SPESA Trip Report: Kathleen pt.3

Continuing from parts one and two, I found a great label printer for hang tags and care labels. The owner of Textiles South (Jay Grossman) was a bit dubious over my claims of a vast internet empire teeming with buyers but I did try to convince him you’d care about label and ticket barcode printing. This is what I plan to buy, his prices are much lower than Paxar. Stunningly so. He has a Meto Checkpoint model MN-4203 thermal printer for hang tags (price tickets) for only $475, including software. This is what you need to be compliant in larger retail environments or if you’re using fulfillment services. Textiles South sells a wide variety of apparel related papers, everything from pattern and plotter paper to scored label sheets you can feed through a laser printer to print your own sew in care labels. Last week somebody was complaining their care labels were misprinted (not the printers fault) so this would be a great solution for people who want to print labels and hang tags according to need.

One of the coolest things I saw at the show was a pattern scanner called NScan. I wasn’t real happy with the pricing person in the booth who won’t let me publish prices (people are going to figure it out) but the product was awesome. The footprint was small, maybe 8″ X 48″, on a waist high stand. You feed in the pattern piece and in a matter of seconds, the pattern is loaded on your screen complete with pattern markings, grain lines, notches, and drill holes. From there you export it to your CAD software to work with it. If you digitize a lot of patterns, there is no other way to do it and judging from their client list, a lot of people agree. As I said, I can’t tell you the price but let’s say that compared to what you pay the average human digitizer in annual salary, you could buy four of these so I just don’t know why it’s such a big secret when it’s such a competitive advantage. The company (n-hega) also has a camera digitizing version. This cost about 25% less than the scanner. For my money, I’d go with the scanner over the camera. n-hega had another stand-alone competitor at the show who charged more (even with their show “special”) but I misplaced their info.

[amended] I forgot to mention one of the things I like best about the pattern scanner. You don’t need a CAD system or ever intend to get one in order to have need of the scanner. Look at it this way, if you have hard copy patterns and need to send those to a grading service for grading and marking, you can scan the patterns instead and email the file. Otherwise, you’re either out the use of your patterns while you ship them to the service -or- you have to trace everything off onto marker paper, transcribing any notes and notations -in which errors or omissions are certain to be made. Too bad the local Kinko’s don’t have these scanners so you can rent time on them. I can see these being useful in many industries, not just apparel. Also, unless I’m mistaken, it will scan fabric pieces as patterns (disassembled garments). The only problem is if the pattern of the goods creates a moire effect. It will also scan in designs which can be manipulated to overlay on pattern pieces so you can see what a design effect (like sublimation) will look like.

There were other companies offering camera scanning options. Another was Digiflash offered by Audaces, a Brazilian firm. Audaces is also a CAD program. By the way, I liked their program. The translation to Spanish was very good. They get my underdog vote. I hope they’re doing well in Latin America at least. Brazilians are cool, fun people (and throw the best parties). This program got Eric’s vote (his specialty is optics so he’d know). He said the system (with a built in board to shoot from) was best in eliminating potential distortion or finagling scale.

If you’re interested in the camera digitizing option, CadShot (I wrote about before) is still around which costs about 25% less than the NScan photo digitizing set up (prices do get out). The whole concept of digitizing via photography has been around awhile and there seems to be quite a few options. Speaking of, I found an explanation of how to digitize via photography on Fashion Cad. I don’t know that the latter program really is an industrial level program so don’t ask. However, if the photo digitizing element of their program was the only facet of their program that worked, it’d still be the lowest cost option of any of the photo digitizing programs.

