No matter what size your screen printing operation is or what market it caters to, the goal is to get jobs through the shop and out the door on time — whether that means a two-week turn or a matter of hours. That’s the “prize” you have to keep your eye on and sound production scheduling is key to getting the gold. This starts with looking at the various steps in the printing process and how they impact each other and the workflow.

Screen printing businesses differ in terms of focus, equipment, staffing, capabilities, etc. But one thing successful ones have in common is an organized workflow. Achieving this means having strategies in place for what’s going to be done where, when and how. Having a clear picture of how jobs flow through the process and how long each step takes allows for more accurate, efficient scheduling.

It’s not a bad idea to take a day to plot out your systems and production strategies. Almost every shop has room for improvement in its organization, and upon re-examining its production process, even a well-oiled operation may discover that the simple addition of a piece of machinery or employee, for example, will streamline things.

Capture All The Info
An organized workflow allows for effective production scheduling. It begins with the placement of the order. Documenting jobs as they progress from initial consultations through estimates to actual orders provides the information you need for successful scheduling. It’s critical to always get the style, size and quantity of garments required.

You want to make the process as foolproof as possible so as not to impact scheduling, and this means keeping track of the variables involved. This includes both the numbers and design side of the job, and they need to be tied together. For instance, you have to keep on top of the total number and type of garments in the order and also any subsets within it, such as color, design or placement changes for certain quantities, sizes or styles. Where there are deviations, the order needs to be split into “1A,” “1B” and “1C,’ with corresponding art proofs attached.

The system you use can be as simple as file folders and Excel sheets or as sophisticated as commercial or custom shop management software. What’s important is that you capture the job specifics and have them organized in a way that makes it easy to access the information that’s required at each stage of production. The size of your team will dictate how much data needs to be dialed in, as well the best method for ensuring it happens.

What you’re aiming for is to set up the process for success at each stage. When the order specs are finalized and it goes to the “kitchen,” it should be clear to the screen maker what is required from his end. Then, he should be able to easily pass off applicable information to the screen printer, and so on. Each production area should also have its own system or organization as well.

One approach is keeping area-specific forms in manila folders that are labeled alphabetically to enable the screen department to analyze the art proofs and make sure that the films line up, etc. After the screens are exposed, the garments can be divided according to the jobs and sub jobs on your estimates.

Similarly, the job packet supports correct screen setup and helps in achieving exact reproductions of art proofs on test prints and beyond. This carries through into production, where it contributes to quality control by helping to ensure consistency and provides the basis for accurate counts.

Scheduling That Works
When it comes to actually scheduling production, there are a lot of variables to take into account—No. 1, of course, still being the deadline. You also have to factor in the other jobs already in-house or in the pipeline, including their size, type and complexity; availability of equipment and personnel; and the customer. In addition, you have to allow for changes and holdups ranging from problems with art approvals and equipment malfunctions to late/incorrect garment shipments.

Depending on the size of your operation, scheduling may be done manually or using a computer, either imparting the information to the production team or shared online. The responsibility may fall on the shop owner or office manager or in larger operations by the general manager or production manager. No matter how it’s done or who does it, certain elements are key to successful scheduling. They include:

Transparency. Whether the schedule is written on an easily visible whiteboard or chalkboard or put on the cloud so it can be viewed from cell phones and other devices, it has to be readily accessible. It’s essential that everyone knows what he or she needs to do today and tomorrow and be aware of what’s on tap for at least the coming week. This is especially important for the screen department, which needs to be burning jobs ahead of time.

Flexibility. Scheduling has to allow for changes. New orders come in everyday, including rush orders, and they may require a machine that’s been booked for another job. You may come up 10 shirts short. A schedule is a living thing, and it is critical to keep it updated. Whether this is easier to do on a board or a computer depends on your situation. What’s important is that it’s in writing and current in real time.

Understanding the job. Taking time to evaluate the requirements of jobs as they come in lets you identify those with similar requirements in certain areas and factor that into your scheduling for time savings. For example, you may want to run jobs calling for the same colors back to back or schedule orders on the same types of materials one after another to minimize downtime for re-tacking, changing or cleaning platens.

Understanding the customer and your business. While it’s not ideal to push a deadline, it’s not as critical an issue with some customers as with others. If the customer isn’t stressing and you have a solid relationship, sometimes making a call can alleviate your stress over scheduling. If there isn’t any flexibility, you may get into overtime. Hopefully, you’ve built in some sort of margin to offset such situations; but if you find them occurring frequently, it may be time to explore what it will take to up your capacity.

It’s also important to take your overall business strategy and how you’re positioning your company in the market into account. Two weeks traditionally has been the standard turn time in custom apparel printing; but with online printing operations touting faster turnarounds, some conventional shops with the capability are focusing on quick turns as a business niche. This can be a competitive edge if you can figure out how to do it; and a large part of that gets back to scheduling.

Knowing your friends. In any aspect of printing, it helps to have a network you can tap to help you out if you run out of ink or need to farm out a job that just won’t fit in your schedule. This isn’t always possible, but developing a relationship with another printer you respect and trust can each scheduling headaches all around.

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