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Providence Business News
Vol. 23, Number 15
July 21, 2008

Clothing products that are made to be seen

By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer

Metlon Corporation may not be well known, but almost everyone has seen their product. You could say it’s impossible to miss.

The Cranston-based manufacturer makes the reflective material that makes the vests, jackets, and hats worn by highway workers and traffic cops so visible. They also produce a trademark fabric – Retroglo – used in fashionable outdoor gear that makes joggers and bicyclists easy to spot.

Oddly enough, the company owes much if its success to competition from overseas. When the company began in 1947, workers at the Frances Street plant were making decorative metallic yarn.

“That customer base has shrunk considerably – it’s all gone to Asia,” said Wayne Etchells, Metlon’s executive vice president. “A decade ago our sales of metallic yarn totaled more than $1 million; today it’s down to $400,000. We’ve had to drop some low-volume items because the customer base just isn’t there.”

As a result, the folks at Metlon have been forced to find other ways to profit from their expertise. They’ve learned to compete with Asian manufacturers by supplying material to their customers very quickly.

The company first began slitting film into magnetic tape for businesses in the electronics industry and then moved on to other materials – paper, metal foils, fabrics and laminations. Since then Metlon has provided services for scores of companies, slicing filter paper for pharmaceutical outfits, magnetic tape for credit card companies, fine metal strips used in automobile air bags, and even reflective material used in dog collars and leashes.

“Almost all our slitting machinery is designed and built right here at Metlon,” Etchells said. “We have the ability to slit almost any thin, flexible material to very narrow widths and very accurately.”

Through the contracting services, the company began doing business with 3M, the American corporation best known for producing a variety of tapes and adhesives. Today, Metlon is one of three nationally authorized distributors of 3M’s Scotchlite, a reflective material that meets the Federal Highway Administrations standards for high-visibility apparel. Highway workers in several states are required to wear vests or other coats that meet that standard, and by November those working on federal highway projects must do so as well.

Scotchlite is a film covered with tiny, light-reflecting glass beads. The material is frequently used by gluing strips onto vests, coats, or hats. However, with their experience making metallic yarns, the folks at Metlon were able to find a more fashionable way to use it. They laminate Scotchlite for added strength, cut it into narrow strips, and spin it together with nylon threads, creating a soft, comfortable material they call Retroglo. According to the company’s Web site, Retroglo is more visible to motorists than any other reflective fabric. It appears silver in daylight, without the neon look that gives most reflective material a strictly-utilitarian appearance.

“It’s not so much for highway workers, but for consumers who need a reflective garment, but don’t want a big stripe down their back,” Etchells said.

Companies such as Federal Express and Northwest Airlines have used Retroglo in their uniforms. It has also been incorporated into fashionable outdoor and athletic gear, such as skiing and jogging outfits, children’s winter garments, and laces for running shoes. Donna Karan DKNY has even experimented with making suits from the material (though according to Etchells, most of them ended up in discount racks.)

The nature of the business means the company’s work force goes up and down.

“Right now the company employees about 20 people, but we’ve fluctuated between 16 and 30 employees over the past 15 years,” Etchells said. “It depends on the projects we’re working on. The slitting is all contract work, and sometimes when a new customer comes on board it’s necessary to put on a second shift.”

Posted Jul 21, 2008

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