Speaking of apparel related software, Apparel Magazine puts out a software scorecard (free but registration required). They don’t decide who’s best, users do. You might want to look it over before making a purchase. Speaking of, Vesta bought an ERP system from FrogFish. She promises to write about it. Speaking of the scorecard, TukaTech fans won’t be surprised to learn that this CAD system was rated first in five of six categories (and second in the one they weren’t first in). I’ve semi committed to buying one from them but haven’t signed on the dotted line (I’m waiting for my new computer to arrive so there’s no rush to load it yet). I just can’t get over how competitive all of the CAD packages are. Humberto (Patternworks) told me that all of the systems these days are very good so it could come down to package pricing as it seems to be a buyer’s market. Well, a buyer’s market if you can get the CAD company to return your calls :). Some won’t unless you want to install 25-50 stations.

I did have a good time visiting with Tukatech (CAD). The relative new kid on the block, they have a confidence beyond their years. They’re not hungry, scrabbling for business, but as Ram said, they’re picking off one customer everyday from their competitors. It’s a numbers game and they don’t seem to be in a hurry. I was hoping they’d be hungrier (so the system would cost less) but they’re right in there with everyone else although they don’t needle you with packages parceling everything out. The full package (not including the 3D option) is $7,500. Also, they do lease their systems. It costs $200-$250 a month with a three month minimum. After that you go month to month. I think that is a great way to try out a CAD system. If you don’t like it, you’re not stuck with it. My only sticking point right now is a plotter. I’m getting a lot of conflicting advice on that.

Below is a picture of Ram and Iva, owners of Tukatech.

They’re originally from India and went to college together. Ram’s family was in manufacturing there but he took off for Canada to make his own way. Two weeks after he got there, alone and poor ($200 to his name), he proposed to Iva over the phone so she joined him. It was a bit of a scandal in those days because she comes from a royal family. Iva is the beauty and the brains behind the operation and I do mean brains. Originally a physicist, she became the first female Asian attorney licensed to practice in Canada. Ram originally worked in sales (no surprise there) with Gerber in Canada. Moving up in the organization, he transfered to the Los Angeles office. After that he retired. After he retired, he drove his kids and wife utterly out of their minds. His kids stopped taking his calls until he agreed to go back to work and Tukatech is the result. Boy, I’ll bet Gerber now wishes they’d had a non-compete with him. Iva transitioned out of her law practice to cover the R&D side of the business (although personable, she’s not a people person and reminds me of someone else I know ~whistling~). I didn’t get pictures of the rest of the Tukatech team (what was I thinking?) but I had a great time with Boris (from Russia, head of patterns) and Jason (sales).

Oh, that reminds me. Tukatech is lower cost in one respect: free training. That matters. Everybody else charges for that. I’d heard wild stories about the costs of Gerber’s training but it ended up being $1,500 for 40 hours of classroom time and $1,000 for each additional person from your company. I didn’t get a quote from Lectra. I don’t think Gerber’s price is bad for professional level training. I mean, it’s not cheap but apparel manufacturers spend the least on the training and education of their employees than any other class of manufacturing. I’d argue that it shows too. Maybe if people weren’t so cheap, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are. And don’t nod in agreement, smugly thinking you’re not cheap. If you haven’t bought my book, you are. If you’re visiting this site, you do need it.

Okay, now I’m going to talk about my favoritest toy I saw at the show. This is entirely (mostly) gratuitous, few of you will be interested in buying it although I may get some google traffic from posting on it. Read through it anyway, there’s a pattern making and sewing thing I have to mention that you’ll find handy. The skinny: Gerber had a computerized leather cutter called the Taurus “with pivex technology”. I’m going to tell you the price and you’re going to think it’s high but I’ll cost it all out for you. It costs $125K. If you want to make quality leather goods in the US in no time at all, this is the ticket.

