By Jim Parsons
It doesn’t take an MBA to grasp this formula for success—and, increasingly, survival—in today’s mattress industry.
There are, of course, many other contributors to a healthy balance sheet, ranging from image awareness to inventory control. But with cost and competitive pressures increasing on a seemingly daily basis, mattress manufacturers are focusing as never before on optimizing the factors they can control, particularly their production systems.
“Mattress manufacturers are looking for more automation and machines that can last longer without problems because they’re going through lots of changes that will cost them money,” says Pete Sasser, president of National Mattress Machinery in Spartanburg, S.C. “They want the ability to do what they need without having to constantly invest in new equipment.”
Interestingly, some in the mattress industry have only recently begun looking at technology as a production improvement tool.
As Costas Georgallis, managing director of Amelco Industries in Nicosia, Cyprus, says: “We can safely say that mattress manufacturing did not evolve with the same pace of technology as other products over the past 50 years.”
Georgallis cites companies’ desire to preserve their individuality, the cachet of handmade products and the nonstandardization of mattress sizes worldwide for having delayed and limited the introduction of high–tech equipment in mattress making.
“Therefore, the emphasis has been on improvements and innovations concerning the raw materials and the production and quality processes,” he says.
Targets of opportunity
But as manufacturers increasingly turn to machinery to help cut costs and improve productivity, one of the primary considerations is the interaction between machines and the humans who operate them.
“Today, most manufactures are looking for machines that ‘deskill’ operations and are versatile, particularly with styling changes occurring more often,” says Tony Garrett, president of Leggett & Platt’s Global Systems Group, headquartered in Carthage, Mo.
Advancements in computer technology have yielded systems that do much of the thinking and physical work, reducing the likelihood of costly, material–wasting human errors and compressing production time.
Even what have long been largely hands–on functions are now fair game for automation assistance. Hank Little, president of Atlanta Attachment in Lawrenceville, Ga. says that his company’s customers “are looking strongly at replacing their standard tape–edge machines with an automated version to reduce potential workers’ comp issues and decrease the training time of the operator.”
And although nobody relishes the prospect of dismissing workers in a difficult job market, Nancy Kraus, vice president of Rudolf Grauer AG in Degersheim, Switzerland, says that “automation to reduce the work force is currently the most important thing mattress makers are asking for.”
Mattress makers also are asking for help in making the most of every last millimeter of fabric, foam and steel. Yosuke Takeuchi, sales manager for Matsushita Industrial Co. Ltd. in Osaka, Japan, says his company’s combination coiler, cutting machine and assembler “can produce three spring compressions with one kind of wire gauge, rather than having to change the gauge each time. We also continually incorporate new control functions to reduce waste when exchanging materials.”
Along with requiring fewer resources, mattress manufacturers want machines to help them do more to help their products stand out in the marketplace. Garrett cites the modular system produced by GSG’s Porter International that helps produce faux pillow–top mattresses.
“This provides a distinctive European look with little additional cost involved,” he says. “Mattress styling and production efficiencies are key factors when manufacturers select equipment. Fashionable quilt patterns add value for the retailer, and we are also seeing more interest in border styles this year.”
Beyond the sales brochure
Perhaps the most coveted commodity in any mattress plant is information. Atlanta Attachment now provides production control software that tracks work output, faults such as thread breaks, and other related stoppage issues.
“Our control system can be networked to capture this information on a real–time basis for viewing at the plant or a remote location,” Little says. “We believe fewer breakdowns and the ability to identify the cause of the breakdown or bottleneck in production is more important than speed.”
Indeed, faster and cheaper do not always add up to better.
As Roy Schlegel, vice president of sales for Edgewater Machine Co. in College Point, N.Y., says: “There is always a trade–off when one wants too much. You can push machinery only so far before it starts to revolt.”
Shlegel explains that machine companies often use lighter materials to make their machines lighter. “The payback is weaker components that will fail quicker,” he says. “With a machine down for repairs, any speed gain quickly evaporates.”
