Tech Type #2: Design and Production

This is the second entry in our Tech Type series where we explore the technical aspects of our products. For this episode I will be describing the process of designing a new product from initial idea to the first sale. 

Step 1: Brainstorming

New products for any company generally start the same way: Sitting down and talking it out. Brad and I meet at Nock Corp HQ in Eagles Landing, GA. We sit and discuss not only what we want personally but what we think you guys want as well. Sketches are drawn, and over the next few days we go back and forth, sending each other updates on sketches and other changes we would like to see. On our Hightower case, the discussion was on the height of the notebook and pen slots as well as the length of the flap that covers the pens. These are details that are easier to think about on paper before moving to sampling.

Step 2: Finalizing Sketches and Creating a Pattern

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Once the sketches are decided upon we move to creating a digital pattern. This means setting the final measurements. We have taken into consideration, since our first meeting, standardized pen slots and notebook sleeves. This makes some of our dimensions fixed based on company wide design standards. When creating the holster style pen case we keep these things in mind: Pens are different lengths, so the flap and strap relationship must be able to accommodate a number of styles. The length the strap has to be such that it can allow for three slim ball points or three thick fountain pens to fit and keep the flap snug. The depth of the pen slots determines the height of the front sleeve and the overall length of the closed case. Once we have our measurements defined and add the seam allowance (which varies with different processes in each case) we start digitizing. By creating a series of squares we can define all of our exterior measurements before we add in angles or rounded sections.

Step 3: Nesting and Cutting

After our pattern is digitized we move to the cutting software and nest the pieces. We typically use two different materials for our products, one for the exterior and another for the interior. This means that we have to make two separate cut layouts. The nesting process has a drag and drop interface that allows us to create a Tetris style set up with the least amount of material waste possible. This process is integral to maintaining not just consistency in product but also to maintain a competitive price point. Keeping things efficient is one of the most important parts of manufacturing. Along with the layout, we calculate the material usage of the product and validate the price point to see if the case is even feasible to make at all.

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Step 4: First Prototypes

At this point, we take the cut pieces and assemble them into cases. We’re not trying to create a perfect product that we could sell. We want to see where we are with the pattern. If the pieces fit together, if the dimensions hold what we want, if some function that we thought we’d have is missing. The holsters are tricky to get the angles correct so that they function well empty or full. This is also where we can play around with different stitch patterns or product aesthetics. The first prototype looks like a distant inbred relative of what the final will be with top-stitches all over and squared corners where rounded corners will be, etc.

The second prototype is more refined as we work through issues one at a time. With the Brasstown case we went from a four pen tongue to a six pen tongue with more distance at the end so it lay outside of the case further. We also changed the dimensions of the tongue altogether so the case would open a little more easily and also tapered the sides so the top was wider than the base.

Step 5: Samples and Color Options

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Brad and I meet at HQ again and he sees the prototype for the first time. He uses it for a few days, and we talk about it more. We may change a few more things about the pattern digitally or, minor things like this stitch looks weird or add padding here, etc. Once the design aspect of the product is complete we look through our fabric books. We have books from several vendors in leather, nylon, and polyester that we flip through. Looking through these books is quite the process. Holding potential exteriors up to potential liners, then you add in the thread book…it’s a lot to sort out. Some color pairings we know are good when first seeing it, which is how we chose our signature colors Midnight and Blue Jay. Upon deciding, we order a sample yard and essentially make a new color prototype. Then we live with it, use it, show it off to the people in our lives, and see what they say about the functionality or colors or if there is something that more than one person really thinks it needs.

Step 6: Final Sample and Production Planning

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After we go through feedback and finalize the product design it’s time to address the production process. Cutting is easy: We press go. Sewing and assembly is the tricky part. Which part goes where and at what point? We have some cases that are flat with relatively few steps from first stitch to last. Others require multiple steps including turning parts inside out and top stitching at certain times. I make two, five or ten of a specific case before knowing the most efficient assembly process. This is also where I create a process sheet with seam allowances for each piece, including the development of different marking tools to make the measuring process easier. Next we match likes with likes: .25” seam allowance with .25” seam allowance, sewing this panel and that panel in series. It allows me the opportunity to decide how many machines we will need to have in the production process and what other cases the new case can be manufactured with. We also decide where the tag will be placed. Then it is go time.

Step 7: Production

When it’s time to make inventory we start with putting together master cut sheets with 20 to 100 of the case. Cutting is a one man job but after every piece is cut and sorted others come in and help us assemble. It might be one other person or three; that is determined by the number of machines decided earlier.

