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One hundred years of SATRA part 7: the 1980s

Revealing the organisation’s research and testing work conducted in the eighties.

by Stuart Morgan

Footwear technology in the 1980s meant one thing – computerisation. SATRA was determined to keep abreast of all the latest developments in this field and identify how they could be used by members around the world. This research led to a suite of systems for member companies to use in their design and production processes. The first version of the ‘SATRASumm’ upper material management system was developed, together with the ‘SATRAData’ labour cost control system. Later, a computer-aided sewing machine training and diagnostic system called ‘VisionStitch’ was launched.

SATRA Bulletin articles of the time show how important the use of computerised systems was viewed, as many issues included at least one editorial explaining the use of computer systems. These covered such topics as ‘The potential use of CAD/CAM systems for mould makers’, ‘Microcomputers aid transportation and work handling in closing’, ‘Development of computer-aided design systems’ and ‘Advantages of computer-aided analysis techniques’.

Developing a special relationship

In May 1980, director Graham Butlin (later to become chief executive) finalised negotiations for SATRA’s partnership with the recently-formed American Shoe Centre (ASC), which was based in Philadelphia University. Announcing the agreement, the director said that it was ‘a tremendous achievement in political and technical terms’. The five-year partnership gave the Shoe Centre full rights to all SATRA information and technological facilities. Both ASC and SATRA members benefited from a coordinated research programme and staff members from both organisations spent time at the other’s headquarters. A fully-equipped laboratory, which included a number of SATRA-built machines, was established at the Philadelphia site, and this was staffed by a team of 13.

Tackling closing room problems

An upper engineering research department was formed within SATRA’s processes and management group in June 1980. Initially, it had three objectives, the first being to perform a scientific analysis of the stitching operation – in particular to identify the factors limiting the speed of the operation – with subsequent research investigating ways to reduce or eliminate these factors. The second objective was to research the area of ‘seam engineering’ to provide recommendations on correct construction of seams and methods of reinforcement. Thirdly, the department worked to develop an engineering approach to the design and construction of the whole upper, with particular emphasis being placed on ways to identify the most cost-effective method of producing a finished upper in the factory to approved aesthetic and quality standards.

Mike Wilson explaining the operations of SATRA’s shoe engineering department during a members’ open day

The popularity of SATRA training

SATRA held its 100th instructor’s course in August 1980, which enabled these members of a shoemaker’s staff to train stitching machinists in factories. This three-week course was first held in 1956 and, by mid-1980, over 600 instructors had been taught how to analyse individual training needs in relation to closing room requirements, develop programmes to meet individual needs, instructional and supervisory techniques, motivation of trainees, and the evaluation of training.

Death of Harry Bradley

Having joined the original British Boot, Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association in 1922 after which he served as SATRA’s first full-time director for no less than 41 years, Harry Bradley CBE died on 30th December 1982 at the age of 85. According to the February 1983 issue of SATRA Bulletin, he had been acknowledged throughout the shoemaking world as ‘one of the most incisive thinkers and speakers on all matters concerning the industry’, and was affectionately known as ‘Mr SATRA’. Following service in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, he spent some time teaching before being appointed director of the fledgling organisation that had been established just three years before.

SATRA head visits the Palace

Director Graham Butlin was awarded an OBE in 1983 for services to the footwear industry

Graham Butlin was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1983 New Year’s Honours List for services to the footwear industry. Having joined SATRA as a research physicist in 1958, he went on to lead a team of experts that was responsible for a number of notable shoemaking innovations, including cyclic mulling, vacuum pattern cutting and the moist heat setting process, which revolutionised the footwear industry and earned SATRA the prestigious Queen's Award to Industry in 1969.

Dynamic research programmes

During September 1983, SATRA’s material and products committee agreed a programme of research for 1984/85 that was submitted to the UK Textiles and Other Manufactures Requirements Board for financial support. This body subsequently approved over 98 per cent of the project. Five main themes were defined in the submission. These were:
i) ‘cost reduction through improved material selection by improving and developing further SATRA’s performance guidelines for materials and finished shoes’,
ii) ‘reduction of rejects and returns’,
iii) ‘the use of microelectronics and microcomputers for faster testing procedures and reduction in testing costs’,
iv) ‘evaluation by laboratory testing and wear trials of new materials likely to be in widespread use by the industry’, and
v) ‘improved product design and appeal by further development of the product enhancement investigations’.

SATRA’s robotics project

During the 1980s, SATRA conducted in-depth research into the use of robotics in shoemaking, and was a pioneer in this field, having become a registered consultant under the UK government’s ‘Robotic scheme’. For example, an announcement in SATRA Bulletin of April 1984 explained that the organisation was cooperating with a specialist team within a UK university to examine the cost, speed capability and ‘limited intelligence’ of most commercial robot units of the time. The area of research selected for this three-year project was the sole adhesion process, the aim being to produce a prototype unit system that could be used for the automatic attachment of footwear solings.

