Why Efficiency Isn’t Optional in Today’s Printing Industry
High-output, quick turnaround client expectations mean that garment decorators must take steps to eliminate wasted time.
The most important issue facing screen printing companies today is the labor force. Labor costs in the American textile industry are substantially higher than in most countries. Factor in the low unemployment rate in the US, which minimizes the availability of good employees, and it’s pretty much the perfect storm. And it will only get worse, because working in a hot shop for minimum wage is not most people’s desire. Add to that the immense pressure being put on contractors to do much shorter runs, at lower costs, with higher expenses for their utilities and supplies. These problems can only be addressed with better systems that incorporate automation wherever possible.
The number one thing printers should be looking to automate is their prepress. Today, it is possible to do very fast job changes with the right systems in place. Done properly, a printer should be able to set up screens and be ready for the first strike-off in no more than three minutes per color. Yes, there are variables like squeegee pressure, angle, and speed, but a good printer already knows how to dial those in for success. At M&R, we once did a demonstration of one person coating, imaging, exposing, and washing out the image on 400 screens in eight hours. We even made it more realistic by letting him talk on his cell phone. It’s all possible when you concentrate on putting the right systems in place.
(Never) Stop the Presses
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an equipment manufacturer or a screen printer – you cannot let the production line stop. At M&R, we purchased over $50 million in parts annually. Of course, we couldn’t afford to carry a huge inventory of those things, but we also couldn’t afford to have any stoppages, so we had to keep our eye on the minimum stock. For instance, if we had run out of a 9/16-inch nut, it might have stopped the whole line. If you’ve ever figured out halfway through a job that you don’t have enough small T-shirts in stock to complete the order, you know the danger. You have to put systems in place so that once a minimum inventory level is hit, someone in management is notified immediately and gets the requisition out to keep that part above the minimum.
Another key concept is redundancy. Where are the critical steps in your production workflow that can cause everything to come to a halt if something breaks down? The obvious one in this industry is that you have to make screens. People will spend the money to go from film to digital output, but often they have just one machine and they’re negligent in appreciating how reliant they are on it. If that CTS unit goes down, all the presses, dryers, and shipping stops. It’s great that the shop made the investment in going to digital output, but they need to immediately think about having a backup. Anything can happen, and will happen, and your best bet to protect yourself is redundancy.
Minimally, you should have at least one extra machine if not two for everything you do, because downtime will cost you way more than the equipment. The larger the company, the more redundancy you need. Smaller companies cannot afford to have three items laying around just in case something happens, but they can’t afford not to have at least two. M&R receives three shipments of steel per day and it all goes straight into production – it’s never inventoried. That’s why the plant was designed with backups for every piece of machinery so we would not risk having to stop the production line.
Root Out Inefficiencies
Be passionate about finding and eliminating inefficiency wherever it exists in your shop. Managers should take the time to study the motions of employees doing tasks and then look for ways to automate those motions. One of the most frustrating things for me was visiting someone’s shop and asking them for a small wrench, then watching them run around for 10 minutes looking for it. I always thought: They must do this enough times during the year that they should buy a stand-up Snap-on tool case completely stuffed with tools that are well organized; the lost wages and production time alone would more than justify the cost. It’s a perfect example of implementing a system to replace wasted labor and production.
No one knows better how to run a company than the owner, especially if they’re hands on. In my 32 years at M&R, I got to know virtually every step of the process forward and backward. I started to pay attention when our managers were training people – the job might be getting done, but maybe not as efficiently or as easily as possible for the personnel doing the work. I got to the point where I would actually go and stand by the workers, talk to them, watch what they were doing, and ask them questions and get their input on what might make the process better. You and your managers should do the same thing. You’ll know you’re successful when you implement a new process into a department and the person is smiling, and knows that they were part of the solution because their voice was heard.
At M&R, I had a team of highly experienced people I called my “MacGyvers.” Because of their skill sets and their time in the industry, they could start on an idea before pencil went to paper in the engineering department. Engineering takes a tremendous amount of time because they have to dot the i’s and cross the t’s with everything they do, whereas if you go out and let people who have the skills to do it by hand play with something, you can really accelerate the development cycle.
Those are the people who are absolutely the best for working on automation ideas because they know how processes are supposed to be done. If they don’t know how to do it manually, they’ll have a very difficult time designing it to be done automatically. So you need those older, highly skilled people – first of all, to teach the younger workers, but also to make sure that what you’re attempting to do automatically is correct. That can only be done by a human with extensive skills.
Every company has MacGyvers. Every screen printer has key people who know how to make a print pop or can make setup go twice as fast as the next press operator. You need those people. They don’t need guidance; they just need the time to play with an idea and produce the product that you have in mind.
Being the CEO of a company, you’re quite busy with a lot of other things, but you can’t take your finger off of the pulse. You need to know what your people are thinking. You need to see what they’re doing and be part of finding solutions for their problems. For example, some companies have issues with workers developing carpal tunnel syndrome and things of that nature, but if they had been watching what the employees were doing, they might have seen ways to prevent it. Many employees will tell you how to prevent problems if you just listen. It’s one of the most important things an owner can do for their company.
Stay Tuned to Tech
The second most important thing an owner can do is keep their eyes open for new technologies that will advance their plant and its productivity. You don’t know how many people have told me, “I don’t have time to go see the new innovation.” Honestly, they don’t have time not to. People need to stretch their minds, go to the tradeshows, go to open houses, and spend the time and money to understand the latest technology available to them, because the return is tenfold, at least.
As the industry moves forward, we’ll continue to see more and more technological advancements in electronics that will change the landscape. What we can do today compared to just two years ago is amazing. Look at digital printing’s development in that time; it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the decorated apparel industry, we can expect more and more automation solutions that will change the way we do things.
Machine intelligence is expanding rapidly and will eliminate many redundant motions that employees do today. It’s not about replacing American workers, as many suspect: Instead, automation keeps the work here. You can afford to keep people gainfully employed, just doing something different. Many times, I have heard business managers and owners say they wished they had no employees. Good luck with that train of thought! What they should be doing instead is inviting the employees to be part of the solution. Not all will get it and some may need to be replaced. Those who stay will need education. Owners also need to be prepared to hire workers with more advanced skill sets that come with higher pay. But the good news is that these people tend to stay longer and be more productive because they are better paid, trained, and recognized for their contributions.
Rich Hoffman recently retired after 32 years as the founder and CEO of M&R. He was elected into the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies in 2014.