This machine is targeted towards the upholstery and automotive side of the leather sewing industry (I’m guessing that’s where the money is) but all this means is that the machine bed is large enough to scan an entire cow hide in one pass (single station machine measures 3 by 7.4 meters). You lay the marked hide on the table (by marking, I mean you’ve taken a white wax pencil and marked holes or other areas you want to avoid laying pattern pieces into) and smooth it down. Suction holds it in place. An electronic head traverses the hide, reads the markings and transfers the size, shape, dimensions and flawed areas onto the station’s computer screen. Not only that, gawd they’re good, you can mark areas of the hide as varying levels as being too stretchy for cutting certain parts. For example, you never want to cut facings on the axilaries (“arm pits” of the animal) but those areas can be advantageous for undercollars. Once you have the hide loaded, you lay out your pieces or have the computer do it for you. Then, the head comes down, knife unsheathed and cuts it all out. Fast. The salesmen said the knives have to be replaced fairly often (not quite daily assuming non stop cutting) and that they cost $12 each but they start you out with 100 of them.

Now, I’m the first in line when it comes to being skeptical about accurate automated leather cutting. Previously, all the machines were itty bitty tiny, mostly for shoe leathers using itty bitty hides. Those shoe cutting people were awfully proud of their machines but they were useless for garments. Shoe leathers are stiffer, they’re more easily cut. Softer leathers -like fabric- are harder to cut accurately. Gerber trumpets a zero buffer between pieces as compared to dies but really, that’s not the big deal. Gerber had some samples of what their machine would do (it was operating on site). Here’s a photo of sample cuts (now we’re getting to the sewing thing):

Above is a photo of a piece belonging to a side arm rest. Note those “v”‘s cut out on the right? Maybe you’d call those notches -technically they are wedges- but we’ll call them notches for simplicity’s sake. This piece above has a lot of notches. Now, typically leather dies have even fewer notches than notches on patterns for fabrics. That’s because a die maker has to bend those things into shape and having too many is costly. Another thing, usually, leather notches go out, not in, they kind of look like the notches on home sewing patterns (leather die photos, scroll down). With an automated cutter, notches are “free” so you can have as many as you like. If you’ve read the book I wrote, you’ve seen the section on production pattern making and realize why you shouldn’t have so many notches regardless of price…so why do I think these are a good thing now? It’s not because they’re free, it’s because they’re providing a function in the sewing process.

When you’re seaming leather, regardless of the machine you’re using, that seam line will stretch while you sew, there’s no way around it. The seam line grows as does the area of outer seam allowance and cut edge. Now, in leather sewing, when you’re turning a seam inside out, you have to cut some wedges away. It’s not like fabric. Even a straight seam on leather will lie flatter if you either snip all the way to the thread line (but then edges overlap) or cut out a few wedges. In summary, the automated cutter actually saves you sewing (trimming) time by cutting out the wedgies beforehand. Cool huh?

Now let’s talk about cost. 125,000 dollars is a lot of money, no doubt but compared to the price of die making, it makes domestic leather production possible again. What makes leather goods so costly isn’t really the hides, it’s not the sewing, it’s the cutting. For the first time, technological advances are creating a domestic advantage when we’d lost it, it’s all gone off-shore. Die making -particularly for small lots- is impossible in the US now. I got a quote for a fringe block measuring 8.5″ x 8″ a couple of years ago for about $1,000 which I thought was a total rip-off, the quote they give to girls. The cutter’s must of style 21117 (pictured here) takes 28 different dies per size. You can do the math. Unless you employ your own die maker, die making just isn’t tenable in the US anymore. Even 15 years ago, a set of dies for a style like 21117 ran over $5,000 to make in house. Die making doesn’t include the pattern making either. I don’t know what that costs these days. I’m the only leather die pattern maker I know and I haven’t done a job like this in several years. Anyway, with this cutter, you don’t need dies. Assuming a pattern runs $500-$850, you can load it and cut this thing in a matter of minutes. Your sample will take a couple of hours to sew. If an operation had it together, this machine would pay for itself inside of a year. And I haven’t even discussed the problems of using humans and their potentiality for error in the cutting out of the hides -to say nothing of having to buy a 20 ton press to cut those dies out in the first place. I wonder how it’d cut fringe blocks? Boy, that’d be a sight to see. I should call them up and bug them about that. By the way, Gerber is definitely not paying me for this review. Hopefully they don’t get mad that I posted their pricing.

