Strong Enterprises, located in Orlando, Florida, was founded in the 1960s by Ted Strong — the man who penned their motto, “a parachute company with an imagination”. There are few products where quality production is more important than when making parachutes. That’s why, in 1994, Strong purchased their first Carlson Design Pro-78 Plotter/Cutter, with a hot knife tool attachment, to accurately mark and cut their parachute panels. “Old Sparky” faithfully marked, cut, and heat sealed panels for over two decades. Jim, their veteran Plotter/Cutter operator of 17 years, said, “I can count on one hand how many time this machine has been down in the last 17 years.”
They loved their old Carlson, but after 20 years of reliable marking and cutting it was time for an upgrade. This Spring, Strong installed their NEW 2015 Carlson Pro PT-78″ Plotter/Cutter, featuring:
- NEW hot knife tool attachment that will cut up to 3X faster
- NEW 3X faster captive track system
- NEW Plotmaster USB software which connects to any Windows PC via USB
- NEW autonesting software: nests tighter than ever before, reducing fabric waste
- NEW *.DXF universal file importer
- NEW optimizing software
- NEW collaborator software which allows two Plotter/Cutters to work on the same job, at the same time
Of course, this list doesn’t begin to include the countless seamless improvements and innovations we’ve added to our Plotting/Cutting systems over the last 20 years. While the Plotter/Cutter and software are new and improved, the existing Phillocraft steel frame table we sold Strong in 1994 was still in great shape. Our Phillocraft tables are built to last! We simply removed their our original track system, re-leveled the table, and replaced it with 78′ of our new Supertrack.
Strong’s new system is faster and more simpler than ever. It also uses affordable and reliable off-the-shelf components, making service and maintenance easy to perform in-house. We’ve been very busy making BIG improvements over the last 20 years! Below, we’ll take a closer look at both our software and hardware improvements.
We overhauled Strong’s legacy Plotmaster software suite with our all new Plotmaster USB, called PMU. PMU now connects through USB allowing it to run on any Windows PC (7/8). PMU integrates nesting, editing, and Plotter control into a single easy-to-use program. It makes network file sharing simple, has a robust universal *.DXF importer, all-new autonesting algorithm, and features improved CAD file optimization.
To test the impact of our new optimization software, we ran a time study on one of their more popular existing files. Cutting the same pattern, at the same speeds as before, the new optimized path shortened cut time by 3 minutes — 19 minutes not optimized vs 16 minutes optimized. That’s more than a 15% improvement from the click of a button! And that’s just from optimizing.
We also added a new autonesting software, NestFab, which offers improvements in speed and material yield. NestFab’s algorithm quickly finds the most optimal layout. This maximizes material yield and saves many hours previously spent manually nesting. On a 76′ long vacuum table like Strong’s, the time and material savings adds up very quickly.
Our new universal *.DXF file importer allows Strong Enterprises to import *.DXF pattern files from virtually any CAD program. It has some great new features like:
- The ability to import multiple *.DXF files at once
- Importing single dot “punch” marks for easier and faster marking
- New “Group” import – which allows them to import multiple objects from a single *.DXF pattern.
These *.DXF improvements make it easier to draw patterns, organize files, and manually nest. These little changes add up to big time savings.
While the improvements are many, the software is still familiar. Their operator, Jim, said, “It’s a lot like the old machine in some ways — you know the operation is familiar even though some changes will take some getting used to. But, in a lot of other good ways, this is a whole different machine.”
Our 2015 PT-78″ Plotter/Cutter may mount on the same 76′ long vacuum table as their 1994 Pro-78 Plotter/Cutter, but the hardware is by no means the same. The 2015 PT-78 rides on an all new track system, features a totally redesigned hot knife tool attachment, and has all new controls that greatly improve the operators’ user experience. The result is an machine that is up to 10X faster, and much easier to use.
Jim was so excited by these improvements he couldn’t help but blurt out, “Can I hug you?!”
Some of our biggest speed gains came from our new track system. The old Pro was limited to plotting, cutting, and traversing at a slow 5 inches per second (IPS). Our new PT-78, riding in our new captive aluminum track system, can Plot at 30 IPS, traverse at 50IPS, and thanks to our redesigned hot knife tool attachment, can heat seal at an amazing 3X faster 15 inches-per-second. The time savings of traversing from point to point (when the pen and cutter are lifted) will save hours, not minutes, every single day.
Anyone who has used a hand-held hot knife knows that there is a fine balance between making a fast cut and a clean cut. If you go too fast the blade won’t cut. Too slow, the material burns or throughput suffers. Computer controlled hot knives make it much easier to find the sweet spot of both speed and accuracy. Our Hot Knife 2.0 (HK2) has a sharp, hot blade and runs at an steady speed with pneumatically controlled pressure. It is 5X – 7X faster than Strong’s original hot knife and exponentially faster and more accurate than a hand-held cutter.
