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The right gear now

July 1st, 2013 / By: / Feature, Industry News, Management, Products

Embracing technological innovations and equipment advancements to stay ahead of the game.

Imagine it is 1973 and you’ve just received an order for custom canvas awnings. One glance around your small shop reveals all the necessary equipment needed to complete the job: handheld rotary cutters and the “electronic” sewing machine that recently replaced your mechanical one.

Fast forward to 2013. You’ve just received an order for a set of commercial awnings, using the highest-grade solution-dyed acrylic. This time, scanning your large shop, you see the multifunction cutting tools, stationary welders, large-format printer and, of course, your computer-controlled sewing machines—all “at the ready” to complete the project to the client’s specifications.

Over the past 40 years, equipment technology has dramatically changed how the specialty fabrics industry does business, driving specialty fabrics end product manufacturers (EPMs) to reinvent themselves and their internal processes.

This has resulted in a continuous revolving door of technology updates and equipment improvements throughout the industry. The businesses that follow these technological and equipment advancements—and have made thoughtful and appropriate choices for their own operations—can be in the best position to prosper and grow.

Reinvented better

Elizabeth Diaz, owner of North Beach Marine Canvas in San Francisco, Calif., embraces the “latest and greatest” equipment evolution and says the advancement in sewing machine technology, for example, is equivalent to having the sewing machine re-invented—only better.

“I feel like the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof,” Diaz says. “My Autometrix cutting table has allowed me to do projects I would never have done before and has made very complicated projects not just manageable, but it allows for variables never before considered—without making the project over.”

And when it comes to manufacturing vinyl, Hal Lapping, president of Economy Tent Intl. in Miami, Fla., says the technology has not changed much over the years; however, features on the equipment have improved.

“We use every available technology, including computerized cutting equipment, hot air and hot wedge welding,” Lapping says. “Finding the best application for each piece of equipment is the key. Each system has advantages and disadvantages over the others in terms of speed and ease of use.”

Economy Tent uses fully automated machines to do its own slitting of materials. To save a lot of time, effort and expense, it also uses specialized equipment for the cutting of certain fabrics.

Finding your equipment niche

As with any upgrade in technology or equipment, there comes a learning curve. For Diaz, the changes in equipment—specifically, the addition of a new cutter—have been challenging. “Finding the right assistant has been hit or miss, so I am teaching myself the language of the cutter,” Diaz says. “As a very custom shop, this is like learning ASL [American Sign Language], but the rewards are worth it. Personally knowing the capabilities of the software and the cutter keeps widening the potential of what I can build.”

In terms of optional equipment, Diaz doesn’t see any equipment that she classifies as optional; rather, certain components, such as benders, become obsolete.

Of course purchasing or leasing new equipment can impact the efficiency and structure of an entire organization. “Keeping up with new technology in our industry is essential,” says Daniel Hayes, president of Oklahoma Custom Canvas Products in Tulsa, Okla. “I built a new building seven years ago so I no longer lease. I now have twice the space, which has enabled us to purchase new equipment. A new and bigger facility has been one of the best decisions I have made.”

Because Duvall Dynamic Spaces in Rockland, Maine, provides installations that are artistic, it has invested in unusual equipment that allows the company to experiment and fabricate structures unique to its installations. “Our investment in equipment distinguishes our business in the marketplace with unique capabilities. This also allows for experimentation. We have a new two-ton hydraulic tubing bender from Italy to bend up to 4-inch OD pipe to construct curvilinear support poles,” says owner Charles Duvall.

“We have welding equipment to support this effort. On the design side, we have a Dimension 1200 ES 3D printer, which we use for design development and prototyping. Our Epson Stylus® Pro 7880 printer allows us to print large-format photography, which is unrelated to our core business but related to the design and artistic aspects,” he adds.

As the owner of a busy shop, Larry Schneider of Homestyle Custom Upholstery in Bayview, Wis., is always looking for equipment that can streamline his processes. “We rely on our sewing machines, including a programmable DC drive, zigzag binder, long neck and a five walking-foot machine,” Schneider says. Homestyle’s most-used equipment includes its canvas heat cutters, foam cutters, steel welder and cutters, and tubing bender.

“We are a busy shop but still have not bought any 3-D CAD technology or automated cutters,” he says. “We are looking at the 3-D CAD patterning technology in the near future but will need a technologically savvy employee to handle the new tech.”

Impacting business

While almost every business recognizes the importance of upgrading equipment in realizing long-term goals and objectives, it’s clear that equipment achieving the greatest return on investment or providing the biggest strategic advantage will be the only equipment choices making the cut.

Many businesses are struggling simply to maintain their current spending levels. What’s more, no equipment spending will be approved by an owner or business manager unless there are clear metrics to prove its benefit. In this rigid, scrutinize-every-expense climate, it’s hardly surprising that ROI speaks loudly to the specialty fabrics world—especially when it comes to equipment investments.

In determining the ROI on their equipment, Lapping and his team at Economy Tent Intl. review the current cost of labor and materials versus the expense and time-saving of the new equipment to see if the end result is cost effective.

ROI aside, automating a shop or adding new equipment to existing equipment can dramatically alter the way people do business.

“Our employees like new equipment very much,” Lapping says. “The new equipment offers new learning experiences and offers more variety of tasks to be accomplished. When we receive a new piece of equipment we will have a group meeting to explain the equipment to employees.” What’s more, Economy Tent trains a lead person on each piece of equipment, who then trains others. “Everyone is cross-trained on all equipment,” Lapping says.

While Economy Tent does not have fewer employees as a result of its equipment purchases, it has become more efficient and produces more—reducing customer order times.

Likewise, at Oklahoma Custom Canvas Products, its new equipment has not eliminated any jobs, but it has increased production and allowed its employees to work more efficiently. “People are sometimes afraid of change or something new,” Hayes says. “Our employees have embraced the new technology and have found it makes their job easier. We feel it is very important to cross-train your employees in a small business. There needs to be at least two or three trained on each piece of equipment.”

By incorporating a high-end cutter into her production process, Diaz has been able to outsource her sewing work because she can dial in the accuracy with the cutter, shaving time off. “Then the various workrooms I use can move my work through quicker,” Diaz says. “My bookkeeper is happy. I don’t need to hire anymore because the productivity has improved and the payroll is nonexistent.”

Having tried to train assistants at different levels, Diaz has found that their learning curve for marine fabrication was too slow. “And trying to train someone in the field still meant they had to learn the technology as well as my niche,” Diaz says. “It became obvious that the cutter was such a time-saver that it wasn’t time effective to train again. Thus, I am able to produce more beautiful work with less help than before and with less stress.”

And while Duvall has had to downsize his staff, unrelated to his equipment purchases, he now uses many outside resources to complete projects, utilizing the strengths of equipment combined with specific skills to get the job done.

“We now work in a more collaborative fashion with other businesses,” Duvall says. “We are sharing capabilities with others that have the same perspective.”

Maura Keller is a freelance writer based in Plymouth, Minn.

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