The right tools
Running an efficient operation means asking the right questions—and securing the right equipment to help you answer them.
Specialty Fabrics Review | July 2011
By Galynn Nordstrom & Sigrid Tornquist
For thousands of years, our tools have defined our progress. When they’re well designed and specifically matched to the task, they’re also an integral part of our profits.
Tools for specialty fabrics manufacturers include an ever-broadening array of equipment, from new versions of old standards to innovations that take production in a whole new direction. Despite G. Weilacher’s notable remark that “One only needs two tools in life: WD-40 to make things go, and duct tape to make them stop,” meeting customer demands for quality, performance, efficiency and sustainability often does take equipment that is designed directly for the task at hand.
Which equipment do you need to meet those customer demands? When should you buy it? What’s the best way to assess the risk/benefit ratio of the purchase? Should you lease before you buy? Will the purchase expand your business to include new market segments or make your company more efficient manufacturing its current products? And will the equipment enable you to produce a more durable, sustainable product that meets customer demand for performance as well as price?
We’ve combed through our archives to present a broad range of equipment-related topics to address these questions. Focused summaries are presented here to help answer your specific questions. You may read the entire articles on our website or download them at no charge at here.
Before deciding to buy
The questions to ask when considering a new equipment purchase are fairly simple: Why is new equipment needed? What piece of equipment is best for the job? When is the time right for the purchase? Some Review articles that have addressed these issues in depth are listed here.
Efficiency, increased productivity and broadening your company’s product line are two reasons to make the decision to leverage today’s earnings against tomorrow’s. “A person might ask, ‘Why should I pay $500 more for an [automated sewing] machine?’” says Harry Berzack, president of The Fox Co., Charlotte, N.C., a manufacturer of cutting, slitting and spreading equipment. “The answer is that automated sewing, needle positioning, undertrimming, backtacking, footlift, etc., are labor-saving devices. They are fatigue saving, and they give a more efficient operation. If [the operator] is one person, running full out, and is thinking of getting a second machine, maybe automating the machine will make him just efficient enough that he can save the cost of hiring a second operator for a while. You can’t hire a quarter of an operator, after all. So at that point it makes sense.”
Modern technology helps small fabricator shops
Implementing lean manufacturing into a company’s workflow can and often does lead to an equipment purchase and reconfigured workspace. “It’s about much more than production,” says Chris Ortiz, a lean consultant based in Bellingham, Wash. “Often people think that lean is about improving productivity—making it faster with fewer people. Yes, we try to increase productivity, but we look at so many things.” ‘So many things’ includes issues such as floor space, inventory level, use of people, how to justify buying equipment and how to train employees.
Equipment and process efficiency
The decision of whether to invest in new equipment ultimately is dependent upon customer demand. “I ask my sales reps all the time if we could come down on price to close a particular deal, and most of them say, ‘Not really,’” says Jeff Sponseller, executive vice president of Miller Weldmaster Corp., Navarre, Ohio. “Certainly their negotiating position improves, but the sale is really not that much price dependent. Let’s say we were selling a $50,000 machine. They are not going to buy it because it goes to $45,000. They are going to buy it because they need that machine.”
What do customers really want?
Choosing the best equipment to purchase depends on a number of questions. “Price is obviously a factor, but you get what you pay for,” says Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth, founder and president of FLAAR, The Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research, an organization that brings the history of ancient civilizations into the present by means of digitally produced displays. “For a small print shop interested in growing, versatility is crucial. A large print shop is best served by having several different printers, each one dedicated to specific applications.” Whatever the market segment—from fabric graphics to tents to marine to awnings—making an informed choice means internal process evaluation and industry research.
Making informed choices in printing
When to buy depends largely on calculating a return on investment (ROI) figure. “The 80/20 rule always applies in business, and filling a niche can establish your business as a leader and give you a head start on the competition,” says Marie Friemann of printer manufacturer Mimaki. “The most important thing to remember about ROI is that a machine that is not running is not making money. Plan a long-term strategy with short-term goals.”
Maximize your equipment efficiency
Beating the trends
Custom manufacturing businesses don’t operate in a vacuum. Industry trends, such as economics, sustainability issues, value-added expectations and increasing customer demands for versatility, durability, economy and aesthetics play dominant roles in operational decisions.
Climbing up out of the recession might demand that companies subcontract equipment-dependent processes before leasing or buying equipment. It can be a growth strategy as well as a concession to financial realities. “One of the keys to growth,” notes small-business consultant Rieva Lesonsky of Irvine, Calif., “is keeping your own overhead down.” But deciding to outsource means examining what your company does best, and research and follow-through in selecting and managing your company’s relationship with the contract company.
Outsourcing as part of a growth strategy
Sustainability is arguably the most emotional and weighted word of the day for manufacturers from all market segments. “Sustainability is a wide-ranging term; its meaning is subject to interpretation and its effects are hard to measure,” says Michael Labella, a partner at 2DTC LLC, a sales and marketing firm focused on digital textile printing. Labella suggests several strategies for sustainable printing choices, such as using digital printers that enable companies to print on demand and generate less waste, as well as tips that can be applied to other market segments.
Making sense of sustainable printing
Quality custom products at affordable—and perhaps unrealistic—prices are what most customers want and expect. While conscientious manufacturers would never sacrifice quality for the sake of economy, competitive pricing is always an issue. But quality manufacturers can compete on price, says Bud Weisbart, IFM, vice president of AR Tech and AR Industries, divisions of A & R Tarpaulins inc., Fontana, Calif. “Sometimes providing a better product will result in a lower charge,” he says. The computerized cutting machine he added to his equipment inventory less than three years ago “allows more precision and more rapid production, which results in greater quality assurance at a lower price, based on a lower cost to us.”
Maintaining quality standards in a tough economy
Capturing new markets
If finding newer, faster, better ways to serve existing markets isn’t enough (and it probably isn’t), emerging market segments of safety and protective, military and healthcare products—all heavily dependent on new equipment and technologies—are growth opportunities.
Tap into expanding government markets
Fabric composites advances open new markets
Protective products for commercial use
Tapping into emerging markets doesn’t have to mean starting over. Adapting equipment and technology builds on the basic expertise and core competencies of your company. “Through trial and error, you develop a body of expertise and create additional marketing opportunities,” says Weisbart, whose tarp and awning company long ago expanded its capabilities to address mandatory requirements for technical jobs by achieving ISO and the AS Aerospace Quality Certifications. “Then when somebody says they’ve got work with something exposed to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, you can say you have worked with such products and address that requirement.”
Operating leverage: Adapt your technology to new markets