Read Erich Campbell’s sage advice before splashing the cash on your next embroidery machine
Most modern embroidery machines from the major brands will be capable of producing quality embroidery on the type of garments that make up the majority of any shop’s commercial orders. However, not all embroidery machines will provide an equally good ‘fit’ for your particular business. So selecting the right machine – one that will deliver long-term profits – will require more than simply identifying a machine that is capable of stitching out a standard left-chest logo on your most popular polo shirt.
Racing directly to the nearest trade show and purchasing a new machine is always tempting, but rarely advisable – the market is flooded with the used machines of those who did precisely that rather than thinking carefully before placing their order. So before you even consider purchasing a new machine you need to have fully considered and understood your business and your plans for its future: your current workflow, your core products and customers, and the return on investment you need from your proposed purchase. By addressing these questions upfront you can determine the make and model of machine that provides the best ‘fit’ for your shop; you’ll understand the true cost of owning and equipping your shop with, and for, the new machine; and even whether you should be purchasing a new machine at all. Whether you are new to the industry, adding embroidery capability to an existing decoration shop, or even adding capacity to your current embroidery department, the purchase should start with planning.
The time to buy
So how do you know that the time is right to invest in new embroidery machinery? To start with you should have a well defined idea of how you will profit from the new machine – where and how you will be making the sales that will fill the new production capacity provided by the new machine. The same goes for an investment in any item of new equipment for your shop.
If you’re an individual who is already embroidering, you will likely have an established niche that you are sure is ready to buy. You’ll have done your research, hopefully even apprenticed or had training so you can run your equipment with confidence, and you’ll also have the capital for not only the machine, but supplies and pre-purchasing of garments if you are going to mark up and resell.
If your businesses is looking to add an embroidery machine for the first time you may already be outsourcing embroidery orders and acting as a distributor, and will be aware of your market and its sales potential.
As an existing embroiderer you may have a machine that can no longer be maintained, or maybe your order book exceeds your current production capacity, or perhaps you have identified a type of decoration that your existing customers already want (or can be convinced to buy) that just can’t be done with your current machines.
As tempting as it may be to expand because you love the craft of embroidery, any and every purchase of this magnitude must start with an eye toward production and, ultimately, to getting paid for it.
When we talk about the fitness of an embroidery machine, we’re not talking about its lap times over 1500m, we’re referring to its ‘fitness for purpose’ – how well it fits within the context of your shop, your workload, and your workflow. And the first fitness-test to consider is the machine’s ‘feature fitness’.
Some machines may be particularly well suited for a particular type of garment or decoration that makes up a large part of your work. If a machine is especially designed to be stable when stitching caps and you are a headwear master – that machine may provide a better fit for your shop than one that doesn’t share the same focus or offer those capabilities. If you run equestrian accessories such as quilted horse blankets then a machine that has controls for the presser foot that allows you to easily accommodate thick materials may be a better fit for your business.
While machines that offer specific decoration features are interesting, I should point out that I spent my entire career working with machines that had no such adjustments and yet still ably stitched a wide range of garments, including difficult caps, horse blankets, golf bags and leather goods. I don’t think that these features are necessarily the primary concern: if all else is equal, there’s no reason not to get a special feature that can make your products a bit easier to handle, but there are more important measures to take into account. Unless a feature can greatly change the efficiency of your operation, it’s unlikely to be the main determining factor for your purchase.
Cost of operation and holistic support
Assuming that the machines you are considering buying are all equal in terms of their feature set and stitching capabilities, then if you’re like most embroiderers you’ll jump straight to price as a differentiator. But be warned, although it is important to monitor the cost of your equipment, there’s more to accurate costing than the price tag on the machine itself.
Generally, the prices for comparable machines will be fairly similar, and when you can afford several in a range that address your production needs, initial price is less important than the total cost of learning, operating, maintaining and repairing the machines over time. You might think that this is easy to measure, but this cost depends on more than what the manufacturer or distributor can crate up and send to your door.
It is crucial to assess a machine’s overall support system when assessing this long-term cost. A newly installed machine often runs well, yet it can still become a costly burden over time if you don’t have the resources or support you need to keep it operating and in good repair. Without adequate documentation, your machine can be hard to maintain and operate.
Here is a short support checklist to consider:
- Does your supplier have skilled and experienced technicians in your region that can respond quickly when needed?
- Are there other shops with the same equipment nearby with which you could split tech travel costs?
- Are spare parts readily available for your new machine? Does your supplier hold a stock of these parts?
- Is there already an established user base for your new machine? A vocal user community can help with time-tested answers from decorators whose practical knowledge and experience of using the machine have surpassed the information available in the machine’s user manuals.
The guidelines above are doubly important when you’re considering purchasing used machines. You should also be sure to ask about the machine’s service record and, ideally, have a technician look at it or at least ask the servicing technician for the machine about its condition: confirming a machine’s current operability is not enough.
Make sure to ask the manufacturer about necessary manuals, support and availability of parts, particularly electronic parts, for replacement or repair. Check in on the community to see if the machines are still in circulation and being used. Evaluate the support system with even more scrutiny than you would for a newly minted machine.
If the machine in question is an addition to your existing line-up and you are an embroiderer who can maintain, tune, and run machines without issue, there’s no reason not to buy used, provided a machine has been consistently maintained and still offers ready availability of support for repairs and operation.
No matter what machine you choose to buy, you should always ask what accessories are included. Chief among these are hoops and frames. For proper production, every machine will need at least twice the number of hoops or cap frames as it has heads: you always want the option of hooping a run of garments while the current run is on the machine.
Make sure you factor in the cost of hoops when costing a new machine purchase, and make sure if you are adding a brand of machine that’s different to your current machines that the hoops are interchangeable. It may not be a deal-breaker for you, but it’s a nasty surprise if you are expecting to use your hoops universally only to find that they won’t lock in to your latest acquisition.
Remember that for each machine, you will require a hooping station, with or without a hooping and placement aid, and storage for the machine’s tools, accessories and materials. Though you may double up on some things, basics like hoops need to be a part of your calculation.
Bringing it home
The next time you’re determining the cost of any equipment purchase, consider why and how it can be of use, who will be there to support it and how it will integrate into your particular shop. Take time to establish what a new purchase needs to do specifically for your situation in order for you to consider it a necessary and successful addition.
When more than one machine fulfils those needs, evaluate the ‘intangible’ qualities that come from the manufacturer’s desire to get you running or the community that keeps the machine in operation in their own shops.
Consider more than features or the dealer’s price – seek the real world stories from the decorators doing the kind of work you want to do. The benefits and costs of a product are never contained in sales brochure alone; know your business, ask pointed questions and make sure that you’ll have support when you’ll need it most.
Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with 18 years’ experience both in production and the management of e-commerce properties. He is the partner relationship manager for DecoNetwork in the USA.