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Modern technology helps small fabricator shops

August 1st, 2008 / By: / Business, Feature, Technical

When you walk the aisles of a trade show, it’s hard not to be dazzled by all the newest high-end equipment. There are systems available with truly remarkable capabilities: high-ply CAD-driven cutters with vacuum compression tables; room-sized fabric welders; vision-guided robotic sewing machines.

But these devices seem to be far removed from the day-to-day reality of the small shop. Is there a place for modern technology in a fabrication business that employs only, say, one to five people?

The answer is yes, but only if you separate the concept of automation from futuristic visions of bustling robots. Let’s face it—the very smallest and most modest shops are happy to be able to mechanize their most routine tasks. It’s a glorious day when the newly minted upholsterer is able to retrofit a kickpress grommet setter so that her air compressor can whack the male and female pieces together.

Still, there are many modest, affordable electronics that can improve the accuracy and speed of fabricators in small operations. Most are neither new nor flashy. But in a world where automation is more and more common, they are a huge boost to an up-and-coming shop’s morale and bottom line.

Automation benefits small fabricator shops

An automatic fabric carousel might seem like a luxury , but it's often smaller shops that don't have enough storage or easy access to huge roll of fabric, according to Tony Mariani at J&D Associates. Photo: J&D Associates.
An automatic fabric carousel might seem like a luxury , but it’s often smaller shops that don’t have enough storage or easy access to huge roll of fabric, according to Tony Mariani at J&D Associates. Photo: J&D Associates.

The basic tool of the small fabricator is the sewing machine. Certainly, many shops get away with using half-century-old machines acquired at auctions and liquidation sales. In fact, many make it a point of pride. But Steven Kaplan, president of Kaplan Sewing Machine Co. Inc., Newark, N.J., says it might be time for them to invest in some slightly less hoary technology.

It was approximately 25 to 35 years ago that certain electronic sewing machine features began to come to the forefront, especially within the garment industry: automatic backtacking, needle positioning and undertrimming, for example. These features saved time because they eliminated fiddly little tasks that sewers had to complete over and over again.

“These things aren’t new,” Kaplan explains. “But in the last five to seven years, what’s really significant for the small shop is that the cost of this type of automation has dropped dramatically. It has happened largely because of the improvement and growth of machines coming out of China, and now there are a number of good machines, reasonably priced, that come with these automation features built in. Because of the drop in price, the small guy now has options that he didn’t have before.”

Another change that has made these automated machines more accessible is the way they are powered. When they first came out, many shops couldn’t use them because they were powered by 220-volt, three-phase motors. Now they are all powered by 110-volt servo motors that use very little electricity.

Are the features useful? Undoubtedly, Kaplan says.

“Whether you are a huge production shop with 300 machines, or a small awning shop with two or three machines, you have to do the same things when you sew,” he points out. “You still have to trim the thread. You have to position the needle up or down, depending on what you are doing. You have to backtack seams to reinforce them.”

Harry Berzack, president of The Fox Co., Charlotte, N.C., a manufacturer of cutting, slitting and spreading equipment, believes that for many small shops, the extra efficiency on these tasks is worth the expense.

A Kaplan technician demonstrates the company's fully automated sewing machine at IFAI Expo 2007. President Steven Kaplan cites the higher efficiency and lower cost of modern automated sewing machines; he likens yesterday's machines to outdated computers. Photo: Kaplan Sewing Machine Co. Inc.
A Kaplan technician demonstrates the company’s fully automated sewing machine at IFAI Expo 2007. President Steven Kaplan cites the higher efficiency and lower cost of modern automated sewing machines; he likens yesterday’s machines to outdated computers. Photo: Kaplan Sewing Machine Co. Inc.

“A person might say, ‘Why should I pay $500 more for a machine?’ The fact that he would have paid $1000 more 10 years ago is immaterial. He wants to know why he should pay anything more. The answer is that automated sewing, needle positioning, undertrimming, backtacking, footlift, etc., are labor-saving devices. They are fatigue-saving, and they give a more efficient operation. If he’s one person, running full-out, and is thinking of getting a second machine, maybe automating the machine will make him just efficient enough that he can save the cost of hiring a second operator for a while. You can’t hire a quarter of an operator, after all. So at that point, it makes sense.”

Kaplan believes that in time, automated sewing machines are going to be necessary in order for smaller shops to compete. He likens yesterday’s machines to outdated computers: there’s no sense in trying to limp along with a Commodore 64 anymore.

“If you have two reasonably competent operators who have identical items to sew, and you give one an automated machine and the other a nonautomated machine, I will bet you every time that the person who’s used to sewing on the automated machine will produce the item faster,” he says. “Their labor [cost] is going to be lower. It’s going to cost them less time to produce the same item. If you don’t have that capability, eventually you are going to be bypassed.”

