While power has always been a consideration for many apparel-producing regions, the US state of California is just waking up to its energy crisis. With electricity and the economy uppermost in their minds, manufacturers and industry veterans who attended the recent Sewn Products Expo Los Angeles had one thing in common: to create a leaner, meaner apparel company.

"The [Californian] energy crisis as well as the stock market has put the economy on everyone's minds," explained Leonard Horowitz, executive director of the Textile Association of Los Angeles (TALA). Because of that, Horowitz added: "I'm seeing a lot more people interested in ways to innovate their business. Our industry is looking for that next generation of technology to help companies become more streamlined. And now the energy crisis is another thing we have to contend with. ... People are now looking for attachments that will make their machinery more energy efficient."

Warren Hartenstine, western regional sales manager of Gerber Technology Inc, also said he has seen electricity leap to the top of the list of industry concerns. Customers are asking for information about the kilowatt-hour usage levels of different types of equipment, he noted.

"There are other places in the world where we sell our product where power has always been a consideration…People here are just waking up to it"

"It's definitely a concern," agreed William Staples Jr, vice president of North American sales for Gerber. "There are other places in the world where we sell our product where power has always been a consideration. ... People here are just waking up to it."

One person who has been jolted awake is Howard Barmazel, president of Northridge Mills, a sewing contractor based in San Fernando, CA. "In my business I spend $3,500 a month [on electricity] on average, and that's going to go up 50 per cent."

In an effort to put the brakes on his escalating electricity bill, Barmazel has been making little changes in his factory - switching lights, water heaters and air conditioner motors with more energy efficient products and machinery. He also may upgrade his approximately 50 sewing machines with new, less energy-gobbling motors at $1,000 a pop.

However, after looking around SPELA, he opted to double his budget, spending $2,000 for an entirely new sewing machine, which can only be turned on if the pedal is held down. "Right now my machines are actually on only 15 to 20 per cent of the time tops, but [the motors] are running all the time," he noted. "I'm not sure exactly what I'll save, but since I'm confident my electricity bill will go up $50,000 a year ... [with] these new machines, I will save at least that much."

Eugene Ray of Los Angeles-based General Boiler Steam Equipment Co, which sells both natural gas and electric boilers, observed that in spite of environmental and easy-installation advantages, electric boilers have become somewhat of a pariah these days. "Everybody is saying, 'We want gas,' " he said.

Although electric boilers are less expensive to purchase, they are often 20 per cent to 25 per cent more expensive to run than gas models. "Now, with the energy crisis, that will probably double," Ray added.

Commitment to technology
Along with fretting about kilowatts, SPELA attendees and exhibitors alike reported a growing commitment to technology. Robert McKee of the Fashion Industry Application Center (a part of the software firm Intentia) noted: "From what we've seen on the West Coast, the apparel industry has been very quick to embrace technology. There has been a high level of recognition that integrated systems are a key element for the future success of their organisations and will hopefully lead them to greater profitability."

Kristin Gloviak, sales director and head of US marketing for Pad System Technologies, agreed, noting that more West Coast apparel firms are ready to invest in automation. "They know that if they are on the Internet, if they have e-mail, but they're still doing manual patterns, they're really behind," she said, adding that Southern California's small-sized manufacturers are among the technology implementers.

Hans Maas, designer for the Los Angeles-based women's apparel company Designs Today, said he ventured to the trade show specifically to find little items that would help speed up his business. "I found some automatic scissors, which are portable and easy for the cutters to [use]. ... [They are] easier on the hands, which also makes the employees happy," he noted.

Both Pad System and Tukatech Inc reported strong interest in software systems that would allow the mom-and-pop shop to plot patterns via service bureaus that each software company has set up. "The cost of the plotter is what usually stops most people from buying," said Gloviak. "But we offer software that makes and sizes patterns. You can have the software on your home computer, and modem your files to our service bureau[s]."

Likewise, Sonia Chhabra, marketing manager of Tukatech Inc, pointed out that Tukatech's service bureaus are ideal for smaller manufacturers, "who aren't ready to purchase a system but are ready to go on a computer."

In addition to plotting patterns, Tukatech's service centres, six of which have opened or are scheduled to open in Southern California, will feature workstations that students or manufacturers can use, Chhabra said.

Bringing operations back in-house
Whether in the area of pre-production or manufacturing, outsourcing has long maintained a high degree of popularity among Southern California's apparel companies. Yet

several manufacturers trolling the aisles of SPELA reported a desire to find machinery that would bring certain operations back in-house.

"Several manufacturers trolling the aisles of SPELA reported a desire to find machinery that would bring certain operations back in-house"

Dale Lane, production manager of the women's active sportswear company Marcea, said he came to SPELA specifically to find labellingequipment. "In the past we've had our woven labels pre-made, while we make our other labels in-house. But now we want to do both operations on one label," he explained. "We're looking for convenience and flexibility as far as the information we want on the labels, [such as] wash care [and] fabric content. Basically, we want one label to say everything. It probably will have minimum cost-effectiveness, but allow us overall control of the garment."

Donald Larsen, vice president of sales for Paxar Corp, which introduced its latest identification technology at the trade show, said Paxar hadgreat response from manufacturers that were either interested in bringing their labelling operations in-house for greater control, or wanted to upgrade to more efficient labelling machinery. He said attendees were particularly interested in the firm's Trac Tag, which prints barcodes on price tags, speeding distribution and reducing retailer chargebacks because the tags can be easily scanned.

An industry evolves
Hartenstine of Gerber admitted that he was taken aback at the many manufacturers at SPELA that expressed interest in the company's cutters and spreaders. "There's so much talk about the industry moving away or moving production offshore ... so that really has been the biggest surprise to us," he said.

Indeed, perhaps the most notable trend at SPELA was not one hot-selling item or new technology but the tenacity and continuing evolution of the Southern California apparel industry itself.

Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association (CFA), expressed excitement about the new designers and firms entering the apparel business. "Every 10 blocks you have a different look, [from] the Orange County surfwear look to the club look on Sunset Boulevard," she said. "All of this means you have people who have ideas [about] what to make for a niche market."

And that broad range of styles will continue to keep the industry humming along, insisted Metchek. "There is no end to [the industry's] complexities and varying needs. There are challenges, [such as] the constant need for updating, integrating and rethinking the way you do business," she pointed out. "But we will never go away as an industry. We will always be here - in what shape or form, who knows? But we will always be here."

By Julie McElwain.