Influence of hides on upholstery sector

16 November 2004

In the late 1960s a group of Brazilian shoemakers revealed their emerging industry to the American market. At that time, and subsequently, Brazilian footwear exports, particularly to the USA, were booming. Brazilian tanneries, eager to capitalise on this, invested heavily and prepared to meet the footwear industry's demands for finished leather. However, within a short space of time, while the shoe trade exploded into prosperity, we saw virtually all the tanneries declining into bankruptcy, crippled by the repayments on the loans they had taken out to meet American quality demands. There were numerous theories as to why this happened and accusations were levelled at individuals, partners and even customers. Since the majority of the entrepreneurs were qualified, capable, and efficient, what was the reason for the collapse of the Brazilian tanning industry? We believe that, aside from inflation, high interest rates and concentrated investments with little financial foundation, there was a very specific technical reason: the Brazilian hide itself which is more suited to upholstery production than footwear. Brazilian herd Bovines were first introduced to Brazil during the Portuguese colonisation of the 16th century. In 1550, the first cattle were imported from Cabo Verde and the Iberian Peninsula. European breeds such as Bos taurus were not suited to the central Brazilian climate. Their survival was due to self-managed cross-breeding which resulted in the Crioulo. The Crioulo, or Caracu, was therefore the first fully Brazilian breed and the first European cattle to become acclimatised to the tropics. However, the original stock succumbed in their thousands due to the weak nutritional value of the grass, tropical diseases, climate, and unusual parasites. Those that survived developed specific characteristics which allowed them to survive and procreate, and the Crioulo breed evolved. In the 19th century, German and Italian colonists brought with them pure European breeds to south Brazil. These adapted rapidly to the cold southern weather and by crossing them with the Crioulo, the hardy offspring thrived. The Zebu With the good results of cross-breeding in the south, central and northern farmers began to research ways to achieve a better yield from their herds too. They knew that other breeds, other characteristics, were required to face their tropical environment. So, in 1870, the first Guzerá landed in Brazil, followed soon afterwards by the first Zebu. Its adaptation was astonishingly quick. The Zebu spread all over Brazil, giving their best results in the central and western regions. Their main characteristics are: * Strength. They don't need human interference on parturition * Noteworthy physical force and ability to grow under the severe climatic, nutritional and sanitary adversities of tropical regions * Resistance to parasites and insects * 30% more sweat glands than European breeds * Lower metabolic rate, generating and dispersing less heat, which means more energy transformed into meat mass * Keratinous layer of the hide which protects the animal from ticks, horn flies and other blood-sucking insects * High metabolic efficiency. Unparalleled feeding conversion rates even on poor pastures and with long periods without water As Brazilian cattle breeding expanded to the central and western states, zebuin breeds became the most important group of cattle, as they are the most profitable, adaptable and resistant. On the other hand, no other country offers the zebu better environmental conditions than Brazil. The climate factor During the winter season, humans use thick clothing to protect themselves, reverting to light weight textiles in the hotter weather. Yet, for hundreds of thousands of years, animals have had little shelter other than trees, holes and caves, and had to create their own protection. In cold weather regions, cattle developed heavy skin coverage, while in hot weather regions, cattle wear light structured hides. Histology As cattle adapted to specific environments, the Bos taurus species began to differentiate from Bos indicus. We will refer to Bos taurus as European and Bos indicus as Zebu. Zebu developed a hump to accumulate fat which could be converted into energy for use during droughts. As the skin is quite loose, it developed a dewlap, which gives the resultant hide about 12% more surface area over European ones. They also have more highly-developed sweat glands than European cattle. On liming and bating, these are destroyed, leaving a more open hide structure. Zebu cattle produce an oily secretion from the sebaceous glands that has a distinctive odour and is reported to assist in repelling insects. Marbling, or intra-muscular fat, is the primary factor determining USDA Quality Grade, an indicator of the palatability factors of tenderness, juiciness and flavour. Zebu and most heavy-muscled types have relatively low marbling. Due to this factor, fat lies over the meat, over the ribs, in contact with the skin. This creates difficulties in tanning and the skin itself retains a great deal of fat. This means that the skin is also a repository of energy in arid times, in which fat is burnt to generate energy, leaving empty spaces in the hide structure. Repeated cycles of drought and abundance can lead to looseness in the fibre structure. Liming and bating removes this excess fat and, again, a loose-fibred structure is