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Equipment That Makes a Difference

By Specialty Fabric Review

An Autometrix cutting table like this one has made work more efficient at National Bias Fabric Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, and helped the company move into new markets. Photo: Autometrix.

Countless decisions go into the daily operation of a business, some big, some small, but all part of determining how successful a company is going to be. The decision to purchase equipment is usually one of the bigger decisions—and it also can make the biggest difference. Equipment purchases can help to solve a problem, open a new line of business and ensure product reliability. Here are three examples.

A Carlson Design hot knife completes a 52-inch-long table cut of parachute fabric. The technology helps parachute manufacturer Strong Enterprises to work quickly while turning out a consistently high-quality product. Photo: Carlson Design.

Moving to a New Market

National Bias Fabric Co. has been in the garment business in Cleveland, Ohio, since 1902, doing things like making interlinings for apparel, from waistbands and sleeveheads to coat fronts and chest pieces.

Like many garment companies, National Bias has seen a decline in the production of men’s dress wear, mostly suit and sport coats. “Who wears a suit anymore?” says Dave Breen, National Bias president.

So when the company saw an opportunity to increase its capacity to make chest pieces for dress military uniforms, it jumped at the chance. But finding workers skilled in traditional table cutting methods would be a challenge. “You simply can’t find people who possess the know-how to cut by hand anymore,” Breen says.

Initially, he says, the company was just looking to “purchase a plotter, to save some time, and program it through a printer.” But instead Breen purchased a cutting table from Autometrix Inc., of Grass Valley, Calif.

Not only did the new equipment increase the company’s capabilities, “the person who runs that machine has a totally different skill set,” says Breen. “It’s easy to train someone on Autometrix. To train a person the old-fashioned way would take years.”

The new table was not just something that made the job easier, says Breen. It was critical. “We wouldn’t have gotten the work without it.”

Webbing woven as it comes off the loom at MMI Textiles, which started doing such work in-house when its manufacturing partners couldn’t keep up during the pandemic. Photo: MMI Textiles.

Quality Assurance

There aren’t many businesses where quality control is more important than in the parachute industry, for obvious reasons. Strong Enterprises Inc., a parachute manufacturer based in Orlando, Fla., depends on a piece of equipment that has stood the test of time. The company purchased its first Carlson Design Pro-78 Plotter/Cutter, with a hot knife tool attachment, in 1994.

“All our square parachutes are cut on the table using the hot knife,” says Mike Rinaldi, Strong vice president and a skydiver since 1999. “The benefit is time because it’s a lot quicker than doing it by hand. But more important is the fact that if you cut with the hot knife, it seals the edge of the nylon so it doesn’t fray, which gives it more durability. This is especially true for the ports of the canopy, which aren’t reinforced by tapes or folds.

“If the fabric starts to fray, tears could happen—and that could be a major issue,” he adds.

The machine served Strong well for more than 20 years, he says, but a new table replaced it so the company could take advantage of technological advancements. The new one, for example, has a hot knife tool attachment that cuts up to three times faster than the older one.

The only thing that might be an improvement over the hot knife table would be a laser table, according to Rinaldi. “But they are very expensive,” he says, “and only cost-effective in the parachute industry if you’re doing an intense amount of volume.”

Taking Control

As with a lot of companies in the industry, the pandemic of 2020 upended normal business for MMI Textiles Inc., a technical fabrics supplier based in Westlake, Ohio. Many companies pivoted to making personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, but have begun pivoting back as demand has slackened and imports have become more available. But few companies took the step that CEO and founder Amy Bircher did—basically reinventing her organization.

“We’ve always been a sales, marketing and distribution firm that converted into sort of a virtual production center because we do a lot of converting of fabric,” Bircher explains. “We buy raw goods from the mills, send them to partner dyeing and finishing firms—adding value to them. We either put it in our stock program or ship it for custom contracts.”

That brokering process classifies the company as a manufacturer. “We do a lot of that, more than 50 percent,” she says. “But we have never actually owned that equipment. It’s sort of like leasing space at a place that owns the equipment. They’re doing the work for us; we do all the selling.”

But challenges to that process during the pandemic convinced Bircher that the only way to keep the ship steady was for the company to own some of its own equipment. A vendor’s pivot to PPE was what made it happen.

“We have a patent on a narrow woven fabric for the military, both for contracts and aftermarket, with worldwide distribution channels,” says Bircher. “We’ve always outsourced it, but when the pandemic hit, our weavers—and there’s only so many in the U.S.—got busy with facemask elastic. They couldn’t keep up with our demand.

“We said, ‘We can certainly appreciate that, but we still have our product line,’ and we couldn’t fall behind with deliveries,” she adds. “They didn’t say they couldn’t do it, or didn’t want to do it, just that they couldn’t do it fast enough. With so many issues with the supply chain in general due to the pandemic, we realized that we needed to take control of our destiny on this product line.”

About three years ago, Bircher had run some numbers about bringing that type of work in-house, so when this situation hit, she had already done some homework. But Bircher also realized she could use some help. “So many people don’t invest in facilities in the supplier world. Having someone start something new is very rare,” she says. So she turned to a consultant in the narrow weaving world and decided now was the time.

“We purchased a building in North Carolina so we could have the skillset to help run the facility; there are more qualified workers there than in Ohio,” she says. “We bought looms, and we bought a heat range.”

The facility was almost complete by the end of March, according to Bircher, and she’s already convinced she made the right decision.

“Are there issues? Sure,” she says. “But we’re a lot more efficient, a lot more productive and we gain margin from manufacturing ourselves. Nobody cares more about your product than you do manufacturing yourself. Our only customer is us. That makes it a whole lot easier.”

This article was published July 1, 2021. Autometrix is a SPESA member.

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