Gary Buermann designs shop layout for efficiency.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“When you tour a big awning shop you can see what money can buy in terms of equipment, how much time it will save and what you might expect when your shop grows,” says Gary Buermann, MFC, president of G & J Awning and Canvas, Sauk Rapids, Minn. “And when you tour the small shops that don’t have the luxury of money, you can see ways of solving problems with very few dollars. They’re both valuable experiences.”
Buermann and his wife Janice started the company as a part-time tent repair operation using a rented sewing machine in a 10-by-10-foot lawn shed in their back yard. Now the company manufactures awnings and other canvas products, has 16 employees and will soon be moving from its 11,000-square-foot shop to an 18,000-square-foot structure Buermann plans to have built this fall.
Fast and faster
As a young man first looking for work in the late 1970s, Buermann had no intention of owning what he describes as a mid-sized awning company, but he knew how to work hard and had an eye for improving production times through modifying equipment and workflow. “I walked into the unemployment office and told them I wanted to work somewhere where I could build things, and they sent me to a canvas shop to repair tarps,” Buermann says. “I took the job because it sounded interesting—never thinking it would be a career move.”
It didn’t take long at the new job for Buermann to get noticed by the boss for speeding up production times. His first assignment was sewing 30-inch-wide truck tarps. “We sewed them on a big table, and trying to work that much fabric across the table stunk,” Buermann says. “I thought: There’s got to be an easier way. So I took an old sewing machine that people had been robbing parts off of in the corner of the shop, cut the table off as close to the head as I could, replaced the head and decreased the sewing time to less than half. That earned me some brownie points.”
Buermann eventually modified the hemming machines in a similar fashion. Soon he was promoted to the boat department, where he not only learned to manufacture canvas for boats, but advised his boss on how to streamline productivity. “The company had hired consultants to improve efficiency. They stood over the employees with stop watches and tracked times on a chart in the lunchroom. Of course productivity went up—but it went down just as fast when the consultants packed up,” Buermann says. “My boss was standing in the lunchroom looking kind of disgustedly at the charts, and I said: ‘It doesn’t look too good, does it? I can tell you why.’”
The two walked out onto the shop floor and Buermann ticked off several places where there was wasted motion and inefficiencies. The following Monday morning, staff members were waiting for him to repeat what he had told the boss, which included explaining the benefits of assigning one person to transport materials so sewers can keep sewing, and implementing an assembly line sewing process instead of each sewer being responsible for one piece from start to finish.
Equipment that works
By the time Buermann and his wife started G & J Awnings and Canvas in 1977 he had a wealth of experience in implementing streamlined production practices—which, as the company grew, he put into practice along with new ideas for customized equipment and employee management.
Two areas of manufacturing and installing that Buermann identified as having room for improvement early on were in the frame welding department and transportation. The issue with welding had to do with the amount of time it takes to ensure a square frame. “I’ve seen companies weld on a cement floor, which is never level, to using two beams as a welding surface,” Buermann says. “And there are companies that use jigs, but I haven’t seen one yet that has a back on it—so I built one.”
With the help of “the best jig man” Buermann has ever seen, the two designed a jig with several beams parallel along the back wall to which they clamp the aluminum frames to be welded. “When you weld there’s a tendency for the metal to draw up,” he says. “With this we can clamp the frame so it holds square and you don’t have to re-square after the initial welds. It’s a huge time-saver.” On the ceiling above the jigs they installed welders on tracks so they can be easily moved to where they’re needed.
The time waster regarding transportation had to do with protecting awnings from damage. G & J provides awnings for the five-state area—Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and North and South Dakota—and covering so many miles means more opportunity for damage to the awnings if they’re not properly secured. “I’m going to make sure the awnings get to their destination intact, but I’m not going to put the skin on to see if it fits, take it off, load the frames, haul them to the site and re-skin them. That takes too much time,” Buermann says. “After trying several different things for hauling I decided I needed a closed trailer with tracks mounted to the wall. I made a clip and we hook the awnings on with rubber snubbers and they hang down from the tracks. I probably designed this thing 100 or more times in my head before we started cutting pieces.”
Now that Buermann’s shop is outgrowing its 11,000 square feet, he’s designing and redesigning what will be the new shop layout—with the help of his staff. He cut out a big sheet of vinyl and laid it on the shop floor. He then cut out proportional representations of each area of the new shop: sewing centers for clean, not-so-clean, dirty (with a wash bay and truck storage), really dirty and boat covering jobs; welding and office. “All of the employees have a chance to move things around if they don’t like where I’ve put their section,” Buermann says. “After they think about it for a while sometimes they end up moving pieces back to where they first were. This gives us a chance to visualize it before we get to building it.
“When we get more space we can further improve our workflow,” Buermann says. “And we might have room for some new equipment I’ve had my eye on—a flatbed laser cutter machine that sears the edges while it cuts. But my shop comes first.”