Cut through the waste

22 October 2020

In the past few years, the leather industry has increasingly recognised the importance of the cutting stage of manufacturing, and the inherent issues facing it. Sabrina Auler talks to industry experts about a number of solutions that have worked to make cutting a new priority within the industry.

For many years, the process of leather cutting, which involves trimming and punching as well as the cutting itself, has been done manually in tanneries worldwide. However, the method, which relies on skilled cutters using knives and scissors, appears not to be the most efficient for tanneries, as the amount of cutting waste is often higher than when the task is performed by an automated system.

According to the National Association of Manufacturers of Footwear, Leathergoods and Tanning Technologies (Assomac) in Italy, cutting has become a concern for most leather manufacturers. Tanneries have come to realise how important the cutting stage is to optimise leather surfaces, as well as to reduce waste. Also, Assomac notes that a tannery that relies on an improved cutting mechanism might even add value to its service, especially if this tanning company tries to adapt the cut of its skins to its supply chain needs.

The president of the Brazilian Association of the Machinery and Equipment for the Footwear and Leather Industries (Abrameq), André Nodari, agrees that tanneries are more aware of the importance of cutting within the leather manufacturing process. He notes, however, that the cutting stage also draws the attention of other leather-related businesses.

“Cutting is a topic that interests some industries, especially shoes and leather goods manufacturers, [as] making the most of skins might result in much better leather usage,” observes Nodari. “Being more accurate when cutting leather not only brings advantages in terms of the quantity of material that can be saved, but also in identifying the highest-quality leather required to produce the most valuable goods.”

The head of Abrameq trusts that automated systems can categorically offer benefits that no manual technique can reach. “Automatic cutting machines are able to improve productivity and reduce errors as they are fast, easy to configure and directly connected to shoe design software like CAD and manufacturing systems software such as CAM, for instance,” he notes. Nodari says that while leather cutting appears to be a simple task, it takes a great amount of technology to be done properly and efficiently. “Precision mechanics are needed for the machine itself; power electronics have to be installed to drive the cutting devices fast and accurately; vision systems are required for leather nesting; and, last but not least, carefully designed software running in a powerful computing platform is a must. All of these are in continuous evolution.”

Therefore, to be considered an innovation, a cutting machine has to be built in view of the three key features: better leather yield, faster operation and a quicker setup. “To sum up, to be taken as cutting-edge equipment, it essentially has to provide tanneries and leather goods manufacturers with more productivity, among other advantages,” Nodari says.

Priority considerations

Lectra, a supplier of technology for manufacturers of automotives, furniture and fashion headquartered in France, also advocates the importance of the cutting stage. Frederic Gaillard, Lectra’s vice-president of product marketing for the company’s cutting room segment, mentions that full cutting control can lead to direct cost reductions – an advantage that explains why cutting has become a priority for the company’s customers over the past few years.

Gaillard guarantees that Lectra’s software, along with its equipment and services, enable users to achieve significant material savings when compared with traditional processes. According to Gaillard, when performing traditional cutting, only 50–60% of the material is actually used on average, whereas with their digital cutting solutions companies can use up to 10% more of it. “For some companies in the automotive market, for instance, 1% material saving can possibly mean a monetary saving of €100,000 over a year,” he estimates.

“Before we bought the machines, we used to cut the leather manually, which made the process expensive and inaccurate. Besides, it was always difficult to find skilled workers for this cutting stage.”
Veronica Meurer, Courovale

A decreased impact on the environment is another advantage attributed to a more precise cutting system. Gaillard asserts that automated solutions can definitely match consumers’ growing expectations in terms of waste reduction and sustainable development, considering that society expects the leather industry to make major commitments concerning all of its processes, including those linked to cutting.

There is a final element that has been contributing to speeding up the adoption of digitalised leather cutting systems worldwide – the shortage of qualified labour for manual cutting jobs. “Leather goods manufacturers have been struggling to recruit staff. Also, the job takes a long time to be learned, a fact that might contribute to explaining why the opportunity of working with leading-edge technologies has become so attractive for many companies in recent years,” says Gaillard.

Cutting edge

One of Lectra’s aims is to actively offer solutions at the forefront of innovation. That is the reason why the group has invested €208m in R&D in the past ten years. In 2018–19, the amount invested was 11% of the company’s turnover. Because of its commitment to offering high-tech alternatives for leather goods manufacturers, Lectra believes its cutting solutions can help considerably by automating the nesting and cutting processes, while at the same time reducing human variability – factors that undoubtedly improve the quality of cutting.

