Owner: Frank B. Vener
Type of Business: Custom slitting
services, reflective yarn manufacturer
Location: 133 Frances Ave., Cranston
Year Founded: 1947
Annual Sales: WND
Metallic yarn maker finds fresh opportunities in custom slitting, safety items
You can see Metlon Corp.’s products best at night, when small amounts of light shine on a dog leash, along the seams of jogging suits or on the uniforms of airline workers. Metlon Retroglo yarn woven into the fabric makes the items glow in the dark, protecting those who wear them.
Metlon makes Retroglo by cutting rolls of silver-colored 3M Scotchlite reflective material into yarn as thin as one-69th of an inch, which can be blended into colored fabric with minimal impact on the color. During the day, it’s near-invisible, while at night, it glows.
Metlon is one of only a few manufacturers and distributors of reflective nighttime safety yarn in the country and even the world, and it exports about half its Retroglo yarn to Europe, South America and Asia, said Wayne Etchells, executive vice president of the company.
Metlon is also one of only five authorized distributors of Scotchlite, which it sells in thick strips in various colors for use on crossing guard safety vests and other items.
But the 59-year-old manufacturer didn’t start out like this. For most of its existence, Metlon focused on manufacturing metallic yarn, which requires a similar process of cutting down rolls of material into thin fibers that can be woven into sweaters, socks, shoelaces, etc.
“In the days of disco we went gangbusters,” Etchells said. But the company’s customer base for metallic yarn declined sharply as its textile customers moved their production to China and other countries in the 1990s, or shut down completely.
The company had to re-evaluate its products and business model to survive, Etchells said.
“We found there was a business out there for people that needed things other than metallic yarn,” he said. “We started developing customers that required very narrow slitting.”
Custom slitting on contract is “a very niche market,” Etchells said, and there are not many customers who need it. “But there’s enough to keep us happy.”
Metlon can cut a film for computer chips down to one-thousandth of an inch, he said, which is thinner than a human hair.
“This is what really keeps us in business,” said Etchells. “We feel we are slitting as narrow as or narrower than anyone else in the industry in the United States today. We also have the ability to cut very accurately, and that’s what really gives us our edge.”
The contract custom slitting makes up the majority of Metlon’s annual profits, Etchells said, while net income from the reflective yarns make up about 15 percent of its total.
Metlon still makes metallic yarns as well, but they only make up about 5 percent of annual earnings.
Etchells said the company has learned to make a profit off small-run jobs. Some customers need only one or two rolls of a product per month, he said, but sometimes the small jobs turn into larger jobs. Such was the case with a film Metlon cuts for a solar panel company, which eight years ago needed only two or three rolls a month, but today requires 75 to 100 rolls.
The company also customizes its machines and slitting heads for specific products brought in by customers. It even redesigned a section of the plant so it could slit a special type of film that cannot be exposed to ultraviolet light. The film is used for laminating credit cards.
“Almost all of the slitting equipment out there has been built by us here,” Etchells said. “They’ve all been built for special applications over the years.”
Other custom slitting jobs done at the plant range from cutting a metal strip for vertical blinds to cutting material used on picture frames – and anything in-between.
“We are often the last stop for products,” Etchells said, adding that many times a customer has tried three or four companies that couldn’t handle its cutting job before going to Metlon. “There are very few of us out there.”
Etchells said the small Rhode Island manufacturing company has been able to survive by its ability to make changes.
“You’ve got to be willing to make changes and make changes quickly today in order to get new business and keep the business,” he said.
Point of clarification: Metlon can cut film for computer chips with a slitting tolerance of one-thousandth of an inch, not a width of one-thousandth. Narrowest slit width is .008".