The Perfect Cut: Armor Express Gets it Right With VectorFashionFX

Cutting fabric is a life-and-death matter for Armor Express. This highly specialized company manufactures body armor for people who face danger on a daily basis — everyone from village police officers to the U.S. Marines.

The company, which was launched in 2005 but whose key employees have been making ballistic body armor since the mid-1970s, sells at wholesale to dealer stores as well as directly to law enforcement agencies, corrections facilities, the military and private security companies. Its products — especially those sold to the U.S. Department of Defense — are probably subject to more stringent quality control standards than any other type of clothing in the world. In addition to adhering to ISO 9000 quality management standards in its manufacturing processes, Armor Express has its products certified by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to meet standardized threat levels; for example, some products are certified to withstand attacks from ballistic threats, and others are certified to withstand attacks from prison shanks.

After certifying a product, the NIJ tests samples of it on an ongoing basis (this is called follow-up inspection and testing, or FIT). It can send inspectors to the factory unannounced, inspect the production process, remove vests from production and send them to a lab for ballistic testing. Military purchasing agents may also conduct their own independent audits to make sure the factory is following the agreed-upon protocol.

A few definitions: Body armor includes both concealable armor — what civilians call "bulletproof vests," which most police officers now wear whenever they are on duty — and tactical armor, the outerwear familiar from depictions of SWAT team operations. Both types of armor consist of ballistic pads — made from multiple layers of protective fabrics covered with waterproof ripstop fabric — that are inserted into "carriers," or garment shells. The ballistic pads can be removed when the carriers are washed. In the Armor Express factory, pads and carriers are manufactured separately and don't meet until they arrive in the assembly and packing area.

Challenges of ballistic fabrics
According to Ed Kiessel, Armor Express's COO, the company works closely with suppliers of ballistic fabric to develop aramid and polyethylene materials that can be combined to make light, flexible body armor. Concealable armor, which is worn for long periods of time, especially needs to be light and flexible so personnel can work without becoming fatigued. Fabrics vary considerably in their thickness and their tightness of weave; for any given protection level, there is a tradeoff between cost and weight. Armor Express offers a range of options so its customers can meet their security needs within their budget capabilities.

Unlike most apparel companies, Armor Express makes all its garments to order. Every item is made to measure for a particular officer; in addition, for large orders, the company can customize its standard designs by altering the color, the cut or the coverage to suit an agency's needs. "The tactical jacket most often gets customized," Kiessel says, explaining that a SWAT team purchasing outer body armor might request, for example, extra ballistic coverage or extra pouches for the officers' equipment.

In the beginning, Armor Express's employees cut all fabric by hand. However, ballistic fabrics are challenging to cut. Though cutters are highly skilled, mistakes can still occur, and their consequences are serious. If a cutter mistakenly cuts into a pad, the quality of the product is compromised — and discarding damaged fabric is extremely expensive.

In addition, the high degree of customization requires constant changes to cutting layouts. Kiessel explains, "The biggest thing is nesting the patterns together to reduce waste as much as we can. Because we custom-make the vests … there's a different assortment of sizes for each order, so we're doing a different marker for every set of orders — depending on the size of the orders, there might be eight to 10 orders in a cut."

To address these problems, the company bought an automated cutter that could receive plots from a nesting system and cut multiple layers of fabric at once. (The nesting system optimizes the placement of the patterns to maximize utilization of the fabric.) However, even finding the right automated cutter was not easy. The loose weaves used in ballistic fabrics tend to be difficult to cut, so high-quality knives are required, which must be kept constantly sharp with automatic sharpeners. In addition, because the ballistic pads are made from multiple layers of ballistic fabric, the automated cutter had to be very powerful and robust.

Cutting a path to the future
Purchasing the first automated cutter reduced the number of rejected items, Kiessel says, because machine-cut pieces have less variation than hand-cut pieces in their outlines and in the placement of drill holes. Knowing that all cuts were performed consistently increased the company's confidence in the quality of its products.

In 2009, when the time came to buy a second cutter, Armor Express did a new analysis of the cutters available on the market and decided to buy the VectorFashionFX from Lectra. This cutter is specifically designed for the apparel industry, and even more specifically for smaller production runs such as restocking and prototypes. (Since that time, the company's original cutter has also been replaced by a Lectra device to reduce the need for expertise on two different models and the associated costs of extra parts.)

The VectorFashion cutter offered several immediate advantages over the original cutter, including faster drill speed, which saves time in placement of pockets and hook-and-loop on carriers, and variable vacuum speed, which reduces the usage of the paper that helps hold fabric in place on the cut table. More important, however, was Lectra's commitment to investment in research and development based on its customers' needs. "That's what we like about them," Kiessel says. "They partner with companies like us to make equipment that can make us better and more competitive."

Though automating the cutting process did not significantly reduce the need for manpower on the cutting floor, it did improve employee satisfaction. "Cutting manually gets tiring and grueling," Kiessel explains. "Working with high-tech machines makes people more motivated and happier."

And though no customers specifically require an automated cutting process, Kiessel says that having automated cutting equipment makes it easier to pass audits such as the one the U.S. Army recently performed. In addition to the actual improvement in product consistency, he says, "It looks more impressive that you've invested in your processes."

Masha Zager is a New York-based Apparel contributing writer specializing in business and technology.

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