seen. Excess fat can also create difficulties in the tanning process. European cattle, commonly heavy haired, possess a much greater amount of erector pili muscles over Zebu, which needs greater beamhouse processing to achieve a consistent leather. The epidermis, which is short fibred and vertically orientated, will tend to produce leather with lower tensile strength, since the epidermis represents a greater percentage of the cross-section. It is four times as thick in European cattle as in Zebu, which could lead to problems with tear strength as well. The most important factor, however, is the angle of the fibrous web of the connective tissue of the dermis. European cattle evolved to a more vertical, more concentrated fibrous network, while Zebu developed a wider angle web with lower density of fibre bundles, which make Zebu lighter and thinner than European hides. These main differences, which are not exhaustive, indicate the important characteristics when processing to finished leather. Influence of skin structure on finished leather All the characteristics acquired by cattle during their evolution affect the way hides are processed, the appearance and physical properties of finished leather. These characteristics are the main factor in choosing the right hides for use. The 12% dewlap in Zebu compensates for the area lost by the hump. Sweat glands, sebaceous glands, fat blisters and fewer pili erector muscles make Zebu less suitable for shoes than the European breeds, as hides are looser and emptier. The same reasons make Zebu by far the best choice for upholstery and garment leather. Low specific weight, loose and soft structure and a supple feeling are the advantages of Zebu over European breeds. Erector pili muscles, less evident in Zebu, make it a little emptier, which makes the European more suitable for shoe production. However, for upholstery, Zebu have a better retention in drying, resulting in a higher yield, better print retention and less shrinkage upon dry drumming. The grain layer is 2.5-4 times thicker on European than on Zebu. The more grain that is present, the weaker the finished leather will be. As a higher percentage of epidermis is present on European breeds, Zebu have greater tear strength. As we shave on the flesh side, the thickness of the epidermis is maintained. Thus, the percentage of grain in the cross-section increases, leading to a lower tear/tensile resistance. Finally, of all factors, the one that I consider to be the most important is the angle of the fibre bundles in the corium. As European breeds needed more protection from the cold, their fibres are tighter. Thus, they became more vertical, resulting in a thicker and more effective protection. With the Zebu, the bundles are looser and more horizontal, to allow better heat transfer. When processing hides, on splitting and shaving wet-blue, European hides fibres tend to be cut across the fibre bundles. With Zebu, the cut is more along the fibres, leaving it more intact. Fibre orientation also gives the Zebu higher physical properties and it is possible to shave the Zebu thinner. Finally, the Zebu's loose fibrous structure, added to the other factors discussed, gives the hide a supple touch, lightness, softness and good grain retention. Europeans are full, round, tight and fine grained; qualities for footwear leather that Zebu will never reach. Upholstery leather perspective There is no doubt about the reasons that led Brazilian tanneries to bankruptcy in the two decades of the 70s and 80s. If any additional argument is needed, it would be enough to remember that the growth of the Brazilian footwear industry was based on Argentinean, some east European, Australian and American hides, not incidentally all Bos taurus species. A significant amount of hides landed in Brazil from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, all of them Bos indicus. However, it is should be noted that these hides were all calf and baby calf, whose structure is quite different from oxen, on which this research was based. In short, Bos indicus, Zebuin cattle have, by far, the best structure for upholstery and garment leather production. Bos taurus, European breeds, have the best structure for footwear and heavier upholstery and automotive leather but never reach the Zebu's yield. Brazil has a herd of 171 million head. The annual slaughter is 32 million head. That means that Brazilian annual availability for upholstery leather production is around 1,500 million sq ft. Actual Brazilian finished upholstery leather production, however, amounts to 8 million hides or 400 million sq ft. Leather industry profile Brazil is divided into five regions: south, south-west, middle-west, north and north-west. The leather industry is developing and growing in the south, south-west and middle-west, although the north-east is becoming an interesting place due to government investment in incentives and its proximity to European and American markets. Livestock Brazilian livestock of 171 million head is located: * 35% in the middle-west * 23.5% in the south-east * 15.3% in the south Tanneries Due to an annual slaughter of 32 million head, tanneries are placed near to the 750 slaughterhouses which are located in the breeding areas. Thus, 30 upholstery leather tanneries, finishing eight million hides per year are located: * 40% in the south-east * 38% in the south * 8% in the north-east although a majority of wet-blue tanneries are placed in middle-west region, close to slaughterhouses. The 560 Brazilian tanneries are dedicated: * 45% to shoe leather production * 35% to upholstery * 20% to garment leather These employ 50,000 people and export 30% of total production. Shoe factories * 45% in south-east * 40% in south A total of 6,800 shoe factories employ 240,000 professionals and produce 500 million pairs a year. Around 170 million pairs are exported, 80% of which from southern factories. Furniture In Brazil, there 13,500 furniture factories, of which 500 are medium size (more than 150 employees). Of this total, 50 are potential leather upholstery exporters. There are three main and four secondary areas: São Bento do Sul The 170 companies from this town and surrounding districts represent 50% of the total Brazilian furniture export. 