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The development of new and improved equipment

Business, Feature | July 1, 2011 | By:

Key factors driving the development—and sales—of new equipment for specialty fabrics manufacturers.

Whether fabricators are finishing an awning or designing a banner, they have to choose from a plethora of equipment to get the job done. Representatives from four major equipment manufacturing categories for specialty fabrics—welding, sewing, cutting and printing—share their insights on key trends shaping the industry.

Bouncing back from recession

Just as it did for their customers, the global recession affected equipment manufacturers to varying degrees. “We are beginning to see a rebound,” notes Steven Kaplan, president of S. Kaplan Sewing Machine Co. Inc. in Newark, N.J., “but people are very cautious, particularly when it comes to making a capital investment in equipment. They need to have the work in order to justify the investment.” Kaplan also posits that such caution will continue even as the economy picks up steam.

This latest recession has been much harder to navigate because fewer are willing or able to “ride out the storm,” according to Robert Ross Jr., president of Camatron Sewing Machine Inc., Fairview, N.J., “but the ones that do are finding creative ways to struggle through these tough times.”

Ross’s father and founder of Camatron, Bob Ross Sr., told him years ago that “when recessions come, and they will, that is the time to upgrade your equipment so that when things turn around, and they will, you will be more efficient and will benefit from the recovery,” says Ross, noting that his nonmilitary customers are either replacing or properly repairing equipment held together with “Band-Aids® and duct tape.”

An economic decline can be an ideal time to invest time and money. “Within the slow economic times, we have been able to access and focus our energies on areas of the market such as textiles and fabrics that we may not have been able to otherwise,” says Michelle Pugh, marketing coordinator for Mutoh America Inc., a Phoenix, Ariz.-based printer manufacturer.

For the most part, equipment manufacturers affected by the economic downturn say they’re on the path to recovery, citing indicators such as increased interest from buyers and improved sales figures, as well as a rebound in industry trade show attendance by potential equipment buyers.

What buyers want

When it comes to meeting customers’ needs, common trends transcend the different areas of equipment manufacturing. Shifting needs from customers over the years have prompted continuing adaptations by equipment manufacturers.

Jeff Sponseller, executive vice president at Miller Weldmaster Corp. in Navarre, Ohio, cites examples such as different specifications required for military work and the ability to weld fabrics with special treatments. “We have had to ensure that our machines can weld all those kinds of varying products,” he says.

JTE Machine Systems Inc. of Orange Park, Fla., has adapted some of its equipment based on the sustainability movement. “More than a few years ago we saw trends toward recyclable and renewable fabrics and biodegradable materials, with clients telling us they were trying to get greener,” says Traci Evling, JTE’s president. “We knew that by only carrying machines that could weld PVC or polyurethane materials, we would be quite limited in helping our customers in the future.” To that end, JTE began testing PE, polyesters and other biodegradable materials with alternative welding technologies such as ultrasonic bar welding, impulse bar welding and other thermal heat methods. Their R & D efforts proved successful, which ultimately led them to a partnership with Italy-based S.M.R.E., manufacturers of advanced hot air, ultrasonic and liquid glue line welders.

Other must-have features include ease of use, speed, durability, consistency, dependability and precision. Versatility is another highly sought-after characteristic—that is, a machine that can perform multiple tasks or store information for different projects. For customers purchasing welding equipment, for instance, “most of all they are looking for a high-quality machine that can give them the strong seams they need, as well as reliability in machine performance,” says Kjell Eliasson, senior manager North America for Forsstrom HF AB, Lysekil, Sweden.

Easy operation also ranks high as a priority. “We sell to a lot of mom-and-pop shops, so we try to make our equipment as easy to use as possible,” Pugh notes. “For the most part, though, most customers purchase based on company image and reputation, quality and then price.”

Not surprisingly, affordability does play an important role in the decision to buy a new piece of equipment, even if it is not the most important factor. “In the specialty fabrics industry, people are very price conscious, especially if they’re running a smaller business,” says Arlene Zdrazil, sales manager for Preco Golden Laser in Somerset, Wis.

Ultimately, few of these new product advantages would be possible if equipment manufacturers were not paying close attention to their clients. “Sheffield has 80 different types of models, and most of them are developed from customers’ ideas,” says Denis Almeida of Sheffield Cutting Equipment in San Diego, Calif., who adds that one of the biggest requests is automation to save on labor costs. “They ask, ‘Can you do this or can you do that?’ and we get a lot of that feedback at trade shows.”

Ongoing improvements

Despite the economic challenges of the last three years, equipment manufacturers continue to improve existing machines, and in some instances introduce new ones. In the fabric graphics arena, manufacturers have introduced a variety of new printers to address this growing segment of the industry. This year, Durst Phototechnik AG in Brixen, Italy, will launch Kappa, its first fashion/garment printer running with water-based reactive, disperse, and acid inks. Advantages to users include versatility, easy design change, profitability (even with short runs), less environmental impact and less water consumption, says Christoph Gamper, textile segment manager for Durst.

