Fitting Computer Design to Small Apparel Firms

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Ram Sareen shows off a row of computer workstations in his sleek downtown Los Angeles storefront, eliciting approving nods from a group of would-be clients.

Such a display would rate a yawn in Silicon Valley. But it’s an anomaly in the gritty heart of the garment district, where scissors still rank as a cutting-edge tool.

Sareen is out to change that. The Los Angeles entrepreneur is making computer-aided design systems available to small clothing companies, freelance pattern makers and other small fry that can’t afford to purchase the pricey technology. For an hourly fee, they can visit Sareen’s recently opened facility and use state-of-the-art CAD systems to create clothing digitally just like the major manufacturers.


“It’s no different from going to Kinko’s and paying to use a computer or a copier,” said Sareen, who has plans to open dozens of these design facilities worldwide. “We’re going to be the Kinko’s” of apparel technology.

It’s a characteristically bold statement from the Indian-born Sareen, who has made a name for himself by challenging the status quo.

Since founding Los Angeles-based Tukatech in 1997, the 51-year-old Sareen has gone head-to-head with apparel automation giants such as Gerber Technology, winning converts with his easy-to-use CAD systems, economical production machinery and devotion to customer service. Nationally known companies such as Patagonia and XOXO have switched to Tukatech systems, high-profile defections that Sareen has trumpeted in cheeky advertisements to needle his competitors.

But it is his move to cater to the little guys that’s generating buzz. Some industry watchers doubt Sareen can cobble together a profitable core of users among L.A.’s small apparel companies. Others say he’s in the right place at the right time in a local trade that must evolve to remain viable.

“We’ve got all sorts of people in this industry . . . who are operating in an antiquity mode,” said Jean Gipe, director of the Apparel Technology & Research Center at Cal Poly Pomona. “This has potential to help them operate more profitably and efficiently without a huge upfront investment.”

Apparel has been one of the slowest industries to adopt new technology. Pattern makers still toil with paper and pencil, and many sewing factories use machines and techniques fundamentally unchanged for decades.


Some of that stems from the trade’s hands-on tradition. But it’s also a matter of economics. A single CAD workstation--essentially a PC and special software for computerizing tasks such as pattern making--can cost as much as $35,000. Automating a large factory floor can cost millions of dollars.

Firm Serves an Overlooked Niche

Small wonder that apparel technology salespeople for years have focused their efforts on big companies with deep pockets. Sareen ought to know. He worked for Connecticut-based Gerber for 11 years, peddling systems to major manufacturers on the West Coast, until he became convinced that the big suppliers were inhibiting wider adoption of automation.

Customers, he said, complained constantly about pricey service contracts and closed systems that tethered them to one company’s technology. So Sareen decided to strike out on his own, deriving the name of his new venture from his wife’s Hindi nickname--”Tuka.”

A veteran production specialist who worked for a string of Canadian clothing companies before coming to the United States, Sareen vowed to become the kind of vendor he would have liked when he was running a factory.

“I used to hate salesmen, but I loved someone who understood my business,” Sareen said.

That meant developing simple-to-use CAD systems that would communicate with other systems and equipment, no matter the manufacturer. It also meant free training, free support and straight-up hourly repair rates instead of expensive service contracts.

Most important, it meant customer service. Tukatech service employees carry their cell phones 24 hours a day and field customer calls at home in the middle of the night.


The approach has won over scores of skeptical garmentos such as Ken Spiegel, an operations expert who has purchased Tukatech equipment for two local manufacturers. He said he chose Tukatech over a rival when Sareen figured out a way to dismantle an 8,000-pound, 17-foot-long fabric cutter so that it could be transported to an upper floor of the factory. The other vendor wanted to tear out a wall and hire a crane to lift its machinery through, which would have cost Spiegel’s employer an extra $35,000.

“Ram thinks like the customer and keeps his eye on the cost savings,” said Spiegel, now chief operating officer for Los Angeles-based Komex International.