Obviously, I’m sold. I think it’s a great deal, you could not get any leaner in lean manufacturing than with this. If I had the customers and a good sample stitcher or two, I’d look into financing a purchase like this. Also, if you’re thinking of getting into leather production, hire me. I’m cheap and I love the work. If apparel manufacturing in general is heavily male dominated, leather is almost exclusively so. The perception being you can’t work with leather unless you can stand up to pee. Silly, no? I beat the boys hands down and I’m cuter too.

Below is another sample cut, demonstrating what the machine can do. Obviously, somebody was having some fun. The piece is wrinkled from being wadded in my suitcase, it’s not the cutting. I should have ironed it first.

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  1. Kathleen says:

    I’ve managed to piss off a potential advertiser. Not that it’s any surprise to those near and dear :).

    Yep, Alyssa from n-hega wrote me (the makers of that awesome awesome pattern scanner, the pattern equivalent of the best thing since sliced bread), bent out of shape that I wrote saying I didn’t like her pricing policy.

    While I do regret she was unhappy (really) and I do regret losing a potential advertiser (somewhat but not as much as the former) if I start writing to the dictates of advertisers -like everyone else does- I’d be bored out of my mind and wouldn’t want to read this site much less write it so why would anyone else want to read it either?

  2. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    Sorry she was upset…maybe she’ll get over it and realize how cool this site really is. *I* wouldn’t read it if it were boring. I think it’s really wonderful that you got to see all those neat gadgets. Some day, some day…

  3. Dalila says:

    I actually didn’t notice anything about it being a bad pricing policy. Oh well. Haven’t they heard about any review being a good reveiw?

    I like your enthusiasm for the leather cutter. It does sound very useful and I hadn’t thought about the actual making of a whole coat. Yeah, I only make wallets but I’ve noticed the variations like you mentioned. Very interesting!

    I’ve been enjoying these posts, Kathleen! Neat stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Eric H says:

    I’m not sure the Audaces system was the best, they were simply the only ones who mentioned it. The others think that they have taken optical distortion out by requiring the use of an overhead shot of a flat table a fixed distance away. I don’t know how – or if – they address lens and perspective distortions. Maybe they do, but I didn’t ask anyone else.

  5. Colleen says:

    Wow, I had to re-read the section about n-hega to try to understand Alyssa’s dissatisfaction. It’s a glowing product review with one slight comment re: their pricing policy. Aw, c’mon Alyssa. It’s important for DE’s to know what products/services cost. Kathleen certainly implied that the cost was reasonable. One of my favorite reviews on this site was for Patternworks, specifically because they did include services offered and pricing.

  6. Cymru Llewes says:

    Customers for leather goods?

    Make armored leather gear for female motorcyclists. It is 90% impossible for women to find leather armor that fits them. I got lucky and bought a pair of Vansons leather that are wide enough in the hips and don’t float too terribly much around my waist. However wearing them with the side pockets zipped creates an uncomfortable athletic cup effect.

    More and more people are saying they are offering women’s riding gear but you can’t prove it by the rest of us. I do mean serious riding gear. Not Harley Davidson riding gear.

  7. nadine says:

    That leather cutter is an awesome piece of machinery. I think I saw the earlier version some years back at Bobbin or in NYC once upon a time when they still showed equipment here.

    FYI on steel dies – the price is going through the roof because the cost of steel is going through the roof. I buy osborne leather tools and normally I only buy what I need on a project and never buy tools I don’t need yet but due to the steel prices and osborne prices going up every year on their tools it pays to buy whatever I think I might need this year rather than wait until next year for a several dollar price increase.

    Just for those who never had a steel die made – a tiny steel die (cheap kind with wood backing and knife edge) for a wrist cuff side piece would be about $25.00 so you can imagine what a die for a garment would cost and if you go all steel then it is hugely more expensive. We have a die maker left in NYC who gives 24 hour turn around if you are looking for smaller dies – Continental Die.