To further limit heat dissipation, Strong uses a heavy 40 lb butcher paper cutting surface instead of a galvanized sheet metal cutting surface. They report better vacuum hold, longer blade life, and a cleaner and faster cut using the paper cutting surface. In fact, they made the switch before converting to the HK2, and found the paper allowed their old Plotter/Cutter to cut 2X faster than on metal. The burn rate is surprisingly slow when both heat and cutting pressure are properly set. Eventually the paper will get grooves, tears, and burn spots – however it can then be flipped for use on the other side. An additional advantage is that the paper, unlike metal sheeting, has no seam lines that could trip up the hot knife head if not fully flush and level.
With our improved track system and the new HK 2.0 hot knife we saw speed gains on every material they cut.
For many of their fabrics they will cut more than one ply. They use this technique to increase throughput and, in certain circumstances, “seal” two pieces together until they can be sewn.
In addition to speed improvements, changes in our hardware over the last 20 years have resulted in an improved user experience. The Plotter/Cutter’s tool head is now mounted on the back-side of the machine, allowing the operator to see and align the head from his workstation. The air tools no longer drop when the machine is turned off and there are now two large emergency stops on either side of the gantry, enabling the operator to easily terminate a plot/cut. These changes wouldn’t be obvious to new customers, but they make a BIG difference to our 10, 15, and 20 year legacy operators. Once you experience the difference, you won’t know how you ever lived without these improvements.
Parachutes require numerous, intricate pieces, so it is very important that their Plotter/Cutter has enough throughput to keep up with demand. They did three things (in addition to buying a Carlson) to maximize throughput:
1. Having a 76′ long table
Longer tables are more efficient. You can layout more parts, or layout all common parts for a single job. A 76′ long table means they don’t need to break the patterns required to make a single chute onto multiple tables.
2. Plotting Pattern Markers
Certain orders require hundreds of identical parts that do not require a sealed edge. These can be stack-cut with their hand-held reciprocating cutter. To maximize material yield and layout time, they use their Carlson Design nesting software and Plotter to create a pattern marker that can be placed on top of their multi-ply stack.
3. Our Favorite: The Carlson TeamWork System
To “future proof” their installation they purchased the Carlson Design Teamwork package. This system allows them to add a second gantry to their table at anytime. The two systems ride on the same table and work on the same job — split by our Collaborator software package. A job can be shipped to both Plotter/Cutters from a central computer to on-board Windows 8 tablets that independently control each system. This allows them to double their throughput, without doubling their foot-print. Installing the second system is fast, easy, and affordable.
When Strong Enterprises upgraded their Plotter/Cutter they also added our T-Bar Pattern Digitizer. This is simple pattern digitizer will further ensure their Carlson Plotter/Cutter is an invaluable addition to their operation.
The T-Bar Pattern Digitizer allows Strong to trace their existing paper pattern library, adding even more functionality and versatility to their Plotter/Cutter system. Therefore, in addition to cutting parachutes, their Plotter/Cutter can easily cut bags, harnesses, and any other apparel or canvas item associated with parachuting.
The T-Bar Digitizer can ride in the same track as the Plotter/Cutter, providing a digitizing bed the length of the table. Strong uses their Plotter/Cutter vacuum table continually for production, so they purchased an additional 20′ of track to mount the T-Bar on a separate table. The T-Bar uses the same Plotmaster software suite as the Plotter/Cutter, meaning there is NO learning curve. They installed PMU on a laptop they can place near the T-bar when digitizing.
The hardware and software setup at Strong Enterprises makes for a very impressive marking and cutting system. Below, we will detail how they upgraded their system, design choices, and basic operating technique.
They are cutting on a 76′ long Phillocraft vacuum table. This table is over 20 years old and still holding up great. To upgrade their system we simple removed their old track and cabling, re-leveled the table, and attached our new track and cabling.
They purchased 78′ of track, so that the last two feet hang past the leading edge of the table. This way, the hot knife can park over the table, placing the hot tip of the blade out of the way of any table, paper, or material. In addition to being a safe place to park the system when still hot, but unattended, it’s also ideal for changing the blade even when it’s hot.
When upgrading your Plotter/Cutter system, a little prep before the system arrives will go a long way to ensuring a speed installation. We recommend clearing the old track and then leveling table the day before you expect to install. This is relatively easy to do and will limit your down time.
When your Plotter/Cutter arrives…
When you start cutting with the hot knife tool attachment, it is a good idea to run a series of test cuts to determine the correct speed to get the best cut quality for each different material. These speeds can be recorded and saved in our software or in the back of you manual.
Believing in your Product
On the final day of our install they offered to let us try one of their world class parachutes and jump out of a plane.
We would like to give a big thanks to Mike, Jim, Marci, Chuck, and Felix for all of their help making this a very fun, and successful install in Orlando, Fl. We can’t wait to see what they do for the NEXT 20 years!