Tell a Western cowboy his boots were made with a Massachusetts computer and he's likely to roll in stitches of laughter. Actually, the stitches are in his fancily decorated boots, precisely sewn in zigs, zags, and swirls by a microprocessor in a machine sold by an old New England shoe company known as USM.
"If it were not for those machines," says Ray DeVita, USM vice-president, "you could not afford today's cowboy boots."
Just ten years ago exotic stitch designs were done by hand. But USM latched onto Massachusetts-based computers to speed up its "automatic insertion" technology. Now it is the world leader in shoe-manufacturing automation, helping to lower prices for the new "Urban Cowboy" bootmania.
And by linking the fading 19th-century New England shoe industry with the modern age of thinking machines, USM is helping the American footwear business hold its own against foreign competition, which now accounts for about half of US shoe sales.
Founded in Boston in 1899, United Shoe Machinery Company later became simply USM and in 1976 was bought by Emhart Corporation of Connecticut.
Although automation has been a 20-year dream for the shoe industry, it has come slowly, due mainly to the difficulty of handling leather, quick changes in fashion, an almost endless number of variations in sizes and colors, and the fact that one shoe takes 200 to 300 steps to make.
All the talk of a computer age, says Tom Bleasdale, USM president, would make you think "the magic automated shoe factory would have a cow go in one end and finished shoes come out the other."
Still 30 percent of shoemaking labor is in stitching, and USM's year-old Automatic Fitting Stitcher (AFS) machine has improved productivity sixteenfold, a fact that helped sell more than 1,000 units in less than one year, of which one-third were exported. Over half those units are used for making cowboy boots and a large portion are used for jogging shoes. Moreover, the new AFS drops training of new workers from six months to one week.
With American worker wages five to six times those in Taiwan, The USM automation drive tips the competitive balance: Now transportation and capital costs are almost as important as labor. And as computer-aided design of shoes comes on-line and speeds up turnaround time between styles, cheap-labor s hoemakers could find themselves suspended on "a shoestring.