|Blending of New and Traditional Technologies - Case Studies (ILO - WEP, 1984, 312 p.)|
|PART 2: CASE STUDIES|
This chapter consists of an in-depth examination of the application of microelectronics to an old family firm producing textile smallware in the United Kingdom and a brief note on the development of an innovative line of looms, including one type combined with a microprocessor, by a firm in the United States.
I. A FAMILY FIRM IN THE UNITED KINGDOM*
* Prepared by John R. Bessant, Department of Business Studies, Brighton Polytechnic, United Kingdom.
THIS IS A micro case relating to an old family firm producing a range of what is termed smallware in the textile trade: ribbons, labels, tapes and other narrow woven products. The firm was established nearly 200 years ago and one of its main products has become a household name. It has now become part of a major holding company with various interests in textiles and related fields. It employs around 200 people at present, mostly women working as skilled weavers and semi-skilled machine operators. Until a few years ago, it was one of the towns major employers with a workforce of nearly 1,000 but a combination of declining markets, growing competition in the textile industry and a shift to more advanced machinery has dramatically reduced employment. One of the other consequences of the use of modern high-capacity equipment is that the site is now underutilised and parts of it are being sold.
Originally a family firm with a member of the family as managing director, it is still very conscious of its past traditions. This is reflected in some of the attitudes amongst senior management and long-serving employees - some of whom are third or fourth generation workers with the firm. Despite this strong sense of history, it is generally regarded as a technological leader in the textile sector - a position which has been reinforced in recent years with their early entry into microprocessor application.
Market and Competitive Environment
The firm has a small but diverse product range which can be roughly grouped into labels and badges, name tapes, ribbons and woven pictures. Recently, a new product line has been launched based on strapping into which is woven a name or design - the first example of this on the market has been a personalised luggage strap.
The firm has two problems: in general, it shares the experience of recession and increased import penetration which have adversely affected the textile industry throughout Europe. In its particular line of business, the firm does not face direct Third World competition but its customers (to whom it supplies labels, etc.) do -particularly in the volatile fashion markets. More serious in the long term is its need to upgrade technology to meet the likely future demand for a wide range of products in small batches. Most textile equipment is produced for volume production which means that the firm is well-placed to use existing technology.
Thus far its strategy has combined two approaches. First has been a rescue package of major capital investment from the parent company which permitted the purchase of expensive and highly sophisticated looms. Although designed for volume work, these high capacity machines can be used (with adjustments to the production plan) for smaller batches. The immediate effect of this investment was to reduce dramatically the number of looms and the labour force in the plant. The second approach has been that of low-cost retrofitting and incremental development of microelectronics. This has been very successful, for the firm has not only acquired its market share but it has also been able to develop new product and market opportunities.
Organisational Structure and Planning
Despite the fact that the firm at one time employed over 1,000 people it retains what is a typical small company structure - as Figure 6.1 shows. There is a small board consisting of technical, marketing and finance directors together with the managing director who is a member of the founding family. In addition, the managing and technical directors have seats on the main board of the holding company. There is considerable overlap of responsibilities and sharing of tasks but the most obvious split is between the sales and marketing, and the production and technical personnel. The latter is under the control of the technical director who has been in the industry for over 40 years having worked his way up literally from the bottom of the firm. His enormous experience of both the firm and the industry gives him a perspective on all aspects of the business. His influence is certainly not confined to the technical side, although production is nominally looked after by a production manager reporting to him. Four senior supervisors look after maintenance and engineering, stock control, weaving and various finishing operations. Design and new product development are areas of joint responsibility between the technical director and the marketing people.
Responsibility for innovation rests with the technical director who has been responsible for a number of significant developments including some highly innovative home-grown solutions to problems. It is largely due to his efforts that the firm enjoys such a strong reputation as a technological leader. Recently, he has expanded his technical group with the addition of two electronics engineers. They have made an important contribution by introducing microelectronics into the production processes of the firm.
Planning takes place around an annual budget which covers essential items of investment. There is a fairly flexible and informal longer-term plan which allows for investments in looms and other plant. Much of it has evolved from responses to new technological or market challenges rather than being the result of systematic forecasting.
