Equipment suppliers are focusing on service,
training and customization to add value.
Given the economic turbulence we’ve all endured over the last five years, many businesses have reported doing more with less, and not as a matter of choice. But this common refrain needn’t always have a negative connotation. With the right equipment, end product manufacturers (EPMs) can do a lot more with less—as in less time and less labor.
“Whether they are operating a one-man shop or have 200 machines, manufacturers have to do everything they can to be competitive at all levels,” says Steven Kaplan, president of S. Kaplan Sewing Machine Co. Inc. in Newark, N.J. “They have to take advantage of labor-saving devices.”
Equipment manufacturers have learned a lot in recent years about what fabricators want from their purchases, and how these expectations affect the specialty fabrics industry.
Customers not only want equipment that performs well—they also expect expertise and services from the seller to back it up. “It is really important to our customers that we have the technical ability to service all the equipment that we sell,” says Scott Hoffman, president of Hoffman Brothers in Rosemont, Ill.
Before proposing a machinery solution, Hoffman Brothers will first try to qualify a customer’s needs, then offer several options in different price ranges. “We have a large staff of people with many combined years of experience, specifically in the cut-and-sew industry,” Hoffman says, “so we know what works and what doesn’t.”
Repair work and maintenance are at the top of customers’ requests when buying a machine from S. Kaplan Sewing. “It is very difficult to find good, competent mechanics nationwide,” Kaplan says, adding that most of his customers don’t have the time or desire to learn how to do the work themselves. “You would be surprised how many people send their machines to us from very, very far away to be repaired or rebuilt because my mechanics know what they are doing.”
At Grass Valley, Calif.-based Autometrix Precision Cutting Systems Inc., sales staff work closely with new customers “to assist them in developing a deeper understanding of the software side of their future purchase,” says sales manager Doug Hardy. Autometrix offers what it calls “Software Coaches” for online training before and after installation; after product installation is complete, the manufacturer trains personnel on both equipment and software at the customer’s facility.
Autometrix also sells an optional service contract that includes unlimited phone support, as well as a loaner program that ships a replacement component to the customer via overnight delivery.
Before delivering a spreading or automated cutting machine to a customer, The Fox Company in Charlotte, N.C., will first test it to ensure its performance. After the machine is installed, Fox will train personnel on operating, maintenance and troubleshooting, with on-call support should problems arise.
As president Harry Berzack puts it, “When you get into the more sophisticated sewing, spreading and cutting machines, where these could run customers six figures, they demand and deserve full support.”
A customized approach
Customization addresses a customer’s specific needs that may not be met in an off-the-shelf solution. Manufacturers and suppliers report that tailoring equipment is often the norm, not the exception. And even in situations that call for a standard machine, modifications are usually available.
“The customer comes to us with the concept of a product they want to manufacture,” Hoffman explains, “and if the machinery doesn’t exist to do that, we have the ability to design and manufacture specialty equipment specifically for the customer’s needs.”
Customization helps ensure that customers receive exactly what they need. “There is no point in giving a customer a 120-inch-wide machine if he isn’t going to use more than 60 inches,” Berzack says. “It is no use putting in a footer or an under-table rewind if he isn’t going to use [those features]. The industrial fabrics industry has an extremely wide range of different requirements.”
Some situations, however, do call for a machine that adapts to future needs. As fabric supplies get wider, so, too, do the machines, says Thomas Carlson, manager of Carlson Design in Tulsa, Okla., a provider of large-bed plotter/cutters. “If I have a 72-inch-wide bed and suddenly I want to cut 87-inch-wide material, I have to hand cut that,” he notes. “Once you automate, you don’t want to go back to hand cutting. My tendency might be to look ahead and get a 96-inch-wide machine.”
Simple, but versatile
In addition to assistance on training and repair, EPMs seek simplicity from their equipment. “Many of them don’t have time to learn another skill in their busy day,” Carlson says, “and they are purchasing something to make part of their process easier and more efficient—whether it be a bottleneck, complex or repetitive process, or a retiring person. If the equipment is too complicated to learn or too much of a change to the current work flow, they may get frustrated or even fed up with it.”
Along with simplicity often comes adaptability. In fact, a 2010 IFAI survey of fabricators that use welding equipment reported versatility as the top priority when purchasing equipment. Even so, manufacturers may not be aware of their machine’s full functions. “In my experience, Americans buy machines for one specific application, maybe two, and don’t understand that they can expand their lines and reach different markets,” says Jeff Sponseller, sales director for Miller Weldmaster Corp., Navarre, Ohio. “It comes down to a re-education on the machine’s capabilities.”
An equipment supplier’s expertise can also contribute materially to the equipment’s ease of use. “Our technicians can show [the fabricator] how to use the machine to make a tent or an awning,” Sponseller says, because they “have seen it [in use] at many different operations, and they know the tricks of the trade.”
Specialty uniform maker SCODY in Queensland, Australia, experienced first-hand the benefits of equipment simplicity. In 2009, managing director Bernard Schreiber was searching for ways to automate the production process to reduce costs and shorten lead times while upholding quality. The company was cutting garments by hand and then applying graphics to the cut pieces using dye sublimation, a process that uses heat to transfer dye onto a material. The process was labor-intensive, and the manual procedures led to errors in output.
Schreiber opted for Gerber Technology’s ContourVision™ highly accurate scan-to-cut solution, coupled with the company’s conveyorized single-ply cutting system. As a result, he was able to reassign workers to other tasks and reduced the team of six to two per shift: one person running the printer and one running the cutter.
“We reduced our original lead times of six to 12 weeks down to two to four weeks and increased our capacity 20 to 40 percent,” according to Schreiber, who also saw a drastic improvement in accuracy and a reduction in material waste and costs. “In nine months, we reduced our paper costs by 50 percent and ink costs by 30 percent.”
Benefits of automation
One of the challenges Hoffman has encountered is customers who view sewing or cutting machines simply as a commodity—that is, thinking that they all do the same thing. It’s the responsibility of the supplier to address this misconception, Hoffman says. “It is our duty as suppliers to have enough knowledge to impart it to the customer so they can make an informed decision.”
Just as important as sharing your product know-how is listening to the customer. For its part, The Fox Company does a feasibility study with its customers before selling a machine. “If you as the customer are looking at a $50,000 piece of equipment that is working an hour a day, you are not going to be very happy because you are not getting your money back on it,” Berzack says.
Looking ahead to the industry’s future, Berzack notes that changes to equipment will continue to be incremental, rather than fundamental. He also foresees software improvements in automated cutting—and more movement toward automation in general. “With the continued increase in labor costs, employee benefits and taxes, people will be looking toward labor saving in the future.”
Carlson believes that fabricators will increase the hiring of younger employees as older ones eye retirement. “To get the most out of your equipment, you need people to embrace it, and young people definitely will,” he says. “I mean, why would you spend all day cutting by hand when you could just push a button and go?”