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CAD and the Little Guy

Small manufacturers and designers find CAD systems are within their reach

NEW YORK — Computer-aided-design systems are proving too useful even for small, budget-conscious manufacturers and independent designers to ignore.

“It’s a major high when you can start working at the pace you’re thinking,” said Lauren Siller, who operates a one-woman design firm called Coloring Book out of her apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. “There’s no turning back once you start using a CAD system. I could never do without it now.”

Siller bought her CAD system only a year ago, and she had no prior experience working with computers. Her situation, however, isn’t unusual. She’s is part of a growing number of smaller companies who are finding that CAD is a competitive as well as a creative necessity.

“I’m seeing far more independent designers and small companies jumping on board,” commented Alison Grudier, a Boston-based CAD consultant.

“You can’t get into design today and think you don’t have to be CAD literate,” added Teri Ross, a consultant with Minnetonka, Minn.-based Imagine That Publications. “Everyone under 30 is.”

Santa Rosa, Calif.-based home furnishings manufacturer Pommes & Pomegranates, installed a Modacad system last month. But the fact that the company’s sole designer hasn’t learned the system yet — she’ll be trained on it in the coming months — hasn’t kept Pommes from putting the system to use.

“Our designer makes paintings, and I scan her designs into the computer,” said Mary Carrol, director of design imaging at Pommes. “Then I can use the system to make repeat designs and alter the color palette. Once our designer is trained on the system, she’ll mix painting with design work done directly on the computer.”

Ingleman Design, a small Hutchinson, Minn.-based textile design firm, has had its CAD system for two years. Ingleman purchased its software first — a move CAD consultant Ross said is wise — and then put together the hardware to support it.

“We bought software first,” said Karin Colberg, a textile designer at Ingleman. “Then the software vendor recommended the hardware that we needed and we went out and purchased it. We started with one Macintosh 900 workstation and a big color copier that doubles as a scanner and printer. But within a year, we purchased two Macintosh Quadra workstations.”

Those workstations include 20-inch color monitors and Macintosh IIci computers with extended keyboards.

Despite Pommes’ eagerness to move to a combination of scanned art and art designed directly on the computer, Ingleman is more than satisfied using the system to manipulate paintings that are scanned into the system.

“We have a drawing tablet, but designs are usually scanned into the computer,” Ingleman’s Colberg said. “Once it’s in, we can minipulate the colors and the design. The system is used mostly for coloration.”

Tom Wilson, owner of Indianapolis-based leotard manufacturer Major Motion, said his company moved to a CAD system in January. Major Motion’s designer, however, is alreay up to speed on the system.

“Our designer didn’t even know how to turn on a computer, and now she’s fluent in the system,” he said. “We’ve saved a huge amount of time in pattern making. What we could do in 30 minutes on the design system would have taken three hours by hand.”

The company is adding a second workstation now, according to Wilson.

Consultant Alison Grudier said pen-and-tablet technology has made CAD systems even more attractive to artists who were reluctant to make the switch.

“The advent of pen-based systems about a year and a half ago made CAD even more accessible,” she said. “Designers are used to using pens. It’s not a big transition.”

Despite the ease of use of the newer systems, sources say there are a good many designers out there who still are not proficient in their use.

“I interview designers all day, and I’m not finding that a great percentage of them are CAD literate,” a source at a major children’s wear manufacturer said. “Most children’s wear designers just don’t have CAD systems.”

Julie Smith, a designer at Cincinnati-based Gillman Knitwear, said they’ll be a period of trial and error before she and Gillman’s other designer become fully proficient on the CAD systems that company purchased from Cadtex two months ago.

“It will take us six to eight months to get comfortable,” she said. “It’s based on an easy-to-use Windows program, but the vendor still has to teach you to use it. Eventually, designers develop some of their own ways of doing things.”

Smith said the apparel line Gillman is currently working on is “more than halfway complete,” so transferring that information to the computerized system for completion doesn’t make much sense. “We’ll begin working on the new line in July, and will do at least part of it on the CAD system,” she added.

Smith said a major advantage of CAD will be the ability to test color combinations without making painstaking paintings.

