See How Shades, Projection Screens & Custom Structures for LED Panels are Made
Hop on I-70 and head East out of Indianapolis for around forty-five minutes or so and you’ll arrive in Spiceland, a quiet, rural village of under 1,000 people that with its brick church, quaint bandstand in the park, and a picturesque running stream, feels as country-style homey as you could imagine. What brought me to Spiceland? I came to visit the town’s largest employer and Henry County’s (named for patriot Patrick Henry) second-largest employer – Draper, a manufacturer of leading projection screens and roller shades.
See more on my visit to the Draper HQ & factory in Spiceland…
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Spiceland. Not long after you leave the metro area around Indianapolis, you realize how rural east-central Indiana really is. The further you travel along 1-70, the more you see the wide open countryside, farms, and woodland areas.
In a way, I felt as though I was going through some kind of time warp. You see, I currently reside in the New York Metropolitan area, where I’ve been for the last few decades. But I grew up in the Midwest, and this drive in a powder blue rented Toyota Prius felt more like a rocket ship ride blasting into my past – shaking the cobwebs off my memories of growing up in a small farming community in Michigan that was much like Spiceland.
An Interesting Illusion
It was a cool, late Fall morning when I arrived at 411 South Pearl Street on the outskirts of Spiceland and parked in front of a relatively unassuming two-story office building. By the time I finished the day, I would come to realize what an illusion this modest first impression is – because stretching far beyond this front facade is an incredibly large and modern multi-facility manufacturing campus with nine buildings stuffed with the latest computer-controlled fabric cutting and metal handling machinery.
It was kind of like looking into one of those carnival mirrors that makes skinny people look fat and fat people look skinny. I stepped through the entryway and ended up on an amazing journey with a pathway through the manufacturing campus that almost seemed never-ending. Open that door thinking it’s some kind of storage closet and suddenly you’re peering into a massive 100,000 sq. ft. cavern that went on as far as your eye could see!
A Drone Reveals What You Don’t See at the Entrance
If you look at the image at the top of this post, you’ll see the “street” view of the entrance to Draper’s headquarters. Now look at the aerial drone image below to see the entire 9-building Draper campus and you’ll see what I mean about how much larger the company is as compared to your impression at the entrance!
Penny Sitler, Draper’s Director of Marketing, graciously invited me to visit and I’m really glad I took her up on it. Sitler and Clint Childress, Draper’s Director of Residential Markets would both serve as my guides on this visit and after a brief bit of small talk, they let me know that we’d better get to it. There was much to see.
Company Grew in Digestible Phases Adding Buildings When Warranted
Luther Draper, a proud Spiceland resident, originally started the Luther O. Draper Shade Co. back in 1902. (Actually, it was originally launched with a partner as Steel & Draper, but the partners eventually split.) Back then, the company said it offered “Spiceland adjustable window shades, teachers desks, wire window guards, and teachers supplies.”
Yes, Draper is 120 years old – a history of success that not many companies can claim. The company’s original building was first in another part of the town. Draper moved to its current location around 1920 or so. Over the years, the company’s business continued to grow. Draper now has around 750 employees. To accommodate this dramatic growth, the company has added buildings in digestible stages, now with a total of nine buildings…with a brand new tenth building now under construction.
A Proud Heritage of Success; An Interesting Juxtaposition of Old and New
The company is justifiably proud of its heritage and remains owned and operated by the same family throughout its 120-year history. Its current President is Chris Broome – the great-great-grandson of Luther Draper. I kept having “Back to the Future” moments as I toured their facility. It is an interesting juxtaposition of the new with the old. On one hand, you have a (pun intended) cutting-edge CNC laser cutter and on the other hand, you have the company’s 100+ year old safe…that they still use.
One of our first stops was a large meeting space where the company has created several photo collages of their many often spectacular installations. These boards were broken down by division, such as shades, residential (Draper@Home), solar control solutions, AV mounts & structures, audiovisual, and gymnasium equipment. It is an impressive way to show off the company’s expansive capabilities with almost all of these installations requiring custom builds.
