Walker is interested in two things: the best way to make, wrap and ship the highest-quality horizontal blinds and designing equipment to make that process as precise, cost-effective and error-free as possible time after time.
Most of the bad ways of fabricating blinds, he says, come from years of doing things the way they've always been done. A fabricator learns the process from someone who was doing the job before him, who learned it from someone else who was doing whatever seemed right at the time. As companies grew with the horizontal blind market, most increased output by simply adding more employees doing the same things.
The good ways come about by taking a critical look at the fabricating processes, eliminating wasted steps and controlling variables—the most inconsistent and costly of which is the human element. The good ways also are mostly a matter of personal taste and are limited only by available space and the number of blinds a fabricator wants to make in a day.
Walker offers all of his knowledge and insight into fabricating blinds and marketing strategies during a two-and-a-half-day training seminar offered for no charge at LTL's Dallas facility. The course includes a Fabrication Guidebook, which is subtitled: Changing the Way the World Builds Blinds. Walker says you could call the class: How to Make Money.
OBSERVE, ANALYZE, EVALUATE
The inefficiencies of most blind fabricators are understandable. Most company presidents or production managers are busy making "minor decisions every three minutes and major decisions every 15 minutes" throughout the day, Walker says. The need to stay ahead of the long, steady growth of the two-inch horizontal blind market only complicates matters.
In an effort to assist fabricators, both start-up and experienced, in rapidly reaching maximum efficiency and productivity Walker created the free seminars. The course is structured around a series of questions fabricators—or potential fabricators—need to ask:
•At what point does it make sense for me to fabricate my own two-inch horizontal blinds?
•What if I have never fabricated blinds before? How do I learn?
•How much floor space will I need?
•How many employees do I need?
•What can I expect my costs to be?
•How much inventory should I keep in stock?
•What equipment is right for my company?
In addition, the course covers production procedures, automation, software requirements and how to reduce labor costs. The course also contains a wealth of information on the various products, programs and services offered by LTL International, although Walker stresses that those going through the seminar do not need to buy or have LTL equipment operating in their plants.
The program begins with a brief overview and an opportunity to view manual and automatic blind production on videotape. The first day is highlighted by a site visit to a nearby fabrication facility in which 50 to 70 horizontal blinds are produced manually each day. During the site tour seminar attendees, with Walker's assistance, observe, analyze and evaluate every step of the process from the delivery of raw materials to the packing and shipping of completed, custom blind orders. Special attention is given to the flow of work through the plant, safety considerations, the physical layout of the work area, component tracking methods and even labeling.
The day ends with an evaluation of the facility and the first of many discussions on the basic fundamentals of blind factory layout. Even the travel time to and from site visits is put to use. Walker asks the attendees to draw up a comprehensive list of good and bad points from the site they just visited. He then urges them to take the lists back with them and immediately begin implementing the good points and eliminating any bad points they find in their own operations.
The second day begins with a roundtable discussion of intermediate and advanced factory layout. Overnight, attendees are asked to sketch out a floor plan for their ideal factory. During the roundtable discussion, Walker uses a floor plan grid with three-dimensional equipment models all created to scale to layout the ideal factory plans—or actual, working plants for those who currently are fabricating blinds. It quickly becomes clear even to a beginner how important plant design is to efficient production.
Day two also features a site visit, this time to an automated fabrication plant producing 100 to 200 blinds a day. Time also is set aside to begin discussing management techniques and philosophies. The day ends with an open-book test and discussion in order for Walker to gauge the comprehension and retention of the material covered.
The third day—actually a half-day—is optional. It covers hands-on demonstration and training of computer software for running an efficient and profitable operation. LTL supports the ShopOrder Plus+[TM] software available from Suz's Software, Inc., which includes work order generation, batch processing of production labels, inventory reports, production scheduling, packing lists, shipping labels and more. "Anyone doing more than 10 blinds a day needs to be computerized," Walker says.
PRODUCTION AND MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES
Walker's knowledge of horizontal blind fabrication, sales and management is so diverse anyone can attend the class and learn production and marketing strategies whether that person is a company CEO, salesman, maintenance worker or fabricator. Years of experience (or lack of it) doesn't matter either. In a session held in August, students included an Atlanta, GA, retailer still making up his mind whether he will begin fabricating his own blinds and an Orlando, FL, manufacturer who wholesales a large number of blinds both in and out of state.
The class also is flexible, by necessity, and can focus on any part of blind fabrication depending on the experience and interest of those attending. Walker is part of a five-generation lineage of window treatment manufacturers with more than 100 years of combined experience. His knowledge is considerable. He is part efficiency expert, management consultant and full-time equipment designer and engineer.
No stone is left unturned in analyzing horizontal blind production. LTL's headrail machine, for example, is designed with its leading side table cantilevered to allow for storage space underneath for boxes of the most commonly used stock. Doing this means the person operating the machine doesn't waste time walking back and forth to the warehouse. The LTL Fabrication Guidebook includes a time analysis of how many minutes per blind and how many minutes per shift should be required to produce 50, 75 and 125 completed blinds per shift using manual and fully automatic equipment and the resulting annual labor costs.
During one site visit Walker pointed out a chop saw station dedicated to cutting the wood supports for shipping boxes. That's a good idea, he says, as is the addition of a dust collection system. A fabricator can pay one lump sum now for an industrial dust collection system, or pay an employee an hourly wage to clean the area every day for as many years as the company is in business.
Walker is most interested in processes that can save large chunks of time. Placing slats on edge on the cutting table means all the slats for one blind can be cut at once, including the bottomrail and valance. A specifically designed end stop on the LTL cutting table makes automatic allowances for the valance. He also abhors sub-assemblies. Keeping all the slats, headrails, bottomrails and valances for one order together throughout the work flow means employees don't waste time looking for pieces when it's time to pack and ship the order.
There also are a number of management techniques Walker points out that can increase production. For example, computer batching by color, product type or size can keep an employee working on the same process without stopping to change materials or reset the equipment. Also, running split shifts or flexible shifts can extend a plant's hours of operation by as much as 30 percent without paying employees overtime.
The LTL fabrication class can reduce the 400 ways blinds are being fabricated, but the one, best fabrication process will never be etched in stone. Walker observes, "New product development requires new methods of fabrication." For LTL, that means Walker has to be looking to the future constantly in order to stay ahead of the market. He needs to be designing and building equipment a year or two before it's actually needed. Meanwhile, he continues to devote 25 percent of his time leading the fabrication seminars because LTL has always felt a strong commitment to the success of its customers and because it's the future of the industry. "Independent fabricators will rule the world," Walker says.
LTL International, Inc. is located at 5326 W. Ledbetter Dr., Dallas, TX 75236; (800) 533-3371; fax: (800) 985-1020.