“We’re a separates retailer, so we have to get second and third color combinations to get sales,” she explained. “Before, we made a lot of color judgements only by thinking them out. Now we’ll be able to see them on the screen and on paper.

“When you have two color combinations in sweaters, you can do a lot more mixing and matching.”

Consultant Grudier said the abilty to play with color combinations on screen is one of the major reasons designers purchase CAD systems, adding the users generally focus on that application first.

“Print re-coloring is one of the fastest things to get going with when you move to a CAD system,” she said. “Spec sheets and data management are tougher, and body measurements and trim information is extremely idosyncratic.”

Consultant Ross said desingers who are daunted by the technology should remember that they need only know a portion of the applications of a system by heart.

“Determine the tasks that are most important,” she said. “Eight percent of your work will be done with 20 percent of the software.”

Showing Off

But uses for CAD systems go beyond design, and those non-design applications are making the systems increasingly attractive to small companies.

Gillman’s Smith said her CAD system is doing double duty. Though the company has yet to use the systems to produce actual designs, slick presentations produced on it are already helping Gillman get its foot in the door with many large retailers.

“CAD presentations are a must if you are going to go after the JC Penney’s and Federateds,” Smith said. “In order to operate in their circles, your presentations have to be strong.”

Improving presentations was one of the major reasons Pommes & Pome-granates installed a CAD system. The system lets Pommes’ Carrol take new fabric designs and lay them over a computer image of an existing bedding ensemble. Even the shadows from the original photograph are produced on the bogus image. Pommes sales reps use the resulting pictures to test retailer reactions to ensembles before they take the costly step of going into production.

“We can show clients pictures of a bedding ensemble that doesn’t really exist yet,” Carrol said. “The system lets us test market a design before we go out and purchase fabric and go into production. When we show customers original artwork and a fabricated picture of how it will look when it’s actually produced as a bed ensemble, they just say ‘wow.”‘

Coloring Book’s Siller, however, said she has run into some resistance showing designs produced on computers to prospective clients. Her experience contradicts the view of the children’s wear vendor who cultivates relationships with CAD-literate designers, and illustrates the gulf in CAD proficiency that exists between designers.

“Customers used to working with paintings are obnoxious when it comes to CAD,” she said. “I have to explain to them that the computer image comes closer to the actual engraving than a painting does.”

Colberg said Ingleman has encountered similar problems and, consequently, relies on both computer art and paintings when making presentations to prospective clients.

“Some customers aren’t used to looking at computer designs, so we have to make paintings for them,” she said. “It’s definately a concern when we go out a sell customers.”

Sales presentations aside, the systems also have some drawbacks for the graphic artists themselves. Many systems don’t produce curved lines, and designs can appear as if they were drawn on an Etch-A-Sketch.

“A lot of pixels show up on your design, so there’s a lot of cleaning up we have to do on the computer,” Colberg said.

Coloring Book’s Siller said the problem is not acute. “Cleaning up scanned paintings is no problem,” she said, adding that scanned fabric images require a bit more attention.

Siller said she originally had a hard time cleaning up scanned fabric images. “I was doing it incorrectly for quite awhile,” she said. “Then I went to the software company with the problem, and they showed me how to do it right. It just goes to show that the CAD system is only as good as the operator. The software was fine.”

Dollars & Sense

The cost of getting into CAD varies dramatically, depending on whether you go with a custom hardware/software package or go it alone with off-the-shelf software and standard hardware.

Fear of technology and the desire to rely on one source drive most users to custom systems. Though they are significantly more expensive than off-the-shelf options, many users are willing to pay a premium for the security of support and regular upgrades. And the systems are getting less expensive.

“We are starting to see the prices of custom systems go down,” Grudier said. “They’re a good 20 percent lower than they were last year and vendors are now lowering prices on second and third workstations when you pay full price for the first. They’ve realized that support and training costs are lower to bring the additional workstations on line, and that’s starting to reflect in the price. Many companies could afford three systems now when they could afford only one just three years ago.”

Major Motion’s Wilson said slightly lower prices and an increase in production at his company made CAD a viable option for him this year. Major Motion’s CAD system is linked to computer-aided manufacturing. The company has CAD systems and cutting machines from Lectra Systems.

“Five years ago, we weren’t big enough to invest in CAD systems,” he explained.

