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Welander solves design problems for fabric structures

Features, Management, Perspective | December 1, 2009 | By:

Mark Welander uses his penchant for simplicity and accuracy to solve fabrication dilemmas.

“When you’re trying to get information, try to find the bull’s-eye,” says Mark Welander, MFC, owner of Fabricon in Missoula, Mont. “You need to have accuracy and good information when going into a project—without it, you’re going to have problems somewhere along the line.” Welander currently focuses most of his energies on consulting to do design and production for complex specialty tents and fabric structures, as well as manufacturing processes.

From habitat to profession

Welander’s specialty is in finding the simplest, most effective way to solve a design and manufacturing problem. And his interest in the industry that led to his expertise started in a most unlikely place—a tipi.

As a student, Welander decided to change his major from architecture to forestry, a decision that landed him in Missoula, Mont., to attend the University of Montana. In his search for cheap housing, a friend offered to loan him a tipi. “We had an excellent spot to set it up on the side of the mountain where the university is,” Welander says. “I lived there for that winter and became very impressed with how livable and comfortable the tipi was.” When the friend moved away, taking his tipi with him, Welander decided to make one of his own.

Using a treadle sewing machine, Welander crafted his first tipi, which he sold before he’d finished making it. That sale was the beginning of Welander’s first business, Blue Star Tipis. Over several years, the scope of his business grew to include manufacturing boat covers and tops, awnings and other custom products—so he rebranded the company as Blue Star Canvas Products.

Expert advice

As Welander’s business grew, so did his dedication to having accurate and complete information for working on a project. Welander addressed that goal by hiring experienced people who mentored him in the custom fabrication process. One of the first people that he hired was a Master Fabric Craftsman (MFC)* who taught him how to make marine tops. Later he hired another Master Fabric Craftsman, who taught him about awning fabrication while another with a lifetime of experience in production lines educated him on general production techniques. “I’ve had some good mentors,” Welander says. “I’ve learned how other people approach a project, what may be right with it and what may be wrong with it. It’s a process.”

When Welander sold Blue Star Canvas Products in the early 1990s, he signed a non-compete clause stating that for three years he wouldn’t produce—a decision that set him on the path to consulting. He began by assisting an awning company in Salt Lake City with its awning development, which led to more consulting jobs. “People called me when they found themselves with projects that they wouldn’t normally do,” Welander says. “Sometimes they lacked the expertise or the ability to focus on that type of project with the resources they had on staff.” Word started to get around that he was a good person to call in for special projects, and in 1995, he started Fabricon.

For many of his consulting projects, the challenge is getting enough information from the clients to achieve their goals. Welander’s experience helps him help them ferret out the necessary facts. “I help them see all dimensions of a project so we can cover all the bases,” he says. “From years of running into problems, I’ve come to understand the importance of looking deeper into all aspects of a project.”

A collaborative effort

Though the projects vary in market segment and scope, the common denominator is usually complexity. For the past four years Welander has been consulting on a military project for Alaska Tent & Tarp in Fairbanks, Alaska. The project—to design and construct specialized tents to be used as collective protection in the advent of a chemical and/or biological situation—is a collaboration involving Alaska Tent, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, and Triosyn Corp. (a company that developed a specialized fabric for troop protection from viral and microbial threats).

“This is fairly new in what’s out there with the military,” Welander says. “There are face masks and body suits for chemical and biological situations, but there is nothing out there that could passively protect more than one person at a time.” The team began by developing a two-person tent based on a tent design currently used by the U.S. Marine Corps. From there they developed a six-person tent, and eventually progressed to command center tents.

Welander worked with other consultants in addition to staff members from the three collaborating entities, including several engineers. In keeping with Welander’s approach that the simplest solution is often the best, the team took a passive approach to designing the tents. “The tents are passive in that they require no energy,” Welander says. “They don’t have windows. Really, they’re just big filter panels within the tent that filter out the dirty air coming in.”

Finding the simplest solution isn’t always easy, however. It’s taken more than four years to get the tents ready for production. Among the challenges was how to address the problem of CO2 build-up inside the tent. “We had to enlarge the filtration panels, which caused the tent to become quite heavy,” Welander says. “The panels are much heavier than the barrier fabric that makes up the rest of the tent.” The solution resulted in tents that Welander describes as “inflatables that cannot leak, with the addition of big filter panels.” The prototypes have been tested in various areas of the United States, Iraq and Afghanistan, and have been approved for production.

Although Welander hasn’t devoted his time exclusively to this one project for the last four years, it has been a considerable portion of his focus. Now that the project is wrapping up he’ll be turning his attention to some new challenges. “I’ve been enjoying Alaska but eventually will be heading back south,” he says. “I enjoy working with different companies, meeting different people and going to different areas of the country. It’s really added to my repertoire.”

* Master Fabric Craftsman (MFC) is a certification from IFAI that recognizes men and women who demonstrate superior skills in manufacturing specialty fabric end products.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the editor of InTents magazine, another IFAI publication.

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