Whether you are a custom workroom or specialize in commercial draperies, growing your business is a common goal. To make more money, we first try to bring in more business. Often, taking on additional jobs means longer hours or hiring more people. There is a fear that adding employees means a reduction in quality because no employee cares about quality as much as the owner. There is a common misconception that increasing productivity also means reducing quality. However, it is possible to reduce waste, streamline those processes that gobble up so much time and utilize people to their fullest without sacrificing quality.
CHART YOUR OPERATION
In order to plan where you want your business to go, you first should determine where it is now. There are some minor differences in how workrooms make draperies, but in general the accompanying flow chart is accurate.
Starting in the lower left corner, the process generally begins when fabric comes in the door. Unless you are very fortunate, the rolls of fabric must be inspected to determine if there are flaws, which can cost you a lot of money if they are not discovered until you are hanging the finished product on a customer’s window. At the same time it is important to know exactly how much cloth you have. Each roll will vary slightly, and nothing hurts like planning a job and finding that the cloth you thought you had is really not there. A shortage of a few inches can ruin an entire job.
After inspection, the required fabric widths or units must be cut accurately. In many small to medium workrooms this is a manual process. Depending on cutters to never lose count is unrealistic. Human error occurs and, thus, waste occurs. Plus the operation of measuring, inspecting and cutting fabric usually requires the use of your workroom table, which, as we will see, becomes the focus of several steps in the process. Most workrooms quickly discover that bottlenecks can occur because one or more processes are waiting for table time.
Finally, fabric must be cut keeping pattern matching in mind. Also, the orientation of the pattern is rarely square with the edge.
Next, the cut fabric panels are joined together by serging them. A good, industrial four- or five-thread serger is one of the first purchases made by most workrooms. From the serger, the joined fabric panels are carried to the blindstitch machine for hemming. Here workrooms are divided on whether they like to finish the bottom hem first or the header. For the purposes of this discussion we will assume they are completing the header first, although the chart can be altered easily to accommodate finishing the hem first.
Our flow chart shows the next step as buckram sewing, after which the header must be pressed. The side hems are usually pressed at this time as well. Buckram sewing can be done using a buckram guide or it can be incorporated in the tabling process, as we will see later.
The next step is pleat marking, a procedure that will use everything you learned in high school geometry and can test your patience as well as your mathematics ability. After the pleats and spaces are marked so the spaces are uniform and the seams are hidden in the pleats, tabling is usually the next step.
Tabling, in small workrooms means just what it says: laying the drapery length-sized on the biggest table available, then measuring, marking and cutting it to length so that the hem can be sewn. This is a time-consuming and tedious process that is very important because it is a step where mistakes can cost a lot of lost time and money. It is also a chance to inspect the work-in-process for quality and workmanship.
After the hem is sewn at the blindstitch machine, the pleat forming and sewing is usually undertaken. Immediately after the pleats are sewn, the pinch pleats are formed and tacked and the corners are closed. From there, pin setting and thread clipping is done.
Finally, the draperies are folded and stored to await installation.
HOW CAN YOU INCREASE PRODUCTIVITY?
This process is simplified somewhat, but it generally describes what is done in hundreds of workrooms every day. Where are the bottlenecks? How can the process be streamlined without sacrificing quality? What equipment would help and what should you buy first?
Increasing productivity simply means getting more products made per day. This results in more sales and more income per dollar spent on your fixed costs such as salaries, rent, utilities, etc. One way of looking at it is that every dollar in sales you add using the same number of workers in the same facility carries only the cost of the raw materials, so your gross profit goes up dramatically with added work. After all, you are already paying rent,
salaries and utilities at your regular sales amount.
Increasing productivity may be accomplished by simply laying out your workroom so that the work-in-process doesn’t travel long distances between workstations or zigzag all over the workroom in helter-skelter fashion. This only increases the opportunity of losing jobs, picking up dirt and lint, bumping into other jobs where a queue is formed. The next diagram is a sample layout of a small workroom designed to facilitate the process so that minimal time is spent in transit between workstations.