In other words, the gas mileage caveat “your results may vary” is equally true for mattress manufacturing machinery.
“Production rates, mentioned to impress prospective buyers, are often found only under very ideal conditions,” Georgallis says. “In an actual working environment, the performance will tend to be slower.”
That machinery manufacturers are so attuned to the needs of the mattress industry is hardly surprising. They’re dealing with many of the same challenges facing their customers, particularly rising costs for metals and energy and competition from upstart manufacturers. And no one gets a free pass.
“Steel and gas prices affect everyone in the supply chain,” Sasser says. “Price competition and China–made equipment have roughly an equal effect on what we do.”
Shlegel understands how both sellers and buyers of machinery may be tempted by a smaller price tag. He tells his customers: “The Chinese machines are inexpensive to buy, but they become expensive when you figure in the cost of trying to get replacement parts, machine down time, maintenance and reduced production yield,” he says. “We could just as easily build machines with cheaper materials to save money, too. But when you have a long history of quality and pride, it’s easier to stay the course.”
Garrett also is critical of economy–oriented machines that lack both a proven performance track record and proper technical support.
“Improved technology counters many challenges posed by competitors’ products,” he says. “But it is critical that machinery manufacturers provide easy maintenance, backed by solid technical support.”
Little argues that conscientious machine suppliers can provide the best of both worlds—high performance and lower cost—without sacrificing reliability or their reputation.
“We have partnered with a very large, privately owned Chinese company to produce some of the basic components of our products,” he says. “We then take those components and apply our engineering skills and precision machining capabilities to produce a finished product that is cost effective for our customer.”
It’s no surprise then that machine manufacturers expect to focus on building more value into their products in the next few years—to help mattress companies build more value into theirs.
“Competition among manufacturers is healthy for any industry, including mattresses,” Shlegel says. “Chinese companies are pushing the American machinery builders to shave their prices the best they can, but still build the most reliable machinery possible. Future machinery will be built with reliable computers and strong, durable components. Mattress manufacturers will quickly see that replacing old equipment with weaker new equipment never pays off in the long run.”
Prospective buyers also can look forward to machines that offer more features, yet require fewer skills to use them.
“There are still gaps between the specifications a mattress manufacturer wants to produce and what the machine can do without workers making adjustments, even if it requires only pushing a few buttons,” Takeuchi says. “Although inevitable adjustments exist, we’re looking at technologies to reduce these gaps while also improving production reliability at high speed.”
Also on the innovation “to–do” list, Kraus says, are steps to “make machines easier for end–users to handle, increase speed and reduce energy consumption.”
Little sees an opportunity to foster a more holistic approach to mattress manufacturing by “developing equipment that will allow our customers to control their own destiny. They will be less and less dependent on outside suppliers to support just–in–time operations.”
That all adds up to what should be an interesting future for mattress manufacturing technology. And the bedding industry can only benefit, Garrett says. After all, they’re the ones providing the inputs and ideas for these innovations.
“It is pointless for our company to develop products that are impractical for manufacturers,” he says. “Customer needs are understood only by experienced machine manufacturers that have established trusted customer partnerships and encourage a mutual exchange of needs and concerns. Keeping our customers updated on machine developments allows them to stay ahead of the change curve.”
Retooling for a new standard
“Are you ready?”
These days, that’s the question in the bedding industry. “Are you ready for the federal open–flame standard?” The standard goes into effect July 1, 2007, and will affect every bed set sold in the United States.
While every mattress manufacturing plant will have to adapt its processes in some way to comply with the new rule, Roy Shlegel says that so far, on the machinery end, it has largely been business as usual.
“To date we have received only a few questions concerning the new standards,” says Shlegel, vice president of sales for Edgewater Machine Co. in College Point, N.Y. “The machines are working well, and other than small tweaking or adjustments, the bedding manufacturers have not complained about any problems.”
Still, Tony Garrett worries that things may be a little too quiet.
