Expert Apparel: Integrating Your Production Systems

Going back to the basics can do wonders for your shop’s efficiency.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about all the moments our presses have come to a halt in production. I’ve been in the T-shirt business some 30 years, and the list of reasons hasn’t changed much. You’ve got pinholes, ghost images, ink buildup, ink hangup, mis-registration, uneven ink coverage, poor color balance, and dot gain – to name a few. Now take it a step further and estimate the amount of downtime these disruptions cost you. Better yet, ask your staff to start recording this information, because real data is far more revealing than a casual estimate. What you’re going to find is that you have downtime that can be avoided and it’s costing you money.

Calculating how much downtime you have will enable you to quantify the ROI for making corrective measures that will refine your production process and reduce or eliminate these gaps. Your investment will primarily be time – most likely your time, as a small business owner, or perhaps that of your production manager. You may also have labor costs if you involve your staff, which I encourage you to do because the more your team feels they are part of developing the process, the more they will believe in it and adhere to it in the end. Finally, you will likely have some material costs (such as better emulsion, mesh, and inks), but this cost will be negligible compared to your long-term savings.

To get an idea of where I am going with this, think of a chef and his or her recipe. A good recipe results in a predictable outcome (preferably a tasty dish) but also provides an efficient blueprint that can be repeated time and time again. Within this recipe there are multiple parts, such as preparing the meat, preparing the sauce, blending, baking, etc. And within each part are ingredients such as milk or eggs. Among the ingredients is further differentiation if the chef prefers goat’s milk over cow’s milk, for example. The final recipe is a composite of all of these sub-parts and the elements within them.

Your screen-printing process is nothing more than a recipe where the entire process is an integrated system comprised of subsystems and ingredients. In production, system integration is defined as the process of bringing together the component subsystems into one and ensuring that the subsystems function together as a whole.

Your integrated system is comprised of the following systems and subsystems:

- Color separating
- Trapping procedures
- Underbase procedures
- Halftone procedures
- Proofing procedures
- Film output or DTS procedures

- Mesh stretching
- Degreasing
- Coating
- Exposure
- Drying
- Press preparation

Ink Preparation
- Color matching
- Mixing

Press Setup
- Shirt staging
- Inking and color order
- Press settings
- Screen registration
- Proofing

- Loading and unloading
- Speed
- Inspection
- Inking

- Catching
- Inspection
- Counting
- Boxing

- Labeling
- Logging
- Tracking

Yes, you can break down many of these subsystems even further. For instance, screen exposure occasionally includes the process of exposure testing.

So, are you integrated? To some degree yes, you are. However, most shops need refinement, and refining your process is a sure way to maximize your profit potential.

Define Your System
The first thing to do is jump in and record the system you have in place. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, so start with the basics. It should go without saying, but organize this information in a typed document so you can easily update it at any time. The figure below shows a sample form that outlines the basics – it’s certainly not comprehensive nor definitive, but it’s a good start. (Click for a larger view.)

System Breakdown
The first thing to do is define the system you have in place as sampled above. If you don’t do this, your system is subject to the whims of your staff. Once you define your system, you can focus on the results as they pertain to print quality, consistency, and efficiency. When analyzing efficiency, do not focus merely on press rates, but more importantly on downtime. Downtime equates to losing money. Your goal is to keep presses running at all times. If each press requires $200 per hour to earn a profit, then you are losing $200 every hour that it’s down.

In assessing downtime, you must determine which subsystem or element is creating the problem. For instance, if you are stopping constantly for ink buildup, you may have a single element problem: ink viscosity, which may require changing your ink set or adding modifiers. However, it may be a subsystem problem: unbalanced press, excessive pressure, mesh selection, or a combination of issues. You may have double stroking to clear inks which could be a single element (mesh open area) or a combination of elements, such as mesh and ink. But be careful: You may have perfect mesh and ink selection, but require double stroking because your press is not balanced.

To reiterate, you must define what you are doing now before you can refine the system. Then you can focus on one problem at a time and make adjustments through testing. Do not introduce a new standard until it has been tested. For example, not all 305 mesh are the same. A change in thread thickness, which affects the open area of mesh, will cause a dramatic change in ink flow. Furthermore, one mesh brand may produce different results than another. When testing new products, it’s always a good idea to compare results of the exact same print with your current system against the new product change.

The keyword is always “test.” Data is powerful stuff, and knowledge is far more effective than assumption. After all, you wouldn’t serve an entrée without having tasted it, would you, chef?

Read more Expert Apparel or check out the rest of our October/November 2016 issue.

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