Tracking Downtime on the Production Floor

Find out what's stopping the presses--and how much money it may be costing you.

I’ve presented many seminars, done onsite consultations, and written several articles over the years discussing the challenge of doubling your screen-printing production in 30 days or less. No matter how efficient and on top of your game you are, I’m sure that you have the potential for this kind of production improvement in your facility. The first step in the process is to track your downtime.

As you might imagine, when I announce on a production floor that my intention is to help the company double its production in 30 days, the press operators are quick to jump to their feet and point out, “We just can’t print twice as fast!” Usually, it isn’t a matter of printing any faster at all. In most shops today, the actual printing part of the equation is smooth and efficient. The production killer comes when the presses aren’t running: the enemy known as downtime. Our goal is to simply reduce this downtime tin order to increase production.

Downtime refers to the stoppage of production for any reason at all. Every shop has a finite number of production hours in any given week, depending upon how many presses it has and how many shifts it runs. Outside of breaks, training, shift changes, and any other scheduled non-production time, the rest of the time must be accounted for either in press setup, actual print production, or press breakdown. If these activities are stopped for any reason, you have downtime.

I was working with a shop on the East Coast once and talking to the owner on the production floor when he said, “I love your ideas. I get it. But I’m not a startup operation. I have millions of dollars of production to do right now. I don’t have the luxury of shutting down my operation to implement your recommendations.”

I looked around and said, “It looks as if you’re already shut down.”

The owner scanned his own production floor and realized that not a single press was running. Every machine was idle. The employees were all busy, but they weren’t printing. They were digging through and deciphering piles of paperwork, looking for garments, waiting for an answer from the sales department, and doing a dozen other things besides producing. This owner had become so accustomed to presses not running that he failed to realize it was happening all around him.

A few years ago, a downtime issue came up on my own production floor. I knew we were having some problems with the wrong sizes and wrong garments being delivered to presses as jobs were being changed over, a problem we called a “product pulling error.” I had some conversations about it with the warehouse supervisor with no real improvements. When we finally tracked our downtime for a week, we discovered that production stoppages from product pulling errors were our greatest source of downtime. Across our 10 automatic presses, this was costing us hours (not minutes) of production time each week. Presses were sitting idle simply because the wrong garments had been pulled in the warehouse.

This time, instead of having a quick conversation with the supervisor, as we had done in the past to share the complaints from the production floor, we all sat down for a longer conversation with the warehouse supervisor and his entire crew. We discussed the fact that their department was costing the company valuable production time, and that from our week of tracking the problem, we were on pace to lose entire days of production over the course of a year due to these errors.

The conversation was not, “You’re doing this wrong. Knock it off!” We sat down, addressed the problem, and discussed why each person thought it was happening. From that interaction, we came up with solutions that included double-checking the pull for accuracy. The entire problem, once we realized the enormity of the issue, was resolved within a week.

Tracking Downtime
The beauty of finding and resolving downtime issues is that it’s a fairly simple task. All it really takes is a commitment of your time, and it is time that will be very well spent. Step one is to create a tracking form and provide a stack of them to each machine in your plant. You can probably create them three or four up to a page and cut them apart. Be sure the press operators or inspectors at the end of the dryer belt know that you’re going to be monitoring downtime for a week and that they need to fill out a form every time production stops. Better yet, talk with your crew and try to develop categories that make the most sense to you and them. The key is to keep the form simple and functional.

Your production staff will initially feel that doing this additional work is a chore, but as the tracking process begins to reveal patterns, they’ll begin to have a much more positive response. Once they have recorded the first few downtime issues, staff will realize that it’s a pretty easy process and it will become second nature to them. But you must be sure that everyone participates fully and gives honest, accurate information on each form. That means if an operator goes to the dock to call his girlfriend before beginning each job, the time for these calls must be recorded. Remember, you have a finite number of production minutes, so everything counts.

After a week of tracking, collect the forms and separate them by category. You’ll have a stack for screen issues, a stack for product issues, etc. Now, under each category, look for similar issues and sort the forms by those reasons. The product pulling error that I experienced is a good example. Once you’ve grouped all the related forms, total up the downtime for each category and chart these times.

You might be as surprised as I was, guessing that other issues would be higher on the list. But that’s why we go through this process. Guesses and assumptions are thrown out and replaced by facts.

Don’t try to attack every issue at once. Look at the list you’ve created and select the issue that costs you the most production time. Go out on the floor and work with your team to find a solution to that one problem. When you’re satisfied that you are moving in a positive direction, go back to your chart and select the second biggest source of downtime.

Repeat this process every few months. Before you know it, your productivity will increase far beyond what you thought was possible in your shop.

Terry Combs is a 35-year veteran of garment printing and has managed production for both large and small shops across the country. He has written hundreds of management and technical articles and is a regular speaker at industry events worldwide. He can be contacted at

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