Gaillard notes that Lectra can offer a complete cutting process on a single solution that integrates hide digitisation, nesting, cutting, offloading and quality control. “The equipment must be deployed as part of an initiative to adopt industry 4.0 principles, particularly complete process supervision and data access,” he explains, adding that Lectra can also monitor systems remotely and provide reactive, rapid support to customers through its call centre experts across the world.

“A leading-edge cutter like the solutions designed by Lectra represents a decade’s worth of investment, but delivers a return on investment in less than three years,” says Gaillard. It contributes, he continues, to the profound transformation of companies, their processes and their business models. Companies that invest in these solutions discover a flexibility and adaptability that are essential to face future challenges.

Lectra strongly believes its automated system contributes to the profound transformation of companies, their processes and their business models. The French company assures that companies who invest in these solutions discover a flexibility and adaptability that are essential for facing future challenges.

Aware that improvements are needed over time in order to deliver better performance in terms of cut quality, productivity and efficiency, Lectra found a way to protect its customers’ investments. Gaillard affirms that the organisation takes into consideration that a cutting solution constitutes a long-term investment, so the brand regularly updates the brain and controls of their equipment as well as the software to drive and feed it. Since these are the two areas where technological advances are concentrated, Lectra safeguard users from eventual technology suppression. And it worked out for the company, with cutters represent around 10% of its yearly sales.

Mercier Turner – another French machinery supplier, which offers a full range of equipment for tanneries from raw to finishing stages – believes that water jet cutting technology is a great option for companies looking for an efficient way of cutting leather. According to Didier Chambon, the manufacturer’s chief executive officer, a high-pressure water jet trimming system that provides a more accurate cutting offers a number of advantages.

Chambon lists a series of benefits provided by the model Cortina, which Mercier Turner produces. It can be used for raw, wet-blue, crust, and finished hides and skins. “The machine is a high-tech product with an automatic vision system and is piloted by a CNC control system. The introduction of a Cortina system within the tanning process is recommend when companies need to automate a difficult but necessary operation, increase productivity as a machine can work much faster than hand trimming, or increase surface, again, taking into consideration a machine is much more accurate than hand trimming,” he suggests.

A global effort

Italy is one of the most important leather machinery exporters in the world. In 2019, the country sold more than €132m of its production – a considerable achievement, considering the equipment that are manufactured for tanneries only. Asia is the continent that buys the most Italian machines, at 44.9% of the country’s stock. Europe is the destination for 27.6%, while Central and North America take 10.4%, Africa acquires 8.2%, South America 7% and Oceania 1.9%.

For Assomac, Italy has guaranteed its place as one of the most important players in the leather machinery industry due to its reputation, which is grounded in quality and customisation. As the association highlights, the Italian machines manufacturers have historically invested in developing technology according to the customer request, not only in the leather sector, but also in approaching other manufacturing production requirements. As a result, customisation is the added value of the Italian machines sector.

Stephen M Sothmann, president of Leather & Hide Council of America in the US, corroborates the Italian’s perception of its own machinery industry. As he explains, most of the machines purchased in the US would likely be of Italian origin. “The US is a minor player in the cutting space, especially with only a handful of companies doing this type of process for leather, so Italy has been our main supplier,” says Sothmann.

The tannery Courovale, located in Portão, Brazil, is aware that it has to make investments periodically in machinery in order to maintain its competitiveness and offer its clients innovative and customised leathers. The company, which manufactures 50,0000m2 worth of leathers each month – mostly bovine finished leather – has recently acquired new cutting machines. The Brazilian manufacturer bought two pieces of equipment in 2019: a GPF IR 1700 and an AEFE AF 1600, both of them designed with Italian technology. The machines for trimming and for punching, required an investment of $350m. According to Veronica Meurer, commercial manager at Courovale, the machinery provides cutting and a drilling width of 1,800mm as well as a range of textures, embroidering and other programming options that the tannery did not have from their previous apparatus.

Meurer claims that the new assets also brought the company a step forward in terms of surface-usage. “Before we bought the machines, we used to cut the leather manually, which made the process expensive and inaccurate. Besides, it was always difficult to find skilled workers for this cutting stage. Investing in technology made the work more productive and precise, not to mention that it provided us with better production costs,” she explains.

In Meurer’s opinion, bringing available technology to tannery production lines have become essential to add value to products and take the leather industry to a next level, where efficiency can eventually lead to innovation.

Optimising the cutting stage could help reduce waste leather.
Italy is a kery manufacturer of leather-cutting machines for the global market, with a strong reputation for quality and customisation.

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