#001: From Hand to Machine

Updated: Nov 20, 2019



Satori has three key considerations we use to guide any major decision:

  1. Job creation

  2. Sustainability

  3. Product quality

In that order.

In a country with a 27% unemployment rate, we understand the immense need for quality jobs in which every employee is treated fairly and with dignity. We also understand our role as a business in this economy comes with the responsibility to create jobs.


We don't want our focus on sustainability to be a marketing angle. We believe that it should be assumed that a product is made with the longevity of our planet in mind. It shouldn't be a bonus feature. We want our impact on the world to be in the shape of world-changing ideas, not decimated ecologies.


These two things shouldn't make us compromise on the quality of the final product. Because we don't want to add more ugly, frustrating, thoughtlessly designed clutter to an already messy and distracting world. Our products must be of the highest quality, so that they can serve you well and help you focus on what's really important to you. This focus on quality means that you'll want to use our gear even if you don't care about our other priorities.

Whenever we're facing a dilemma we refer to these three things to guide our decision.


To summarise, any decision we make should aid in:

  1. Creating more dignified jobs with an emphasis on empowerment in addition to employment.

  2. Improving the quality of the work experience

  3. Transfer of universally applicable skills

  4. Maximise wages

  5. Reduce waste

  6. Increase local manufacturing (our products are already made entirely in our workshop in Pretoria Central)

  7. Improve the quality of the product

We got to test this out recently when we were deciding on how to move forward on a key step in our production line: the binding.


The binding step involves two actions: manually punching holes in the spine one at a time, and then hand-stitching through those holes with a needle and thread.

In the early stages of the company this feature was charming and the process almost meditative. Once demand increased, and we were at times making 100 notebooks per day, the charm was quickly replaced with callouses and sweat. The romanticism quickly vanished.


The skill involved is also so specific that it wouldn't be useful outside of bookbinding. Remember, we want to empower people with widely applicable skills, not just employ them.

We began exploring options to ease the burden of this step. This took months.


I researched how notebooks are made in the more established notebook companies. I've shared some videos below which illustrate the machinery and working conditions.






The big guys have almost completely automated the process, leaving little room for humans.

Any decision that involves improving our production line will involve a tension between the efficiencies of automation and the spirit and character of a human touch. It becomes our job to maintain harmony in this constant dialogue.


We needed to figure out where on the spectrum our priorities would fit.

Completely hand-made is charming, but it doesn't teach a universal skill, it's labour intensive (which pushes up the required retail price, which compromises the sustainability of the company and reduces potential wages), it limited the position to stronger men (narrowing our potential scope for employment opportunities), and it reduced the consistency and the quality of our products — limiting our appeal to a niche of craft enthusiasts.


On the other hand, a completely automated process reduces potential entry-level job openings and compromises on the character of the final product.

But it also has its benefits:

  • increased output with reduced human effort

  • increased product consistency

  • more durable product

  • more widely applicable skill to teach

  • reduced production costs which make room for higher wages and lower selling prices

  • less labour intensive (which opens the job to a wider demographic, including disabled people)

  • reduced factory space requirements

  • simplified production process (fewer steps means fewer opportunities for error)

  • more "professionally" finished product (widening our niche market appeal without compromising our brand values)

Weighing these factors, we perused the various equipment options scattered across the craft-automation spectrum.


The first thing we tried fell closer to the hand-made end of the spectrum. It was a simple machine that would punch the holes all at once with reduced effort. It basically looked like a clapper board with spikes in the clapper.


We made a prototype. It didn't work.


After many weeks of considering alternative options, we came across a few online videos where people were binding their own notebooks with a sewing machine. Seems obvious in retrospect.


I tried stitching a notebook with my grandmother's old home sewing machine. Twenty broken needles later I conceded that the machine wasn't powerful enough. But it worked well enough that it seemed like a way forward. We then visited an industrial sewing machine distributor to find out if this was a really dumb idea. We were fish out of water. They said they had a machine that would handle this easily. We were excited and then instantly scared. How much was this going to cost?


We asked for the demo. It worked magically. It was unbelievable, as if the machine was made for this. We were in the middle of a few sizeable projects, so we decided to mull over this option until we finished the projects (it's not smart to completely overhaul your production line in the middle of a production cycle).


We weighed the benefits of this machine against the downsides:


Benefits

  • increased output with reduced human effort

  • improved job quality

  • increased product consistency

  • more durable binding

  • more universally applicable skill to teach (industrial sewing machine vs. awl and needle and thread)

  • reduced production costs to make room for higher wages and better compete with established competitors without moving production offshore

  • less labour intensive (to open the job to a wider demographic, including disabled people)

  • reduced required factory space

  • simplified production process which makes the skill easier to teach and quicker to learn and fewer opportunities for potential errors

  • the notebooks become less obviously handmade which widens our potential customer base without compromising our core values

Downsides

  • less of the romantic "crafted" character

  • higher risks of equipment failure

  • shallow learning curve (it takes longer in the short-term to teach someone to use a sewing machine than it does an awl and needle and thread)

  • increased maintenance costs

  • increased power costs

  • our iconic orange binding becomes less bold

Weighing these, it became clear which was the right direction to go. We nervously bought the sewing machine.


Game changer. The impact was instant. A step that previously took seven minutes to complete now takes closer to one minute. Previously, on a good day, one person could stitch around forty notebooks, now that would take less than one hour.

Our new machine-stitched binding

The hardest part of the process just became the easiest.

It's become a much more accessible position, because now just about anyone can do the job with almost flawless consistency. The binding is also much more durable and discreet.

Even though we will miss that charming "fat" thread, we feel strongly that this is the right move that will help us achieve our ambitious goals with this notebook company thing. We hope you agree?


P.S. We're sharing this because we want our community to be a part of our journey and to be transparent about what goes into making key decisions like this.

Join the list

Get notified of new products, limited releases, and more.

(+27) 606032450   |   hello@satorinotebookco.co.za

Handmade in Pretoria Central, South Africa