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The End of the Line

(July 2004) posted on Wed Jul 28, 2004

A look at tagging, folding, and bagging machines


By Sean Halloran

click an image below to view slideshow

The T-shirts are printed, the screens delivered to the reclaiming area, and the presses turned off. Only then do Bob Rice and his crew report to work. As manager of the Pack and Fold division for Liberty Screenprinting, Madison, NC, Rice expertly leads his team to finish the production process by checking product quality, then folding, tagging, bagging, labeling, and finally, shipping printed garments wherever the customer needs them.

Liberty Pack and Fold, located near its parent company's screen-printing facilities in Madison, is a 40,000-sq-ft plant with nine automatic finishing lines and 110 em-ployees dedicated exclusively to folding, tagging, bagging, and packaging garments for Liberty customers. Rice estimates approximately 300,000 garments per week pass through his division from Liberty's screen-printing and embroidery shop and on to customers and retail outlets.

Liberty's high-volume finishing operation exemplifies a one-stop approach to order fulfillment using high-volume automated equipment. But the range of tools for streamlining this end of the production process also includes simple and inexpensive manual devices designed for smaller shops. As we unfold the machinery behind these services, think of ways they could benefit your own company.

One call does it all

Your shop may offer tagging, folding, and/or bagging services for a single reason: one-stop shopping. If a customer can call just one shop to order the design, printing, folding, bagging, and shipping, that one shop might as well be yours.

"In today's market, folding and packaging is a bigger and bigger deal," Rice explains. "Everybody wants turnkey packages. And we're seeing more and more direct shipments from the printer to the merchant; it's just less handling for the [customers]."

Liberty is able to offer this service to its customers because of its phenomenal size. The company enjoyed about $13 million in sales in 1996 and has the resources to support a finishing line with entirely automatic folding and bagging machinery. Many smaller screen-printing shops offer little if any folding, bagging, and tagging services--but it's not necessarily because of the expense. Instead, it's tied closer to the brand of customers smaller shops draw.

"I don't think a lot of my customers have enough orders to afford bagging, even if I offered it," says Chip Heath, founder and owner of Heath Screenprinting, Los Angeles, CA. "The same goes with tagging: My customers don't want it or need it. But I do have a folding board, and offer folding to my customers who want it." Heath receives most of his orders from high school academic clubs and local sports teams, most of which do not have the need for finishing services.

However, using a manual folding board, Heath and one other employee can fold up to 1000 shirts in just a few hours, which is usually fast enough for his purposes. Unless he pursues bigger orders--such as licensed college apparel--he says he probably doesn't stand to gain much from purchasing large automatic tagging, folding, and bagging equipment. But if his customers start asking for it, or if he finds he's losing customers because he doesn't have it, he might start with entry-level tagging and bagging equipment and work his way up.

Tip of the iceberg

Garment tagging, folding, and bagging machines are not part of one industry, but rather part of several different industries that each claim the machines as their own. You'll find this equipment in companies that do screen printing, embroidery, dry cleaning, sewing, and in many smaller niche markets in the textile/garment-manufacturing industry.

One screen-printing shop owner speculates that automatic tagging, folding, and bagging machine manufacturers probably don't target garment printers because most machines are sold to garment manufacturers. And since many retailers prefer to display decorated garments unbagged for consumers to inspect, they don't often call for bagging services from printers. Finally, screen printers may get frustrated constantly reconfiguring the automatic tagging, folding, and bagging machines for different orders--first T-shirts, and then sweatshirts, then sweatpants, etc.

If customer demand is forcing your shop to look at folding, bagging, and tagging equipment, know that prices start at about $45 for a manual folding board and $10,000-20,000 for an entry-level automatic folding machine capable of processing thousands of garments per hour. Many of the available systems are custom made to fit your needs--and your budget.

Tagging equipment

Let's say you print Superbowl T-shirts for the NFL. When the order comes in, the league may require not only a beautiful print, but also that each T-shirt carry the "Officially Licensed Product of the NFL" tag, usually pinned with a 1-in. plastic tie (or "barb") to the chest of the shirt or pierced to the garment tag on the collar. Your job is to not only deliver the print, but to tag each T-shirt, as well. Whether you decide on automatic or manual tagging equipment to accomplish this task, your operation will need the tagging machine, employees to operate the machine, a supply of replacement needles, and the barbs to affix the tags on garments.

