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Considering automation in your shop? Read this first

July 1st, 2018 / By: / Interior, Shop Techniques

Tecsew Ltd. uses a Blackman and White Genesis conveyor cutting system and fabric feeder. The fabric feeder moves the fabric to keep it lined up with the datum on the conveyor. This model replaced a basic flatbed cutter from Blackman and White the company used for 10 years. Photos: Tecsew Ltd.

Automation continues to play an increasingly important role in everyday life. Its potential effect on a marine fabricator’s workplace has, unsurprisingly, become a focus of both research and reality. The topic can become a bit like playing 20 Questions: What jobs will or won’t be replaced by machines? Which equipment will serve as the best substitute for measuring, patterning, cutting and fabricating? Where do you start sourcing the right equipment? When should you start considering automation and, perhaps more important, why?

At Sand Sea and Air, we use Excel spreadsheets to calculate yardage and to track material expenses and production time. We also find Trello, a free task management software program, to be helpful. However, we have yet to adopt many of the automatic systems described in this article. Like many fabricators, we are currently studying our options and I hope this article provides some additional food for thought.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Names like Eastman® (cutters), Prodim (Proliner) and Carlson (software) promise to generate greater efficiencies in marine shops around the globe. Automation replaces routine or repetitive tasks such as taking measurements, developing patterns and ordering materials. This increases efficiency and can free up time to develop innovative design concepts that encourage creativity and problem solving based on clients’ requests.

Automation of specific work activities has been a solution for marine shops that struggle with finding and training employees. Some business owners favor investing in equipment rather than in employees who come with no warranties or guaranteed years of service.

Darren Arthur of Nautilux Custom Canvas started with simple 2-D photogrammetry four years ago. He now uses a 3-D laser system for measuring and a Proliner 3-D system for patterning in conjunction with Rhino CAD modeling software. These tools allow him to work alone safely at the marina to pattern a full enclosure or complex shapes. Photo: Darren Arthur.

However, given the up-front costs and management requirements of automation, it’s an investment that also comes with risks and challenges. Continual improvements and digital enhancements can mean that a significant outlay becomes outdated more quickly than planned.

Automating specific tasks means fabricators will have to grapple with the tricky business of redefining employee roles. Additionally, there isn’t a single machine that magically does everything in the shop—measuring, pattern layout and cutting are tasks that require different types of sophisticated equipment.

Learning the nuances of CAD (computer-aided design) programs and other pieces of equipment can be overwhelming. Most brands of sewing machines are now considered a minor hurdle in the vast assortment of automated offerings. Shop owners need to keep an eye on the speed and direction of automation, for starters, and then determine where, when and how much to invest.

Using 3-D photogrammetry allows Ed Skrzynski, Marco Canvas & Upholstery, to pattern faster and reach every area on a boat. He can cut a dodger and glass in about 15 minutes.

Love it or hate it, automation is the future. The extent to which fabricators embrace it will influence not only the pace of change within their companies, but also to what extent their businesses sharpen or lose their competitive edge. Experts estimate that 45 percent of work labor could be automated using current technology, and the number is growing.

Top: Point-to-point patterning with Proliner and Disto S910 laser.
Second row: Photo on left shows the old skin. Photo on right shows MPanel 3-D model of the seat.
Third Row: Left photo shows pattern with seam allowance. Right photo shows the finished product. Photos: Ed Skrzynski.
Bottom: Tecsew Ltd.’s unique 3-D design process. Photo: TecSew Ltd.
Before you pull the trigger

As you mull over the automation options for your shop, here are some points to consider:

What equipment are you going to use to get the more than 30 contact points you will need to interface with a CAD program? Does it make more sense to skip the CAD interface and instead feed the XYZ points from a laser to a tablet and then import the data into Rhino? Run all the scenarios before pulling the trigger.

Most likely you’ll want to see the points of your pattern take shape on a visual screen to know that you have taken the correct measurements. What do you need to accomplish this?

You will need plenty of time to become proficient with your CAD program. Be realistic and build this into your training and ramp-up schedule.

Jeff Hare of EZ Frame Plus, a computer program for designing and building custom boat tops, at Clearwater Canvas in Clearwater, Fla., recommends working your manual patterning process alongside the digital one you’re looking to implement. This will help you quickly understand the differences and effects of using the digital process.

