Henry can do in 15 seconds what used to take a team of four up to five minutes.
Designed and built in-house by the Superior Glove Works Ltd. engineering team, ‘Henry’ is a robotic maker of cut-resistant sleeves for people who work around sharp objects.
The device exemplifies the rapid shift century-old Superior Glove has completed over the past decade.
“We have chemical engineers and manufacturing engineers and mechanical engineers, all of this stuff that, when I think back to what we were like before, you wouldn’t know we were in the same business: It has a completely different look and feel,” says Tony Geng, owner and chief executive officer of the Acton, Ont.-based company that makes work and safety gloves and otherbody protection products at two manufacturing facilities in Newfoundland.
The company was founded in 1910 as the Acton Glove Company and Frank Geng, Tony’s father, purchased it and changed the name in 1961.
“When you picture a traditional apparel or textile plant, that’s very much like it was when we started in the business,” Mr. Geng says, recalling “hydraulic presses, cutting machines and industrial sewing machines.”
His dad’s background as a tanner led to an early focus on innovation and vertical integration, as Superior Glove became one of the few producers to tan its own leather.
“Critically, it gave us a wider scope in which to innovate because there is only so much innovation you can do in terms of how you cut and sew a glove,” Mr. Geng says.
Yet, other than adopting Japanese self-sewing technology in the 1980s, Superior Glove maintained slow and steady growth for decades, eventually expanding into the cut-resistant sleeve market. Combined with the rise of lower-cost Asian competition in the early 2000s, Mr. Geng says the incentive to innovate has risen dramatically over the past decade.
“Imagine a continuous, almost cut-proof knit tube that is maybe 1,000 feet long, we have to cut all the sleeves to the proper length and sew the bottom and the top edges and put on the logos and cut thumb holes,” he says, describing the problem Henry was invented to solve. “We used to have to do all of that by hand.”
The first Henry was brought online in 2015 and now the company has four, along with dozens of mechanics and engineers to keep them running smoothly. Mr. Geng says they named the machine after Henry Ford, the late founder of the Ford Motor Company and chief developer of the assembly line technique of mass production, for a couple of reasons: “In the same way Henry Ford invented a new and better way to make cars ... we invented and built are a new and better way to produce protective sleeves,” he says. Also, many of the sleeves the company makes are used by auto workers on the assembly line.
“You can’t just go out onto the market and pick up a sleeve robot,” Mr. Geng says, “and these are supposed to be almost cut-proof sleeves, yet we have to cut hundreds of thousands of them every month.” Using a carbide steel blade that “guillotines” the fabric, Mr. Geng says Henry can complete a sleeve in seconds.
Then there was the issue of sewing on the elastic at the top and bottom of each sleeve, which was a labour-intensive problem even Henry couldn’t solve.
“It is the same material as the underwear elastic, and when we used to have to do that by hand the tension would change from the beginning of the day to the end of the day when the sewer got tired,” Mr. Geng says. “You could pick one up and be able to tell whether it was sewn at eight in the morning versus four in the afternoon.”
For solutions, the company looked to underwear and pantyhose makers with machines that can sew on the same elastic “with perfect tension,” Mr. Geng says. “We kind of borrowed that technology from another industry.”
It’s increasingly important for companies like Superior Glove to invent their own technology or repurpose it from other sectors, says Don Matthew, national sector leader for industrial manufacturing at KPMG Canada.
“In the last decade, there has just been lots of this going on,” Mr. Matthew says. “This is how you differentiate yourself so that you maintain your relevance in the marketplace.”
Superior Glove, which has 391 employees, has also picked up the pace of its new product releases in recent years, with the current goal being to introduce two new varieties of glove every week, or roughly 100 every year.
“Because we also dip gloves, that gives us more room to innovate in terms ofthe formulations for the different coatings,” Mr. Geng says. “We can do a touchscreen-conductive version or make the coating itself more cut-resistant or puncture-resistant or make it more cold-flexible so it can be a winter glove; that sort of thing.”
Innovating production and product development has only accounted for half of the company’s recent transformation, Mr. Geng says, referring to a new rapid-response customer service system spearheaded by his younger brother Joe Geng, Superior Glove’s vice-president of sales and marketing.
“If you were a tech company and you looked at what we do, you’d say it was nothing special, but if you were a glove manufacturer or a textile manufacturer, you’d say we are cutting edge,” Joe Geng says.
The Superior Glove website routinely ranks in the first page of Google search results alongside those of competitors 10 times its size, Joe says, while its Salesforce software allows the company to respond to customer inquiries within minutes.
Rapid-response customer service technology, even in non-consumer-facing industries such as textiles, “has just become the real flavour of the day,” KPMG’s Mr. Matthew says. “If you want to be relevant, if you want to be successful, you’ve got to be out there connected with your customer base, constantly understanding what they want. I would suggest you’re seeing more and more of that approach and it’s becoming more of a necessity to survive.”