You will also need the tags. But Paul Benson, plant manager for tagging equipment manufacturer MDM Inc., Archdale, NC, explains that in many cases, the customer supplies the tags--usually paper tags no bigger than a playing card. "Your bigger screen printers might have their own printing facility in-house where they can generate their own tags, but a lot of customers, like Nike, furnish the tags." No matter where the tags originate, your next decision is selecting the machine to apply them.

Each of the two primary varieties of tagging systems--manual and automatic--has their advantages. While automatic tagging machines are faster and can be easily incorporated into your production line, manual tagging guns are cheaper (about $20 per gun plus supplies) and offer your shop an increased level of quality control. Tagging guns also allow you to switch tags at a moment's notice during a run. The disadvantages are that you must pay employees to operate the tagging guns, and the guns are slower than automatic equipment.

Most manual tagging guns look about the same: a hand-held pistol grip device designed for tagging most textile items, including T-shirts, towels, coats, etc. The same basic gun design is used by screen printers, garment manufacturers, retail stores, and even the carpet and upholstery industries.

An example of a common brand of tagging gun is shown in Figure 1. Variations in the guns come primarily from the amount of tags that can be loaded and the design of the needle; tougher and thicker fabrics call for thicker needles, while delicate fabrics need thinner needles. Manual tagging guns are available from a variety of sources, including National Clothier Supply Co. (Santa Fe Springs, CA), Dismar Corp. (Pennsauken, NJ), and many others.

For automatic tagging machines, Benson gives this insight: "Many tagging machines are custom made, and the manufacturer takes that design and sells it to other companies."

Most automatic tagging machines are pneumatic, and operate similarly. The section of the garment to be tagged is placed over a projecting anvil. The operator switches the machine on with either a pedal or hand switch, at which point the machine feeds a barb with a tag. A needle passes by through a hole in the tag or the tag itself, and is affixed to the garment. The needle retracts and the operator is able to remove the garment. Most automatic taggers can accomplish this cycle in less than 3 sec.

Here are some of the more common automatic and manual tagging machines on the market:

MAT Series automated tagging machines, from MDM Inc., Archdale, NC, include the MAT I, II, and III. Companies like Liberty Screenprinting and Nike use MDM machines to put price tags and identity tags on T-shirts. The pneumatic machines are designed for various materials, and the company offers them for inline production with labeling machines or other automatic equipment.

• GAP 1000 Auto Tagger, from NEDCO Inc., Lithonia, GA, features an adjustable hopper that holds 400 tags and 1000 barbs at a time. The pneumatic tagger clamps the garment during tagging, freeing the operator's hand for the next garment pickup. The machine has adjustable tagging height and uses the popular Avery Dennison "Swiftach" barbs.

Texpak Automated Tag Feeder, from Texpak, Franklin Square, NY, feeds and attaches tags in three different sizes and shapes onto a garment. Each hopper on the unit's feeder easily adjusts as tag dimensions change. Tag feeders can be used together or separately depending on production requirements. The tag feeders are designed primarily for use with the Avery Dennison tagging machines, which feature 1000 fasteners per clip.

Manual Tag Fastener Gun from SemaSys, Inc., Oklahoma City, OK, is designed for manually attaching pricing or identification tags to a garment. Op-erators simply pass the gun's needle through the garment, press the trigger, and a fastener pushes through to the other side.

Avery Dennison Swiftacher Tagging Gun, distributed by such companies as National Clothier Supply, Santa Fe Springs, CA, is like many tagging guns, featuring a pistol grip handle that reduces hand fatigue. The gun can accommodate rolls of 1000 fine-filament barbs for a broad range of fabrics and is designed to provide smoother operation and less jamming than previous models.

Folding equipment

Once the garments are tagged, it's time to fold. A decade ago, more than 20 US companies manufactured automatic folding machines worthy of NFL-sized orders. Now less than half of those companies remain in the garment-folding business. The reason varies depending on whom you ask; some say that heavy competition and underbidding reduced the number of companies, while others attribute the trend to a mature industry. At any rate, the fewer manufacturers offering such equipment has made shopping easier for screen printers.

When looking at folding machines--manual or automatic--you'll find that folding widths and lengths varies depending on customer preferences, intended use, and the nature of the garment itself. In other words, most equipment is manufactured to your custom specifications. When introducing folding machines into your own shop, coordinate the machine's folding size with any other equipment in your shop (especially bagging machines) and customer preferences.