Looking at the presentation of some of their notable installations, here in their Solar Control Solutions division, Clint Childress points out some of the amazing customizations the company has been tasked with designing & building (note the dome in the upper left of the image)
A 50-Person Engineering Department Does Custom Every Day
In the same spot, the company had a couple of other boards hailing their company history. It was my first Back to the Future moment. The boards dedicated to the company’s history shows you where they started and how far they’ve come. My guess is Luther could never have imagined the company it has become.
It is interesting to note that, for Draper, “custom” is something that they do every day. For this reason, the company boasts a 50-person engineering department. Everything from custom-length roller shades to cosmic sun-tracking computer-controlled solar control systems are created to meet the specific needs of any customer.
A Portal Between the Past and the Present
Later on in my tour, I had another juxtaposed moment as I was guided to a storage space used in the older section of the building that adjoins the newer office section. The fact that Childress took me to this location to show it to me emphasizes the point that the company embraces and honors its heritage.
Here is where the old meets the new – I am standing in the 100-year old original building (with Draper’s Clint Childress showing how even the old fixtures are still there) and looking into the new modern office section that was added more recently. You can see that behind Clint in the background…
Draper is committed to maintaining the health and well-being of their employees. To demonstrate this, we walked out of the HQ building to the Draper Wellness Park. This is quite literally a peaceful park where company employees and their families can hike or picnic or otherwise enjoy the outdoors. There is even outdoor exercise gear for more vigorous outdoor workouts.
Near this field, the company maintains a company health clinic for employees and their families that are part of the company’s health plan. The clinic is just steps away at the edge of the campus making it very convenient for employees to access.
Research and Development with Ongoing Testing
After seeing the layout of the multiple buildings around the campus, then viewing the Wellness Park and medical center, Childress and Sitler took me into the Research and Development (R&D) area. By the entrance to the building, I noticed a structure with a shade mounted to it outside. “This is our new tension zip product,” Childress explained. It was being tested outdoors.
Testing became a big theme of my visit and no sooner did we enter the space where I saw a shade mounted on a large vertical structure going through a cycle test. The automated test would move the shade down and then back up on a set cycle.
“This is one we’ve been beating on for some time,” Childress said. “We’re continuing to test it out…testing for different failure points.” That shading product was scheduled to go on for many more hours of testing.
Here is an example of a custom structure designed to hold a large LCD or LED panel system in the R&D area. It’s sort of like a TV mount on steroids! Off to the right, a similar structure for LED panels is being built onto a wall for testing
There is almost always testing going on in R&D, Childress told me. They regularly test any one of a variety of lifts, structures, and custom shading options. The day I was there, we saw a structure being set up to hold a large scale LCD panel system. Draper’s custom structures – a product line diversification that builds upon their metalworking and mounting expertise – have been used for installations of large display products from companies like Sony – for its Crystal LED system – as well as Planar and many, many others.
Draper Goes to Parliament
I love poking around R&D areas during factory tours and this time I stumbled across what looked to be some type of strangely shaped shading system with motorized louvers. When I asked Childress about it, he told me this was part of a highly custom contract for the Canadian government for its Parliament building. In one of the large debate spaces, the government wanted a system that provided a tightly controlled amount of ambient lighting at all times.
What I was looking at was an assembly that was part of a large arrowhead shape with motorized louvers that would track the sun and adjust for the lumens of light desired on the debate floor. There were a total of 24 of these large groups of motorized louvers.
A prototype of a custom solar control solution developed by Draper for the Canadian Parliament debate floor. The system required a sophisticated computer-controlled sun tracking system to maintain constant lumens on the debate floor at all times
“The louvers are tracking the sun throughout the day,” Childress told me. “So from sunrise to sunset the louvers are moving in three-degree increments following the sun so there’s no direct light. This is all controlled by an algorithm-based control system – it always knows the position of the sun. There are override sensors to see that today it’s not sunny outside, there are not enough lumens to illuminate the space on the debate floor, so the louvers can be wide open.”
A Real Commitment to Training
Like all of the best suppliers out there, Draper has made a real commitment to providing training to customers. I saw multiple examples of dedicated training spaces, and Sitler tells me there are even more than I saw on this visit. Training is hands-on, with active products, so attendees get a real sense of what’s involved with, for example, installing shades.
One of several training spaces Draper provides for training customers on their extensive product line
This commitment to training makes a lot of sense when you consider the breadth of their product lines and the highly different business segments that they address. No one-size-fits-all approach to training would be sufficient.