Motives for Innovation
The pattern of motives reflects two characteristics of the firm - its sector and size. As regards the former, the United Kingdom textile industry has suffered badly from recession and increasing competition. This has put considerable pressure on firms to cut costs and improve productivity through a steady progression of technical changes within the industry. The most important post-war innovation was the shuttleless loom which permitted major increases in the speed of weaving and elimination of shuttle-changing - in other words, an integration of the process. To give an example of the considerable productivity improvements which this kind of change can offer, the firm recently bought 14 needle looms to replace 20 old ribbon looms. Whereas the manning levels for the old looms were about ten men per shift, the new looms require only one. Elsewhere, new rapier looms have contributed a seven-fold increase in productivity. These dramatic figures explain why there has been such a major decrease in employment within the firm which now uses a small number of machines to meet demands which previously needed several hundred. Consequently, there are considerable savings in space and associated overheads.
The move to integrated and sophisticated plant has created new problems, however. One of these is a growing need for flexibility. As with numerically controlled machine tools, high speed looms are best suited for long production runs but with the decline in the market the firm has been forced to chase business wherever it can get it - and this may often be below or near the minimum economic limit for production on these looms. Thus, there is considerable interest in different ways of improving the flexibility of the process, e.g. by reducing the set-up times or the preparation of Jacquard control cards - and making it possible to work to smaller batch sizes. This was one of the reasons for the firms early research into the possible use of microelectronics as a means of getting programmable control in its looms.
In a similar fashion the firm is keen to improve its customer service, both in terms of increasing the range which it can offer - as in going to small batches - and also in terms of reducing the time taken to fulfil orders.
Much of its work requires a design input which can introduce considerable delay in the production process - especially since the installation of high-speed looms which can actually make products very quickly once the designs have been converted to weaving instructions. The firm has been exploring different computer-aided design (CAD) options for some time and already has a prototype system developed in-house for the production of labels and badges. It hopes to use its considerable experience in this area to design or specify a larger and more powerful CAD system for the rest of production.
Time saving has been a dominant motive in the name tape field with a large number of small orders. This has led to considerable investment in computer aids to the administration and processing of orders. The firms second generation system is now capable of providing a customer enquiry service as well as order processing. Its success can be gauged from the fact that even in the high season (orders tend to come in a surge over the summer months) it was able to process orders (a task which includes the preparation of control programmes for its microprocessor-controlled looms) in a few hours and with very low labour-intensity. This sophistication also enables the firm to deal with emergency orders and to rectify mistakes very quickly.
Although productivity improvement is the dominant motive (achieved mainly through labour savings and process integration) two other forces should be mentioned because of the influence which they have on the choices made about manufacturing innovation. First is the question of skill saving: with the massive reduction in the labour content, the firm is concerned about losing touch with the traditional craft skills and knowledge of the weaving process. This is important because much of this skill has not been formalised and is still held by individuals, many of whom are leaving the organisation. Consequently, through innovation the firm is trying to provide some way of capturing this kind of skill - in the design area, for example, or in the setting and operation of high-speed looms. It has also been forced to close its own training school and has little access to suitably skilled new workers to operate the machines.
The lack of available technology on the shelf has had a more serious effect on the firms choices. This has forced it to carry out much of its development work in-house. As the technical director explained, because were a small firm, nobody builds anything for us - we have to do it all ourselves - its getting slightly better in some areas... were beginning to use broadcloth looms, for example, which are an industry standard... but overall we still do most of it ourselves. While this may have been a problem in particular instances there is little doubt that it has placed the firm in a strong position now since it can draw on its know-how and expertise to evaluate or modify equipment brought in from outside or to build it from scratch. To some extent this pattern may be changing. At one time, extensive repair and maintenance work was done on the many old wooden looms which the firm used, some of which were 70 or 80 years old. However, as the firm has gradually introduced new high-speed looms, the ability to keep old looms running or to modify them in-house has disappeared.
One last but clearly critical factor is the limitation of the firms investment budget. It is still a small textile firm and while it can occasionally make a case for major capital investment from the parent company, it must in general work to a very modest development budget.