When the need for folding arises, many shops are satisfied with a home-built folding board made of cardboard, wood, or plastic. A skilled employee using such a device might fold one shirt every 10 sec. By rotating several employees at this task, levels upwards of 3000 folded shirts per day are possible.

One of the few manual garment-folding boards mass-marketed in the US is the Fast Fold Manual Garment-Folding Board, from Zac Zoe Enterprises, Santa Ana, CA. The board, about 3 x 4 ft in size, is specifically designed for the quick, repetitive folding of short- and long-sleeve shirts.

The board is separated into three vertical panels. The shirt is placed on the center panel (face up or face down, depending on the placement of the decoration), with the sleeves draped over both side panels. Each side panel is manually pulled up and returned to fold the garment's sleeves. A fourth and smaller panel from the bottom is then raised and returned to give the garment a horizontal fold. The board works for both right and left-handed operators and reportedly allows them to accurately fold a shirt in 8 sec.

Primarily a garment manufacturer and not a printing shop, Zac Zoe developed the Fast Fold for internal use. "We needed a way to have precise folds," said Teresa McLain, Zac Zoe sales manager. "We had so many people folding by hand that we couldn't achieve the same exact fold every time. We couldn't afford an automatic folder, nor did we have the room. Besides, we needed to inspect each shirt along the line. So we needed something that as we were folding, the operator could be inspecting at the same time."

McLain says in addition to small screen-printing shops with few resources, the manual folding board is also popular with larger shops as a back-up device to automatic folding equipment. In addition, larger shops use manual folding boards for smaller jobs and for times when the automatic machines are overloaded with large orders. She said that with the Fast Fold, most folding jobs are completed within a few hours using just a few employees. "We fold about 30,000 shirts per week, and we only have about two to four girls doing it."

In cases where many thousands of folded garments per day are needed, the advantages of an automatic folder and/or bagger become clearer. Most automatic folding and bagging systems operate similarly, and even at 1000 garments/hr, require just two employees. The machines require at least 80 psi of compressed air and operate on 120v of electricity.

Let's say the machine folds a long-sleeve T-shirt. At the front end, an employee places the garment--face up and tail forward--on the folder's infeed conveyor table, also called the drape table. (Hint: When shopping for folding machines, look for a drape table that will accommodate the full width of your garment to allow for a final visual inspection of the garment before it's folded.) At this point, the shirt's sleeves will drape down towards the floor on either side.

The machine starts with the push of a button, or sometimes the machines are rigged so that an electric eye senses the placed garment and cycles the machine automatically. Once the folding machine starts, an electric conveyor table first pulls the garment through a pneumatic sleeve folding mechanism. The shirt's right and left sleeves are folded simultaneously and tucked behind the shirt with chrome-plated steel "tucker" folding bars. The machine folds the sleeves half way towards the center and half way back out so that the wristbands face out at the edge of the garment. The folding machine then folds the width and length of the garment--this time using thin pneumatic steel tucker plates (instead of bars).

At this point, the folding process is complete. The electric conveyor then delivers the shirt to the other end of the machine, where the second employee takes the garment off the folder and has several choices to make, depending on the order. If the order calls for individually bagging each garment, the operator may place the garment at the head of the bagging machine. If the garments are not bagged, the operator may want to stack the shirt either manually or by using an automatic stacking machine.

Sometimes, the bagging equipment is put in line with the folding machine, and the second operator is not needed until after the garment completes both the folding and bagging processes. It's also common that once the garments are folded, they are then shipped to the customer or retailer. Many garment retailers do not require individually bagged garments--especially T-shirts--because the garments are displayed on racks with hangers for customer inspection.

In cases where bagging of individual garments is required, one feature sometimes added to the folding machine is a card feed unit. This addition inserts a thin piece of cardboard or chipboard around which the garment is folded. The board makes for a rigid package when the garment is displayed in a retail setting. You've probably seen the results of a card feed in packages of mens' underwear or dress shirts.

The technology of folding machines hasn't changed much in the past 20 years, but the names have. Taking a look at today's market, the following are among the most common automatic folding machines sold to screen printers:

• T-Master I and II are entry-level automatic folding machines from NEDCO. A more complex folding machine from NEDCO is the E-Z Fold 1000 (Figure 2), which company owner Jack Dodson says can fold up to 1000 units/hr. The E-Z Fold features Teflon-coated contact points for easy garment passage and four adjustable actuators for the sleeve tuckers and the folding plate for standard width ranges from 4-12 in. The E-Z Fold 1000 is sized comparably with other folding machines, at about 140-in. long, 30-in. wide, and 50-in. tall. As with other folding equipment, NEDCO products can be purchased independently or as a system.

