Laurel Awning, located in Apollo, PA — a suburb just outside of Pittsburgh — made over 25 miles of cuts with their Carlson Design PT-96″ plotter/cutter after only 3 months. That’s a lot! President Greg Schmieler reports, “We’re down to 1.25hr to 1.5hr to process, draw and cut a canopy job. That used to take us on average 6-8 hours”. The speed at which they adopted this new technology is not only a testament to the simplicity of our hardware and software, but the value of establishing a good system. It’s also just the beginning.
Laurel Awning, celebrating it’s 100th year in business, was purchased by the Schmieler family in 2001. At the time, Greg was a young man in his 20’s, fresh out of school, with no experience in the awning industry. He did have an accounting degree, a strong back and the philosophy “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Keep working. Never give up” That last one was important because, despite having an established reputation in the community, the company did not have any established systems. So, on top of learning how to do EVERYTHING, he was learning how to do it the hardest way possible. This meant long hours, mistakes, miscommunications, and inefficient, low margin manufacturing processes.
In 2004, Greg knew enough about the business to start working smarter — his focus was now on creating systems. First up – simplifying their sales quotes. After “locking himself in a closet for two months”, Greg emerged with a Microsoft Excel job costing spreadsheet which allowed them to calculate their costs and add the appropriate margin to every job quote. This eliminated misquoting and ensured they didn’t underbid a job. This created a system improved efficiency and profitability. As a result, Greg became hooked on systems.
By 2012, with over a decade of industry experience and systems in place throughout the business, Greg decided it was time to automate their cutting room. This process didn’t occur overnight. They spent over a year attending trade shows, asking questions and studying their own processes for marking and cutting canopies. Greg explains, “We’ve been around since 1913, so we don’t tend to do anything fast. If we adopt any new system, it has to be really simple.” Before submitting his deposit, Greg decided to assuage any remaining concerns his lead seamstress, Marge, might have by flying the two of them to San Antonio to speak with veteran awning manufacture and industry leader, Roy Chism of The Chism Company.
Roy purchased his first plotter/cutter in the early 90’s and has been running a Carlson since 2005. Today they draw EVERYTHING in CAD and cut EVERYTHING using their Carlson plotter/cutter. So, while Marge spent the day reviewing how to draw in CAD and plotter/cutter basics with the Chism team, Greg and Roy talked about the philosophy of automation, creating systems, and growth. At the end-of-the-day they felt comfortable and ready to move forward. Here’s what they decided:
Automation doesn’t replace Marge, it lets her keep working.
Cutting and sewing awnings is tough work. Marge has been un-stitching, measuring, cutting, sewing, and handling awnings since 1988. She has an intuitive understanding of how an awning needs to go together and a great eye for detail. She wastes little, works efficiently, and is the leader of the other girls in the sewing room. Eventually Marge will need to escape the physical demands of her current routine. This is a common sentiment in many cutting rooms as experienced employees get older. Adding a plotter/cutter to their operation transforms Marge’s daily job from crawling over tables, handing cutting, and “man handling” large bundles of fabric to working at her desk, using her experience to design awnings and letting the plotter/cutter do the leg work. The plotter/cutter effectively extends her ability to work in the cutting room as long as she likes.
You must create a system.
All awning shops have their own way of doing things. Regardless of technique, each shop uses field measurements to assemble a frame and cut-and-sew corresponding fabric panels to fit. Stripes are especially challenging because they should start and end with the same pattern repeat. Greg, Once again turning to Excel, decided to create a spreadsheet that calculated the measurements for cross cuts, rafter spacing, and where to cut rafter pads for a traditional striped canopy. By changing a few basic variables like awning height, awning width, and fabric width, Greg could generate something Marge traditionally pulled from her head.
To create this system it’s important to study how you make something from start-to-finish. Much of that process lives inside Marge’s head, so it requires patience to extract what is second nature after almost three decades. Writing down the process will reveal “that’s just what we do” moments — seeing the big picture, drawing the entire project on the computer, and using a plotter/cutter will eliminate redundant marks, second cuts, and wasted material.
These “we just do’s” showed up in the first spreadsheet — which is OK. We’d asked Greg “why are you adding .5″ to that panel” and he’d reply with a smile, “Oh, that’s Marge’s half inch”. Over time the operator gains a better understanding of the equipment capabilities and the comfort of working in virtual environment. Mistakes are caught early and manual processes are eliminated, until eventually, like The Chism Company, everything is created in CAD and sent to the plotter/cutter.
We installed their system March 13th.
April 3rd, Greg reported, “Marge has been working with the machine daily. Unfortunately I have been away from the office on sales calls since you left. She has taken to the technology fairly well. Of course there is a learning curve with anyone who never used a computer for manufacturing purposes. After 3 weeks I’d say we’re about 40% through implementation. The delay being me away from the office and Marge all on her own. We still know purchasing the plotter/cutter was a good move. Now if I could just have time to work with Marge.”
