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It was a very exciting time at Stevens as we prepared to bring our latest new Roller fabric cutting table into production at the end of the year. This latest investment has taken us up to 3 fully automated X-Y cutting tables, having entered last year with only one. Of course, we also have our trusty Faber cutting table which has served us well down the years as the perfect solution for trimming cut-length fabrics down to blind size. Some of our customers will remember that during 2018, we lost the use of our Faber table for 4 weeks, which increased lead times from our normal 3 days. We vowed at that point never to be in a similar position again, as we embarked upon our search for the best fabric cutting solution that would meet the demands of our customers.
Our new table provides Ultrasonic, Cold and Crush Cutting capabilities which gives us full duty/standby coverage for cutting any fabric across our ranges. However, in addition to capacity and versatility, our new table has also increased the level of automation in our production process, further reducing errors. We now simply upload our orders to the table’s in-built HMI (Human Machine Interface) which controls both the cutting head and the rolling out onto the table of the desired fabric. The fabric is then automatically cut in such a way to minimise the amount of waste fabric. Reduction of waste is particularly important for us because it allows us to reduce our costs and keep our selling prices down at a time when our customers are facing increased competition in the market.
One more thing that sets our new table apart is the cutting bed, which is a single 19.25m2 piece of 12mm thick toughened glass. Cutting on toughened glass rather than an acrylic bed provides a much-improved finish, markedly reducing the possibility of off-track cutting or fraying. Maintenance is reduced also as there is far less wear on the glass. When the glass does finally show signs of wear, our table has the capability to ‘float’ the huge piece of glass using air (think giant air-hockey table) which allows it to be moved slightly so that the ‘home’ edge is renewed. I think you’ll agree that is a pretty neat trick! Of course, handling and installing a single piece of glass that size is not easy and we had some fun figuring out just how on earth to get it into place on the upper level of our factory, safely laid down onto our new table. As you can imagine, planning for such an installation had to begin months in advance and our Roller department layout was completely redesigned using Lean manufacturing methodology earlier this year. After all, there is no point having state of the art equipment if it doesn’t fit seamlessly into the rest of the production process. Our customers were very understanding with us whilst we took the time out to make that change in the Spring.
Our new table was the final piece of our investment plan for 2019 which saw us spend in excess of £275,000.00 on new equipment, right across our factory. New fabric welding machinery in our Vertical department has increased the options for our customers in terms of the finish that they would like to see on their slats. Two mobile slat cutting machines have given us far greater flexibility and new headrail workstations were also added to our Vertical department. A new fabric drill was added to our Pleated department which addressed an issue with drilling our Duette fabrics and gave us future flexibility to expand our range to include 32mm and 64mm fabrics. Additional Intu punches have been added, enabling us to introduce the Micro system. Those are just some of the new machines that can be seen (and barely heard) in our factory, having been added this year.
Sourcing and installation of new machinery is always lots of fun too. After all, who doesn’t love a new toy? However, our biggest ongoing concern in terms of machinery is maintenance. Many of our customers may not realise quite how much time, cost and organisation it takes to keep all our equipment up and running so that we can always provide a dependable service. A huge amount of our time is spent each year making sure that punches are sharp, edges are straight, surfaces are level, belts are correctly tensioned, planned services are carried out, and spare parts are in stock. In excess of £50,000.00 is spent each year, making sure we’re always ready for whatever our customers may throw at us.
Another advantage of using modern machinery in our factory is that we can have full traceability of each blind’s journey from order to dispatch. This means that we know exactly when the rail/tube and fabric were cut and to what size, within a fraction of a millimetre. Having all information regarding the manufacture of a blind at our fingertips gives us fantastic visibility over our production but also gives our customers peace of mind.
It’s true that well designed and properly maintained machinery can improve finished product quality and reduce errors but at Stevens, we believe there is a fine balance to be struck between hand crafted and machine made. During a factory tour last year, one of our long-standing customers remarked that she hadn’t expected to see so many people working in our factory. Despite investments in machinery and increased automation throughout our factory, we have no doubt that it is the skill and experience of our staff that ultimately leads to the high-quality finish that our customers have come to expect from us. An operator with 15 years’ experience of hand making blinds is far better qualified to set a machine up to correctly braid a venetian or select the correct cutting tool for a particular fabric than one who has never manually made a blind. We truly believe that, which is why our staff are all capable of making blinds without the aid of any machinery if necessary. Indeed, there are some elements of a Stevens blind which will always be hand-crafted, that’s the way we like it. Before we make any investment in machinery at Stevens, we always ask ourselves whether or not our customers will benefit in terms of increased capacity, reduction in errors and improved finished product quality. We’re sure that our most recent investments will deliver on all counts and we’d like to invite our customers to come and see for themselves. Why not contact your Stevens (Scotland) Ltd. Area Sales Manager today to arrange your visit? We hope to see you soon.