You can see the flow of the work in this small workroom starts in the upper left-hand corner and proceeds around the room clockwise, with stops at the centrally located padded table as needed, ending at the folding and finishing machine on the lower left. You also will note that this small workroom includes several pieces of equipment, each of which is designed to address a specific bottleneck or potential time waster.
First, there is a cutting machine. We often recommend that the first piece of equipment, beyond the required sewing machines, that a workroom invest in is an inspection/measuring/cutting machine. There are several good ones on the market. Cutting machines, such as the JR cutting machine, will often allow an operator to cut all the fabric for a week’s work in several hours on Monday morning.
As an illustration, a workroom owner in New Orleans recently purchased a JR. Her business has grown tremendously and she has added two employees. Most of her work is still manual and very labor-intensive. She frequently spends several nights a week until well past midnight working feverishly in order to meet her customer’s delivery requirements. Cutting and sewing past midnight after long hours of manual work is a situation tailor-made for mistakes. She cut all her fabric manually on her workroom table and recently made 40 cuts that required pattern matching. It took her almost six hours to cut the fabric.
The JR cutting machine, with microprocessor controls, allows the operator to inspect a roll of fabric, mark where the flaws are, program up to 10 different cut lengths (up to 99 cuts per length), stop the machine automatically at the right point at which time the fabric is clamped and held taut for cutting. It allows the operator to jog the fabric forward or back to insure pattern matching and fold the cut fabric on a bar-stacker at the front. When the job is completely cut, the bar with the cut fabric panels can be removed from the machine and moved to the next workstation.
With such a machine, the workroom owner in New Orleans could have made up to 400 cuts in an eight-hour day, and cut her 40 fabric panels in less than a fourth of the time required for manual cutting.
At the next workstation, the fabric panels are to be joined. Again, there are several products on the market to facilitate joining fabric so that puckering is minimized. One is the Sewveyor SVR, which is actually a small conveyor that is belt-driven from the serger motor so that it is synchronized with the sewing machine. When joining two fabric panels, the operator simply insures that the two are properly aligned and the Sewveyor carries the heavy material forward as the joint is being formed. When the first two fabric panels have been sewn together, the operator “heels” the sewing machine pedal, and the Sewveyor quickly reverses and returns the fabric to the operator where subsequent fabric panels can be serged.
This type of machine can save up to 50 percent of the time required to join fabric and help insure the joints are sewn with no puckers. Again, as with the cutting machine, adding a piece of equipment helps insure quality as well as productivity.
PLEATING AND TACKING
An inexpensive overhead rail system is frequently recommended to carry an industrial steam iron and water reservoir and allow them to slide to any area of the padded table where pressing is required. This rail keeps the iron up out of the way when not in use and yet it is available where it is needed.
The same rail system can be used with trolleys and creaseless hangers to move the work in process around the workroom without blocking aisles or laying on tables or equipment where it may interfere with work or become damaged or dirty.
Tabling draperies can be done by using either a vertical or a slanted tabler. Either type can be used in any workroom, but generally, the slanted tabler is the device of choice when you complete the hem first, and the vertical style is used when you complete the header first.
Using one of these machines can cut the time required for tabling draperies by up to 75 percent, often with just one operator required to table even the largest lined draperies. One advantage of the vertical style tabler is that the draperies hang from it just as they will in the customer’s home, providing an opportunity for the workroom to check quality. Vertical tablers should automatically cut the draperies to the desired length while spraying a line of ultraviolet ink at the desired height for marking and sewing the hem.
The slanted tabler shown here allows the operator to apply the buckram while cutting the draperies to final length. Then the header can be folded, pressed and pinned or stapled. The glide ironing system is part of the tabler, which also has a 14-inch padded section at the bottom for that purpose. These devices are tremendous time savers, but do require a little headroom (for the vertical tabler) or floor space (for the slanted tabler).
Pleat marking can be accomplished much more easily by using any of the several products on the market today. There are manual devices that hang over the padded table that allow the user to set the spaces and pleats and manually move the markers to hide the seam before the operator uses a piece of ultraviolet chalk or ultraviolet pen to mark the pleats.