Moving on to the Factory Floor
As long-time Strata-gee readers know, I’ve been in many different factories in the U.S. and around the world. The Draper facility was massive, well laid out, and efficient.
As we moved to the factory floor, I got my first look at the equipment the company was using. While I’m not an expert on industrial machinery, I have some idea of a well-resourced and set-up facility. And our first stop here made it clear that Draper’s metalworking capabilities are top notch.
This Hypertherm plasma cutter takes the raw steel stock and cuts it down to the size and shape necessary for further machining
This section of the factory is where they manufacture their gym equipment. I saw a bin of newly stamped half-clamps and was able to back-track their manufacturing process all within the space where I was standing. Raw steel and aluminum stock seemed readily available. The raw steel was cut by a Hypertherm plasma cutter to the right shape and size for further machining – sprinkling a fun, sparkling cloud of cut steel like a giant sparkler.
This Komatsu metal press takes the bar stock (background center) and stamps out a half-clamp. Two half-clamps are welded together by a robotic welder, powder coated, and ready for sale
From there, the steel parts were fed into an impressive Komatsu Gap Frame Press to create a half-clamp. These half clamps are fed into the robotic welder and then it is sent off for powder coating for the final finish.
What you end up with is something that looks sort of like this, although this is a different part than we saw in the earlier stages of manufacture. But you get the idea…
At this point in our tour, while my guides checked up ahead to see if we could head over to a certain section, I came upon three employees having a conference on the floor. I asked and they agreed to let me take their picture. Almost as though they came from central casting, I think Pete, Troy, and Carrie really represent the typical down-to-earth, hard-working Midwestern worker.
Draper workers Pete, Troy, and Carrie have a brief conference on the shop floor. Carrie is a Safety Manager for the company
Shade Manufacturing Both Large and Small
From here we moved to where shades are manufactured and it was a bit of an eye-opener. I cannot overstate just how large some of these spaces are – literally as far as the eye can see. Since the company is involved with everything from a shade for a small kitchen window in a residence – to a massive shading solution in a commercial building, they have multiple work cells optimized for each type of product.
It’s hard to overstate just how huge the factory floor is at Draper. Here, we’re moving into the shade manufacturing area. Note the numbered production cells. Remember, this is just one of nine buildings…
To explain the process, Childress took me to a smaller machine that he says has been in use since the early 1900s. In fact, they have to go to great lengths to keep it operational, as parts are no longer available for it. They have this machine specifically for small-scale jobs. Technically, those jobs could be done on the company’s many much larger automated cutting machines, for example – but it would be much less efficient. So they maintain a smaller shade production cell specifically for those smaller run jobs.
Manufacturing Shades – A Four Step Process
However, the process here is the same as is used on the larger jobs. Basically, manufacturing a high-quality shade comes down to a four station production cell, with – a fabric cutter, an assembler, a tester, and a packager.
In the image below, the young lady at the center – Ashley – is operating the machine at her left (our right). She loads a bolt of fabric onto the rollers on the back of the machine carefully feeding it in and then the machine cuts the fabric at the appropriate length. At the time we were here, there were only two workers in this cell, so most likely Ashley was cutting and assembling the shade and then passing it off to another employee ( in the background but not visible in this photo) who then tested and packaged it.
This is a special production cell for smaller shade orders. Here you see Ashley (center of photo) cutting a shade to length
Optimizing for Projects of Differing Scale
You might be able to see in the background at the center of this photo behind Ashley is a large white LED lightbox. This is used to inspect the quality of the shade material to make certain there are no flaws by placing the material in front of the lightbox. On the left in this image is a packaging station where you can see some shades are ready to be shipped. Every part anywhere in the factory has a coded label (see one on the box at the lower left in the photo) to track it through the manufacturing process and all the way to shipping.
So this smaller production cell for small run projects is not only more efficient on these projects, but it allows the larger machines and production cells to remain more efficient on large run projects. You can see more images showing these larger machines and production cells in a slide show I’ve compiled of my visit to Draper.
Here, Cindy is operating a much larger cutting machine for larger-scale shade projects
Shades Require Fabric and Draper has Lots of Fabric Choices
Also not seen in this image but to my immediate right as I took the shot is a segmented shelving system holding rolls of fabric to be used in the day’s production. I would come to learn that Draper has a mind-boggling stock of fabric that must cover every order of every color and style imaginable!
