Far and away, the best method of determining how to lay out your facility and which machinery to purchase, is to attend the free blind fabrication training seminar offered by LTL International, Inc. normally offered twice monthly. These topics and many more are part of the standard curriculum.
As part of the decision-making process to begin fabrication, you should have already prepared a business plan and a project/action plan in which you have determined the beginning volume you are planning on and the space you have available. These items will help you decide which equipment you will need and help you in laying out a shop.
The subject of laying out a shop is a difficult one to cover in this kind of article because everyone's space is different. It obviously is much easier to set up a plan for a blind fabrication area in new, empty space than it is when carving out an area in existing space where other product lines already exist. The basics are to have as smooth a flow through the department as possible with the ideal being: raw materials enter from one end and finished product goes out the other end. A straight line is great if it works in your space, but U- or L-shaped areas work well also.
You want to have easy access to fill, pull from and replenish your inventory area. Always keep the "dirty" areas (cutting and painting operations) separated from the "clean" areas (finishing and packing). You want a well-lighted area as this is important for inspection. You'll also need to accommodate comfortable aisle space to allow for people and rolling carts. Always remember that safety should be a top concern and stress the need to keep the work areas clean.
BASIC, ADDITIONAL EQUIPMENT
If you are just starting fabrication, you'll have understandable concerns about the amount of capital investment required for equipment and inventory. Remember, leasing is a viable option for acquiring equipment because it allows start-up fabricators to keep their working capital for other things while still affording the opportunity to begin fabrication. Many leasing companies have experience with handling equipment in the window treatment industry.
One way to minimize the capital investment and still start fabrication on a limited level is to consider a kit program. A kit program, which LTL International offers, allows you to order custom kits that contain pre-cut wood slats, valance and bottomrail, and pre-punched headrail with tilt rod made to the fabricator's dimensions. You just add the headrail components and finish the blind.
The following basic equipment is required when starting out with a kit program:
· 10-in. chop saw to trim and finish valances with a good carbide-tipped blade (alternate top bevel, or ATB, with a minimum of 80 to 90 teeth)
· 12-in. free-standing drill press to drill holes in the bottomrail for the braid and lift cord
· Lift racks to hold the blind for stringing and finishing
· Minimum two- by eight-foot table for a work area.
As the required number of blinds per day increases, you'll need to start considering additional equipment. A slat-punching machine would be the next step. Good quality slat punching machines are available from several major vendors. It will be important for you to do some research to determine which one is best for you. LTL International offers a full line of manual, semi-, and fully automatic pneumatic slat punching machines that are modular and co-designed.
Pneumatic punching stations are self contained, clean, quiet and easily maintained. For example, if you have a problem with one of the pneumatic punch stations you simply disconnect the airlines and remove the station for repair or replacement.
Once you've got a slat-punching machine you can purchase the headrail pre-punched and cut to size and the slat cut, but not punched, which results in additional savings. You also may decide to begin carrying your most popular colors of slat, valance and bottomrail and cut it yourself, while still buying the headrail to avoid the cost of that equipment. LTL's Step 3 is an excellent machine at this level. It has two punching stations and is activated by a palm button. You'll need an air compressor at this point (with a minimum of 125/psi).
AS PRODUCTION INCREASES
When your volume is consistently 10 to 20 blinds a day, you'll need to seriously consider purchasing a headrail machine, radial arm saw and table assembly, rolling carts, double-sided lift rack and additional tables. LTL International's Head Rail machine comes complete with a six-die set to do all routs and cuts, (two) steel tables for in and out feed, air tank, regulator and filter and a single bump stop measuring system to simplify rout and cut measuring.
LTL also offers a 12-inch radial arm saw and table assembly, which allows you to cut slat, straight valance and bottomrail simultaneously, saving you time and money. You'll need additional space for inventory storage. At this point you'll want to consider purchasing additional punch and die sets so you can rotate them, as they need sharpening. This way you can avoid unnecessary production down time.
