Agoura Hills, California
Employees: Less than 9
Industry: Supply Chain
Products: Product development and prototyping
Knitting innovator and co-founder Connie Huffa works with manufacturers in footwear, aerospace, and defense.
A textile engineer with a degree from Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, Huffa met her husband, Bruce, when they were both working for Stoll America in the 1980s. "Bruce is also a textile engineer and a master knitwear engineer," Huffa adds. "He trained at Hinckley College in England and with Thomas Stoll at Stoll GmbH in Reutlingen, Germany."
Huffa started Fabdesigns in 1988 using credit cards to fund the purchase of equipment. "I was wrongfully terminated from Stoll America for getting engaged to Bruce," she explains. "I looked for another job working for one of the companies buying Stoll equipment, but I was so overqualified that no one would hire me. I basically had no choice but to dig in and make a business out of my knowledge."
Bruce joined her, and the pair now work with hundreds of clients around the world ranging in size from small startups to Fortune 100 companies. They provide their clients with everything from full-service product development and prototyping to in-house production of small runs, validation, and testing samples. Additionally, they build custom and on-demand manufacturing platforms and proprietary machine parts.
Perhaps the couple's biggest claim to fame is Nike's Flyknit technology. "We invented it for Nike," Huffa says. "Now footwear and aerospace make up the biggest portion of our business. We knit carbon fiber and other polymers, nickel titanium alloys, and a lot of other things that people think can't be knitted."
Fabdesigns helps their clients build from the fiber up. "There are so many different things that go into making a product," Huffa explains. "From choosing the type of fiber or polymer you want to use to how that polymer is extruded and turned into yarn. It's really important for our clients to understand as much as they possibly can about what each choice means to the end consumer. For example, the stitch count on a fabric can mean the difference between something that has a harsh hand or something that can be put up against skin. We have to build a recipe that the company can repeat every single time to their standards and specifications, no matter where in the world they are manufacturing their products."
Huffa notes that Fabdesigns' technology cannot be found anywhere else. "We build our own code, using the machine builder's standard equipment but putting it on steroids," she adds. "About 98 percent of all textile machines are sold for apparel, and in most cases, the products our clients want to make would be impossible using the manufacturing software that these machine builders give them."
She also says that Fabdesigns puts extraordinary emphasis on sustainability within each client project. "We want to use the least amount of material to get to the goal," she continues. "We want to use the least amount of energy. And we want to help people find manufacturing facilities closer to their consumers so they can reduce their carbon footprint, shrink their supply chain, and shorten their response time."
What does she predict for the future? "I think because of the Flyknit, people have stopped looking at knitting as a grandma with a bunch of cats and a couple of yarn balls," Huffa muses. "They're starting to look at it in terms of additive manufacturing and being able to map out different structures, functions, and performances in the same panel. A whole group of people who didn't consider knitting before are considering it now both for sustainability but also because it makes their products stronger and better."
Challenges: Patent law presents a big challenge for Fabdesigns. "It's currently 'first to file,'" Huffa explains, "and patent pirates, which are huge companies with hundreds of attorneys on staff, just patent everything they see at trade shows. We need laws to change back to the way they were prior to 2014 so the little guy is protected the way patent laws originally intended."
Opportunities: Huffa says agility is Fabdesigns' biggest opportunity. "The nice thing about the Stoll machinery we use is it has a unique computer setup," she continues. "We can use the same machines for many things, which means being able to switch from a medical product to an automotive product to a footwear product all in the same day. I don't even have to go back to the CAD system. I can do it right on the machine and just change the yarn out."
Needs: Huffa says Fabdesigns currently has all the equipment it needs and "everything is paid for." She notes the company doesn't need any funding "except to pay our IP attorney for all the ideas we've developed and need to protect from the patent pirates."