The Ultra Pleater allows the operator to dial in the desired space between pleats, move the arm holding ultraviolet ink pens to hide the seam then press a foot pedal to drop the pens against the fabric accurately marking the pleats and spaces. The draperies are then taken to a pleat sewer equipped with a black light, where the pleats can be sewn.
Pleat sewing and tacking can be done a number of ways. A combination pleat sewing and tacking machine can be equipped with a pneumatic pleat former to assist the operator to form the pleats, sew the pleat and tack the pleat all at one machine. However, to assist the operator in saving time sewing pleats, an inexpensive device such as a tacker table, shown, can save as much as 50 percent of the operator’s time because it allows the operator to tack a pleat while forming the next pleat on the small table. The tacker table mounts to the front of the spot tacker and swings out of the way when cleaning or maintenance of the sewing machine is required.
Next comes folding and finishing and there are machines designed to save time here and ensure the draperies hang correctly, the pleats are folded evenly and symmetrically and are properly prepared for storage or packaging.
For example, the Perfect Pleat machine will hold up to 60 pleats at one time allowing the user to hang them and stretch them so that the pleats run uniformly from top to bottom. It even can be purchased with a steam wand to relax the fabric and form the pleats correctly. The draperies can be banded and bagged for shipment or storage.
COST VERSUS PROFITS
Can you really make more money and not have to add employees? What is the payback time for purchasing equipment? The following profitability calculation makes a few assumptions. First, in an average size workroom with four employees without major equipment, the national average for production is 12 to 15 units or widths per operator per day. This number is for custom draperies with 75 percent lined and 25 percent unlined. Let’s assume you must pay $8 per hour on average with benefits costing another $1 per hour. We will say the price you get for a width of draperies is $17 on average.
• Your production is:
4 employees x 12 widths per day = 48 widths x 21 working days per month = 1,008 widths per month
• Your income is:
1,008 widths per month x $17 per width = $17, 136 per month
• Your labor cost is:
4 employees x 8 hours = 32 man hours per day x 21 days per month = 672 man hours per month x $9 per hour = $6,048
• Your net income is:
$17,136 – $6,048 = $11,088 (from which come materials cost, overhead and your income)
If you achieve a 25 to 50 percent improvement in workflow by adding the right mix of equipment, you can dramatically increase your income. Let’s use 25 percent, a conservative figure, and see how much.
• A 25 percent improvement would mean with the same employees you could produce 15 widths per employee per day or 4 employees x 15 widths per day x 21 days per month = 1,260 widths per month at $17 per width = $21,420
• Labor cost remains the same so your net income becomes: $21,420 - $6,048 = $15,372
• Your extra profit is $15,372 - $11,088 = $4,284 per month.
You can see it wouldn’t take long to pay back any investment made in equipment necessary to achieve these numbers.
Of course, this assumes there is additional business available to you. Good equipment won’t make the sales grow, it simply will make the sales you have more profitable and might free up your evenings so you can enjoy life, rather than working past midnight to make deliveries.
Most drapery workroom owners love their jobs. They enjoy creating beauty and the satisfaction of seeing their hard work hanging in a customer’s home. I am sure most started in the business because of their love of sewing and the immense pleasure derived from seeing the beautiful window coverings they create. But at some point, these businesses must become profitable, and they must learn to compete or they will ultimately fail. It is a business, and there are always those willing to step in when you falter, to take your customers away from you if you can’t perform.
Performance means offering a quality product at a fair price in a reasonable lead-time. It means taking care of your customers, paying your vendors, maintaining your education and keeping your finger on the pulse of fashion and design. Machines can’t do that for you. What they can do is reduce the time required to do the mundane chores that must be done. They can allow you to produce a quality product in as short a time as the largest manufacturer and keep your customers, your designers, your creditors and your banker happy. You bring the creativity and the design . . . good equipment gives you the time.
Robert S. Borders is president of Creative Equipment Corp., Buckner, KY; (502) 225-9200; www.creativeequipment.com; e-mail: email@example.com.