In fact, why don’t I show that to you…
One of three areas I saw where the company inventories fabric used to make its shades. It’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have what you – or your client’s designer – want here
To me, this is indeed a mind-numbing variety of fabric used by the company for shades. Yet, believe it or not, this is not all of their stock. I saw at least two other areas where they store fabric inventory. Childress told me that the company receives a shipment of fabric almost every day.
How to Be an Industry Leader in Order Fulfillment
But this begs the question, why are you carrying so much inventory? Is this truly necessary? Well, first of all, commercial jobs typically use a lot of fabric, so that’s part of the answer. But another part of the answer is that the company looks to lead the industry in quick order fulfillment. In order to do that, it must maintain higher levels of inventory of the various components.
In fact, the company told me that currently, they can deliver your order within ten days to fourteen days time! They tell me competitors are typically quoting order shipping times in weeks, while Draper is quoting days. But what about the supply chain problem? Hasn’t that extended your delivery window? Since the company mostly works with U.S.-based suppliers – especially in the case of fabric – they have had minimal to no interruption of their normal delivery schedule. Remarkable…
Quality Control is a Constant Process
In an age of statistical quality control, I asked my guides how often Draper shades are pulled for a quality control check. The answer? Every single shade goes through a rigorous quality control check at every stage of the manufacturing process. The photo below shows a newly manufactured shade being checked for any fabric or manufacturing flaws.
Here you see Lori mounting a shade to a bar that will rise to hold the fabric in front of the large LED lightbox you see in the top third of this photo. If there are any flaws, it’s rejected and a new one is built…
In the photo above, the shade has been cut, assembled, and now heads to this station to be meticulously checked. At this cell, Lori is checking for any flaws and if she finds none, it will be moved to the next station in this manufacturing cell to be packaged for shipping. If she finds flaws, it will be scrapped and a new one manufactured.
A woodworking shop creates custom crates for shipping Draper’s many large projects
Full Woodworking Shop
So far, I’ve shown you Draper’s metal manufacturing and shade manufacturing. Now, our tour moves to a part of the factory where we came upon a full woodworking shop. But, you may wonder, why does a shade manufacturer need a woodworking shop?
The answer is simple. Since every project is custom, there are no “standard” shipping cartons or crates that can be bought in bulk to ship the final product. So the company custom creates shipping crates. Of course, on smaller projects, cardboard will suffice. But on the company’s biggest jobs – something they do every day – nothing but a real custom-sized wood crate will do. And that’s why you need a full woodworking shop.
Custom-crated products are staged to be shipped
Projecting a Good Image – TecVision
There’s a lot of science in manufacturing shades, especially with so many computer-controlled manufacturing machinery. But our next stop on the tour really caught my attention as we entered a special space for their TecVision engineered projection screen technology.
Here you see a TecVision screen being manufactured. This spray machine is absolutely huge!
First we entered a room with a large machine spraying an engineered coating on a nano-perf screen backing. It was a large space that can manufacture an absolutely huge screen. The coating platform is custom designed for Draper and the space is climate controlled and operates on a 24×7 schedule.
To get a better view, they took me up to a special control room and lab space that looms over the spray room. Here you got an even better view of just how large the space and spraying system really is – they can manufacture a seamless screen up to 23 ft by 69 ft. (I’m going to need a bigger living room!)
Here you get a better sense of the scale of their TecVision manufacturing capability. They can manufacture a seamless screen that’s 23′ x 69′. We’re going to need a bigger boat!
The TecVision innovation is a proprietary coating that optimizes the screen for high contrast, precise resolution, color accuracy, and the broadest viewing angle. All coatings are mixed and measured in-house. TecVision screens are all ISF certified, something they tell me that no other company can claim.
How serious is Draper about TecVision? They showed me a world-class imaging lab where they can precisely measure all the elements of imaging properties – including measuring gain, color repetitiveness, gloss, half-gain angle, and more…up to 30 parameters. It is an impressive facility!
This is Draper’s imaging lab where precise measurement of key imaging properties is conducted.