  8. Kathleen says:

    Hi Cymru

    Customers for leather goods? Make armored leather gear for female motorcyclists. It is 90% impossible for women to find leather armor that fits them.

    When I say customer, I don’t mean the end user or consumer. I mean manufacturers, B2B. I know there are consumers who will pay $1,000-$1,200 for a jacket but I don’t deal well with people and couldn’t handle the hassle of custom clothing customers (some can be pretty arrogant and self important, thinking they own you). You don’t make much on one-shot deals so I’d have to charge them more than manufacturer customers because manufacturers would be repeat customers. However, if *you* wanted to manufacture these jackets you describe, you could be my customer :).

  9. Adam Alpern says:

    Good lord, what a device! (I’m talking about the Taurus, of course).

    And what *is* it with the sewn good industry? Where did all the incredibly thin skins come from? And the reluctance to move into the modern era? From the perspective of someone used to an entirely different sales/customer service arena (my day job is in software development), it seems, well….childish.

  10. J C Sprowls says:

    It is childish behavior, Adam. And, it’s not limited to only the sewn products industry, it exists in others.

    I had a conversation with my boss, yesterday, because I have preconceived notions about hiding your prices. She said her opinion was that it breaks down into two main categories: a) your product requires a lot of customized configuration, so pricing requires detailed analysis, and b) the marketing department believes that with their “stellar skills” they can sell more than you think you need.

    Her opinion is similar to mine, luckily (it’s good to be of like mind with your boss). In any event, a piece of hardware is a piece of hardware if the price isn’t publishable, then it might fluctuate depending on what the salesperson thinks you can afford, how much commission they need to earn, etc (i.e. a car).

    While this particular company has a kick-a$$ product, their marketing team is standing in the way to making deals by not disclosing the cost on their website. When customers are shopping for hardware, features are about 20% of the deciding factor. Most of the buying decision is price, let’s face it, there are any number of hardware options that will obtain the same result – some with a little more work effort to operate than others.

  11. Eric H says:

    When I go out to buy hardware and run into that kind of secretive behavior, alarms immediately go off in my head. I figure they’re either angling to get me into the high pressure room, or there are some hidden costs (the proprietary power plug is an additional $599), or some other nefarious reason I haven’t figured out. And I don’t intend to find out the hard way. Even if they reassure me, I start to wonder about the post-sales support. If they can’t tell me how much it costs up front, what are the odds that it will be easy to get a manual or training or any number of things that I need because they’re afraid of the competition?

    I suspect in this case it was immaturity or lack of confidence. I noticed them scouting their competition and suspect that the competition probably returned the favor. Given that the competition has figured out the pricing by now, the only reason not to publish your price is that you don’t think the customers will know a good deal when they see it.

    If you want to see what good customer support looks like (pre- and post-sales), go look at Dallas Semiconductor (Maxim). You can look at any product, spec sheet, and application note, and even order evaluation kits and free samples from their website. They also happen to be very successful – is it because of or in spite of the way they give away information? I’d argue the former.

  12. anne says:

    Kathleen, readers have suggested in the past that you write a sewing book. Do you know how many books there are for home sewers describing sewing leather? There’s about three, and they’re all from the 60s and 70s – and they have very limited information, very little applicable to modern styles.

    I’ve learnt more reading this column than I have in all the books and articles I’ve managed to find on leather sewing.

    Awesome :-)

  13. Ken Milam says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    Porous plastic is used as the cutting surface for many static cutting tables but I hear horror stories about replacement costs. I also hear that the actual replacement of the surface is problematic.

    I’d like to design and build an improved cutting surface for these static machines that is less expensive and better optimized for in situ replacement. Do you know any cutting table owners in the southeast who are interested in working with a porous plastic manufacturer to develop an improved system?

    Ken Milam

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