Step 8: Quality Control

As our very own big brother operation we check each case before it is packed or sent out because it is important to us that you get the best. This could be just snipping a loose thread or checking the pen slots to make sure we are still within our tolerance. How does the flap align with the case overall? These are all important things that you may never notice, but we do. Brad and I don’t want to match the quality of other cases on the market, we want them to have to come up and match us.

Step 9: Packaging

We design packaging for each product so we can standardize them and make sure that everyone is getting a consistent experience when opening a package from Nock Corporation.

Step 10: Use it!

You open your package and use your new Nock co. case until its ruin.

 

Tech Type #1 : Machinery in brief

This is the first entry in our Tech Type series where we explore the technical aspects of our products. First up a brief introduction to the machinery we use in manufacturing. 

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 Here at Nock Corporation, we are not afraid of technology. The fact that we design all of our patterns digitally is nothing special but having the ability to use a CNC cutting machine really sets us apart. Many other divisions of soft goods still utilize a giant jig saw that cuts up to 50 layers of fabric at a time and probably cut out some item of clothing you are wearing right now. The operators of these devices are highly skilled, or thumbless. Using the CNC machine keeps all of our cuts consistent and efficient. This is part of the reason we can stay competitive with imported goods. We start by creating the digital pattern and then nesting and plotting out a cut sheet. This is done by selecting the pattern pieces that will be cut and playing a game of Tetris. We are able to greatly minimize waste by doing this effectively. After our cut sheet is created we lay out our material, turn on the vacuum to hold the raw material in place, press go, and watch as a rotary blade cuts out our product pieces.

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For assembly we use a number of sewing machines and jigs that help maintain a high quality product. For general assembly we use a Juki walking foot machine. A walking foot sewing machine is different than a standard home/domestic machine because it doesn’t just feed from the underside of the fabric (those teeth are called feed dogs). The mechanism above the fabric where the needle is located has a set of feet, instead of one, that alternate contact with the material. This alternating/walking action allows for more and equal pressure to the material to provide less slipping of the different layers of fabric. A standard presser foot can create bunching due to it creating uneven friction between the top and lower layers of fabric depending on the operators skill. We do use a 1970’s Singer presser foot machine for sample making, some assembly process, and binding operations.

The binding that can be found on some of our products is attached with a simple jig. This jig folds the binding in half to create an even amount of binding on both sides of the products. It’s not highly technical but it is a great time saver and really improves consistency.

For the divisions between pens and notepads we will be using a bar tacker sewing machine. A bar tacker creates the stitch that adheres belt loops to jeans and many mass produced khakis (dress pants try to avoid top-stitching details oftentimes). The bar tacker is set to a certain number of stitches and length. Upon pressing the pedal it will go through a series of zigzag stitching and straight lock-stitch to create a lasting, mil-spec, top-stitch.

What does all of this mean to you? It means you get to use some of the best designed and crafted cases around. Next up, we will be going through the process of creating a product for sale and our Nock Co. workflow.

Nock Co. - Made In The USA

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In the pen case industry, most products are produced in Japan, Taiwan, or China. These countries of origin often carry a negative connotation concerning quality, and I disagree with that sentiment. There are quality manufacturing facilities everywhere. The fact is, foreign factories can offer a lower cost-per-unit and a lot of manufacturing has moved overseas during the last two decades to take advantage of that. Here at Nock Co. we believe we can stay competitive by manufacturing our cases here in the USA, and that is exactly what we intend to do.

While we could manufacture anywhere in the world, why not choose to do it within miles of where we live? Why not own the equipment and cut costs passed to the consumer even more? I have been producing products on my own for going on six years here in the States, doing most of the production myself. I am able to keep a close eye on production quality this way (as some of you have seen with the Mod.02 from Alter MFG) and keep the proper inventory on hand. What that means for Nock Co. is we can offer small batches in exclusive colorways and styles to our customers. For us, it makes sense to produce in a place where we can instantly manipulate the outcome of our product. This allows us to be price competitive with overseas manufacturers while maintaining a short design and production turnaround.

Those following us know that we started this process just under a month ago. The fact that we can produce all of our products in house has allowed us to move rapidly from pen and paper, to prototype, to samples, and as you will see very soon, actual finished products, with almost no down time. We aren’t waiting on samples from an international shipper or limiting ourselves by having to buy thousands of units in a single colorway. 

We are proud to be produced in the USA just as factories in Japan should be proud to be produced there. Brad or myself touch every product that is made to make sure quality is maintained, packaging is correct, and you are getting what you paid for. We couldn't commit to that unless we maintained everything in-house, and we are thrilled to be able to do so.

We appreciate the support we have received so far and can’t wait to see what the future holds!