80% of their production is destined for export. The region also boasts a Foundation for Teaching, Research and Technology supported by the University of Santa Catarina. Bento Gonçalves With 160 factories and 6,000 employees, the annual income here is US$1 million. The Technological Center for Furniture and Upholstery and The University of Caxias do Sul created the Technology in Furniture Construction at college level which is located here. Arapongas The region of Arapongas in Paraná is a very important area for upholstery production, having 140 factories and 5,000 employees. 40 companies export regularly including Simbal, which is the biggest Brazilian upholstery exporter. Secondary areas Very important also, but more dispersed, are Ubá (MG), Mirassol (SP), Votuporanga (SP) and São Paulo Metropolitan Area (SP). A very strong import-export support structure has grown to assist exportation of the following furniture industries: * 281 exporting industries in São Paulo state * 268 in Rio Grande do Sul * 215 in Santa Catarina * 153 in Paraná * 50 in Rio de Janeiro * and 140 in other states Although all major international machine factories have a presence in Brazil, 86 Brazilian machine factories produce all other simpler machines and also compete, to some degree, with imported equipment. The north-east In recent years, the federal and state governments have done much to incentivise the installation of industries in these less-developed states. Some major international tanneries and upholstery industries have installed facilities while, at the same time, more than 50 leading southern shoe exporters have built branches or moved there, creating a newly-born industrial sector, which every day gains in strength and importance. The main reasons for the relocation to the north-eastern states are the possibility of receiving governmental incentives in the form of: * the government provides the land * tax exemption. The government grants several levels of IVA exemption, tax refunds, or credit against other taxes * special prices on energy supply * water supply either free or at low cost Another consideration is the proximity of the two main markets, USA and Europe. There are also the low labour costs to be considered but do not expect miracles. Low labour costs equate to low labour quality. It is necessary first to train people and to move technicians from head-quarters or other branches whenever necessary. Overall costs are lower than in developed countries and even than in developed southern states. And Brazil has an abundance of knowledge of upholstery. Currently, Brazil exports a huge amount of wet-blues to countries where they will be transformed at high cost and with enormous environmental problems. Environmental issues do matter in Brazil. However, the size of the country makes Brazil far more suitable for waste disposal than others. Technology To assist the leather and leathergoods industry in their need for technology, a specialised team of technicians formed a society called Centtauri Consulting. Centtauri negotiates for state incentives such as tax exemption and land provision. Any deal with Brazilian tanneries is eased by Centtauri's 37 years' experience and working relationship. Their technicians study placement, layout and construction of projects, manage all building phases, service assembly, machinery set-up, organisational and start-up matters, including wastewater treatment and all environmental issues. In the production phase, Centtauri offer product development, production programming, planning and control, productivity analysis and quality control, from raw material to finished furniture. The reorganisation of existing tanneries is another offered service, as well as transition to upholstery leather production. During Centtauri's frequent researches, they identified the potential for further processing of Brazilian wet-blue, through finished to actual cut and sewn kits, to future finished sofa production and worldwide exportation. With this in mind, Centtauri hired a highly skilled designer and upholstery technician and an experienced leather cutting technician in order to develop models and samples for a sofa production line. For tanneries and upholstery producers, Centtauri offer technical knowledge of the best tanneries in the world, one of the best production management systems and a very complete and embracing yield control and management system. For the furniture industries, the most modern techniques, models and quality control requirements are offered, as well as production optimisation, productivity control and materials saving programmes. 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