A burgeoning business prompt-ed him to make the move. Major Motion’s sales grew from $230,000 in 1991 to $1.2 million last year. With projected sales of $2 million for 1994, Wilson said volumes made the decision for him.

“We were cutting everything by hand,” Wilson said. “I had to ask myself whether we should hire two more people to do the cutting or buy the new machines.”

The systems were installed in January, and the effect on production was even evident in applictions that are not done on the systems. “There’s been a hugh increase in productivity in sewing,” he continued. “We saw a 15 percent increase in productivity because of the accuracy of cutting.”

More accurate cutting has meant less wasted fabric. “We saw a substantial increase in fabric yield,” he said. “We expected to gain 2/3 of an inch per garment, but the savings exceeded that.”

Since Gillman Knitwear’s apparel is manufacturerd abroad, the company did not need to link its CAD systems to computer-aided manufacturing.

“Our systems are not linked to plotters for pattern making,” Smith said. “Because we import, our system is strictly a design system.”

Necessity being the mother of invention, Smith has already figured out an inexpensive way to produce patterns on the system. The system permits her to print a pattern in pieces at actual size. Those pieces can be configured at the foreign factory where patterns could be produced from them.

Gillman cut the size of its capital investment in CAD without cutting corners on quality. Both the company’s CAD worksations were purchased from Cadtex, but the second employs a portable computer that can connect with the other full workstation when output is desired.

“We didn’t have to buy two full systems,” Gillman’s Smith said. “The second is a portable that can plug into the main system. With a little bit of inconvenience, we can get two people up and running. And we didn’t want both of our desingers to have to share a single system.”

The company also saved money by purchasing a multifunction copier. The Canon unit functions as a color copier, a printer and a scanner. Smith said she did her homework before committing to both software and hardware.

“I shopped a lot of years,” she said. “We started looking at CAD systems five years ago, but the machines were too slow and there were no portables then.

She admitted, however, that “some of the wait was because I wasn’t ready.

“You have to be doing a lot of original designs to justify the investment.” She said Gillman could have shaved 20 percent off the cost of its CAD system by purchasing the necessary hardware on its own. The company decided otherwise because it wanted to have the security of going to Cadtex for support if there were problems with either the hardware or the software.

“Cadtex gives you the option to buy your own equipment and will even tell you what you need to get, but I wanted less hassels,” Smith explained. “If there’s a problem, I want to be able to go one place for answers.”

“If you’re a small company, it’s better to pay the price and get it right the first time,” Major Motion’s Wilson said. “I have an extensive computer background, but I still felt uncomfortable going out and configuring a system myself. Gerber Garment Technologies and Lectra Systems have very good software.”

Like many purchasers of custom systems, Major Motion purchased a maintenance contract on its combination CAD/CAM system — a cost Wilson’s willing to swallow.

“My maintenance agreement costs me 16,000 a year, and I don’t like that, but it’s an insurance policy on my cutters. You’re paying to be first on the list if there’s a problem with the system. And I know that if my system goes down, manufacuturing will slow down.”

Maintenance contracts also en-sure users software upgrades as the technology improves and glitches are worked out of the software.

Despite the security of purchasing custom systems, Imagine That’s Ross is full of pointers for independent designers and small manufacturers who choose to get into CAD without vendor hand holding.

“Users are paying a very high price for not wanting to go out and configure a system themselves,” she said. “If you are only doing cut and sew, then there’s no need to go out and purchase a custom system.

“You want to get the fastest processor you can buy — at least a 486 — because graphics take a long time to be drawn on the screen,” she said.

Ross also suggest a central processing unit with at least eight and ideally 16 megabytes of RAM. “That will let you run more software applications at one time,” she explained.

Ross said users can also save money by purchasing a color ink-jet printer rather than a laser unit. She said the ink-jet is sufficient for proofing designs and added that users can go to service bureaus like Kinko’s Copiers to produce high-resolution prints for presentations.

She stressed, however, that users should run a color test on the service bureau’s printer because values will likely vary from those they see on the proofs they produce in house and on the computer screen itself.

“The color issue is a universal frustration,” Ross said. “What you see on the screen is not what you’re going to get.”