Specialty fabricators don’t have to go it alone. Equipment and automation manufacturers are working hard, developing technologies that sharpen the competitive edge.
Founded in 1908, Minnesota Knitting Mills (MKM) started out supplying nearby colleges with letter award sweaters, says Patrick Hickey, president of the Mendota Heights, Minn.-based manufacturer. The company transitioned into providing knit apparel parts for brands like Nike and Columbia—that is, until those companies moved production offshore. Now, although MKM still supplies parts to name-brand coat manufacturers, it has diversified into offering knit applications for non-apparel and medical items, things like custom braid for professional sports, knitted filters used in blood transfusions and knitted conductive braid for newborn identification.
Discussing what helped his company take business to the next level, Hickey cites advancements in fabric technology, along with the ability to work closely with customers, to identify and meet their needs. Technological advancements in equipment and machinery have also provided a big assist in this respect.
“Knitting equipment machinery continues to improve and output at greater speeds,” says Hickey. “We’re a custom knit manufacturer so we find ways to make unique parts for our customers. Our machines allow us the flexibility to customize without having to install new equipment.”
One concern for his industry is raw material availability, says Hickey, explaining that during the past 30 years the U.S. lost a significant amount of raw material production. The skilled labor shortage is another factor, and one reason why he’s exploring integrating robotic arms into some labor-intensive areas like quality control and the counting and stacking of parts.
The dearth of skilled labor is certainly one reason compelling many equipment and automation suppliers to simplify their products and build in efficiencies that can help specialty fabricators save energy, reduce costs and achieve higher productivity.
Henderson Sewing Machine Co. Inc., headquartered in Andalusia, Ala., distributes 440 different vendor products like industrial sewing machines and parts and supplies for these machines, along with custom designed and manufactured automated devices and attachments, to the sewn products industries, according to Frank Henderson, CEO.
When founded in 1968, the company was focused on the apparel market. But with the decline of U.S. apparel manufacturing in the late ’80s, Henderson Sewing began reaching out to non-apparel markets, last year selling products to 70 different industries.
What do modern, advanced sewing machines offer product manufacturers? Henderson says in addition to motors that are 30 to 50 percent more energy efficient, they incorporate a number of new features:
- Non-mechanical, movable devices like feed systems, which through pulse motors, servo or stepper motor drives move material more efficiently, providing greater flexibility when handling different thicknesses and types of material.
- Push-button, programmable electronic technology, which helps to relieve operators from having to make frequent mechanical adjustments.
- Under-thread trimming devices that trim the thread for the operator (rather than having to do it manually with scissors), saving time and reducing waste.
- Auto back-tacking. The machine performs this function automatically, saving time, reducing waste and resulting in better quality control and greater uniformity.
- Electronic programmable pattern sewers/electronic CNC programmable sewers. Instead of operators having to turn the fabric in six different directions, the machine performs all six of these lines at once with one electronic program, controlling the machine in the X and Y axis as well as diagonally.
Versatility in demand
Jeannette Hendrickson, marketing manager for Miller Weldmaster Corp., says there’s strong fabricator demand for highly versatile machines.
“Specialty fabrication shops tend to be smaller operations and as such, these fabricators have to wear multiple hats, producing a variety of different products,” she explains. “One day it might be awnings, the next it may be tarps. So they’re looking for machines allowing them to meet these demands without requiring multiple pieces of equipment.”
Founded in 1974, the Navarre, Ohio-based company started in the tarp and cover industry but now manufactures standard and custom welding machines for about 12 different industries with several different welding technologies:
SeamSTRONG: This machine is for awnings, shades and digital textiles and products that must withstand different weather conditions and environments for extended time periods. The product allows fabricators to use an adhesive hot melt for seams rather than tape, which is more cost-effective and provides a stronger bond, says Hendrickson.
Moduline: Designed to automate production processes, this machine can be customized to customer requirements. The all-modular equipment can be used in an array of industries (tents, tarps, geomembranes and more), with different modules added as necessary.
Triad: This machine is designed to help smaller manufacturers get their foot in the door with welding. It comes in four versions, three targeted to specific industries—one for shelters and tents, for awnings, for tarps—and a Universal Triad designed for industries the other three don’t serve.
Leister Technologies LLC, with U.S. headquarters in Itasca, Ill., makes hot-air plastic welding tools, process heaters and laser plastic welding machines for the industrial fabrics and technical textiles markets, says Ken Huber, product specialist of technical textiles and industrial fabrics. Products run the gamut from smaller, handheld tools to automatic crawlers to large production stationary rotary welders. The company also offers a range of entry-level machines targeted toward smaller operations, such as the SEAMTEK 36.
“This stationary welder, with multiple welding stations, allows operators to work within a smaller footprint, enabling them to manufacture many different types of products,” Huber says. “It’s a very versatile machine; users can switch welding stations very quickly, allowing for many different types of welds to be created on the same machine.
“The key factors benefiting smaller shops are entry-level pricing combined with local service and support,” Huber adds. “These factors allow fabricators to manufacture products using the latest technologies without breaking the bank.”
Cutting it close
Tolland, Conn.-based Gerber Technology provides software and automation solutions to the apparel and specialty textile markets, serving more than 78,000 customers in 130 countries, says Tom Gordon, director, industrial products. Three primary concerns Gordon hears repeatedly from specialty/custom fabricators:
- Maximize throughput, getting products finished and to market faster.
- Maximize material yield,improving COGs.
