Tarp and truck cover manufacturers look to new equipment, employee input and supplier partnerships for more efficient production.
by Carol Brzozowski
Good economic times or bad, businesses always have the goal of increasing profit. Even during times of economic uncertainty, companies strive for profitability through strategies such as more accurate job costing, moving into new sectors and reducing expenses. For tarp and truck cover manufacturers, new equipment investments can lead to production efficiencies that boost the bottom line. Companies in this market segment also achieve greater production efficiencies through empowering employees to streamline processes, accurately anticipating material needs and strengthening relationships with suppliers and other industry partners.
Best Tarps of West Memphis, Ark., benefits from being situated in
one of the largest truck stop areas in the U.S.
“It’s a big driving force for business in our town,” says Best Tarps president Shea Williams.
The company manufacturers tarps, tarp hardware and tarp systems for hopper bottoms, grain haulers, dump trucks, dump trailers and flatbed trailers. Customers—primarily from the southeastern U.S.—include retail, dealers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Manufactured tarps are either shipped or installed on-site in a space that accommodates eight to 10 trailers.
Two years ago, the company constructed a building to accommodate a new tarp manufacturing process for threadless roll tarps. New equipment included bar sealers and hot air welders.
“These machines are designed on a track, and the table has a vacuum in it,” Williams says. “We place the material on the table, line it up with the machinery, and the vacuum sucks material down to the table
so it cannot move. It makes a perfectly square pocket with no creases, no puckers.”
With the new equipment and processes, daily production at Best Tarps increased from 20 tarps with three full-time sewers to 50 tarps with three full-time machine operators.
“Instead of using four machines, we use a Miller Weldmaster® 112 Extreme to put our pockets in,” says Williams. “The bar sealer, an RF sealer, applies seat belt webbing to vinyl material without using any thread.”
Production efficiencies didn’t happen overnight, however. There was a trial-and-error period to figure out the best process.
“We originally started out trying to use just this one machine to do the whole process,” Williams says, but it became apparent that an investment in another piece of machinery would speed up the process. Moving through the learning curve, “it took us about three months before we felt comfortable sending our threadless tarps to market.” The company saw increased revenues within two months.
Williams says that Best Tarps’ growth is predicated on additional equipment investments—and additional space—in response to trends in supply and demand. If the company can increase efficiencies by producing tarps within a certain time frame, customers won’t seek them elsewhere. On the wish list: a second machine for tasks such as overlap welds, Williams says.
“If we have material we need to do overlap welds on, we have to stop production on our pole pockets to do it,” he says. “I would like to have one machine set up for overlap welds and one machine for pole pockets. The ultimate goal is to have two Miller machines to do two different things at once without messing up production.”
Williams also looks for equipment that can multitask. With only one machine, if it goes down, “you’re back to sewing tarps again,” Williams says. “We buy other machines for backup capable of doing the job, not as fast but on a temporary basis, so if a machine goes down, we’re not stuck without any manufacturing.”
And one final tip from Williams to avoid downtime: Have a means for backup power generation in case of power outages.
New equipment has also led to production efficiencies for Covers-All Canvas Products Inc. in Finleyville, Pa. Covers-All is a family operation manufacturing covers for utility, pickup and small dump trucks and waste management tarps such as roll-off containers.
Covers-All also manufactures and installs awnings, services steel mills and makes ventilation covers and hanging devices for the coal mining industry. Other clients include utility companies and nuclear power plants, for which the company makes a canvas product to be laid upon concrete to pick up dust from workers’ shoes so the dust doesn’t contaminate the air.
With such a diverse customer base, Covers-All added a 20-foot cross seamer
to save time and labor.
“One person can run the cross seamer, where before we needed two people to run the other machine—the person running the machine and the puller,” says Ellis Stokes, Covers-All president.
Stokes is looking to add a plotter for even more production efficiency. But beyond equipment investments, he also aims for efficiency by accurately anticipating material needs for upcoming jobs to save material and freight costs.
Equipment for greater efficiency isn’t limited to machines on the production line. Located in southern New Hampshire, Granite State Cover & Canvas caters primarily to customers in the northeastern U.S., manufacturing and installing truck tarps for a diverse range of industries.
The company can accommodate up to six trailers at a time in three double bays. Owner David Callahan notes the company has improved its workflow through investments in scissor lifts, enabling workers to move about the garage for quick access to the tops of the trailers while working in each of the bays.
Efficiency involves more than just shiny new machines with all the bells and whistles. Callahan encourages Granite State Cover & Canvas employees at all levels to offer input as to how to make processes in the material and mechanical shops faster and more streamlined.
“They’ve adopted off-the-shelf cutting material machinery to do what we need,” Callahan says. “They’ve made guides for the cutting tables. We cut in bulk a lot of times. If we use the same type of pattern over again, we’ll cut 20 sheets at a time all together with a cutting machine and put them aside.”
Tarp Innovators of Poulsbo, Wash., is another company that empowers employees to tackle efficiency challenges with creativity and teamwork, according to product specialist Deano Perlatti. The company specializes in containment tarps, primarily in the northwestern U.S. A major client is the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, which orders primary and secondary containment systems to protect the environment and personnel.
