Clemson University researchers team up with fabric maker
Scores of weaving machines created a deafening roar as a Clemson University team watched taut strands of yarn turn into neat rolls of fabric that will become outdoor furniture, convertible tops and a variety of other products.
The team has developed computer simulations that have helped suggest new equipment purchases and ways of preventing back-ups. The simulations help the company change tack to adapt to changing business conditions, such as an increase in orders or the addition of new inspection machines.
“It’s all about improving their manufacturing effectiveness, keeping their costs down and their customers happy,” said Scott Mason, who is the Fluor Endowed Chair in Supply Chain Optimization and Logistics at Clemson.
Glen Raven is a global company with 3,000 employees and multiple brands, including its flagship, Sunbrella. Markets served include decorative fabrics, shade fabrics and automotive.
Clemson’s team has largely focused on the manufacturing facility in Anderson, the company’s largest with 650 employees spread over nearly 1 million square feet.
Randy Blackston, the vice president of operations for Glen Raven, said that he connected with Clemson because he wanted to be smart about growing as the company bounced back from the Great Recession of 2009.
“We are becoming a more complex business by entering new markets and offering new products,” Blackston said. “This trend increases complexity. The simulation model is helping us manage the complexity. Becoming efficient as complexity increases demanded that we use better tools to make decisions.”
About $20 million in capital spending in three years has been based on the Clemson research, he said. It includes a robotic warping machine, the only one of its type in the world, Blackston said.
The Clemson team also developed models to test an “off-load table” to make sure that if the company made the capital investment, it would produce the desired result.
The table is now part of Glen Raven’s operation. As rolls head to a packing machine, the table takes rolls off of a conveyor belt to avoid back-ups. When fewer rolls are coming down the chute, the rolls return to the line to get bagged.
“We modeled it with simulation and animation,” Mason said. “We could show them the rolls moving.”
Several students have been involved in the research project, helping give the next generation of industrial engineers real-world experience.
Katie Phillips, a junior from Rock Hill, started working at Glen Raven as part of a co-op program that usually lasts three semesters. She was asked to stay on longer.
“I love it here,” Phillips said. “I think it’s the perfect application for industrial engineering.”
The Clemson faculty members overseeing the project are Mason and Kevin Taaffe, an associate professor and graduate coordinator for the industrial engineering program. The research project is part of the university’s involvement in the Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution.
The team’s focus this year is on the weaving room, but it has also analyzed operations in the yarn-manufacturing and warping areas.
Cole Smith, the chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering, said the project is an example of what helps set Clemson research apart from other universities.
“We put a lot of our research into practice with industry,” he said. “The Department of Industrial Engineering has made great strides in balancing our research portfolio between analytical development and industrial application.
“This project truly exemplifies how IE researchers improve industrial operations and lead economic development. Just as importantly, the Glen Raven project affords our students an unparalleled experience in applying the lessons they learn in the IE curriculum.”