- Ensure the consistent production of a quality cut part.
“Specialty fabricators are under significant competitive pressure to design, develop and produce their products faster and more efficiently, getting the right products to market at the right time and at the right price,” Gordon says. “They also don’t have the luxury of time when it comes to learning how to operate new equipment.”
Gerber’s line of DCS single-ply cutters offer custom product manufacturers flexible configurations, a wide application range and a total low cost of ownership, putting the cutters in high demand, says Gordon. “They can cut everything from light vinyl to tough Kevlar® materials. The DCS cutters are also available in ingress-protected configurations exclusively designed for pre-preg and dry carbon composite materials.”
Gerber’s Z1 Cutter, which like the DCS is customizable for a wide range of applications, offers a “conveyorized,” surface, which affords faster material processing within a smaller footprint, Gordon notes. It can be configured with a variety of options, like inkjet-printed part identification and the ContourVision scan-to-cut system, optimizing workflow.
Edit, modify and design
Jonathan Palmer, chief technology officer for Autometrix Inc., confirms that specialty/custom fabrication companies are seeking affordable ways to gain production efficiencies, speed up processes and improve quality. Automating the cutting processes helps fabricators to realize these objectives, expand their businesses and become stronger competitors, even against much larger companies, says Palmer.
Located in Grass Valley, Calif., Autometrix manufactures automated cutting equipment and pattern design software. The company makes static and conveyor cutting machines in several models for a wide range of industries and production requirements, as well as offering solutions for swiftly converting physical patterns to digital pattern files, and proprietary pattern development software for awning manufacturers and other industries.
“Autometrix software enables customers to edit, modify and design custom products, limited only by their imaginations,” says Palmer. “The combination of software and automated cutting improves quality and decreases material waste. A cutting machine is only as good as pattern design software lets it be.”
The company also provides the CadShot Fusion, which is popular with specialty/custom fabricators, says Palmer. The software enables fabricators to convert a photo of their physical pattern into a digital pattern file.
“This product also allows users to un-sew a finished product and convert the fabric pieces into pattern files as well—particularly useful for automotive seat cover and upholstery fabricators,” he says. “Turning physical patterns into digital pattern files can be a major hurdle for anyone looking to move towards automated cutting, so we’re actively working to bring new solutions to market.”
Other tools include Eclipse, Pipes 3D, and Tailormade software programs—all designed to help custom fabricators “develop their cut part patterns faster and with less CAD work,” providing greater production flexibilities.
“There is always new and developing software in the world of automation,” says Palmer. “Some small businesses might shy away from new technologies, but these are powerful tools that will greatly enhance their company’s growth.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.
You’re ready to sign on the dotted line. But...
We asked equipment manufacturers and suppliers of technology what questions fabricators should be certain to ask before finalizing a purchase. In no particular order of importance, here’s what they suggested:
- How will this new technology or equipment help my business?
- What are the long-term, ongoing costs of owning this equipment/technology? (Expenses can include maintenance, service contracts, software licensing fees, replenishment costs, etc.)
- What kind of customer support and training do you provide? What are your technical capabilities? Do you have local technicians?
- What happens if there’s a problem?
- Do you have spare parts replacement?
- How deep is your inventory stock?
- What other customers are using your equipment?
- Is this equipment/technology capable of growing with my company?
- How long have you been providing equipment/technology to my market?
KP Reddy, CEO of SoftWear Automation, an Atlanta-based provider of automation to sewing products manufacturers operating in various markets, says they decided to innovate robotics and software rather than sewing machines, integrating these products into existing machines.
For example, the Lowry is a lightweight four-axis robot used in fabric handling, pick-and-place operations and direct sewing, says Reddy. It’s available in two versions: the C-Series (Cantilever), a reach-over designed to work with light products like garments; and the G-Series (Gantry), better for heavier items like rugs, towels and items requiring more manufacturing space.
A just-launched product is the Automatic Sewing Machine (ASM) that combines the company’s patented ThreadVision system “with multi-degree freedom feed dogs to fully automate the sewing process,” says Reddy. Designed to remove piece-to-piece variations, the ASM ensures both reliability and repeatability for garment manufacturers, and will be capable of full garment assembly.
“We’re working with OEMs and attaching the ASM to their machines, partnering with companies that do cutting and folding,” says Reddy. The future ASM product line will include cutting and folding stations and other automated material-handling operations.
“Companies are struggling because of an inability to move data from process to process and machine to machine. Consequently, we see significant growth in companies leveraging ‘big data’ or ‘the Internet of Things’ across the value chain,” says Tom Gordon, director of industrial products for Gerber Technology.
Shifting toward value
“ROI will always be a factor, but what a lot of people want to know is what happens after they purchase the equipment—what kind of service, support and training is provided,” says Jeannette Hendrickson, marketing manager for Miller Weldmaster Corp. “Concerns are shifting a bit away from price to these other factors, especially since many small operations lack deep in-house support, making vendor support even more critical.”
More stuff, fewer people?
The industry is becoming more “capital-intensive,” with companies investing more in equipment and technology rather than labor, says Frank Henderson, CEO of Henderson Sewing Machine Co. Consequently, “we’re producing more stuff with fewer people, and this will continue.”
USA-made products are gaining some traction and a resurgence of interest thanks to concerns over long production and shipping times and quality control; all of which are better managed stateside, says Patrick Hickey, president of Minnesota Knitting Mills. “However, momentum will depend on retailers being willing to offer these products and on consumers being willing to pay more for them.”