Even if you’re not ready to automate tomorrow, now is the time to begin investigating which equipment will work best for your business and space. Decide which automation tasks are a priority for your shop and start putting the money aside today for this investment. The future is now and it’s time for all of us to embrace it.

Terri Madden owns Sand Sea & Air Interiors Inc. in San Juan, Puerto Rico. www.sandseaair.com.

As roles and processes get redefined, the economic benefits of automation will extend far beyond just labor savings, as you can see by the automation experiences of these marine shop owners:

Dave Diehl, owner of Diehl Marine Canvas in Port Deposit, Md., is a recent member of MFA who has had mixed success with automating his shop. He emphasizes the importance of understanding how different automation tools operate for different applications.

He had a tough time aligning a new laser plotter/cutter, and his initial large equipment purchase was a huge disappointment. It never functioned to his satisfaction, and he received little support from the manufacturer after a purchase of almost $70,000.

An important lesson Diehl learned is to know what end use you are looking for. Each piece of equipment is suitable for a specific application, be it frames, covers, cushions or enclosures. He encourages everyone to do their due diligence. He suggests learning in 2-D first and then moving over to 3-D programs. Also, he recommends that people reach out to their fellow fabricators for advice.

Ed Skrzynski uses point-to-point patterning with Proliner and a Disto S910 laser. He says this allows him
to pattern faster and reach every area on a boat, and it makes wind a non-issue. He can cut a dodger and glass in about 15 minutes. That’s how his company, Marco Canvas & Upholstery in Marco Island, Fla., grew so fast and was able to take on a lot of work. “But it is not a scratch-off ticket or an application you wave a magic wand at,” he cautions. “You have to learn, much like you spent years learning to fabricate. CAD was quicker for me, as I used it as an engineer and robotics programmer in my past career. A bonus is that all patterns are stored [in the computer]. Post-hurricane Irma, I was putting in marine patterns I already had.”

Adam Gillatt, owner of Bundoora Boat Upholstery in Victoria, Australia, says his company cuts all its boat
covers and interiors on a ProSail cutter/plotter. He uses a ProSail digitizer to digitize all of their patterns, and a Parallax CNC router to cut out cushion bases. It used to take his fastest worker eight hours to mark and cut a full interior with all the match marks. Now his employees cut a full interior in under 15 minutes and they can cut two full interiors in 20 minutes. Consider the work savings when the company averages more than 50 boats a year.

Chandler Clark of Signature CanvasMakers in Hampton, Va., has an Eastman® computerized cutting system and he loves it. The cutter is the easy (but expensive) part. He recommends that fabricators find a way to digitize (first 2-D) and learn CAD and contract their cutting. This will keep you from having an expensive machine sitting idle while you go through the CAD learning curve.

John Bland, owner of Tecsew Ltd. in Fareham, England, used to have a flatbed cutter that took up a lot of floor space. With the current conveyor system in his shop, he can cut a whole roll of fabric because it has a much smaller footprint. Much of his operation is automated. Customers can use software on the company’s website to tweak a design and make alterations to a project that would have been impossible with traditional production methods. Once alterations are made, Tecsew supplies a final 3-D drawing to the customer for approval before the Tecsew team fires up the CNC cutter and produces a custom cover. The company’s website, www.tecsew.com, features a video that provides a great overview of its operation.

Darren Arthur of Nautilux Custom Canvas in Hazlet, N.J., who has spent 25 years as a marine fabricator, is four years into his automation efforts. He started with a simple photogrammetry system for 2-D work, then began using a 3-D laser system for measuring. He now uses a Proliner 3-D system as his current go-to patterning tool. These tools allow him to work alone at the marina to safely pattern a full enclosure or complex shapes. He uses Rhino CAD (computer-aided design) modeling software and Rhino ExactFlat for flattening and optimizing the 3-D models that “come to life” on an Aeronaut plotter/cutter that he has had since 2014.

Arthur says the technology has replaced the work of several employees, which has been extremely helpful as he has had a hard time finding long-term employees. He currently has one employee to sew, as well as seasonal help. He says the efficiency of his digital platform has cut his material usage by 32 percent and has reduced the setup and cut time on 90 percent of what he produces. He says he’s happy to help fellow fabricators navigate the maze of different software and hardware options to find profitable solutions.

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