NEW YORK — Apparel and home furnishings manufacturers, many of whom had held off on major equipment purchases, are digging for their wallets. The reasons, accord-ing to vendors that supply them, are as diverse as they are logical.
Major vendors of cutters and spreaders said a robust economy is perhaps the prime underlying reason for the surge in equipment purchases. Many manufacturers who had put off large capital expenditures during the lingering recession are saddled with aging machines that want replacement.
“We are backlogged with orders for our highest-ply cutter, especially for denim,” said Mahlon Saibel, director of world marketing for Tolland, Conn.-based Gerber Garment Technology. “The big companies had held off on making capital investments for a while.”
“Our business in computer-controlled cutting machines is booming,” added David Siegelman, president of Marietta, Ga.-based Lectra Systems. “It’s up on both high-ply and low-ply.”
Siegelman, however, attributed the pent-up demand for cutting and spreading equipment to other factors. The reasons, he said, have more to do with trade agreements than the age of the installed base.
“People were cutting high-ply manually because they were afraid to invest,” he said. “The economy was bad, and they were afraid imports would make their plants uncompetitive.”
The North American Free Trade Agreement and provisions of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, however, have allayed their fears, according to Siegelman. He said manufacturers now feel confident that piece goods cut in the United States and sewn in Latin America can compete with Asian imports.
“Now, because of NAFTA and 807, manufacturers know they can cut here and sew in Mexico and the Caribbean,” he said. “And that confidence, along with a better economy, is translating into equipment purchases.”

The QR Effect
Trade issues and the economy aside, machine vendors say there is another issue driving the placement of their wares. And it’s one that represents a 180-degree turn in the way manufacturers and retailers do business.
Quick Response initiatives mean smaller, more frequent orders for manufacturers’ cutting rooms and third-party cutters. QR has caused a surge of interest in low-ply cutters and computer-controlled “smart” machinery.
“We’re committed to single- and low-ply cutting because the future is in Quick Response,” said Dick Kaseler, director of marketing at Marblehead, Mass.-based Cutting Edge. “Everything is just-in-time demand manufacturing. The trend is toward lower volume and lower inventory. Manufacturers aren’t cutting piece goods until they have orders in hand.”
Kaseler used markets served by Russell Athletic as an example of the different niches the low-ply and single-ply cutters it manufacturers are geared toward.
“Russell Athletic uses single-ply cutters to cut professional baseball uniforms to order for specific players,” he said. “Low-ply cutters would be used for the off-the-rack versions of the same uniforms you find in sporting goods stores.”
Lectra’s Siegelman said off-the-rack uniforms account for just one of the many niche markets apparel makers use low-ply cutters for.
“The people buying our low-ply cutters are small- and mid-sized niche businesses,” he said. “They make everything from softball uniforms for company teams to work clothes. Atlantic City hotels or courier services often want unique uniforms for their employees.”
Kaseler said Levi Strauss & Co. is using Cutting Edge’s single-ply cutters for an even more specific application: made-to-order jeans for women. Levi’s is currently testing that program in the Cincinnati market. Women who want a personalized fit can pick up jeans that are cut and sewn to order within a week of their fitting.
Although the Levi’s program is an extreme example of just-in-time manufacturing, Kaseler said apparel makers of all sizes are responding to smaller and smaller orders as Quick Response is quickly becoming the order of business in the apparel industry.
“Even the big Gerber machines that were cutting 200-ply two years ago are cutting 50-ply today — and the Lectra machines that were cutting 50-ply are cutting 20,” he said.
Saibel said Gerber, the market leader in cutting-room equipment sales in the United States, is broadening its product line to reflect changes in order sizes brought about by Quick Response.
“The trend is toward smaller, more frequent orders,” he said. “Cutters get smaller orders, they get them more often and they have less time to produce them. They need lower-ply cutting machines and flexible machines that can switch from one fabric to another and cut accordingly.”
Lectra’s Siegelman downplayed the effect of Quick Response on cutting rooms, especially those of large apparel makers.
“Big companies still buy mostly high-ply cutters,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re not involved in QR. They just serve so many retailers that they can pool orders. When they do buy our low-ply machines, it’s usually for making samples and prototypes.”
Siegelman added, however, that companies executing orders in smaller quantities because of Quick Response are especially concerned about time. Prepping both cutting and spreading machines can be a hurdle when several orders are spread and cut within a day. He said pre-programmed, easy-to-use machines with memory of specifications for different fabrics and garments are helping apparel makers clear that hurdle.
“New technology is making low-ply cutting cost effective,” he said. “Customers want ease of operation because most of their operators are fairly unskilled. We’ve designed control system that uses a rollerball the way most people use a mouse. The machine operators can just roll over to an icon of the garment they want to cut and the specs for that garment will be loaded into the cutting machine.”
Such simple controls save prep time and minimize mistakes in programming the cutter that can result in incorrectly cut cloth.
“On a cutter, there are about 10 different parameters you can cut,” Seigelman explained. “But if an operator with one of the rollerball systems gets a cutting ticket for cotton, he just clicks on that icon and the unit sets the parameters for him. That translates into less training and fewer mistakes.”
Lectra has interfaced its computer-aided design systems with its spreaders to make programming the latter machines easier.
“We were the first company to introduce a system whereby the markers are done on the CAD system,” he said. “The system outputs the data on a card similar to a credit card, which is then inserted into the spreader.”
Lectra introduced its “Progress” model spreader at Bobbin last year and has made numerous placements. Siegelman said the computerized system saves users fabric by spreading more accurately.
Smooth interfacing between CAD systems and spreading and cutting equipment is also a major concern of Kuris users, according to Joe Boes, technical manager at the Tucker, Ga.-based vendor.
“The machines are becoming more automated,” he said. “There’s a need to ease up on the work for the spreading operator. Electronically monitored systems are necessary so the operators don’t have to put out markers and mark sections of fabric.
Boes said the prep time involved in marking, up to half an hour per job, is especially critical in the era of Quick Response. The proliferation of small orders has stressed spreader operators who often must prepare for several jobs in a single day.
“A job can run anywhere from an hour to eight hours,” Boes said. “If an operator is running four or five jobs a day, the prep time really adds up.”
Kuris’s Boes said flexibility is also important to purchasers of spreaders. “There was a time when you had different spreading machines for different types of fabrics,” he said. “Now companies want one machine that can be used with most types of fabrics. Machines have to be more flexible.”
Debbie Flemming, spokeswoman for Buffalo, N.Y.-based Eastman Machine Co., also stressed flexibility.
“Our machines are able to cut and spread a variety of fabrics on one machine,” she said.
Flemming said users are especially concerned with fabric waste and are demanding more accurate machines. “We’re expecting more orders this year, but people are still frugal even with the economy improving,” she said. “They’re careful and do a lot of planning before they put equipment in — and they won’t put equipment in if they don’t expect a return on their investment.”
Lectra’s Siegelman agreed that fabric waste is a major factor when manufacturers evaluate spreaders. “More accurate spreaders are saving fabric,” he said.
Gerber’s Saibel agreed that saving fabric is a prime concern. “Improving material utilization is important in the design of spreaders,” he said. “More accurate spreaders can improve fabric utilization by 2 to 4 percent.
Again, the smaller orders brought about by Quick Response complicate the situation.
“You can lose an inch or two per ply of material,” Saibel explained. “This becomes more important as the markers become smaller, and markers are getting smaller as orders get smaller. If you lose an inch on every three-yard marker, that adds up to a lot more than if you lose an inch on every nine-yard marker.”
Quick Response is increasing demands on cutting rooms, he added. “Nobody wants spreading and cutting to delay manufacturing.”