Figure 6.1. Organisation chart
The Innovative Process
The general pattern of the innovation process is examined first before considering developments in microprocessor control of weaving. Almost all of the stimuli for innovation came from within the firm in the form of problems or bottlenecks in production. Most of these problems are identified by the technical director who has the knowledge and experience to assess them and to put some form of priority on different solutions. He is very well-connected in the industry and with the various trade and academic research institutions, suppliers and other agencies who are carrying out work in the textile field. Consequently, he is able to act as a technological gatekeeper, sensitising the firm early to any relevant changes to which it ought to react. A similarly pluralistic approach is followed in finding solutions to problems related to innovation. The technical director also has a grasp of the technology market, of the activities of competitors and of the many alternative routes to the development of such solutions - from complete in-house work to in-house design and subcontract construction to straight-forward off-the-shelf purchase. A characteristic of this approach to the development of new technology is an openness to ideas from many sources.
Since the early 1970s, in keeping with its advanced technological awareness, the firm had been looking at ways of using the electronics technology in a number of production applications. In particular, it was attracted by the idea of some form of computer numerical control for looms. After all, the present control mechanism for a loom was the set of punched Jacquard cards; so it seemed reasonable to suppose that some form of updating and development of this system could be applied. The problems with the Jacquard system are numerous: first, each separate thread has to have its own card so that even a small piece of weaving requires a large bundle of cards which soon become unwieldy. Many of the designs are used repeatedly which means that the firm has to find somewhere to store the cards. The process of producing the cards is long and laborious and any changes in the cards - for correction or modification - mean stopping the loom and punching new sets of cards. A particularly serious problem is their lack of suitability for small batch work as there has to be a new set of cards for every new order. In addition, the time taken to set up a loom is long because each batch of cards has to be joined together and then loaded carefully at the top of the loom - thus making for a very inflexible system.
All these problems were familiar to the firm. Clearly electronics offered scope for solving some, if not all, of these problems. The firms first contact with electronics came when, as the technical director explained, ...a guy came to see us with a drawing for a solenoid-controlled Jacquard system... his suggestion was that such a machine would eliminate the need for card preparation and permit direct weaving. However, he was not a textile man and hadnt thought it through very well - for example, the size of such a direct weaving loom would be enormous, needing about 400 solenoids as a minimum. Besides, in terms of our costs on volume production, the expense of card preparation is only marginal. However, we saw a possible application of the idea in another product area where the batch size was small and the variability high and we decided to look at the possibilities in more detail. Consequently, the firm took the idea to prototype development: at that time it had excellent contacts with a local engineering company.
The initial efforts were concerned with hard-wired electronics: the firm became interested in more modern technology with the backing of a second champion figure who has been important in the firms innovation history. This was the previous managing director, someone who, as far as we could judge from our interviews, had been a charismatic figure. He undoubtedly took risks and was criticised for taking the firm too far too fast - but his contribution certainly broadened the firms technological and market outlook. In connection with this project, he recognised possible important contributions which the new microelectronics revolution might make to his firm.
In his turn, the technical director saw a chance to realise a long cherished goal of having a separate computer facility for the production/technical department. Although the firm had bought a mainframe computer six years ago its use was confined to administration and order processing. Consequently, he backed the proposal and the firm began to explore ways of getting into microprocessor applications. Its first move was to go back to the local engineering firm to enquire about retrofitting microprocessors to existing machines.1
At this point it is interesting to introduce another component which had some bearing on this decision. The sister company in Australia had developed its own microelectronics-based system. Its contribution to the development of microprocessor applications was noted in the following way: in general the theory behind it was good but the practical application was not... the system was too sensitive and unreliable for production use... nevertheless it contributed a push towards electronics and particularly towards the use of stored digital information.
Despite its unfavourable view of the Australian system designer the firm was committed to exploring this system together with its own lines of enquiry on retrofitted systems. This meant that it was in danger of getting lost in too much technological development for a small firm. At one stage, it had no less than six different types of controllers under evaluation, all requiring different maintenance and spares and looked after by the sites single electrician whose knowledge of electronics was limited to the replacement and not the repair of printed circuit boards. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that it had no separate development facilities and so much of the work was being carried out on production machinery - with consequent effects on production performance. Clearly, there was a need to rationalise: eventually it was decided to abandon any attempt to adopt the Australian system. At the same time the local engineering firm, while offering some interesting ideas about development, was asking too much for the project. Thus the textile firm decided to try and find lower-cost alternatives.
The firm approached the local polytechnic which operated an Industrial Liaison Centre (part of a scheme set up by the government to help build better links between industry and higher educational institutions which could provide specialist services and knowledge). It had earlier dealings with the Polytechnic on another project in the field of computer-aided design. According to a spokesman for the firm, this led to a project proposal which looked good on paper - but we didnt realise at that time the problems we were likely to get with academic timescales and orientation... there was nothing very wrong with the work they did... the main problem was that they had no real industrial orientation... my hands were tied because of the money side of it... but the project began to go badly wrong on timescale and general liaison.