Draper Does Things in a BIG Way
You know, visiting Draper is a little like visiting Texas – everything is bigger at Draper. Case in point, they offer a custom printing service for incredibly accurate large images – think museums, malls, corporate atriums, press conference backgrounds, and the like. To offer this service, they utilize a massive HP printer that can print on large format backing.
Draper offers custom print services with this massive HP latex printer
This is not anything like your desktop HP printer to print out your reports or presentations. This HP printer uses special latex ink and is designed to be used on durable backing. It is more appropriate for large scale imaging like signage or graphics for more permanent installations. The company showed us several examples of its output which were all visually stunning.
Some dramatic examples of its large scale printing capability. The aircraft in the background was produced for a museum
Metalworking for AV, Mounting Solutions, and Shades
We finally came to the metal shop that produces mounts and related gear for their AV divisions and shade divisions. This includes the metal mounting structures for the LED direct view walls as well. Here too, the company has prodigious capabilities. Super high volume metalwork is often outsourced, but much of the medium volume metalwork is done right here in-house. Again, it is an impressive array of computer-controlled metalworking equipment such as punches, presses, folders, lathes, and the like.
This is a coil-fed, computer-controlled laser-cutting machine. The output from this station is then taken over to a metal shaping machine to build a product chassis or whatever item is required
One machine they showed me was a coil-fed laser cutter, which works on large rolls of steel or aluminum that are continuously fed from a coil on the side of the machine. The laser cuts a pattern into the steel and then it is moved to a metal bending machine called a twin-arm folder for final shaping as per the design.
Here’s something you do not see in every machine shop – look at the number of digital screens around the shop that are computer-control systems for various machines, including this AccurPress metal press
Childress pointed out that much of their machinery is computer controlled. There are no hand-drilled processes here, he told me, noting that the computer can precisely cut, bend, and shape with perfect repeatability such that every piece of manufactured metal is identical.
I want to include one more image as part of this factory tour. Again, I’ve been in dozens and dozens of factories in my career. One of the last stops on my tour of Draper, may in fact turn out to be the most memorable.
Far and away the largest powder coat spray booth I have ever seen. It runs just about as far as the eye can see. There is actually someone working in the booth in this photo
What was that stop? It was to the powder coating spray booth. In all the years that I’ve been visiting factories, Draper has the largest powder spray booth I have ever seen…by far. While this is probably due to the size of the company and its many divisions with their respective product lines, it was quite impressive. Again, I’m not sure you get the scale of it from this photo, but it is huge.
I Didn’t Know What to Expect
I didn’t know what to expect when I went to visit Draper. I didn’t know much about Draper. I didn’t know much about shades. And I certainly didn’t know much at all about shade manufacturing.
Sometimes you hear about a company that is really old, and you can draw the wrong conclusions from that fact. Perhaps you think they are stodgy, slow-moving, and unexciting. If you thought that about Draper, you’d be really wrong.
This is a company that has continually expanded – clearly a sign of long-term success. They have expanded into new categories that build upon their strengths in fabric and metalworking capabilities and that is continuing to drive growth for the company.
They have done business in boom times and bust times. And those bust times didn’t bust them.
My Eyes Have Been Opened
My eyes have been opened. First of all, shading as a category is growing in the custom integration channel. Draper is one of the major players in the game. Since they are U.S. based with U.S. suppliers, they beat many of their competitors in delivery times – often just ten days to fourteen days.
Their factory is modern, well laid out, and incredibly efficient. It is stocked full of the latest computer-controlled manufacturing machinery that offers faster, more efficient production times and delivers an end product with superior fit and finish.
Draper’s factory manufactures as many as 4,000 shades a day of every size, shape, and configuration. The company is still growing – they will open another production building in 2023 – boosting their factory campus to 500,000 sq. ft.
If I Were You
Finally, this company is serious about building its residential business. They have already launched new products geared to residential (with many more to come) and have assembled a sales management team dedicated solely to the residential channel. Based on their track record of success with other businesses they’ve entered…I’d pay attention to Draper if I were you.
If you’re an integrator looking to get into or expand your shade business, I suggest you open your eyes as I did. You’d be really wise to speak with Draper to learn more about what they bring to the table.
You just might be pleasantly surprised by what you learn…
Learn more about Draper and its products by visiting draperinc.com.