• The Universal 1500, manufactured by Southland Equipment Co., Loganville, GA, is an automatic folding machine for T-shirts and casual shirts, sweat pants, pants, dresses, towels, and most other garment products. The machine, which folds up to 30 items/min., features 5 x 6- to 12 x 18-in. finished fold size, standard drape table, optional card-feed unit, and standard fold-width adjustment. Bagging and sealing equipment is easily integrated into the system.

Southland also manufactures the Universal LS-1500 long sleeve folding attachment for long-sleeve garments. The attachment can accommodate all garment sizes from children's through 4X, with minimal adjustments. Changeover from long-sleeve garments to short sleeve is achieved with the touch of a button.

• The K-795 (MF-12) is one of several automatic folding machines manufactured by Amscomatic Inc., Winder, GA. Using this machine's touch pad, operators are able to change folding sequences, track production rates, and compile a preventative maintenance log. Also designed for a wide array of garments, the machine folds up to 30 units/min. Standard folding widths range from 5-12 in., although widths up to 14 in. are available. Other features include automatic card insertion, in-line automatic bagging mechanism, and continuous belt feed. The K-795 measures 144-in. long, 25-in. wide, and 46-in. tall.

As an accessory to the folder/bagger, Amscomatic offers the AS-100 automatic stacker (Figure 3). The freestanding self-contained stacker will arrange folded garments in selected counts in stacks up to 12-in. tall. The stack is then indexed into an accumulation area, which has the capacity for three completed stacks. The stocks of folded garments are ready for quick loading into boxes or movement to another process in the production line.

Manufacturers and Suppliers

AMF Reece
8080 AMF Dr.
Mechanicsville, VA 23111
804-559-5000, fax: 804-559-5210
Automatic and semi-automatic bagging machines
 
Amscomatic, Inc.
815 Progress Dr., Ste. F
Winder, GA 30680
770-868-5400, fax: 770-868-5401
Tagging, labeling, folding, bagging, and sealing machines
 
Dismar Corp.
4415 Marlton Pike
Pennsauken, NJ 08109-4494
800-347-6271, fax: 609-488-1664
E-mail: dismar@aol.com
Hand tagging guns and barbs
 
Lung Meng Machinery, Inc. U.S.A.
8952 NW 24th Terr.
Miami, FL 33172
305-591-3388, fax: 305-591-9356
Web: http://www.lungmeng.thomasregister.com/olc/lungmeng
Automatic bagging machines and bag-manufacturing machines
 
MDM Inc.
3135 Tuttle Rd.
Archdale, NC 27263-7933
336-861-6666, fax: 336-861-1999
Automatic tagging and labeling machines, in-line label applicator
 
NCS National Clothier Supply
PO Box 3706
Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670-1706
800-621-4118, fax: 800-527-2488
Web: http://www.ncs-apparel.com
Hand-held tagging guns, barbs, and needles
 
NEDCO, Inc.
(National Equipment Development Co.)
2374 St. Mt. Lithonia Rd., Ste. B13
Lithonia, GA 30058
770-978-9606, fax: 770-484-9643
E-mail: jack@nedcofold.com
Web: http://www.nedcofold.com
Automatic folding, bagging, and packaging machines
 
Pacemaker Packaging Corp.
7200 51st Rd.
Flushing, NY 11377
718-458-1188, fax: 718-429-2907
Automatic folding and bagging machines
 
SemaSys, Inc.
130 NE 50th St.
Oklahoma City, OK 73152-3444
http://www.semasys.com
800-654-8435, fax: 405-525-3113
Hand-held tagging and pricing guns
 
Southland Equipment Co., Inc.
5059 Skyline Dr.
Loganville, GA 30249
phone/fax: 770-466-0601
Automatic folding machines, attachments, and bagging machines
 
Texpak, Inc.
130 New Hyde Park Rd.
Franklin Square, NY 11010
516-326-7720, 800-645-3416
fax: 516-326-7970
Web: http://www.texpac.com
e-mail: info@texpac.com
Automated tagging machines
 
ZacZoe Enterprises, Inc.
1503 E. McFadden Ave.
Santa Ana, CA 92705
714-245-0449, fax: 714-245-0200
Manual garment folding and bagging equipment


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