Fortunately, the firm was able to resolve its problems with the help of an electronics engineer, obtained under a university-based scheme which allowed him to study for his doctorate while working on-site. With his considerable experience of both microelectronics and project management he was able to introduce standards and controls on external projects (such as arranging for adequate documentation of software) and to take over much of the development work.
Since his arrival the firm has not only made successful use of the original applications but has also moved into several novel designs and modifications on its textile machinery.
Referring to the model of the innovation process described earlier, the various stages for the firm can be outlined as follows:
(i) Stimulus: The major source of innovative stimulus comes from the market place with considerable and growing pressure to improve delivery times, quality, product differentiation, customer information and so on. This emphasis on new technology adoption as a means towards improving customer service is typical of mature markets where cost reduction and incremental change are key strategies. A second major stimulus comes from the internal and external scanning and monitoring of new opportunities to improve the manufacturing process. Clearly, this has developed as a tradition and has contributed to the position of the firm as a technological leader. Technology push of this kind is perhaps well-illustrated by the firms experience with microelectronics: early awareness led to early applications, and these are now being extended. A third component of the innovative stimulus arises from close links with equipment suppliers: in some cases, the firm is involved in guinea-pig trials of new machinery which may well have positive spin-off effects;
(ii) Invention: As mentioned earlier, the firms position regarding supply of suitable technology is not strong; this has forced the development of internal inventive capability. This is a major source of new ideas both in connection with designing new machinery and equipment from scratch, and in modifying off-the-shelf purchases to suit the firms requirements. The involvement of the technical director in this process is particularly significant. Additionally, the overall level of technical awareness amongst operators and supervisors provides an important source of improvements and modifications. More recently, the creation of a small microelectronics team has opened new innovative possibilities;
(iii) Development: The lack of suitable off-the-shelf equipment requires that the firm develop its own technological solutions: however, its resource base for this is extremely limited. Thus it is usually necessary to make use of outside support - either as sub-contractors or as joint developers of new technology. Successful innovation will depend very much on how well these joint ventures are managed. In particular, it appears that the involvement with the polytechnic has been difficult because of mutually incompatible terms of reference, and the difficulty of controlling projects off-site and in unfamiliar technological areas. Project management appears to have been weak, given the lengthy overruns on time scale, the inappropriate nature of some of the solutions and so on. A second problem relates to the level of development finance available for new technology. The current ceiling of US$2,995 for projects which can be approved by the firm alone seems unrealistic both in terms of present economic conditions and the costs of technology and also of the special circumstances which force do-it-yourself solutions. That the firm has been so innovative thus far within such tight constraints is a tribute to the innovative skills of those involved rather than a realistic reflection of the cost of new technology.
(iv) Adoption: Decision-making about innovation appears to be a highly centralised process involving senior management only. However, consultation with members of staff with relevant skills is practised, given the small size and informality of the firm. Although it appears that delays in decision-making might occur primarily because of the need to refer back most of the innovation decisions to the main board because of their cost, this does not seem to have occurred in practice.
(v) Implementation: The quality of the workforce, combined with a long tradition and employee loyalty ensures a strong sense of identity within the firm. The flexibility of the workforce in adapting to new equipment allied to their technical awareness means that the firm can rely on its employees to make the innovation work. Some comments were made to us about inadequate participation but it appeared that supervisors and staff with technical experience were indeed involved in selection and trials of new machinery whenever possible.
Industrial relations are also generally good (the site has only recently become unionised) and there is no evidence of implementation problems in this connection. This is significant in that some recent redundancies were caused by the replacement of looms by a small number of new and faster machines. Even under these conditions there was minimal resistance.
Education and Training
The overall level of educational qualification amongst management in this firm is low in terms of formal certificates or degrees. Nevertheless, the management has demonstrated experience and practical skills particularly on the technical side. Most of the formally qualified manpower is relatively new - for example, the two electronics engineers both of whom are graduates. (However, even here it is worth noting that one of them studied for his doctorate within the firm, using the actual projects on which he was engaged as the main subject). It is generally believed that the firm will need to look increasingly at graduate level skills (rather than rely on in-house evolution) if it is to keep pace with changes in the world outside.