By December 1984, SATRA had designed and sold four ‘programmable transfer arm (PTA) units to member companies – two for development purposes and the others for use of production operations involving the spraying of mould-release agents and finish lacquers. The PTA, built as a result of SATRA’s research on its Unimation PUMA 500 robot, was demonstrated to members in a simulated shoemaking operation. According to SATRA Bulletin of December 1984, this involved the robot picking up one of two different lasts, having differentiated between them by means of infrared sensors, carrying the last to a ‘work pin’, where it was automatically aligned and locked in position, simulating a tool-change operation and conducting a bottom profiling routing (such as would be used in cementing or roughing) and finally taking the last from the work pin and placing it in an ‘off load’ position.

By June 1985, SATRA’s PUMA 500 robot (shown in the photograph at the top of this article) had been upgraded to run more sophisticated software. In addition, the infrared sensor had been replaced by an ultrasonic range finding device. By this time, the robot had also been fitted with a brush attachment, enabling it to apply PU adhesive to lasted uppers.

Growth in income

SATRA’s income for 1984 was just £15,000 short of the £2 million. This was acknowledged as quite an achievement at the time, especially considering that the £1 million barrier had only been broken seven years before.

In October 1985, SATRA Bulletin highlighted that the SATRA VisionStitch program had been conceived some years before as a system dedicated to the stitching room, and the particular computer to be used had been considered largely irrelevant. Initially, the Apple operating system was chosen to be the foundation of the program’s development because such computers were relatively inexpensive and widely available. However, it was noted in this article that there had been a considerable growth in the popularity of IBM microcomputers, especially outside the UK. As a result, SATRA produced an IBM-compatible version of the program which was then made available to members.

Rapid progress in the mid-1980s

According to director Graham Butlin, 1985 was ‘a challenging and successful year’. He referred to how new technology had continued to make a tremendous impact on the footwear industry, and highlighted how SATRA’s various cost-cutting systems were saving its members well over £1 million annually. SATRA’s income in 1985 exceeded the £2 million mark – an increase of 12.6 per cent over the previous year’s figure.

SATRA’s upper materials research and services laboratory in the mid-1980s

In February 1986, SATRA became officially accredited to conduct over 80 specified tests under the UK Department of Trade and Industry’s ‘National measurement and Accreditation Service’ (NAMAS). Stringent criteria had to be met by SATRA’s technical services laboratories during assessment by NAMAS officials. These inspectors had to satisfy themselves that a number of requirements had been met. These included that SATRA had a sound management organisation capable of administering testing work and quality control systems based on a detailed quality control manual. In addition, SATRA’s equipment had to be suitable for accredited tests in terms of accuracy, and sets of up-to-date and documented test methods were needed for each section carrying out testing under the scheme. The organisation also had to show that it employed competent and trained members of staff, that a recording system was used to monitor work, and that an effective policy on confidentiality of information and security of access to the laboratories was in place.

By 1986, SATRA had become a truly international research association, with close ties to Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the USA.

A new department is formed

A new ‘shoe and last technology’ department – headed by Robin Browne – was formed in January 1987 to ensure that SATRA’s research on lasts could take full advantage of the latest CAD/CAM developments and to assist members with the implementation of new technology in last design and manufacture.

Commenting on SATRA’s annual accounts for 1987, company treasurer Tom Worswick congratulated the members of staff on achieving a surplus on £250,000 for the year. Income was 7.3 per cent better than budget, while expenditure was 2.3 per cent lower than had been allowed for. Total income for 1987 was just under £2.7 million – an increase of 8.2 per cent over the previous year’s figure.

Combatting stormy times

The hurricane that blew across the UK on an October day in 1987 uprooted an estimated 15 million trees, and over 800 accidents caused by chainsaws were reported in just one ten-day period during the clear-up. SATRA had a chainsaw rig on which safety wear was assessed, so when local television companies were told that many of these accidents could have been prevented if the correct footwear and clothing had been worn, they were keen to report on our test methods. Both ITV Anglia and the BBC sent crews to film the chainsaw test rig in action and broadcast dramatic pictures of the protection offered by the relevant personal protective equipment.

In March 1988, a new British Standards Institution (BSI) subcommittee was established to deal specifically with personal chainsaw protection. One of the main decisions made during this body’s first meeting was that priority had to be given to drawing up an official test method for assessing chainsaw resistance. The first draft, based on a SATRA procedure, was soon made available for public comment.

SATRA Bulletin of March 1988 announced the establishment of an ‘advanced manufacturing technology centre’. The aim of this new department was to develop a strategy to indicate how the footwear industry could move towards a greater use of automation and computerisation, and also act as a source of information on these activities.

Laboratory accreditation

A new laboratory support scheme to help members to improve or develop in-house testing facilities was launched at the beginning of 1989. Following assessment and, where necessary, laboratory technician training, a member company could receive SATRA accreditation accompanied by annual audits. The May 1989 issue of SATRA Bulletin reported that the service had been successfully implemented at a number of member companies during the first quarter of the year, the first of which was Gola Lamb. A very positive response was said to have been forthcoming in every case, and SATRA hoped that the scheme would become widely acknowledged – for instance, by retailers sourcing footwear or shoemakers buying in leather or coated fabrics.

SATRA assistant director Chris Bisson (left) presenting the first accredited laboratory certificate to David Padfield from Gola Lamb

How can we help?

This series of articles is being published to mark the milestone of SATRA’s centenary.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 14 of the July/August 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »