End product manufacturers offer insight about the equipment and tools that got them this far—and where they want to go next.
By Janice Kleinschmidt
Custom Canvas Alaska LLC set up shop in 2005 with a sewing machine, computer and file cabinet.
Then they built a workbench and racks and installed a frame bender.
Then they got a job for a boat cover.
“To learn more about the business and see how others do it, I went to the Marine Fabricators Association convention,” says Eric Walton, managing member of the Fairbanks, Alaska-based company. “When I got back, my partner Devlin [McKee] had the shop full of boats.” The company immediately upgraded its frame-building equipment and purchased a second sewing machine. In 2006, it purchased two needle-positioning motors for the sewing machines.
“We had a customer in need of belly tarps on a regular basis,” Walton says, explaining that Alaskan regulations require under-engine tarps for trucks on oil fields to protect the environment. “Each tarp uses 20 grommets, and orders would range from 20 to 40 tarps. That’s 400 to 800 grommets. We purchased a basic foot-powered grommet machine; we hope to upgrade to pneumatic.”
Walton subsequently took advantage of “good deals” on a fabric welder capable of welding high-density polyethylene and one capable of welding PVC and urethane. “That opened the doors to fabricate large fabric panels, which enabled us to enlarge our product line and customer base,” he says.
After two decades as a division of Sifter Parts and Service, American Fabric Filter Co., Wesley Chapel, Fla., incorporated in 2003 with similar humble beginnings, making transfer sleeves to get products from a feeder to a sifter. Its initial equipment consisted of a pair of scissors and a single-needle sewing machine.
“Then we got automatic cutting equipment, slicing equipment, presses. Now we work on all double- or triple-needle machines,” CFO Tim Robinson says. “We have come a long way and have still got things in the works, such as an RF welder, automatic tubing and automatic plotting and cutter in the next year or so.”
Automation isn’t new by any means. In early 19th century England, textile machine operators known as Luddites protested and destroyed mechanized looms that they felt threatened their jobs. Two centuries later, industrial fabric shops in the United States find it difficult to compete against low-labor-cost factories overseas. As American Fabric Filter’s customers turned to sourcing materials abroad, the company was forced to integrate automated systems into its shop. “We had to find new customers to stay afloat, and it really helped us expand our horizons,” Robinson says.
Chad Miller, director of contract manufacturing at American National Mfg. Inc. in Corona, Calif., agrees that international competition drives the move toward labor-saving devices.
“I am desperately looking for automated sewing equipment—anything that would allow me to reduce bodies to get the same results with one person as seven people overseas,” he says. “We need to consolidate operations. Four processes combined into one is something that we definitely are interested in and the kind of equipment we like to purchase.
“I am currently looking for a sewing machine that would do multiple things: sew, rotate and move materials around; sew straight stitches; or look like quilting. I saw one at the IFAI trade show in Orlando,” says Miller, whose company started in the 1970s making mattresses and now provides products for the aviation and safety industries as well.
American National bought its second cutting machine this year to handle 109-inch-wide jobs. “The technology has advanced so greatly,” Miller says. “We just put a couple of Gerber cutting machines in. We can cut two to three times more material on this machine with half the bodies.” It measures, makes registration marks, hole punches and cuts with precision accuracy. “It frees up the talent that I have,” Miller says. “Now I can put that talent on the production line.”
“Fabric has always been our thing,” says Andy Arkin, technical director for Olympus Group, a Milwaukee, Wis.-based flag and banner company that traditionally used screen printing technology. “When UV inkjet technology became available in 2001,” he says, “we purchased one of the first UV hybrid machines on the market, which really changed our whole approach to custom banners.
“When I came aboard in 2004, it was to help [Olympus] with the UV digital technology, as well as to take dye sublimation digital to the next level: water-based piezo inkjet. Since then, we have updated with advancements in both technologies.”
Roll-Rite LLC of Alger, Mich., started business as a steel fabrication shop with torches and welders. After Michigan passed a tarp law, local dump truck dealers came to company founder Tim Searfoss looking for a tarping system.
“We initially jobbed all that out,” Searfoss says. Now the company has CNC cutting machines, three double-needled sewing machines, a grommet-setting machine, an RF welder, a hot-air welder and—the company’s most recent purchase—a slitting machine.
If I started over …
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. If he were starting today, Arkin says, he would invest entirely in digital printing devices.
“In today’s world of one-offs and custom work, I believe that digital is the only way to go. The UV technology and fabric technology are different worlds,” he says. His first equipment purchase would be a water-based piezo inkjet printer for dye sublimation that could print in grand format, “which introduces a whole new market, along with a whole new batch of variables,” he says. He’d like to upgrade his 73-inch printers, but can’t justify the cost just yet. “I have five machines that all work well but have been discontinued by the manufacturer,” he says. “My oldest one is six years old. The newest is four years old. Parts are going to be harder to get. But the fact of the matter is I have five of them. If one goes down, I am not in a huge hurry to get it back up. I could go out today and make an investment where one machine would replace three of them. But do we need to? It’s not a huge difference with print quality. It’s more speed and reliability.” A new machine is, he adds, “on the docket” within a year.
If American Fabric Filter were preparing to open its doors tomorrow, Robinson says, he would invest in all automated equipment to increase productivity. His wish list starts with an automated plotter and cutter, then an automated material racking system (“anything to make the change out on the cutting table easier”) and automated tubing and seaming systems.
Walton, on the other hand, would want little more than a “good old basic single-needle, locking-stitch, large-bobbin, reverse-feed sewing machine and all the basic tools, setters and dies. Beyond that, it would depend on the market we were trying to capture,” he says. He prioritizes his purchases as “basic first, automatic next, bells and whistles last. We’re starting to look at bells and whistles.”
Searfoss would start with a sewing machine, then grommet-setting machine, then cutting machine, then welders.
Tomorrow’s latest and greatest machine may not answer the phone and brew coffee while making a custom fabric product, but that doesn’t stop shop owners from dreaming. Robinson, for one, would like more automated machinery along the RF welding side: something that can be job customizable, doesn’t need a lot of tooling changes and maintains a high rate of production. “Changing tooling is cumbersome,” he says. “If we had something that would make that easier, that would open us [to new markets] even more,” he says. Robinson would like ultrasonic cutters but says his company is “not quite there where we can justify that expense over a heat knife.” He’d also like a fully automated grommet-setting machine.
“Turnaround times have gotten much shorter, so you need faster machines and you need more reliable machines,” Arkin says. “Customer designs have always been challenging and meeting their expectations for color is a must. The customer wants what the customer wants. The biggest thing for us is they just want it faster while expecting the same high quality. My ideal machine would be a 6-picoliter variable droplet, 3-meter, UV hybrid, low-heat-curing (LED) printer with an output of 1,000 square feet per hour in production mode.”
“I would love to have a better feeding die-cut press,” Miller says. “I would love to have some automated feeding pull-through for large foam and stacked fabrics.” He also wants an automated rewind machine that would eliminate the need for an operator to roll 2-inch strips cut from 19-inch-wide fabric.
Searfoss and Walton both want a floor-model welder for large projects.
“We got a job that required us to weld a 60-foot pocket onto an HDPE cover. It was too large and awkward to run through our Miller welder, so we borrowed a hot-air floor model welder,” Walton says.
“We’re hoping to go to IFAI Expo this fall and see what is available in regard to a third workstation sewing machine, perhaps programmable stitching, auto reverse, low-bobbin signal—and says ‘Good morning’ when it’s turned on.”