The pattern amongst the workforce reflects this trend, with an overall decline of what were at one time critical craft skills in the weaving trade. Increasing use of sophisticated looms and associated machinery has led to a major decline in the manning levels as well as a shift in the skills required away from direct operation to diagnosis and maintenance. One of the consequences of this has been the closure of the firms training school where at one time weavers were taught the basics of their trade. It is true that many of the traditional skills on site are being changed by new technology - for example, in the design and drafting areas with the introduction of CAD - but the firms general policy is to arrange for on-the-job adaptation as opposed to external training courses. It is a testimony to the strong grounding in the industry which most of the remaining operators have received that they have been able to move into very new areas - such as operating and programming electronics control systems - without external retraining support.
The Role of Government
The firm is a good example of an effective use of government support as part of an active search policy to find funds for projects which cannot be financed internally. Its move into microelectronics was the subject of a grant under the Microprocessor Application Project. In addition, the firm acquired an electronics engineer under a scheme which is partly financed by one of the governments research councils designed to promote better links between industry and higher education. While it was clearly grateful for the additional support, it would still have gone ahead with the projects somehow. The firm was somewhat critical of the general operation of government support. In particular, it felt that the detail required and the involvement of the Department of Industry in its affairs was far too extensive and took up too much of its scarce management time.
As a small firm it is severely constrained in its investment activity. It does not deal directly with the banks but has contacts with government regarding financial support for various innovation projects. Its autonomy is relatively low since it can only spend up to US$3,745 before going to the board for approval and sanction: the general effect of this has been to push into often ingenious in-house solutions because it cannot afford outside technology or consultant services.
As a small firm, it relies on external resources for many things. However, it has only partly succeeded in attracting funds in the past. Certainly, the technical director is well-connected but beyond this the firm is only weakly linked to other networks such as trade associations and research institutes. In many ways, the firms experience over the past five years with advanced technologies has forced a change in its orientation so that it no longer tries and pursues an in-house, self-reliant policy. One consequence of the firm having been forced in some cases to develop in-house expertise is that it is now contemplating to sell its acquired expertise on the open market to help other small firms in similar positions.
The Microelectronics Applications
The first project to be considered was the control of looms via microprocessor. After the various attempts at a solution described earlier, the present system controls looms via a set of remote controllers into which information is fed for each batch of names to be woven. The response is rapid and resetting of the looms is only necessary when new colour threads are to be introduced. One indicator of the high flexibility in this arrangement is that when Princess Anne visited the plant the looms were programmed with her childrens names; by the time she reached the name tape shed the looms had woven a set of labels for her. The implications of this are quite important. It is now economically feasible for the firm to produce in small batches and thus operate in a market with a significant advantage over any competitor not using this technology.
The microprocessor controls have been retrofitted to existing looms most of which are about 60 to 70 years old, simple and well-maintained wooden machines to which some modern safety features have been added. The rate of weaving remains unchanged, though the manning level has fallen because operators no longer need to load new Jacquard cards for every new name to be woven. Roughly one operator now looks after four looms whereas earlier there was only one operator per loom.
The cost of the microprocessor system once developed is low - around US$2,245 per loom - most of which (US$1,500 or more) is for a solenoid transducer. However, development and software costs must also be allowed for; so must also the benefits of the learning process which were visible since the subsequent projects were much simpler to develop and implement.
The second project was in the field of strapping weaving, where the firm already operated some high-speed looms. Strapping is narrow, woven very strong and durable nylon thread. Having seen the value of using microprocessors to give flexibility to loom control in name tape, the firm decided to use it on these simpler but faster looms and to experiment with weaving a design into the strapping. The result was a new product - personalised luggage straps - which again could be made in small batches and one-off quite economically. Most significant in this project was the speed and cost; it took only six weeks and around US$3,000 to cover the first loom from idea through to commissioning; subsequent conversions cost US$1,500 and took two weeks.
In this case, no labour displacement was involved. For both the name tape and strapping the operators were skilled weavers who adapted rapidly and easily to the change. Most interesting was the microprocessor control room operator who used to be the shop supervisor. She learned how to load the microprocessor controllers and to programme and edit in machine code so as to cope with variations and problems quickly. Her background was only in textiles, having started with the firm at 14 (she is now 60); she learnt the new job in three weeks under the tutelage of the engineer.
