Leather quality – consistency16 November 2009
By now everybody will know that we have a worldwide economical and financial crisis and the leather industry is no better off than any other industry, or maybe even worse. The APLF fair in Hong Kong seems to have given indications that the worst may be over. However, depressed raw material prices continue, despite this many suppliers are not lowering their prices while buyers seem to be standing on the sidelines ready to commit themselves as soon as they see orders materialising. The competitive edge at this moment is not only price, as consumers are not buying leather articles because they are cheap. Nor have they been waiting just to pick-up cheap leather products in a downturn.
Consumers buy when they need to buy something, which can be a pair of shoes or a new car. Price remains of course important, and people look for bargains, but there is also the quality question. The quality evaluation is probably not a top priority with many consumers, but it is within the trade pipeline that operators know the difference between good and bad quality.
It is common knowledge that discussions between tanners and shoe factories or merchants are often endless about a colour matching or the feel or softness etc, topics the consumer takes for granted and does not consider when purchasing.
With or without the help of chemical companies or individual leather chemists, each and every tannery in the world can make good leather. It is a matter of trial and error with the application of the right chemicals in the right proportion and sooner or later you have good quality.
The problem is that this quality changes from batch to batch. The trick is to get it right every day. That’s the key: quality and consistency. That’s ‘the’ sales edge with buyers of leather these days. Shoe factories must be able to know for sure that they will receive the same quality of a certain type of leather that they have received somewhere in history, and that if they want, they will receive the same quality also in the future.
Producers of leather can avoid huge and useless rejected stocks if they have a consistent production. Limeblast reported on process control last year.
Hides and skins these days are so cheap that they can hardly become cheaper. Some abattoirs pay traders to take the hides off their premises, so the price of raw materials is not really an issue. In these times of survival of the fittest, profit is a very important factor and some tanneries are not aware, at least not on a daily or monthly basis and often only on a yearly basis, and sometimes not even then, how much profit they make, or if they make any profit at all.
Hands-on management is becoming more and more important, particularly in medium, large and very large tanneries. Traceability of the leather throughout the production process is becoming a must. You must be able to know what leather is coming from what lot in whatever stage of the production.
It is just as important to know how much leather you have at each production stage. Knowing in which department you make money, in which you make a loss, where your bottlenecks are and where you have an overcapacity is a crucial factor to find the black ink on the bottom line of a balance sheet.
Why shouldn’t you know which of your machines are efficient and which break down continuously? You want to give a premium to workers who produce well and more and you want to step up the capabilities of those that lag behind. The buyer of your leather wants to know exactly when you can deliver their order and you want to know how much money you will make on that order, whether your sales price is okay. You also want to know whether you have the raw materials for your new order in stock in whatever production state, or if you have to buy in to complete your sale.
Management of stocks whether raw, semi-processed, processed, finished or chemicals is crucial. You don’t want to spend money on huge stocks of material you are not using, hampering your cash flow. And at the same time you don’t want to run out of any product while you are in production.
The best run tannery knows exactly what’s happening under its roof, live, not yesterday, last week or last year. Today! The top tanner knows exactly what raw materials and chemicals are on order, the quantity, specification and value of stocks, the order portfolio, the exact position of each production lot inside the production line.
They know which machine breaks down continuously and which workers need to be trained better. It has a complete overview of its sales and the production programming. In real time!
This ideal tannery makes percentage wise the largest amount of profit as it has shaped up its efficiency to the maximum.
Many tanneries have homemade or purchased software in order to assist the management with running the factory. It has only been in recent years that there has been complete and sophisticated software programs on the market that have been specially designed for tanneries by tannery people such as Systemhaus’s highly specialized Antara program for example. Other similar packages are also available.
Integration of software and hardware is important, though software programs are stand-alone and can be run without hardware and automation. Without integration, however, the data must be manually fed into the computer, whereas integrated with the appropriate hardware a large quantity of data is automatically retrieved and computed.
All tanners know that they need computer assistance in order to efficiently run their tannery but most, erroneously, don’t see this as a priority. Process control equipment and management systems are considered a luxury and thus take the backburner when it comes to investments.
In the mind of tanners process control equipment and management software do not process items such as a drum or a fleshing machine and consider their own rudimental software programs ‘okay’ and doing the job. Few realise that process control equipment does make money and lots of it, and that management programs save a lot of money, making the relatively small investment pay itself back in 12 to 24 months.
The use of a proper management system allows a huge multinational leather producer to have full control from their headquarters in one continent and their several tanneries in other parts of the world. They can virtually check how many hides are standing in the morning at their overseas plant at shaving machine number two and whether these hides are shaved or not after the allotted production time and whether the lot has been positioned for the next operation at the end of the day. When sales people visit their clients or get an order, via the management program they can take crucial decisions on the spot.
This is not a look into the future. It’s all readily available today!