Pamela Buckingham, systems manager for Ventura-based Patagonia, confirms the extra effort.

“I’ve called those cell phones at midnight, believe me,” Buckingham said. “If they can make us happy, they can make anyone happy.”

Playing David to Others’ Goliath

Competitors say Tukatech lacks proprietary technology, purchasing its fabric cutters, spreaders and other equipment from Italian manufacturers. And they roll their eyes at Sareen’s contention that his tiny company has forced the industry to drop prices by delivering a fully loaded CAD station for $10,000. Observers say that’s a little like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise, given that technology prices have been falling for years.

With $33 million in global sales last year and 167 employees in the United States, India and Europe, privately held Tukatech still is a gnat compared with publicly traded behemoths such as Gerber, whose parent posted revenue of $611 million last year. But rivals can no longer ignore the Tukabuzz. Warren Hartenstine, regional sales manager for Gerber, said he was forced to retool his company’s service offerings in response to Tukatech’s low-cost strategy.

“Ram challenged us,” Hartenstine said. “He forced us to look at our value, and we’re grateful for it.”


Sareen clearly enjoys playing the puckish David to the industry’s Goliaths. Company ads list customers who have switched to Tukatech systems--along with the names of the jilted competitors. His trademark guerrilla marketing will be on display at an upcoming trade show in Orlando, Fla. Unable to afford the massive booths of the big guys, Sareen has plastered his Bentley automobile with gaudy Tukatech signs instead. He plans to park it inside the convention hall and dress in mechanic’s overalls to stress the company’s commitment to customer service.

At 5 feet, 4 inches tall, Sareen resembles a diminutive Indian Elvis modeling his white jumpsuit at company headquarters. Funny looking? No doubt. Memorable? Absolutely. Which is what Sareen is counting on.

“Everybody is going to remember the guy who ruined the Bentley,” he said with a laugh.

Sareen’s next challenge will be attracting customers into his self-service apparel design facilities, known as Tukacenters. He said the company already has rolled out 23 of the centers, many of them in developing nations such as India, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. The Los Angeles site is Tukatech’s first attempt to crack the U.S. market.

The downtown location offers 30 workstations with software that enables users to design clothing, create patterns and do other pre-production chores. Digital subscriber line wiring at each station enables customers to send their work to clients electronically; they also can print out hard copies on the spot.

Members pay a $50 monthly fee, then $10 an hour to use the equipment. Nonmembers pay a straight $15 an hour. The center also offers $750 crash courses designed to get anyone already skilled in manual pattern making and related areas working on the computer within days.

Hoping Tukacenter Business Will Pick Up

Seated at a workstation on a recent evening, Nicola Fergusson described the Tukacenter as a godsend for fashion entrepreneurs like her. The designer said her business is too small to justify the purchase of a CAD system, but she needs the speed it can offer to turn around jobs quickly. She recently used it to tweak a pattern for a rush order, saving the extra day it would have taken her to do it by hand or farm it out to a pattern service.


“I got the order because I could ship quickly,” said Fergusson, maker of a contemporary women’s shirt line called Clue. “That’s what this technology can do.”

The real question is whether enough designers, freelance pattern makers and others will beat a path to Tukacenter doors. Fresh off several days of training, Fergusson said she rarely saw other customers in the center.

Sareen admitted business is slow. Since May, he said, 105 customers have signed up for the training, which he is giving away free. Undeterred, he already is working on a Web-based application that could be accessed from home or office via subscription.

Michael Fralix, corporate vice president for TC2, a North Carolina-based apparel research center, said the Internet holds real promise for lowering costs and spreading the use of apparel technology to players of all sizes worldwide. Whether Sareen is the one who succeeds in doing that remains to be seen.

“He’s reaching out to an untapped segment of the market,” Fralix said. “The concept is good. But there are a lot of great players out there. It’s going to be interesting to watch.”