By June 14th — 3 months after installation — he said, “We are moving along as I expected. Marge has really improved her abilities with the machine. We are down to 1.25 hr to 1.5 hr to process, draw, cut a canopy job. That used to take us on average 6-8 hours. Now we are working deeper in our excel program to make it user friendly for all of us.”
How were they able to adopt this technology so quickly? If you think it’s because they are a production oriented shop filling repetitive orders, think again. As Greg explained to the Specialty Fabrics Review, “We’re considered a one- to five-off shop, so we don’t get a lot of economies of scale.” They understood their product, chose a single problem to solve — automating marking and cutting canopies — and selected a simple and approachable CAD + plotter/cutter technology to do it.
Do they want to CAD and cut bubble awnings? Sure. Or CAD and cut everything like Chism? Of course. How about 3D digitizing in the future? Absolutely. But, they didn’t start there. They started by learning to cut their primary product with something other than a pair of scissors. The result — 25 miles of cuts in 3 months — that’s more cutting than many automated shops do in an entire year. If Greg’s only 40% implemented look out!!
At The Chism Company, they don’t cut anything by hand. They understand it’s easier to teach a 19 year old how to CAD a basic awning using Youtube videos than teaching them how to properly use a pair of scissors. It’s also much more cost effective to have your experienced and expensive seamstresses sewing, while an entry level person selects patterns off a computer screen and hits “GO”. Training your new employee to use a plotter/cutter and not a pair of scissors creates a barrier-to-entry that may prevent them from opening their own shop down the road in 12 months. Once a pattern is designed on the computer, it is stored for all of time. No paper pattern fire hazards. No remeasuring the same job in 5 years. No quote wars with another local awning shop. To remake their awning simply roll out material and plot/cut the stored pattern. This can even be a selling point with future customers.
10 years ago CAD programs cost thousand of dollars, required command line prompts to draw basic lines, and were operated by IT specialists with high salaries. Today, we offer a plugin to Sketchup, a free CAD program originally designed by Google. This makes drawing basic shapes, to scale, and ready to plot and cut point-and-click easy. Laurel Awning has a back room CAD guy specifically for renderings and graphics. He’s approached with great deference. After looking at Sketchup during their visit to Chism’s shop, they decided it would be easier for Marge to learn CAD than the CAD guy to learn how to make awnings. And they were right.
We began training Marge and Marge began training us from the first day of the training. Once the system was calibrated, we started cutting real orders that needed to be sewn and shipped. Marge showed us how she did something by hand and we would show her how to draw it in Sketchup. After we left, we created short training videos on her techniques for easy reference. https://vimeo.com/63096279
CAD proficiency comes with time, but it’s quick and easy to pickup the basics — especially drawing rectangles and triangles. After 3 months, Marge is an independent CAD and plotter/cutter operator.
Automate your cutting room and gain efficiency.
- Improve material savings by nesting parts
- Increase your throughput without adding people
- Eliminate the price elasticity from your sales force. No more cutting room bottlenecks.
- Let your best or most experienced people work on something other than cutting. Like sewing.
- Excess capacity to cut bags, umbrellas, apparel, covers, cushions, and other textiles in the off season.
The first step to automation is recognizing the need. Much of the awning industry’s specialized knowledge is tied up in a few key people. This creates bottlenecks, makes the business difficult to sell, and is becoming a growing liability with an aging workforce. Creating systems improves the value of your most knowledgeable people, provides an opportunity for growth, increases efficiencies and profit margin, and the opportunity to create a sellable business model.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but with a little study of your current operation it’s not difficult to start creating systems that can shave hours off each job.
Below are a few pictures and notes from Laurel Awning’s install.
Greg’s widest material is 84″, so he decided to purchase our PT-96″ plotter/cutter — which can plot/cut up to 87″ wide material. It’s a good idea to size your machine’s width to handle your widest material — once you automate, you do not want to go back to hand cutting. We mounted his machine to our 8’x28′ phillocraft vacuum table. This is the longest table that comfortably fits in their shop, but since it’s easy to add length to our endless steel frame tables, it is likely they will add more sections in the future for increased efficiency.
Although they do use 84″ wide material, most of their fabric is 47″-60″ wide. To prevent vacuum loss from the exposed parts of the table, they use non-porous PVC to cover one side.
They have been making awnings in this building for almost 50 years. Unfortunately the building was not wired with 3 Phase power. Instead of providing one or two large, 3-phase vacuum blowers, we provided four 3HP, single phase blowers.
They provided their own air compressor and workstation. The plotter/cutter does not need much air — 1CFM @ 90 psi.
Big thanks to Greg and the entire Schmieler family. Marge was very patient with us and we are excited she’s doing so well with the equipment. We look forward to seeing where Laurel Awning grows with their new systems.
For questions on how we can help you automate your cutting room and establish a “system”, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 918-438-8344.