Mimaki’s Tx400-1800D heavy-duty printer features an advanced fabric feed and take-up system designed to easily handle large rolls of fabric and keep the fabric stable and printing smoothly. Another model, the Tx400-1800B series, is equipped with a fabric handling transport system featuring an adhesive transport belt. “This technology makes printing stretch fabrics such as nylon-Lycra® an easy task to achieve,” says Michael Compton, national sales manager for Mimaki USA in Suwanee, Ga. The printhead improves speed and uses less ink to achieve bold colors.

Welding equipment manufacturers have released their share of new and improved technologies designed to incorporate versatility and ease of use. Last year, JTE Machine Systems introduced its S.M.R.E. technology to North and South America, which combines different uses such as hot air and ultrasonic welding on the same machine.

Miller Weldmaster has added memory panels and onboard computers for storage and logistics to most of its machines, and introduced T-300, a more economical machine targeted at small awning and sign shops.

Sinclair Equipment Co. of Diamond Springs, Calif., will unveil a hot rotary blade cutter to provide a sealed edge to coated textiles and woven fabrics to help prevent fabric edge fraying, as well as a portable automatic plastic grommet machine.

At Forsstrom, new product introductions include a stationary radio frequency (RF) welding machine called XP for welding many small details; TDW Corner, used to weld corner joints where the machine is turning, to enable the manufacture of large products more efficiently; and ForFlexx, which makes it possible to join flexible coated PVC and PU fabrics with metal attachments using RF welding.

Customers also can get upgrades or new components. Examples include rebuilding a sewing machine rather than purchasing a new one, adding electronics to older equipment when possible, and combining applications to reduce equipment use and labor costs.

Pushing customer service

Any company will tell you that customer service is a priority, but especially in the equipment industry, training and service play a vital role. Manufacturers across the board have implemented on- and off-site help for their customers around the globe with services such as training seminars, technicians available around the clock and one-on-one attention. “In the period of slower growth, we have seen many of our customers send in equipment for servicing, as well as ask our support to provide further learning and development in using the equipment,” says Jamie Nute, sales and marketing manager for Sinclair.

“We have more service techs than we do sales reps,” notes Sponseller. “We offer on-hand training for anyone, not only about how to use the machine, but also how to make their product more efficiently.”

Such personalized attention distinguishes a manufacturer or equipment distributor. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘I found this sewing machine on the Internet for less,’” says Kaplan. “But the Internet can’t install it and teach you how to use it.”

Some companies will integrate features into their equipment for preventive measures. For example, Durst has built remote diagnostics into its machines to diagnose potential problems with the printing system and/or environmental parameters such as humidity or temperature. “With intelligent systems we are able to prevent many time- and money-consuming service interventions,” Gamper says.

Where we’re headed

Equipment manufacturers for the specialty fabrics industry see plenty of opportunity for growth. Those working within the fabric graphics segment foresee the continual rise of digitally printed textiles, particularly for the soft signage and trade show graphics markets. “Printing graphics on fabric provides a lightweight, versatile product,” Compton notes.

It’s not just printers who see the value of digital graphics. “Wide digital printing capabilities are growing at a fast pace, and new applications are showing up in many different markets,” Zdrazil says. For instance, a laser can enhance some of these applications by adding intricate features within the graphics, making [the end product] unique or more functional.”

Equipment users can expect continued R & D from their manufacturers and distributors. “We are constantly looking to improve our products,” says Pugh, adding that Mutoh is focused on teaching customers different types of applications they can create, as well as spending time on color and color management.

Opportunities for new products continually arise, according to Nute. “As new innovation leads to the development of the next generation of products, a specialized cover needs to be built to house this new product, and that will come from the specialty fabrics industry. That will trickle down to the equipment manufacturer because that new finished cover may demand a new attachment or technology.”

Some equipment manufacturers acknowledge that while China continues to be a global manufacturing hub, some work has crept back into the U.S.—often “as a means to reduce money tied up in overseas inventory purchases,” Ross notes.

“What I have found over the last five to six years is that the more sophisticated products—something that is technically complex to manufacture—will be made here,” Kaplan says. “Commodity items, like a simple blue tarp you buy at Home Depot, will still be made overseas.”

“Digital textile printing is beginning to make a gradual return to the U.S. market,” Compton adds. “Many companies are moving toward design and sample printing to bring about quick change of their product lines to retailers no longer having the luxury to wait while design samples are printed on the other side of the world and shipped back.”

What’s more, Compton says, “As countries such as China evolve through their own industrial revolution, the price of manufacturing and related costs continue to rise and level the global playing field.”

Setting up manufacturing facilities stateside isn’t always easy, says Ross, citing obstacles such as trade policies, tax policies, high operating costs and local governments simply not wanting factories in their towns. “The only way I can see growth is if the U.S. realizes the value of manufacturing in this country.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Calif.

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