Over the last decade we have all heard a lot about U.S. companies that have moved their manufacturing operations overseas for cheap labor. There is, however, a growing trend to bring many of those jobs back home. In doing so, companies are rediscovering that "Made in the USA" is a term synonymous with quality workmanship and homegrown pride.
Ted Evans realized this when he started Lone Star Canvas & Sign Works, an Abilene company that manufactures custom canvas and vinyl products for a diverse customer base. Their product line ranges from utility lift bags, truck tarps, patio enclosures, commercial and residential awnings, to oil field products, boat covers, signs and decals, just to name a few!
One of the company's signature products is a utility lift bag which is used primarily in wind energy. Technicians who service wind turbines must have a way to "lift" their tools to the top of these structures in a safe manner. In many cases, this process involves moving 300 to 400 lbs. of tools up to 300 feet in the air by an electric wench atop the turbine.
Given the need for safety in lifting such a heavy load to that height, wind turbine service companies require a lift bag that can handle the job. Lone Star’s "GE-1 Lift Bag" has become the standard for 600 lb. tool bags used in the industry. Constructed of highly durable 22 oz. black vinyl and reinforced with 6000 lb. 2" webbing, the bags are reinforced with double layers of vinyl and neoprene.
Just how good are Lone Star's products? The company's lift bag is purchased by international customers like General Electric, AES Wind Generation, EDP Renewables, EDF Energy, NRG Energy, Gexpro Energy Solutions, Rexel Holdings USA and Duke Energy who use this product in their daily maintenance operations. Lone Star's commercial-grade truck tarps are utilized by one of our nation's largest peanut processors, Birdsong Peanuts of Brownfield, Texas and numerous agricultural operations throughout West Texas for grain and cotton transport.
Talk to any economic development professional in the country and you will learn that the future of a community's economy is largely based on helping its existing businesses to grow and expand. A recently approved assistance package with the Development Corporation of Abilene (DCOA) has positioned Lone Star Canvas to do that very thing.
To ensure the highest possible quality, the company manufactures every product by hand. This involves spreading a piece of material over a long table and cutting out each piece using a pattern. However, this process puts a great deal of demand on labor and therefore limits the company's growth potential.
The DCOA provided an assistance package enabled the company to acquire a new piece of equipment, automating this labor-intensive first step in the manufacturing process. The equipment that was purchased is referred to as a "plotter/cutter" and uses computer-aided design to cut patterns in the material with exacting precision.
Once the material is placed on the cutting table, the operator loads a design file and executes the cutting process with the click of a mouse. A circular blade at the head of a motor-controlled arm then moves back and forth across the table, an action similar to that of a CNC machine as it cuts a piece of metal. An added benefit includes high-powered fans used to create a vacuum, pulling the fabric tightly against the table.
The unique design of this tool allows for any shape or variation in design and ensures uniformity as each cut is exactly the same. Automating this process has drastically reduced the company’s production time. A process that once took 30 to 45 minutes, has now been reduced to just 5.
The company currently employs 12 people, but with the addition of the new cutting equipment, that number will likely double. It is estimated that the company generates $2.6 million in direct economic output each year with an additional spin-off value that will produce $1.7 million in economic output per year as a result of the local operations. In total, the company will support $4.4 million in economic output per year on average and is expected to grow even more in the near future.
As more companies look to purchase products that are "Made in the USA," it's nice to know that a growing number are, "Made in Abilene."