Paper or Fabric?

When Tricycle won the prestigious British Green Apple Award last November, the small Chattanooga-based company suddenly joined the ranks of global powerhouses such as Volvo and BBC Worldwide. The sustainable design consultancy was recognized for SIM, a virtual manufacturing program that encourages carpet companies to use printed and online samples in place of real ones—and stands to significantly reduce waste in the carpet industry.

Jamie Harrison and Andy Shipman, two of Tricycle’s four founders, developed the software in the late 1990s. But after they launched it in 2000 few carpet companies—with the exception of Lees, Mo-hawk, Shaw, and Interface—were willing to use it. “At these mammoth-size companies you have to have an internal champion to see the project through,” says Tricycle’s chief brand officer Michael Hendrix, who explains that to integrate the program was an enormous undertaking.

Carpet manufacturers had grown weary of software packages that claimed to offer realistic prints of tufted samples. “With previous programs the detail, realism, and color accuracy were not dependable at all,” says Allen Parker, vice president of custom development at the Mohawk Commercial Group. “You’d have to squint your eyes to see the pattern—and that’s no way to do business. Tricycle was the first to offer precise color and pattern accuracy.” Since they began offering SIM as a service in 2003, eight of the ten largest U.S. carpet brands have partnered with them, integrating “virtual manufacturing” methods into their processes. Textile and wall-covering companies are beginning to follow suit.

Tricycle recently issued its first Environmental Report Card, which quantifies the impact SIM had on the industry in the previous year. According to their statistics Tricycle produced a total of 34,443 printed carpet samples during that period, nearly five percent of all the samples the carpet industry sends out annually. Although this may seem like a meager achievement, the reduction in waste is quite substantial: almost 5,000 pounds of carpet were kept out of landfills, more than 8,600 fewer gallons of oil were consumed in the manufacturing process, and the industry saved at least $4.7 million.

To arrive at this point Tricycle spent four years surveying the industry’s core customers—architects and interior designers. “Most designers were frustrated with how long it took to receive custom samples,” researcher Caleb Ludwick says. By offering a 24-hour printing and delivery service, they were able to cut down on the use of real samples during the early phases of a project, when designers are canvassing a range of possibilities. “The designers we work with have been extremely impressed with how real the images look, and they have developed complete confidence in narrowing down their selections on paper,” says Parker, who has been able to reduce the number of custom strike-offs that Mohawk produces each month by 25 percent. “It’s having a huge impact on our ability to service all of our customers with custom-designed carpet.”

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