At 50 blinds per day you'll need a 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot facility, seven to eight people and your two-station slat-punching machine should be replaced with a four-station machine. LTL offers a "100% Trade Up" policy that is exclusive in the industry. It allows you to trade in and up-grade to more advanced equipment as your volume increases, without penalty. For example: If you purchase a machine for $5,000 today and in two years decide you want a $10,000 machine, provided the machine being traded is in good working order, you'll receive a $5,000 credit toward the purchase of the new machine.
The CW24 slat punching machine comes with four pneumatic punch stations that eliminates the need to flip the slat over to punch the additional holes required for wider blinds, obviously a major time saver. It is touch-switch-activated with a control box, slat counter, timer and air tank with regulator/filter. At this point, five rolling carts to move work in process (WIP) is recommended, as is a motorized double-sided lift rack making it easier to raise and lower the blinds.
Up to this level you'll be inserting the slats into the ladder braid or wide cloth tape by hand. Since this is the most time consuming part of the process, you should consider adding a fully automatic hopper (FAH) to the equipment. The FAH can be attached to the end of the CW24 slat punch machine. It automatically inserts the slat into the ladder braid while weaving the braid back and forth. With the addition of optional wide tape magazines the same can be accomplished on wide tape blinds. This will dramatically cut production time because it will be necessary only to finish the blinds to length.
One of the major issues involved with making two-inch horizontals is the labor time needed to complete a blind from start to finish. The industry average has for a long time hovered around one unit per hour. This time can and should be reduced. The way to accomplish this reduction is with organization, a dedicated work force, a smooth flow of product through the shop and automating the process as much as possible. The goal of the fabricator, with the equipment that is currently available, should be to get to two units per hour. This is an achievable goal.
AUTOMATION AND COMPUTERIZATION
At 75+ blinds per day some automation becomes mandatory. LTL recommends a fully automatic wood (FAW) machine. This unit integrates an automated punching operation with an automated hopper operation and is controlled by a computerized CPU. You need only to pre-cut the slat and insert it into a hopper on the punch side, the FAW automatically pulls each slat into the punches and feeds them into the ladders on the hopper side. By using the "headrail on" option you can set a fully assembled headrail on the hopper side and the FAW will punch and insert the slat. That means all that remains is to attach the bottomrail and finish the blind to length. This will cut about a third of the labor time normally required. You will need to have at least two double-sided lift racks that are motorized and up to seven rolling carts to handle WIP.
Automation also can be added to the headrail and saw operations. LTL has always built its equipment to be modular and upgradeable. A computerized controller and motorized end stop can be added to both the headrail machine and the radial arm saw table assembly. Automation cuts labor time, increases efficiency, ensures greater accuracy and significantly reduces human error. An optional bar code scanner, which significantly increases efficiency, can be added to these machines.
All fabricators must consider the need for computerization. It has become normal to use computers in business but not enough companies, especially in the window treatments industry, have brought it into the shop. Automation and computerization are key elements in running an efficient, high volume fabrication facility.
Once you reach 125+ blinds a day, complete automation is required using computer-controlled saw, headrail and wood machines. We also recommend having a manual slat punch machine to handle the inevitable replacement slats. You don't want to interrupt an automated process to make a single slat replacement.
Many businesses will grow beyond the production levels mentioned here and some will need to produce several hundred blinds per day. At this level of output, multiple machines are needed to produce the volume along with the additional lift racks, tables and storage. With the use of automation and computerization these levels can be accomplished, often without the need for multiple shifts.
Making the move into fabrication of two-inch horizontals can appear to be daunting to those who are new to it. With a well thought out plan, good organization, training and equipment and the many techniques taught in LTL International, Inc.'s free blind fabrication training seminars in Dallas, TX, it can develop into a very rewarding and profitable business.
Alan Katz is western U.S. sales and service representative for LTL International, Inc., Dallas, TX, (800) 533-3371.