Lantern, it's a magic ring. In the case of UltraSteel, produced by Dietrich Metal Framing, Pittsburgh, it's the dimples.

UltraSteel, a steel framing component for interior non-structural walls, gets its strength during production. Steel sheet is fed through a freestanding unit bolted directly in front of the roll forming lines at 21 of Dietrich's 26 North American locations.

Greg Ralph, director of product development at Dietrich, says that the process is fairly simple--to a certain degree. "We start off with commercial grade steel for cold forming that begins with a yield strength of 40 kilopounds per square inch," he explains. "The stand-alone machinery works the material in a double-helix work-hardening process, changing the mechanical properties of the steel, which is done inline with each roll former."

At the end of the line, out comes a processed structural steel building member, clad in the dimples created by the two mating rolls. The end product is now more than double its original thickness, delivering a higher-strength material.

Developed in the mid-1990s by the British company Hadley Industries, UltraSteel improved the capacity of the organization's framing material portfolio. As time passed, however, it somehow stayed under the North American market's radar. Ralph still revels in the fact that no one else on this side of the pond had stumbled upon the revolutionary building material before he set his sights on it.

"We were able to negotiate an exclusive license with Hadley for North America," he says. "Dietrich has exclusive rights to everything from Mexico up to Canada including the Caribbean. We started the process in 2004 and have literally put millions into research to meet international code standards and to bring the equipment online."

Super steel
The proprietary indentations imprinted on the surface of UltraSteel create more than just the product's enhanced strength. Benefits include increased noise insulation, improved fire resistance, simplified installation, as well as fewer handler injuries.

Compared to conventional metal framing, UltraSteel tested above average in load resistance, burn through and temperature transfer. Its fire resistance outperforms all other drywall studs. And compared to typical structural steel components, UltraSteel, which starts as a thin-gauge material, offers customers a lighter product that's easier to handle.

"Another benefit that we didn't expect was the improvement in sound," says Ralph. "It was kind of inherent to the process. We didn't realize it on the surface, but once we started doing the tests in some of the more important assemblies, such as when used in a condo between two owners, we saw a 50 percent increase in the sound value from flat steel--an intrinsic advantage that people in the architectural and design community find to be the biggest benefit."

Construction firms and the buyers investing in property that uses UltraSteel aren't the only ones to be rescued from the grips of ordinary building materials. Although the workers that install UltraSteel might not describe themselves as damsels in distress, they certainly have seen easier workdays since the product first swooped in on the scene. Not only are the construction workers experiencing less cuts from UltraSteel's smoother edges, installation is significantly quicker and easier. "If you have a screw at the end of a drill going at 4,000 revolutions per minute, imagine what happens when it hits steel," Ralph explains. "Normally it will walk across the steel, but with a dimpled surface, it rarely slides. The screw goes in immediately, which makes fastening the products together much easier."

A myriad of uses
Classically, steel is thought of as a commercial building component, making up the spine of skyscrapers and their larger-structure counterparts. UltraSteel is little different in the sense that it's not a load-bearing framing member. "It's for partition walls like in offices and bedrooms," Ralph explains. "So it can be applied in both commercial and residential applications."

One of the most popular mediums for UltraSteel is in multi-family dwellings, Ralph says. He explains that in these situations, building codes are considerably more stringent than in single-family builds. But no matter the end use, Dietrich's framing component stands up to the test.

And according to Ralph, that battery of tests was extensive; "UltraSteel is the most tested metal framing component in the world." It has met or exceeded the performance standards issued by a multitude of code agencies, one of which being the Underwriters Laboratories. "Everybody, even if you're not in construction, understands the UL sign of approval," he says. "It's on your toaster, it's on your hair dryer, it's on everything. It's the consumer's seal of good quality."

Extreme exposure
As UltraSteel continues to enter more American homes--the majority sold in Florida goes into residential, single-family homes, and in Hawaii more than 70 percent of homes are made out of light-gauge steel--it will make an official introduction on ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which airs in more than 15 million households. The reality television program, which is entering its fourth season, will tackle its largest build to date with the help of UltraSteel in its September 2007 season premier. For this 100th episode, two 6,000-square-foot structures will be erected in Kalihi, Hawaii, one being the featured family's home and the other a community center. A wide range of Dietrich products are being donated for the project, including UltraSteel.

For those that aren't lucky enough to be bequeathed with a cache of UltraSteel, it's fairly accessible to both small and large construction firms. For commercial-size projects, it can be sourced through gypsum wholesale distributors, while smaller operations can pick it up at mass merchandisers, such as Lowe's and Home Depot.

"Unfortunately not a lot of contractors know that it exists," Ralph laments. "The majority of things built in the United States are done by companies that only work on one or two buildings a year. It's hard to reach out to them. But do we expect our market share to grow over the years as this becomes more prevalent? Absolutely."

Ralph's statement is a feasible goal. The price tag for UltraSteel is equal to that of Dietrich's flat steel framing components, and it's even giving wood studs a run for their money. Steel doesn't warp, twist, bow, split or mold. And termites, well those pests will have to find a new lair. MM

By Abbe Miller, from the August 2007 issue of Modern Metals.

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