“Although major manufactures may have developed action plans based on their experience with California’s (similar) Technical Bulletin 603 standard, many small manufacturers are behind in planning,” says Garrett, president of Leggett & Platt’s Global Systems Group in Carthage, Mo. “They have delayed producing prototype samples and making critical decisions on machinery.”
Any mattress manufacturers’ hesitation to act can’t be blamed on the machinery companies, they say. They began retooling machinery and working on ideas to help manufacturers integrate fire–retardant solutions into their products since the embryonic days of TB 603.
Hank Little, president of Atlanta Attachment in Lawrenceville, Ga., says his firm’s engineering department “works hand in hand with our customers’ bedding design groups to help design an FR–compliant bed that will be aesthetically pleasing and marketable—and cost–effective to produce.”
One of the most common concerns that machine makers have helped alleviate is the interaction of various FR materials with production equipment.
“Density and other characteristics of most fire–retardant materials can make them more difficult to sew,” Garrett says. “This may require at least some modification to existing equipment.”
In other cases, the solution proves to be far less complicated than what the mattress manufacturer expects.
“There are always little tweaks that need to be made when running different threads and materials, but nothing that is detrimental to the machines,” Shlegel says. “The machines may have to run at slightly slower speeds to prevent heat buildup on the needles. Thread tensions may also need adjustment. But these have always been factors when a new material is introduced.”
Pete Sasser, president of National Mattress Machinery in Spartanburg, S.C., agrees that FR compliance need not mandate a significant investment in new machinery. He says that his company’s line of used equipment “is designed to run anything. It’s just up to us to make sure the machines are built right before we sell them.”
And, Garrett adds, there are any number of alternative paths to open–flame compliance.
“Product specifications are key to making the right decisions on FR materials,” he says. “We can provide suggestions for materials that mattress producers may be unaware of.”
Indeed, working with a variety of mattress companies and products has given machine makers insights into materials and processes that they, in turn, use to help other customers.
For example, Little has learned from several Atlanta Attachment users that “the faux seam sewn on the machinery we manufacture allows the thread in these seams to burn when exposed to flame.
“Each faux seam, in turn, allows the bed or border to expand one inch in height,” he explains. “This reduces the pressure on the actual tape seam that results when the heat of the flame expands the Bonnell coil unit.”
Emphasis on education
Although FR–compliant mattresses may not require major physical changes to the machines, mixing in new materials and coatings often gives rise to new operational issues.
“Operators and maintenance personnel should know that cutting edges may dull quicker, certain machine parts may be exposed to additional stress and material changes may be more frequent as thicker FR fabrics have fewer yards per roll,” Garrett says. “Training, proper planning and maintenance will resolve these issues.”
Adds Shlegel: “The coatings sometimes come off during the quilting process and adhere to machine components, causing buildups that lead to damage or skipped stitches. They also can distort the pattern being sewn because of added resistance.”
Machine overhauls and cleaning can correct this problem, Shlegel says, but it spotlights the need for operators and maintenance staff to work as a team to keep these valuable company assets in top condition.
“They should consult each other about issues before problems arise,” he says. “If the maintenance worker can’t answer a question then a simple phone call to the machine maker would get them the answers they need. And this should be done before operators experiment on their own.”
Even mattress manufacturers with a sound FR track record may well have plenty of proverbial loose ends to tie as July 1, 2007, draws near. Though they may be satisfied that their machines and materials are ready, Little reminds manufacturers not to overlook the required paperwork and recordkeeping associated with the new federal standard.
“The possibility of future litigation makes complete and thorough FR documentation compliance a must,” he says. “Other industries, such as automobile air bag manufacturers, are already doing this.”
And for those mattress manufacturers who have yet to make FR preparations, Garrett has four words of advice—don’t wait another minute.
“Select your materials, get your prototype samples made and send those samples for testing as soon as possible,” he says. “It takes time to test and select FR materials, produce samples for testing and modify or obtain new machinery. If you lack suitable machinery, be prepared to upgrade, as you may face reductions in efficiency or additional maintenance costs.”