The embroidery industry is not exactly known for cutting-edge technology.
Techniques developed long ago have become entrenched. Logo size and placement are nearly uniform, machinery has not advanced much and many customers have simply accepted the industry's restraints.
But River's End Trading Co. of Medina believes it has created a breakthrough that will resonate throughout the embroidery world and reinvigorate the easily overlooked industry. The apparel decoration and distribution specialist has developed a new attachment for embroidery machines that allows for a more efficient and streamlined process of on-the-pocket embroidering. It's a subtle change but one the company thinks will have an impact.
"It's like, you didn't really know you needed an iPad until they came out," said Tim Klouda, the president of River's End's promotional products division. "This is pretty innovative when it comes to embroidery capabilities."
The company's "pocket decoration device'' attaches to the standard embroidery machines and uses a curvature design that keeps the logo in place while being able to embroider straight onto the pocket. The result is a faster and more accurate process of on-the-pocket embroidery that allows for a much larger logo.
The old process "takes forever,'' said Maria Snyder, River's End chief operating officer. "That's where the guys worked hard to get a piece of equipment that anybody can use. Now, you could pull anybody off the street and they could load it in five seconds. I think it establishes us as the innovators in decoration.''
A large order for on-the-pocket embroidered logos led River's End to do some research into developing a more efficient process. The industry norm for on-the-pocket embroidering required a highly skilled worker who placed it by hand on a pocket that needs to be sewn to the shirt afterward.
The River's End facility in Clarksville, Tenn., dove into the development.
"The industry standard was a 1-inch logo,'' said John Hooper, general manager of the Tennessee facility. "We knew we had to innovate and do something that was outside of what the industry was doing. The objectives were something that was turnkey, efficient and accurate. We wanted to expand our sew field from 1 to 3 inches." The device is affectionately known as "the Hershel," a nod to one of its key developers at the plant — Hershel Kelley.
Customers have noticed.
"A lot of times if there was an item with a pocket on it, you'd have to embroider above it," said Milton Francis of Francis Communications and a customer of River's End. "If you embroidered on the pocket, you wouldn't be able to use [the pocket] because it would go through all the material."
Francis said it could be a huge selling point, especially as he sees a lot of companies moving to a more business-casual attire.
River's End is an exclusive distributor for brands like Columbia, Brooks Brothers, Ping and Jockey in the corporate and golf markets and supplies customized logos for companies that want these brands. Based on the interest at a recent trade show, the company has high hopes for the new technique.
Privately held River's End, which employs about 200 employees, has been in Minnesota for a couple decades and has grown into a formidable player in the apparel industry with its strong relationships with brands. In 2010, the company acquired PremiumWear and its Tennessee facility.
"This should be several millions of dollars in business for us this year," said River's End CEO Dick Ward. "We recently got a $25,000 order from Congressional Golf Club. All of our senators and Supreme Court justices and congressmen are members there. I'm hoping they're going to buy our stuff. What any innovation should try to do for you is open something up for a whole new group of customers. And I think that's what this is going to do for us."
The global promotional products market accounts for around $18 billion in annual sales. The golf market alone is a $900 million sector. Both have a healthy demand for woven shirts, which are River's End's forte.
"In any industry that has not seen a lot of innovation something that is really innovative will probably gain a lot of acceptance fairly quickly,'' said Glenn Karwoski, an expert on marketing and innovation at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.
Karwoski said the company's proprietary new technique "gives them a stronger position to forge partnerships or to collaborate with some of these larger folks."
Justin Miller is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.