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Ribbon Maker Cuts Manual Machine Monitoring by 30%

Automating part of its process helped this family business boost efficiency and begin producing types of ribbon that were previously not possible.

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Cream City Ribbon began more than 100 years ago in Milwaukee making string for the city’s bustling leather industry. Fast forward to 2019, and owner Eric Crawford uses the same manufacturing process to make high-end decorative wrapping ribbon that is both beautiful and sustainable.

However, the company needed ways to increase efficiency by automating manual processes typically performed by the person designated as the master ribbon maker. The shop uses a mix of machinery ranging from the early 1900s to the present. Each piece plays an important role, but the ribbon maker is the key.

Throughout each step, the ribbon maker must make sure nothing goes wrong. This becomes especially challenging during the ribbon’s time on the accumulator: If the speed is off, it could snap or fall off, requiring it to be respooled, adding extra time to the process.

“Our previous master ribbon maker was a professional dancer, and she would literally dance around the shop checking on things constantly, watching the speed of the accumulator and manually adjusting the speed,” Crawford notes.

When the company brought in a new master ribbon maker, Crawford saw it as an opportunity to identify ways to increase efficiency. The new ribbon maker was spending about 40% of his time adjusting the speed or fixing other things that went wrong — time Crawford knew could be better spent on other tasks.

Unique Ribbon Making Process

Rather than weaving the yarn strands, Cream City uses an adhesive to bond 55 individual strands together, which makes them stronger than your average ribbon. The company sells custom and stock ribbon to large and small specialty gift retailers and individual customers. This makes for an array of variation in the product. Spools leaving the facility on any day can differ in width, color and print pattern.

No matter what the final touches are, the process always begins the same way.

“We wanted to stay as true to the artistic process as possible, but we knew that some elements could be automated without impacting the integrity of the ribbon.” — Eric Crawford, Owner, Cream City Ribbon

First, the ribbon maker adheres the strands together and then sends it through large drying wheels. Once dry, the ribbon goes through an accumulator station, which moves it up and down to ensure it remains flexible so it doesn’t snap. Finally, the ribbon maker adds the decorative touches such as crimping the ribbon or adding a polka dot print.

Connections to Collaboration

When Crawford was ready to learn about automation options for his shop, he knew who to call. Carl Penner of Revere Electric, a Designated Allen-Bradley® Distributor, went to grade school with Crawford, and they had worked together on factory needs in the past. He also volunteered on a local environmental nonprofit board with Blake Moret, CEO of Rockwell Automation.

“We wanted to stay as true to the artistic process as possible, but we knew that some elements could be automated without impacting the integrity of the ribbon,” explains Crawford.

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Teams from Rockwell Automation, Revere Electric and Cream City Ribbon fine-tune the automation of the accumulator station and drying wheels of a 100-year old ribbon-making process.

Penner and the Revere Electric team visited the shop to determine the best way to automate the accumulator station and drying wheels. They identified a solution that included Allen-Bradley Bulletin 45DMS distance measurement sensors and Allen-Bradley PowerFlex® 523 AC drives from Rockwell Automation. The sensors can monitor if ribbon is too loose or too tight, and the drives can speed up or slow down the accumulator in response, helping avoid extra slack or snapping the ribbon.

Crawford’s team mounted the sensor on their own and did most of the wiring. Revere Electric then programmed the drive, connected it to the sensor and made sure everything was compatible.

Focusing on What Matters

The ribbon maker went from spending 40% of his time adjusting the accumulator, to spending just about 10% of his time monitoring the system. Crawford is pleased with the results so far and is happy that his small team now can focus on what really matters — the art of making beautiful ribbons.

The company’s shop has three ribbon-making systems, and two are now automated. If business calls for it, Crawford plans to automate the third one. The increased efficiency already has helped expand the business, as they are now able to produce a new type of ribbon — the Eco Flat String, which is like the string that was made by the original shop more than 100 years ago.

“As a small business, the support from Revere Electric and Rockwell Automation has been great,” Crawford says. “When you think about manufacturing success, often those stories come out of bigger companies. We’re small, but they took the time to have the conversations and understand our business.”



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