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Flexible arrangement

Feature, Management, Products | July 1, 2013 | By:

Efficient production means choosing (and changing) the best equipment configurations.

Technological developments in the specialty fabrics industry allow end product manufacturers (EPMs) to print larger, faster and at higher quality; to create and save complicated patterns through computer-aided design; and to execute a diverse set of tasks with the same piece of equipment—all with an eye toward greater environmental sustainability.

But when these same EPMs look to arrange equipment for an efficient shop, the solution often lies not with the “latest and greatest” invention but rather with one of the oldest and greatest—the wheel. From equipment on casters and battery-powered carts to roller duffle bags and Mac Tool Trucks, the wheel is key to efficient work flow, whether a manufacturer needs to accommodate space for a very large custom job or get tools and product to the installation site.

“Everything that can possibly be on wheels is on wheels so we can reconfigure the floor at any point in time,” Tom Trutna, president of BIG INK Display Graphics, says as he describes his 14,000 square feet of production space in Eagan, Minn. “We’ve specifically put the bigger equipment that can’t be moved around the perimeter, which gives us a big open space in the center to make it flexible and able to be reconfigured for the optimal production space for us.”

Custom configurations

When the vast majority of a company’s business involves custom production, there is often not a single equipment configuration that allows for efficient production all the time. It pays, therefore, to be flexible.

“We can reposition equipment to allow for bigger pieces to be cut on,” says Pete Weingartner, president of Queen City Awning, Cincinnati, Ohio. “In the same way with our welding tables, we can move those as needed to do larger frames.”

Equipment in Queen City Awning’s 27,000-square-foot facility includes steel tube and aluminum welders, a Thermatron RF machine for sealing fabrics, several sewing machines, a Sinclair wedge sealer and a machine to seal graphics to fabric.

“With big pieces of equipment, such as our Thermatron, that obviously has to be in a fixed location,” Weingartner says. “It’s a fairly big, heavy piece of equipment and has to be connected to a power source, but on most smaller equipment we try to allow for flexibility.”

With some pieces of equipment on casters and some just not bolted down, Queen City awning uses its main configuration about 90 percent of the time.

Marine fabricator Mike Bennett and his two employees at Bennett Custom Canvas Inc., Toronto, Ont., Canada, find themselves reconfiguring equipment and tables on casters three to four times a month. Equipment in the 1,600-square-foot space includes three Reliable sewing machines, a Crownarc bender, a Bendarc wall bender and a foam cutter.

Location, location

When then-Portland Color (now Designtex, Portland, Maine) moved to its current facility, it was a significantly smaller operation with less equipment. “As business grew, the client list changed, and we added equipment to our 26,000-square-foot facility. It meant assessing where they needed to be located, relative to the various functions in the shop,” says Paul Glynn, vice president of operations. The solution was to move flatbed printers nearer to the racks where rigid materials were stored, while roll-to-roll and latex printers are grouped so materials can be moved easily to the finishing area when they come off the printers.

Similarly, in BIG INK’s former facility all materials were stored in one bay, which resulted in a lot of time spent moving stock back and forth. Now materials are stored near to their point of use.

“It looks like our materials are spread throughout our facility, but it’s actually kept as close to the device that initially uses it as possible to reduce the amount of moving once it comes off of whatever device it comes off of,” Trutna says.

The ability to move certain kinds of equipment around a production space involves more factors than just portability. For example, some equipment requires proper ventilation, which can limit placement. Designtex has ventilated every printer in its facility, regardless of manufacturer recommendations.

“Many manufacturers will tell you, ‘Oh my printer doesn’t need to be exhausted directly.’ Well, it’s not at all true,” Glynn says. “They all have a smell of some sort, so when you put them in a confined space and start filling up the space with tables and printers and laminators and people, you just get a buildup. We’re fortunate that we already had a couple of mushroom fans in the rooftop itself that could evacuate the general air, and then there are grid louvered panels in the back wall. They are connected electrically so when the fans get turned on the louvers open and pull in outside air and evacuate the air in under a minute. We ended up putting that on a timer so that it just comes on by itself in the morning for five minutes, in the middle of the day and once in the evening.”

Before BIG INK moved into its current building, the company planned for ventilation throughout the production space so they would never be limited in equipment location, Trutna says.

“It’s given us a lot of flexibility in how we reposition things on the floor,” he says.

In addition, BIG INK’s facility has a pre-approved expansion plan with precast doors in the walls, should the company ever decide to physically expand production space. But Trutna isn’t sure they will ever need it.

“In the old days, the way you increased printing capacity is you added a second printer,” he says. “Nowadays, you replace your printer with one that’s twice as fast. Moving forward, we’re probably not going to have more equipment on the floor, we’re just going to have faster equipment on the floor.”

On the road again

For products that involve custom installations, the shop isn’t the only place work is done. At some point, an installer goes on the road with tools and equipment. Lakeside Marine Canvas, Buford, Ga., has an 8,000-square-foot facility with six sewing machines and long tables, but about 10 years ago, owner Daymon Johnstone began designing a motorized cart that helps him to take a full shop on the road. (See “How Lakeside Marine Canvas Went Mobile.”) He transports the cart, along with a table, sewing machine, tools and supplies in a Mac Tool Truck to jobs as far as 500 miles from his home base.

“I have doubles and triples of everything in the truck,” Johnstone says. “I wouldn’t have to, I could absolutely take all of my tools in and out, but I would rather have a $500 extra tool in the truck than have one at the bottom of the lake and not be able to finish the job at the end of the day.”

Johnstone estimates he has put about $20,000 into the mobile shop. And given the poor gas mileage of the vehicle, he charges $100 an hour for travel time to and from a job, but says that high-end boat owners accept that cost for quality custom work.

Sierra Shading Solutions Inc. of Reno, Nev., is a completely mobile installer of shading products, from interior window coverings to retractable awnings to aluminum patio covers. Owners Pat Campobasso and Ernie Arango have no showroom at all and do no manufacturing of their own. Rather, they take samples to in-home consultations and work out of a 1994 long bed Ford F-150 truck with a ladder rack and toolbox. Tools are compartmentalized in rolling duffle bags for easy transportation. While the business plan may seem bare bones, one area the partners don’t skimp on is equipment.

“We look for battery life, we look for strength, we look for tools that are going to last us,” Arango says. “Cost is obviously a factor, but my tools pay for themselves, really in a day. I’m going to spend $200 on this impact gun that I want, but if the impact gun lasts, then it’s worth its weight in gold. If I buy one for $79 because the price tag seems better, but it breaks on me after three installs, it’s not worth it.”

Arango says they’ve never figured out a specific dollar amount of how much they save by not having a showroom or manufacturing facility, but they did get a rough idea when they were starting out. Originally, the pair had planned to buy an existing company that specialized in rolling shutters. In the end, the deal didn’t happen, but as the pair worked with the owner to understand the scope of the business, they began identifying things that could be changed that would immediately save money—to the tune of several thousand dollars a month. They saw scrap materials being stored that would likely never be used, materials that had been purchased but not yet sold, additional storage facilities being rented, employees who weren’t pulling their weight and a location that was more expensive than necessary.

“In the seven years we’ve been in business, there’s easily been 15 times we’ve looked at each other and said ‘I am so happy that we don’t have a physical location where we have to pay rent, pay insurance and all those things,’” Arango says.

How fabricators design their facilities (or lack thereof) to be most efficient is as unique as the custom products they manufacture and install. The one commonality for efficient production may be flexibility.

“Especially in this type of economy, you need to be flexible so you can adapt to whatever the market requires,” Weingartner says.

Jill C. Lafferty is editor of InTents magazine.

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