Manufacturers expand their product offerings using equipment that’s as versatile as they are.
By Janice Kleinschmidt
It slices … It dices … In the 1950s and ’60s, Ronco® altered the kitchen landscape, offering consumers faster and easier food preparation. But the underlying concept of the Veg-O-Matic and the many “O-Matic” spawn has extended across the manufacturing landscape.
“I look for equipment that’s going to cut my turnaround time,” says Greg Schmieler, president of Laurel Awning Co. of Apollo, Pa. He has purchased a 50-ton metal press to shear and punch holes in steel plates and cut angular tubing, and a double-needle sewing machine with a fabric folder. Now he’s looking into a computer-aided cutter-plotter.
“I think when equipment manufacturers look at a product, they need to take into account the diversity of applications,” says Mike Erickson, president of Canvas Designers Inc., a marine canvas shop in Riviera Beach, Fla. “When I can use a tool across my product line, that adds to its value. When we bought a CNC table, we bought a table that could cut plastic, but also upgraded it, adding horsepower for extra versatility to cut metal.”
Twelve years ago, Erickson purchased a 3-D digitizer specifically for its versatility. Recently, he acquired an Aeronaut Elektron Quattro cutter-plotter. “You can have four heads in the tool at once,” he says. “Across the board, having the versatility of all those tools makes us a lot more efficient and able to cut a lot of products that we wouldn’t be able to cut otherwise.
“If I am going to invest $150,000, if that equipment can do a lot of other functions that we do around here, then there’s a huge payback,” Erickson continues. “I wouldn’t go out and buy a standard machine to do carpet; but if I buy a machine that can also do carpet, I am ahead of the game.”
Roel Dierderen, R & D manager of Netherlands-based ASCO BV, which makes machines for the textile industry, says the trends for more complicated fabric products and the growth of fabric collections demand more technically sophisticated equipment.
“Machine investments are high and, because of diverse fabrics and products, volumes are mostly too low to invest in one product type only,” he says. “Our welding machines have been constantly developed: first welding only, then also automatic folding and welding, welding reinforcement tape, welding plastic splines, welding attachments, welding zippers, etc. Our CNC cutting table shows a similar development. The ASCO double-gantry cutting table now combines several cutting tools—ultrasonic, crush, round knife, hot knife—in one fully automated machine with integrated roll storage and automatic order processing.”
“[Multifunctionality] is one of the first things we look for to make sure that we can recover our expenses as soon as possible. If you buy equipment that only does one function and you cannot keep that machine occupied 100 percent of the time, then it takes longer to recover the expense of that machine,” says Jerry Reeves, vice president of Huntsville, Ala.-based AC Fabricated Products. The company, a major supplier of tents to the U.S. Department of Defense, is looking at a machine that turns and tacks webbing.
Flying Colours Intl. of Toronto, Ont., Canada, has been processing textiles for more than 100 years, adapting to market changes and now concentrating on making flags and banners. The company still uses traditional screen-printing processes, but has acquired digital printing equipment capable of handling multiple fabrics. A typical customer may be supplying a store with point-of-sale banners, storefront and/or street banners and flags for street posts.
“Anybody in the supply chain in North America has to become more diversified,” says Murray Jefferies, executive vice president and general manager at Flying Colours. “We have to have multifunctional equipment and a multifunctional process in order to meet those requirements.”
Bill Slyne, president of North Cutting Systems, a manufacturer of cutting and molding systems based in Markham, Ont., Canada, thinks of multifunctionality as solutions adaptable to each customer’s requirements.
“Multifunctional systems are where a machine or process has capabilities aside from its core functions that allow it to perform additional operations in the production sequence,” he explains. “The benefit to manufacturers is not that the machine is able to do many things; it’s that it is capable of replacing multiple steps in the production process and saves them money.”
Multifunctionality as it describes equipment capable of performing more than one task does not apply to Q-Lab Corp., according to Jeff Quill, director of technical applications. “What we have been able to do across our product lines is increase different ranges,” he says of the Westlake, Ohio-based manufacturer of material durability testing products. “Our multifunctionality comes in being able to help customers test a wider range of products faster. If you want different spectrums of light or higher temperatures, we are able to meet those needs.”
Quill considers making a user interface in multiple languages as a way of adding function, though it can be difficult. “In our industry, when it comes to language, it’s challenging, because scientific terms don’t necessarily easily translate,” he says. “Even the word failure has to be explained.”
Jefferies says he’s heard plenty of horror stories about equipment that doesn’t do everything promised. “We spend a lot of time discovering true capabilities of equipment. The whole idea of transparency is important to us,” he says.
Preparing for change
Registered in 1897, the original Swiss Army Knife featured six tools. Wenger’s “Giant” version—recognized by Guinness World Records as “the world’s most multifunctional penknife”—encompasses 87 tools and 141 functions. But at 8.75 inches long, it doesn’t fit in a shirt or pants pocket; and most people probably don’t need to perform all 141 functions.
That notion is one of the reasons modular components make sense. You buy a core piece of equipment and then choose interchangeable or add-on components to increase its versatility.
Consider one of the oldest tools for fabric applications: the sewing machine. “There are lots of attachments that can fit on machines, depending on what you’re doing,” says Doug Glenn, vice president of Consew, a sewing machine manufacturer based in Carlstadt, N.J. “Machines are typically designed to go forward and reverse, and typically it’s a straight-stitch machine. If someone wants to put a welt into a seam, then you need a welt presser foot. Another customer may need a swing arm guide.”
“All our machines are custom built. Based on the customer’s requirements, we combine known modules with new developments into a machine that will fit the requirement perfectly,” Diederen says. “Most machines have modules that were designed specially for that customer—for example, a module that rolls up the unused half of a zipper or special software modules to be able to process a specific product or fabric.”
Flying Colours works closely with machine and software suppliers to clearly understand the capabilities of what they offer and how it can fit not only current situations, but also anticipated changes.
“Our organization has become about change and has integrated this into our culture as a way of doing things,” Jefferies says. “Having equipment adaptable to change is essential to making future improvements.”
Leister USA in Itasca, Ill., offers multiple versions of its tools to serve a variety of industries, and a range of accessories
“Versatility is being able to use one tool for hem welding, overlap welding or piping,” says John Amery, business development manager, in describing Leister’s Variant T1. “It’s just bracketry.”
“Our modular approach starts with our Rapid Rotary™ cutters,” Slyne says. “By working with clients, we add the features and functionality they are looking for. By making our system adaptable, we can add these functions at the time of sale or later, as the customers’ needs develop. Through simple add-ons or settings, clients can use our machine for slitting, unwinding, simple heat welding, material handling and, of course, cutting.
“Software is another key area where we are able to make our machines more multifunctional,” Slyne adds. “As one example, a customer needed to perforate certain parts of cut edges. A software module was added that allowed the laser cutter to perform perforations by rapidly turning the laser on and off while the machine was moving at full speed. … When we work with our clients, we review their types of materials, patterns and applications to ensure our machine delivers the functionality they’re looking for.”
As far as Schmieler is concerned, multifunctionality also can be overemphasized.
“Sometimes the machine that does seven things is too complicated,” he says. “A piece of equipment can have a single function. As long as I get efficiency from it, I’m happy.”