Answer: Through reinventing the hand loom – as demonstrated by Southern Weaving Company. Reinvention translates into unrelenting innovation, and the foresight and ability to transform.
Through good times and bad, Greenville, S.C.-based Southern Weaving Company endured for nearly 90 years. That’s due to its relentless innovation, as well as its unfailing strength (a good analogy for the products manufactured).
During its rich history, Southern Weaving Company reinvented itself numerous times to evolve with market needs and changes. Established in 1924, today the company is a leader in the design, development and manufacture of industrial woven products – including nylon, cotton and polyester webbing, as well as webbing and rope made of high tech yarns. The company’s high-performance webbing serves various markets, and applications include industrial slings, fall protection body harnesses, sporting equipment, and hydraulic hose sleeves.
“Our main categories are lifting, fall protection and specialty products, but perhaps our largest category is creating the material used in lifting slings,” says Southern Weaving Company’s CEO Ron Mohling. “We focus on higher tensile strength. Traditionally, slings have been made of wire rope, but production gradually moved to synthetics, because they are lighter weight, stronger and much safer. Synthetics help reduce worker injuries.”
As far as strength, Mohling points out those synthetic products can now lift more than a million pounds.
“We also do specialty items for the sports arena, and we make a whole suite of woven products used for protecting hydraulic hoses,” he says. “These prevent abrasion and, in turn, the breakage that could cause serious injury. We also work with batteries, and we do a lot of cotton pasting belts for the battery manufacturing industry.”
The company’s evolution has been slow but steady. “People don’t like to change, but ultimately they see the wisdom of change, and that has gained us a bigger market share,” observes Mohling.
One reason for that is the company’s products are critical to operations. “We are dealing with human lives,” he points out.
Also, Southern Weaving Company has an experienced management team with decades of knowledge about industrial textiles, narrow fabric and hi-tech webbing design and manufacturing. Further, the company collaborates with customers to develop innovative products and solutions that address difficult situations. It’s a symbiotic partnership.
From the Model T to the Space Shuttle
Founded in 1924 by Jack Burnett and F.L. Murdock, Southern Weaving Company has led the launch of technical textiles into many arenas, from brake pads for the Model T Ford, to structural reinforcement for the shell of inflatable space structures. In between, Southern Weaving Company developed military webbing during World War II and seat belt webbing for automobiles built in the 1950s. The current webbing lineup of high tensile strength narrow fabrics are used in cargo restraint, safety protection, and lifting.
“Burnett and Murdock started the company at a time when the textile industry was growing strongly in the south,” relates Mohling.
By the 1920s, Greenville was considered the “Textile Center of the South” with its numerous cotton mills and rapid production growth. Burnett and Murdock capitalized on this new environment. Their first main focus was manufacturing cotton webbing for brake linings and hood lacings for the Ford Motor Company’s Model Ts.
From there, company reinvention came strong and often.
Late in the 1930s, synthetic fibers were introduced to the textile industry, causing a transition from cotton to nylon and rayon. Southern Weaving Company adapted to these lightweight, high-tenacity fibers and shifted production toward industrial weaving.
During the 1940s, the company expanded its manufacturing to include military webbing and it added dyeing, finishing and treatment capabilities for the demands of WWII. The early synthetic lifting material, now known as sling web, evolved from the military market with a slight reduction in the weight of the products. Embracement of such change sustained the company’s success.
In 1954, Southern Weaving Company was one of the first manufacturers to develop seat belts from a two-ply weave of nylon with rayon middle. This increased the strength of the belts to meet new requirements for the post-war automotive market. Southern Weaving was also one of the first companies to manufacture hose sleeves used to bundle automotive cables to protect hydraulic hoses from abrasion, ultra violet rays, and the elements.
Southern Weaving Company purchased Anderson Narrow Fabrics in 1958 to manufacture cotton webbing from one-inch to 42-inch widths. Then, as polyester entered the industry in the late 1950s and 1960s, the company’s R&D department found that by using polyester (instead of nylon) for automotive seat belts, one could have a thinner product that allowed more yards to be wound up on the retractor and offer a lower stretch product that would better hold the driver’s lower torso into the seat, for increased safety – another major innovation.
Today, the company manufactures products in two locations: Greenville and Anderson S.C.
“Greenville, which measures more than 200,000 square feet, is our flagship operation,” informs Mohling. “It employs close to 200 people, and its focus is high tensile strength products for fall protection and lifting. The Anderson plant is considerably smaller – about 30,000 square feet – and it’s primarily a cotton mill, where we do the heavier and wider pasting belts and products, among other items, for the military.
In September 2011, Southern Weaving Company expanded its manufacturing capabilities through the acquisition of Jones Products, a company specializing in coatings for webbing. The purchase enabled Southern Weaving the ability to add product value.
In August 2012, Southern Weaving Company expanded its manufacturing operation again when it acquired the industrial belt business from Burlan Corporation in Gastonia, N.C. The company relocated the acquired assets to the Anderson facility.
Lean = Mean ROI
At each facility, Southern Weaving Company is very “lean” focused. “We look at ‘Lean’ in terms of return on investment, and that compels us to look at processes throughout the entire company – sales, finance, and marketing – not just operations,” says Mohling. “We define the processes, set up the metrics, and then measure how we are doing. This helps us with goal setting and overall strategic planning. We look at where the industry is headed and where opportunity exists.”
At all facilities, the company is also strongly focused on collaboration. “As we keep getting leaner, we also strive to become a partner to our key clients,” says Mohling. “We innovate, as opposed to merely giving them a catalogue of products. Collaboration makes both parties more profitable.”