Maintenance is a similar story: it is carried out by the site electrician who has been with the firm for 40 years and who is responsible for all electrical machinery. His experience of electronics was based on valves when he took his original apprenticeship but he now has mastered at least first-line diagnosis and repair of the microprocessor systems.
The current projects involving microelectronics include a card-punch controller for the larger Jacquard cards needed for producing woven pictures - this will reduce punching time from three weeks to two hours and fully automate the process. It is also worth mentioning the computer-aided design project: the firm is about to buy a customised system from an outside supplier. However, it developed its own prototype system which took three years but which gave it valuable experience with the technology. The prototype system has shown that it is possible to eliminate the drafting bottleneck and cut lead time on badges etc., to hours from weeks, a change which will improve the utilisation of high-speed looms. In the long term, the firm has decided to use an integrated computer-aided design and manufacture system which will be based almost entirely on home-grown solutions to its problems.
II. COTTAGE INDUSTRY WITH AVL LOOMS (UNITED STATES)
Prepared by Ward Morehouse, President of the Council on International and Public Affairs, New York, and Director of Intermediate Technology Development Group of North America.
A firm located in Chico, California (United States) has made cottage industry viable in an area of mass production with the ancient craft of weaving, which for millenia has been meeting the basic human need for clothing. It has succeeded in designing and manufacturing a production handloom with three critical components that dramatically increase productivity: a specially designed dobby head, automatic warp tensioning, and a fly shuttle.
In its most recent advance in technology, the firm has married its production weaving technology to the sophisticated world of microelectronics. With nothing more than an Apple microcomputer it is possible to design new fabric patterns on an electronic screen and have the computer then instruct the dobby head to reproduce that pattern on the loom. The computer can then store that pattern for future use. All of this adds to the productivity of the worker, the versatility of the machine, and the quality and marketability of the end product. The firm has thus produced a true example of intermediate technology combining high productivity with low capital cost. While increased skill can obviously enhance the productivity of the worker and the quality of what he or she produces, even those with very limited skill and no more than a day or two of training can work with pre-programmed designs to produce one to two metres of fabric an hour-all with a capital investment substantially less than the cost of the lowest priced new car in the United States today.
A licensed mechanical engineer produced the original designs for the new looms (AVL). He has been building looms and weaving for over 40 years and is considered by many weavers to be the greatest hand-loom designer in the United States. The company president has been designing and building handweaving looms since 1970. With a degree in industrial arts from Chico State University and knowledge of engineering and skills in woodworking, he now heads the team of people who make looms from efficient designs available to handweavers throughout the world.
In its own words, the firm has two basic purposes: (a) to make a valuable contribution to the weaving community by continually striving to produce the highest quality, most versatile and efficient handweaving looms and equipment possible, and (b) to further create an organisation that remains true to its purpose, operates with integrity, is viable in the world, and nurtures those who participate in it and those who are served by it.2
Boosting the Productivity of a Traditional Technology
The significance of AVL looms lies in the dramatic increase in productivity which they make possible in a traditional and widely practised craft. The firm makes three basic models of looms: the folding dobby loom (a smaller loom especially useful in making complicated designs and samples of fabric), the modular loom (helpful to those just starting out because it minimises the initial capital expense required and can be expanded as earnings permit), and the production dobby loom.
The last-named is, as its name implies, the one most appropriate to weaving as a community-based economic activity and as a source of livelihood for those who use it. It has 16 harnesses and can be supplied with either 1.2 or 1.5 metres weaving widths. It has a cloth storing system that allows warps of up to 90 metres or more to be put on the loom, with the cloth stored under light tension, thereby eliminating any matting or crushing.
Its warp-tensioning system maintains a constant and even tension on the loom at all times. This results in greater uniformity in the finished cloth. AVL looms also have a specially designed fly-shuttle which, with a flick of the wrist, moves across the shuttle race in an easy, unbroken rhythm. This also helps to achieve greater uniformity in the cloth and increases the weaving rate dramatically. But perhaps the most important design feature of AVL looms in terms of impact on productivity is the dobby head, which is a simple and reliable programming unit which, once pegged with the pattern being followed, automatically controls the lifting sequence of multiple harnesses with the use of just two treadles. This permits: (i) complicated patterns to be woven which would be virtually impossible on conventional looms; and (ii) increase in weaving speed by as much as eight to ten times.
