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On-hand and handy

Advanced Textiles, Feature | July 1, 2014 | By:

The “art” of having the right amount of hardware and supplies available–and organized.

It’s an ebb and flow, like the change in the seasons. It’s the annual ritual of fabricators in seasonal markets preparing for the year ahead. Many will have let their inventory of hardware, tubing and finishing supplies shrink to practically nothing in November and December because they don’t want to pay taxes on stock carried over from one year to the next. But as spring approaches, it’s time to fill the shelves again.

Seasonal stocking

“In places in the northeast where there are traditional awnings that use a lot of awning hardware, the folks stock up early,” says Dennis Bueker, vice president and national sales manager for awnings and canvas, Keyston Bros. Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “They purchase a lot in February. They have a lot of fittings and parts on the shelf or in their trucks because it’s a big part of their business.”

That’s how Faith Roberts, MFC, IFM, owner of Banner Canvas, Ham Lake, Minn., manages her inventory too. Starting in the spring, she keeps a fair amount of hardware on the shelves because she knows from experience what the
season will bring. But by October, she knows her market is about to shut down and she lets inventory dwindle.

Most of her jobs are custom, but it’s still fairly easy to predict what she’ll need. During the busy season, she says, she always keeps enough supplies on hand for at least one surprise job of each type that she commonly does—usually more.

“I always try and keep enough hardware so that the next job that comes through, if they should decide they want something, I have it,” she says. “That would mean that I have stainless steel 1-inch, stainless steel 7/8-inch, black and white nylon, and chrome die-cast. Five different products.”

Trends can affect inventory management. In the past, Roberts didn’t always have an expectation that customers would want bimini tops, but that has changed.

“Sun is a major issue,” she says. “Whether [customers] are older and have skin cancer concerns or they’re young people with new babies, all of them want sun protection. I’m doing a lot more bimini tops. They’ll order them at the same time that they order a boat cover. So now I’ve got two major projects to get done.”

Each bimini requires its own set of stanchion hardware, plus the usual jaw slides, deck mounts and eye ends. That’s caused Roberts to keep more hardware on hand than she might have in the past when people tended just to order a boat cover alone.

Fabricators in year-round climates or in less seasonal trades will keep certain standbys on hand constantly.

Nora Norby, MFC, president of Banner Creations Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn., says she always keeps retractable banner stands in stock because they’re extremely popular. She also keeps a stash of wooden dowels, conduit and a few flying banner stands. There’s no telling when a customer will want them.

The situation is much the same in upholstery: the work is custom, but the standards are, well, standard.

“There are certain items that I know I’ll use that I do keep in stock,” says Kim Buckminster, owner of Buckminster Upholstery in Falls City, Neb. “Springs, casters. Different sizes of brass nail—for instance, black enameled nails or brown enameled nails, I use quite often. Certain sizes of tacks I keep in stock. I also keep a stock of different sizes of staples because different staple guns require different sizes.”

Risk versus reward

But that’s not the whole story. Some fabricators, especially the ones whose jobs are highly customized, don’t keep much hardware on hand at all. Why should they? It’s not like the old days when it could take a week for stock to arrive. Now most suppliers will ship same-day or next-day, and supplies arrive within a day or two.

Charles Duvall, principal at Duvall Design Inc., West Rockport, Maine, says he mostly orders hardware on a just-in-time basis, as needed for each job. “I’m doing custom things,” he says. “I don’t have inventory.”

Even Roberts says quicker delivery times have affected the way she stocks her shop. “Since the downturn in the economy, I drag my feet a little because it costs more to hold that inventory,” she says. “There isn’t the money. It’s so volatile in the industry, and with that comes trying to find ways to minimize cost, such as shortening up your inventory and only buying this stuff when you need it.”

It’s sometimes startling how quickly items can arrive, she says. Recently she ordered hardware from Trivantage at 2:30 in the afternoon, and it was at her door at 10:00 the next morning. “How did they get this off the shelf, tagged, billed and out the door and it’s here already?” she says, laughing. “I don’t rely on that, though. I usually count on two-day delivery.”

The only catch in just-in-time ordering, she says, is that suppliers can’t always be guaranteed to have what you need in stock. “Let’s say at the end of the season somebody orders 20 stainless steel jaw slides and they’ve only got 16,” she says. “They don’t necessarily want to put an order in for 20,000 pieces and then carry them over the winter.”

Dennis Bueker at Keyston Bros. agrees that more fabricators are ordering on a just-in-time basis, and that occasionally they can be caught off guard by suppliers not having sufficient stock of hardware and other supplies.

“Keyston is no exception,” Bueker says. “We all think we can just call up our supplier or vendor and get the stuff the next day. But as it happens, it depends on where some of these products are made and how long the lead time is. If there’s a spike in demand on products, [distributors] run the risk of running out. As a fabricator, you have to have your crystal ball pretty sharp to look and see what you’re going to need and stay ahead of the curve. In some cases, you may want to prepare for a season ahead of time or be ready for a spike in certain products. I don’t know what the quick answer is. You just have to have somebody on
top of the ordering and purchasing.”

It’s the little things

Norby says she generally doesn’t keep too much hardware in stock because she can usually get it the next day. If she’s doing a large quote, however, she’ll call her supplier ahead of time to make sure it has enough product available to meet her needs. She uses the accounting software QuickBooks® to keep track of what she has in inventory—although most of the time it’s just a record of hardware
and fabric moving in and out of the shop quickly, rather than sitting on the shelves for an extended period of time.

Although Roberts loves using suppliers’ online order forms to order her hardware (“I can do it at 3:00 in the morning if I need to!” she points out), she’s less computer-inclined when it comes to inventory management. Instead of keeping track of stock with software, she uses visual cues to remind herself when it’s time to reorder. If she had a large shop, the system would degenerate into chaos, but because it’s just her, it works perfectly.

“Let’s say I’m rolling out binding,” she says. “I finish the job and I have only a little bit of binding left, so I take the spool or a clipping and I put it on my desk. That tells me I have to order it. Right now I’ve got all kinds of things on my desk that Saturday morning I’ll be ordering from Trivantage.”

Bueker says that, unfortunately, many shops aren’t very organized with their inventory. The problem is compounded when the hardware is kept in multiple places, such as installation trucks.

“In some sophisticated shops, they might have computer software that keeps track,” he says. “But one thing I see a lot is companies that send a guy out to do an install, and he gets there and he’s four clamps short. No one told him they ran out.”

Sometimes suppliers such as Keyston can do a same-day delivery, he says. But most of the time a part that is ordered today will arrive tomorrow. He cautions, “If you don’t know what you have in stock, sometimes you’re going to have to wait a day to get that job done.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer and editor based in Woodville, Ga.

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