Anytime a customer meets a challenge, they look to Southern Weaving Company. Southern Weaving has a working cooperation between major textile universities, such as Clemson University’s School of Textiles, Auburn University, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina State University.
Clients collaborating with Southern Weaving Company include major companies such as 3M, Honeywell, Parker Hannifin, Caterpillar, Liftall, Tompkins Industries, Eaton, Sorfin Yoshimura, Alfagomma, I&I Slings, Titan, and Altec Industries. An example of collaboration: Southern Weaving recently produced a heat-resistant, high-strength woven rope for Smittybilt’s winch line, made of Dyneema with a Technora cover.
Southern Weaving Company also works on confidential projects with organizations like NASA. In June 2012, the company played a vital role in the installation of the Space Shuttle in its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York City. Southern Weaving’s round sling material was used in the slings that lifted the Enterprise from the barge that carried it up from the Hudson River and placed the impressive craft on the flight deck of the USS Intrepid.
Adds Mohling: “Collaboration is part of our desire to maintain long-term relationships, or form new ones.”
Southern Weaving Company is also strongly focused in sustainability. In January 2013, it intensified its efforts in environmental stewardship – reflecting its desire to minimize the social and environmental impacts and risks associated with its products and services (not to mention its overall footprint). All managers are expected to minimize these impacts by monitoring key performance indicators and making improvements where possible, says Mohling.
“Energy consumption is one of our top concerns,” he says. “Our processes use a lot of heat, which burns up a lot of energy. We’re developing more energy efficient ways of doing things, which involves investment in technology. We are also strongly focused on waste – how much material comes into the plant, how much waste goes out to the landfill. Our goal is to get it down to zero; that is, to recycle everything.”
To this end, Southern Weaving Company has initiated a complex, comprehensive recycling program that includes these elements:
- Production waste is sold to a textile waste recycling company, re-melted, and resold to yarn manufacturers;
- Cardboard and paper, including office printer paper is collected and sold to an established recycling company that handles paper exclusively. Waste paper, cardboard, and yarn cores are ground and sold as raw material for various recycled paper manufacturers;
- Waste pallets and wood scrap are being stacked and picked up as raw materials for a company specializing in making new pallets from old ones. Any leftover wood scrap is ground and sold as mulch;
- Scrap steel is collected in a satellite location and hauled by a scrap dealer who sorts it and delivers it to foundries for reprocessing into raw ore;
- Waste machine lubricants and printing inks are picked up and transported by a handler specializing in chemical waste. Once collected, inks and lubricants are delivered to a recycling center where they are re-blended into useable fuel for processes requiring high temperatures. such as foundries and cement kilns;
- All universal waste, such as fluorescent lamps and ballasts, is 100-percent recycled;
- Employees volunteer to recycle cans as part of the sustainability program; and
- All water is transported through a closed sewer system. Only storm water runoff is permitted to exit the property and enter the surrounding environment untreated. Lab analysis of the storm water runoff has indicated that it is well below established pollutant limit set forth by the state.
Further, Joey Griffin, Sr., the company’s director of operations, recently attended Furman University to complete a Post Graduate Diploma on Corporate Sustainability.
“When you first get into something like this, you ask yourself if such things are really possible; but the more you get into it, the more you find that things are indeed possible,” says Mohling, adding that sustainability also makes good dollar sense. “It’s very cost-effective. It is not costing us more to do this, and we end up with a more cost-efficient operation. It just takes commitment and dedication to hard work.”
Sustainability efforts helped Southern Weaving win a Silver Crescent Award. In January 2013, it was one of 11 companies picked to compete for top honors in the 2013 Silver Crescent Awards for Manufacturing Excellence, the acclaimed annual program which recognizes the achievements and contributions of South Carolina’s top manufacturers. Nominations are based on the “7 Crescents of Excellence”: environmental stewardship, citizenship, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, innovation, financial performance and commitment to longevity in South Carolina. Southern Weaving won the award for mid-sized manufacturers.
Coming through the Recession
The company’s long road has been a bit bumpy at times; consider the recent recession. According to the company, it has recently faced constant threat from foreign competition and the failing state of the American economy. Like so many other American companies, it had to make difficult decisions: mandating furloughs, reducing salaries and cutting benefits, among other measures.
But Southern Weaving Company responded to circumstances in positive fashion: For instance, while domestic vendors were increasing prices – threatening the ability to remain competitive – it established a broader supply chain by qualifying and enlisting additional yarn vendors from overseas. With this new sourcing strategy and multiple suppliers in place, the company began rationalizing its product line to remove low-margin, low-volume products. The company also prioritized capital expenditures, investing $1.5 million in new equipment such as looms, twisting and warping machinery, and enhancements to the dyeing process.
Mohling came on board in August 2009, during this hard period. He helped with the restructuring process.
It was time for the company to reinvent itself once again.
With extensive experience in running successful companies, Mohling recommended a complete reexamination of the company and its place in the industry’s future. “We recognize that we’re operating in a different world than we were a few years ago,” he says.
Southern Weaving has not only been reinvented but re-strengthened. The key to that has been adaptation to new products. Today, three fresh and promising fiber choices provide lucrative opportunities:
- Technora, a high-strength and chemical-resistant fiber;
- Vectran, known for its high-temperature thermal strength and stability in hostile environments; and
- Dyneema, a fiber 15 times stronger than steel and 40-percent stronger than Kevlar.
“As with companies in all industries, we are trying to survive in modern times,” says Mohling. “Fortunately, there is a critical need for the products we manufacture.”