Screen Printing Production: Tortoise or Hare?

Is it possible that slow and steady could win the race?

Many of you know the old fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.” It’s a very old story that has been retold countless times with many different interpretations. The most common version tells the story of a race between a confident, speedy hare and a slow, methodical tortoise. The hare, while very fast, takes his speed for granted and takes a nap during the race, figuring the tortoise is no match and he has all the time in the world. The tortoise, on the other hand, proceeds diligently and in his slow but sure manner, wins the race.

For whatever reason, this story has stuck with me. As a textile/apparel screen printer, I side with the tortoise. I know this probably sounds ridiculous in this highly competitive market where speed is pivotal, but hear me out.

Yes, the ability to deliver a respectable volume of goods is critical. Unless you’re blessed with customers who love to pay double the going rate, then you cannot make money with an automatic press that only produces 150 shirts per hour. A shop with more of a hare’s mentality might consistently yield 500 or more quality shirts per hour from an automatic press, and that’s easy to like.

But the race is not merely about press speed – it includes everything that precedes and follows the actual printing. Nailing down these pre- and post-printing systems is where profits are made. If you’re one of those rare printers who is continually booked with large jobs that tie up a press day in and day out, then output is understandably your focus and what happens in the rest of your shop might not matter as much. Good for you. However, most printers are faced with a mixed bag of large and small jobs, and their ability to get them through the shop efficiently is critical.

The reason I like the tortoise is because he is methodical and never stops. He also keeps on the shortest route. This is the mindset I’ve taken with my own employees over the years as well as with the companies with which I’ve consulted. But I’ve come to understand that in successful printing businesses, you’ll find a mix of tortoises and hares.

The hares in your organization are usually the press operators, but they’re only as good as the systems that feed them. Yielding 750 shirts per hour when the press is humming is meaningless if he or she stands around for a half hour between orders checking their Facebook messages, waiting for screens and shirts for the next job to arrive. (If they’re checking Facebook at all, of course that’s a problem in itself.) Ideally, your press operators should be setting up the next job immediately without missing a beat.

Who’s the tortoise? You, the owner or production manager. Relying solely on fast press operators is fool’s gold. If your entire system is not running like clockwork, you are losing precious time. Your job is to make sure the rest of your operation runs as efficiently.

I recommend starting by spending a day or two in production, hands off, evaluating your team. How long does it take to set up a job? What about different types of jobs, like a one-color versus a six-color run? How much time is spent reviewing the work order? How often does the press stop to clean a screen, fix registration, or add ink? How often does a job stop because a screen needs to be remade, and how long is the press down when this happens? When the job is done printing, how long before the staff completes packing and teardown? How long before shirts, inks, and screens arrive for the next job? Document all of this.

What I often see in shops is a lot of misguided talent losing precious time. Add up 15 minutes waiting for materials, 45 minutes to set up a four-color job, 15 minutes of downtime waiting for a print to be approved, and 15 minutes to complete packing and tear down the job. That’s an hour and a half that your press wasn’t making money.

Now let’s assume the operator is swift and yields 500 shirts per hour (stops included) and the order is for 500 shirts. With 90 minutes of press downtime, the order took two and a half hours. Throw in lunch, and you can only print three of these jobs in an eight-hour shift.

A better scenario would be 0 minutes waiting for a job, 20 minutes to set up a four-color order, 0 minutes waiting for approval, and 10 minutes to tear it down. With the same hour of press time, you’ve cut the total time to an hour and a half. At this rate, you can print five of these jobs in a shift. The difference over time is remarkable.

So how do you do it? By eliminating steps:
• Take control of the screen department by inventorying lots of screens and ensuring that they’re made correctly every time;
• Assign someone to make-ready who is responsible for having all materials for the next job to the press ahead of time;
• Make sure you have crystal-clear work orders with excellent color proofs and limited text – with no guesswork;
• Assign a “floater,” perhaps the person who mixes the ink, who can keep presses inked and help the operators as needed;
• Shorten setup times (strive for five minutes per color) by making sure you have good art, good screens, and a well-organized job cart;
• Save steps (literally) by making sure the job carts have all materials the operator may need so he or she isn’t wasting time looking for a roll of tape;
• Find out why you’re remaking screens and fix whatever problem is causing it;
• And assign packers to count and pack the shirts as they go, leaving the press operators out of it.

Obviously, all of these points can be expanded upon, but the idea is to keep the presses moving at all times. If you don’t have enough people to dedicate one to make-ready and another as a floater, then combine the positions.

Maybe you have two automatics in your shop, each with one operator (for both loading and unloading). If so, are you behind on orders? Ideally, you’d fix this by adding a staff member, even if it’s just for the busy season. But a viable alternative I’ve used in the past is to take the two staff members and dedicate one to setup, make-ready, and floating. Yes, this means that one of your presses would sit idle, but I’ve found that this approach can yield more output than two presses operating at half speed because one press was always printing.

No single approach is best for every shop. In this crazy business, we’re constantly faced with slow periods that we have to plan around. At my old company, we had eight automatics that during ideal times were all running every day, each with a dedicated operator, unloader, and packer. We also had four floaters assigned to make-ready and inks. When business slowed down, we usually laid off the packers who had the least experience. We used temp services for much of this work or hired summer help.

So let’s get back to your job as the slow and methodical tortoise. Where do you begin? I recommend starting with production workflow. Do whatever you can to keep your presses fed with jobs. Next, master the screen room. This is the most overlooked department, but also the most important. If you are not performing frequent exposure tests or if you use cheap emulsion, you are losing more money than you are saving.

Take the time to set up an efficient process. That doesn’t mean you’re looking for other tortoises on your production staff, but you don’t need to break their backs, either. With a good system in place, your staff will merely need to keep pace with the presses with the common goal of keeping them running.

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