Perhaps the most intriguing recent advance in AVL loom technology is its Generation II Compu-Dobby System. This consists of an electric interface between a home microcomputer and the AVL dobby head and a programmable disc that converts the computer into a weaving tool. This system makes it possible for the weaver to do his or her designing on the computer videoscreen, making changes in patterns quickly and easily. From these designs on the screen, drawdowns of new designs can be made in a matter of minute and the dobby head instructed to produce them. Different designs can, furthermore, be stored permanently in the computers memory and reused over and over again with a minimum of set-up time.
At present, the Generation II Compu-Dobby System is designed for use with an Apple II plus computer with 48K in memory and a single disc drive.
Users of AVL Looms
Users of AVL looms fall into several different categories, including home and studio weavers, textile design firms, schools, and cottage industries. The distinction between the first and last categories is often unclear.
One of the advantages of AVL looms is that even beginners are able to produce fabrics of professional quality within a few hours. Of course, productivity increases with time, but almost from the beginning home-weaving on an AVL loom can become a source of income.
Textile designers make widespread use of AVL looms because the AVL dobby head offers over 80,000 separate harness lifting sequences in pattern design and makes pattern changes very easy. Educational institutions that teach weaving as a craft also make extensive use of AVL looms.
But most important in terms of community economic revitalisation are cottage industries based on weaving with AVL looms. A cottage industry may be an individual or a family or a group of persons working in their own homes or at a small production facility in the community. Since the weaving pattern can be preprogrammed on an AVL loom, even an inexperienced person can produce one to two metres per hour. A weaver with more experience can produce two to four metres per hour, depending on the character of the design.
The Economics of AVL Weaving
One of the cherished features of appropriate or intermediate technology in situations where capital is scarce and/or expensive is low cost per work place. AVL looms meet this criterion well. Depending on its width, the basic cost of a production loom is around US$3,500 to US$4,000. But the weaver can start with an even lower capital investment by acquiring the basic modular loom (US$2,000 to US$2,500) and adding features and capacity to it out of income earned from weaving on the basic loom.
Nonetheless, even this kind of capital investment is beyond the means of many persons marginalised by the mainstream economy in North America today, so that some financing is essential. Community-based credit systems like Self-Help Association for a Regional Economy (SHARE) represent a particularly appropriate method for doing so. In some instances, it may be possible to arrange a loan for industrial equipment through a local bank; such loans are usually for as much as 80 per cent of the purchase price. Leasing is another approach which minimises the initial capital outlay and enables the weaver to pay for the loom gradually over time out of income earned from the loom. In addition, there are significant tax savings when the loom is used for income-generating purposes through investment tax credits and depreciation.
The basic material for weaving is yarn, which is sold by the pound and costs between US$4 and US$16 per metre of woven goods depending on the type of fabric being woven. Wholesale prices for woven fabrics range from US$15 to US$150 per metre in the United States today, with retail prices 40 to 50 per cent higher. Self-employed weavers will need to set a price for their products that will cover their overhead, including the capital cost of the equipment, and provide them with a reasonable hourly wage. Prices will also need to be realistic in terms of what the market will accept.
The American firm maintains that self-employed weavers which it has interviewed fall into three basic categories. The starting point for many weavers without experience is US$4 to US$6 per hour, but most weavers soon achieve a range of US$6 to US$15 per hour. To earn more than US$15 per hour, weavers need to have a considerable amount of experience in the use of hand-weaving techniques and equipment.
Marketing the product is an obvious key to making a success of a cottage industry in weaving. A variety of methods are used by self-employed weavers, including direct selling, participation in design markets and craft shows, and use of manufacturers representatives to sell to retail and wholesale outlets. Others market their production through distributors with their own manufacturers representatives or through retail outlets in their own communities, where their products may be offered on consignment (that is, the producer gets paid only when his product is actually sold) or direct sale to the shop (the producer gets paid when the shop accepts the product, but the shop ordinarily takes a considerably higher percentage of the ultimate sale price).
While there are many instances in which AVL looms have been successfully used as sources of livelihood for weavers, it should be emphasised that the AVL loom is not a magic machine. Careful planning and hard work are essential, and even then, there are the inescapable risks and uncertainties of marketing what the weaver produces at a fair price. But it can be done, and to underscore that fact an appendix to this case study contains the story of a handweaver in his own words and the cottage industry he has created.