An automatic fabric carousel might seem like a massive luxury for a small fabricator, but Tony Mariani, marketing manager at J&D Associates, Middletown, Pa., says that the opposite is sometimes true. It’s those small shops that sometimes don’t have anywhere to put giant rolls of fabric. Makers of goods such as boat and truck tarps need some way to contain the roll goods they use on a day-to-day basis without making it difficult and time-consuming to access them.

“If they store the fabric on static racks, then during peak production times they have trouble moving the product to keep their cutting table going at full speed,” Mariani says. “That’s usually the bottleneck … if they can load up their fast-moving goods on a carousel, then they can virtually eliminate set-up time and do instant changeovers from one style of product to another.”

When does a carousel become economic? Mariani says it’s usually at the point where they get an automatic cutting table. That means they’re doing enough production to require quick changeovers.

Companies consider use of automated cutting tables

At what point does a company need an automated cutting table? That’s a far more complicated issue. There are several levels of automation in that area, ranging from the very simple to the extremely large and complex.

It’s often not so much the size of the company that determines what cutting-room electronics will be useful; it’s what the company does that matters. Bainbridge International Inc., for example, is no longer a small company. But even when the firm’s Huntington Beach, Calif. shop was in its infancy, its employees couldn’t get by without a Measuregraph roll-measuring machine.

“It’s been here forever and ever,” says sales representative Robb Foland. “We have to have it. A customer calls and orders a certain number of yards of fabric. We put it on the machine, and the fabric goes behind a couple of springs and it counts off the yards. That’s all it does, but it means we don’t have to roll it out by hand and measure it with a yardstick.”

Even Bainbridge was a small company, employees couldn't get by without the Measurgraph roll-measuring machine, says sales representative Robb Foland (pictured). It saves time, space and waste fabric. Photo: Bainbridge International Inc.
Even Bainbridge was a small company, employees couldn’t get by without the Measurgraph roll-measuring machine, says sales representative Robb Foland (pictured). It saves time, space and waste fabric. Photo: Bainbridge International Inc.

Bainbridge needs a roll-measuring machine because it distributes fabric to end-product manufacturers. When you’re talking about counting off 200 or 400 yards of fabric, a yardstick simply doesn’t suffice. But there are some fabricators who might benefit from a little help with their rolling and cutting, too.

“If your fabric is costing you a dollar a yard, or it’s costing you $20 a yard, you have a lot of difference in wastage,” points out Berzack. “If you have a small shop that’s doing some really premium work, they might be able to justify the expense [of automating the process].”

Say a shop employee needs 8 feet, 6 inches of fabric for a pattern piece. He rolls the fabric out by hand and runs a scissor across it. But because he can’t count on making a straight cut by hand, he errs on the side of safety and cuts off 8 feet, 9 inches. He’s wasting three inches of fabric every time.

That might be all right if the shop makes polyethylene tarps, Berzack says, but it adds up quickly if the fabrics are high-tech or luxury materials. It could even make the difference between profitability and failure.

Various types of automation meet different small shop needs

For small shops working with expensive roll goods, Berzack recommends an entry-level end cutter. It’s basically a little round-knife machine that runs in a track. “You are always perfectly square, and you’re cutting off accurately,” he says. “And if you still want to leave that little bit of margin … well, a half inch is a lot better than three inches.”

Some small shops might even be able to justify a fabric spreader—not the pricey kind that runs up and down the cutting table laying cloth out, but the more modest variety that pulls fabric from one end. For a shop that does a lot of repetitive work, he says, it’s “beautiful.” But if all your pieces are different, forget it—you’ll spend all your time on setup, and you won’t gain any efficiency.

What about computerized pattern cutting? The first step is some way of producing a digital library of patterns—for example, a digitizer or a CAD/CAM software package. Again, much of the return on investment depends on the repetitiveness of the work. But Berzack points out that even custom shops start to delve into their archives after a while.

“Funny enough, custom work, over time, becomes repetitive,” he muses. “Once you’ve done a certain size awning, it might take a year, two years, or four years, but you’re going to get something like it again. So you build up a library.”

Berzack says a simple single-ply automated cutting system is within reach of some small shops, but only if they produce a significant volume of complex and/or high-end work. What makes it doable is the fact that the pieces can be amassed one at a time: first CAD/CAM software with a plotter, then a feeder to get the fabric on the table, then the cutter itself.

“When you get your initial machine, look ahead and make sure that what you’ve got now, and your library that you’re booting up, will be able to be read and converted by the standard cutting machines,” he advises. “It’s no good getting a cheap CAD/CAM unit to start with. You have to think ahead.”

That is, after all, how small shops eventually become large ones. With careful planning, the simple, low-end automation tools they buy in the early days will continue to serve them well for years as they grow.

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

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