Organize Your Archives
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The ability to quickly and accurately find stored job components gives screen printers a very important competitive advantage. But when small shops evolve into larger businesses, the volume of art files, positives, and screens grows too. Sooner or later, the amount of material reaches a point where the production people waste large amounts of time trying to find old films, stored art, and filed screens.
Screen printers use all kinds of filing systems, most of which are terrible. They range from jobs stored chronologically in racks and card files to log sheets and even boxes stuffed with manila envelopes. Each method will work for a short period of time, and you'll know when you have reached the limit. It comes when you find yourself repeatedly frustrated after pulling out the envelope where a positive is supposed to be, only to discover it isn't there and realize that you have no idea where to look next. This month's discussion will address reliable, long-term methods you can use to keep track of valuable production assets.
Enter the database
When you lose the ability to track stored items, it's time to install a database program and build a template that helps you identify what you have, when you created it, and where it is now. You can even take into account revisions to art along the way and design changes for different graphic formats or different garment colors. The idea behind building a database is to be able to find anything you have, in any way, when you need it. The ability to search and query the database is critical to your future efficiency.
There are many options to choose from. Filemaker Pro is one of my favorites. This excellent database program works on both Mac and PC, and it's easy to learn, easy to use, and extremely versatile. I have used it since 1989 and still find it to be one of the most important tools in the administrative part of my business. One of Filemaker Pro's great features is its large library of existing templates. You may be able to find a prebuilt template and modify it for your use.
Of course, Filemaker Pro is only one of the applications available. Microsoft Access and Excel work very, very well. The program you choose should be easy to use for anyone who needs information. You also should be able to quickly build custom reports to help analyze exactly what you are producing. In Filemaker Pro, these custom views are called layouts. They allow you to search for specific information and display it in ways you find most useful.
The collective information related to one job is called a record. It is made up of different information. Items like job number, number of colors in design, job name, locations of film or imaged screens, and so forth are the data fields within the record. You can have as many fields within a record as you need, and you can add or delete fields at will. This feature is important because your needs may change over time, and you'll want to be able to easily change the record to meet new requirements.
Fundamental information in the record should include customer name, job name, job number, art number (if you use one), design description, date created, and date run. You also should include a layout in which you can update the history of this piece of art. Doing so will allow you to see every possible place the positives could be. The goal is to have the ability to search any of these fields to find your record. I find this to be helpful because different people think in different ways. If you know the customer and you have a general idea of when the job was run, you can search for jobs performed for that customer between, say, January 2002 and June 2003. The program will quickly find all the jobs between these dates for that customer. You can then quickly scroll through the found records to locate the exact job.
Taking the database further
So far, I've described the most basic use of a database. The real power comes when you begin to use the multiple criteria stored in your database to analyze your sales decisions and how they affect the use of your time and what goes out the door. To do this, you need to dig a little deeper.
More detailed information can include the number of colors in the design, mesh count, screen size, number of flashes in the design (for garment jobs), Pantone colors in the design, separation type (e.g., duotone, index color, four-color process, simulated process, spot color), substrate type or garment type and color. In short, you can have as many fields as you need to understand your business. You also can arrange these fields in many different layouts and design each layout to give different people in your company a better idea of what is going on.
Access to this additional information enables you to find the average number of colors for any job in any quantity. You can find the distribution of mesh counts by most common to least common and even determine which Pantone colors get the most use in your shop. Information like this will help you make purchasing, scheduling, and sales decisions that improve your efficiency.
If you include the number of units printed in the record, you will be able to find the most common number of colors within any given job-quantity range. This is particularly helpful when scheduling jobs. Working with a database takes some getting used to, but once you get it, you will wonder how you ever got along without it.
Another great thing about keeping your design and prepress file records on a Filemaker Pro, Microsoft Access, or Microsoft Excel database is that the software doesn't require a screaming-fast computer. In fact, this is an absolutely excellent opportunity to extend the life of that old computer you have laying around. Some shops successfully use very old 68000 series Macs and 486 PCs. Speed is really not an issue, nor is the size of the database. It is unlikely that you have thousands and thousands of records to manage. At most, you may have a couple of thousand--well within the capability of even a tired, old computer.
As useful as the database is, it doesn't stop here. You can use a database to elevate art production by saving and cataloging design elements. For instance, your artist can create images of footballs in 12 different positions or orientations. Each football graphic is then saved and entered into another type of database--an Asset Management Program. My favorite of these is Canto Cumulus. The current release is v6.01. It runs on platforms such as Mac, Windows XP, Windows 2000, Linux, Unix, and Sun.
Cumulus allows you to create catalogs of graphics--photographs, vector files, raster files, design layouts, or just about any other kind of design element. You can use a wide variety of criteria to search the catalogs the software creates. Besides saving a thumbnail image of the graphic, you also can include keywords related to the graphic, as well as production information, dates, copyright information, and just about anything else relevant to the graphic.
Cumulus's ability to locate information about digital art is very helpful when you want to rapidly assemble or create a new graphic. For example, imagine a new client asking you to create a window display for his pet store. To create the new, unique graphic for this client, you draw upon work you have already done. By searching for the keywords birds, kittens, puppies, and goldfish, you quickly find 38 different design elements that match these criteria. Each match is displayed as a color thumbnail.
Art-element libraries are usually stored on a server, which is nothing more than a dedicated computer for the storage of data connected to a local-area network. This is almost always an Ethernet network. You access the server, download the desired pieces to your hard drive, and create a new, unique layout, using as many of the matching design elements as you wish.
Having a program like Cumulus gives you the ability to build a very large library of elements that can be rapidly assembled or repurposed. You can add almost anything to the catalogs. When building new designs in programs like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, each layer can be saved as a separate design element to the Cumulus catalog. When the art department is slow, spend the open time creating elements that your shop can use over and over. You can download a free, 30-day trial version of Cumulus from www.canto.com.
Database programs are very powerful tools that help you run your business more efficiently. When you first start out, it is easy to keep everything in your head. But as the business grows, you quickly find yourself overwhelmed with details. On top of that, you hire employees who don't know where things are or what has a history. Using a database program will help transfer the knowledge in your head to others, keeping you from becoming swamped.
The true power of the database will reveal itself as you become more familiar with the software applications. As your experience grows, you may find yourself drawn in deeper and deeper. When this happens, the next step is to implement a truly relational database like SQL, which stands for Structured Query Language. It's an open system around which very sophisticated database applications can be built. They can be Web-browser-enabled, server-based, or dedicated applications. Two of the most popular versions are MySQL and SQL Server. An SQL database offers you unlimited capability to configure, search, find, display, and analyze information. It helps you find trends and associated events. SQL is an intermediate to advanced approach to database design and management. It requires some dedication to learn the rules upon which it is based, but the results are well worth the effort.
You may be familiar with SQL technology if you have ever purchased anything on Amazon.com. After you make a selection, the next screen you see tells you "people who bought this, also bought this and this." Amazon has now gone so far as to immediately bundle your purchase into a special offer along with one or more of the associated items--kind of like asking if you want fries with your hamburger.
Take the time to organize
Expanding your business may involve purchasing new presses, installing faster finishing equipment, or implementing a digital workflow in prepress. However, if you want to further guarantee your success, you need to archive your work in a way that's easily accessible to everyone in the shop. Database software is the most efficient and intelligent way to manage your most valued materials.