“Fabric usage is really important to our staff,” says Perlatti. “We’re all sensitive to making sure we’re not just throwing a bunch of stuff into a landfill. At the same time, it puts money into the bank. Understanding your prime business helps you recognize what you can stock a little more of. Understanding what each of those fabrics can be used for successfully allows you to see a little bit ahead of the game.”
Tarp Innovators also installs most of what it designs and manufactures.
“Installing our products sometimes helps us with design improvement,” Perlatti says. “You always learn something when you go out on a project site.”
Sourcing the right material at the right time is another factor in production efficiency for tarp and truck cover manufacturers, and during times of supply chain challenges—such as a pandemic—partnerships with suppliers are more critical than ever. Being familiar with a broad range of suppliers helps end product manufacturers identify a specific product quickly and easily, which is especially important for custom work, Perlatti says.
“It’s about having a really good work relationship with your main suppliers—understanding how they work and stock their products and what they’re willing to do if something comes up, like a fabric that needs to be tweaked. Having that goodwill, trust in one another and a loyalty level has been a big payoff for us.”
Callahan views suppliers as partners in achieving his company’s goals. Granite State Cover & Canvas recently changed the specifications on one of its materials from 10 feet 6 inches to 10 feet 3 inches, requesting that the manufacturer produce the product at a slightly narrower dimension.
Williams says he favors buying in bulk to get costs down. And while he likes being loyal to his vendors, he keeps an open mind to hearing from other vendors who may carry the same products at a lower price.
Networking is critical to success, notes Stokes, who attributes his company’s involvement in Canvas Products Association, Zone 7, for gaining familiarity with products. Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) Expo presents additional opportunities to pursue fabric and machine innovations, Perlatti says. At its quarterly meetings, Tarp Innovators complies a wish list of items that would improve efficiencies and serve customers better.
“We have economic goals attached to that wish list so that we can upgrade and increase our capabilities so we can do even cooler stuff,” he adds.
Carol Brzozowski is a freelance writer based in Coral Springs, Fla.
SIDEBAR: Market watch
Tarps and truck covers
Like many segments of the specialty fabrics industry, tarp and truck cover manufacturers have been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, and some have discovered new opportunities.
The U.S. military is one of Tarp Innovators’ biggest customers. Between fulfilling those contracts and meeting other customer needs, the company has not experienced significant interruptions in customer demand, but it has contended with delivery delays in the supply chain. Tarp Innovators product specialist Deano Perlatti notes an average two-day lag in supply chain order deliveries to its Poulsbo, Wash., location.
“Two days doesn’t sound like much, but when you’ve got a spill containment product that your client desperately needs or the project site is going to get shut down, one or two days is a big deal,” he says.
Shipping from Canada has required extra time “as the products maneuver borders now,” he adds.
Rodger Romero, West Coast sales manager with Buckles International Inc. and immediate past chair of IFAI’s Tarp Association, says end product manufacturers are not ordering supplies in the quantities they once did.
“They keep moving in a forward direction, but they’re not willing to invest like they’ve done in the past because they’re not receiving the orders like they used to,” Romero says. “It’s a trickle-down effect.”
The pandemic has been a driving factor in many companies pivoting their business. Perlatti sees a decline in fabric products for backyard applications as consumers hold back on discretionary spending. Romero notes that some in the tarps industry have had to manufacture other products as a result of the pandemic.
“I’ve seen my D-ring business slide a little bit,” Romero says. “We’re moving in other directions where we know we can get orders.”
Case in point: some companies have turned to the medical sector, manufacturing materials for pop-up tents used at COVID-19 testing sites. Tarp Innovators has collaborated with partners, suppliers and competitors to help design a 54-unit surge capacity hospital that can be located in a vacant lot or parking lot, offering individual complete negative pressure isolation rooms, as well as small testing structures. Perlatti says the company has also designed barriers for small restaurants seeking to increase seating capacity while following public health guidelines.
At Best Tarps in West Memphis, Ark., president Shea Williams says that business bounced back to record levels in the summer after the company was restricted in the spring to curbside pickup. And its diverse seasonal business is holding strong: the company manufactures hopper bottoms for farmers in August and September, dump truck covers for drivers hauling asphalt in October through December, and tarp systems for trucks used to spread fertilizer in January and February.
While the pandemic resulted in some layoffs at Covers-All Canvas Products, Finleyville, Pa., due to pandemic-related restrictions, president Ellis Stokes worked with family members to check the mail, answer the phone and work on projects for essential companies. The company’s awning work fell behind schedule, but after restrictions were lifted, Stokes’ employees were catching up on spring orders. Stokes attributes an increase in the awning side of the business to people spending more time at home. One client requested a winter awning in late summer because she may be working from home permanently and wants to be able to go outside during the winter.
“Normally we don’t do that now, but this isn’t a normal time,” Stokes says. “I guess we’re going to be doing a lot more covering for the winter.”
Perlatti says the industry has just scratched the surface of what can be done in relationship to COVID. “As we struggle as a nation to get our grips on this, I think more is going to be coming our way and everyone’s way,” he says. “Being able to adapt and develop your product in a way that meets those kinds of needs is really important.”
And while the transportation industry is undergoing disruption in such areas as driverless trucks, Williams has no immediate concerns.
“You still have to load the trailers and keep the product dry,” he says.