AVLs International Operations
When the firm began production several years ago, it assumed that its products were primarily for the North American market. But their unusual design, performance characteristics and the high productivity that they make possible soon attracted the interest of weavers world-wide. In 1980, it participated in a Technology for the People trade conference in Geneva and established contact with business representatives from Western Europe and many developing countries. It has now formed a small international subsidiary which is marketing its looms in other countries and exploring the possibility of participating in joint ventures in developing countries. This will help to create productive work for many unemployed or underemployed persons in those countries. The firm now has work in Austria, Great Britain, Indonesia, Mexico and Thailand. A joint venture is being planned for India, and looms will soon be in operation in a number of other countries as well.
AVL Looms and Bootstrap Community Revitalisation
AVL looms are quite useful for bootstrap community revitalisation. They provide an alternative source of livelihood to those displaced by the mainstream economy and require a minimum of capital investment and additional training. Furthermore, they offer the possibility to generate an income sufficient to survive with a comfortable margin in a depressed local economy.
However, there are a number of obstacles to be overcome, depending on the situation in each community. Supply of yarn, the basic raw material, must be assured at a reasonable price. Some means of financing the initial capital investment, also at reasonable cost, is clearly essential as those displaced by the mainstream economy are unlikely to have sufficient personal resources for this capital investment and are typically regarded by established banking institutions as a poor credit risk. Perhaps most important is the development of effective marketing techniques for goods produced with AVL looms to ensure a fair return for their operators.
The new loom has succeeded in overcoming one crucial obstacle, namely, making this ancient craft once again so productive that weaving can become a source of a decent livelihood at a relatively small capital cost. These looms thus become a particularly appropriate vehicle for economic transformation of a community. By providing a means of satisfying basic needs through productive activity within the community, they offer significant potential for contributing to local self-reliance.
APPENDIX: THE STORY OF A HANDWEAVER IN THE UNITED STATES
The following is related by a handweaver on the West Coast of the United States describing how he created a viable cottage industry based on the remarkable productivity that can be achieved with an AVL loom:
Our studio is a handweaving studio that produces garments constructed of handwoven fabrics in silk, cotton, linen and wool.
The majority of our weaving is done on two Ahrens Violette fly-shuttle dobby production looms. We decided upon AVL products because of the need for looms that can be operated by anyone, with a minimum of instruction, looms that offer capacity for a variety of patterns in one warping, and looms that can be operated at rapid speed for maximum fabric production.
Our studio is what would be called a cottage industry in that the members of one family are responsible for the majority of the production. I, the father, am the principal weaver, being assisted by my eighteen-year-old son. Here is where having a loom that can be operated by a person with little prior weaving knowledge comes in. With only a few hours instruction my son was able to operate the fly shuttle and dobby to produce with a quality and quantity equal to that of experienced weavers. At first, he knew enough to recognise a problem and ask my assistance. Now, having woven for a few months, he is capable of repairing any problems that arise.
Having beamed a long warp, we usually warp at least 115 metres, it is often required that the pattern be changed for different fabrics. The only thing required is the substitution of a different dobby chain pegged for the new pattern. How nice not to worry about peddle sequence and all of the errors that are possible, as the dobby is virtually error-free.
Last, but perhaps most important, is the speed with which fabric can be produced. Once bobbins are wrapped and the loom is set, both my son and I can weave almost a metre of fabric in twenty minutes, fifteen minutes for a metre on the 1.2 metre-wide loom, and twenty minutes on the 1.5 metre-wide loom.
Most of our fabrics are woven on two different warps. We therefore have one loom set up for each. Now, as orders are filled, we can switch weft yarns or patterns with a minimum of difficulty.
Currently, our garments are available throughout the country both in retail outlets and also at major craft fairs. Our AVL products have helped us achieve this success and we plan further investments in their line as our needs expand.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. It is important to place this move in context: apart from the general motives mentioned above, there was a pressing requirement to replace or at least upgrade the first generation electronics system. The rate of production was high and the resulting wear and tear on the equipment was beginning to have a serious effect on reliability - for example, the average life of paper tape punches in this system was six weeks.
2. From company brochure, AVL Looms: Photos of Fine Hand Looms and Production Weaving Equipment, Chico, California, 1981.