5 Steps to Take Control of Your Printroom

In a high-volume garment printing plant, everything from clutter on the floor to staff attitudes can eat up valuable production time.

In The Automation Issue, we present a collection of expert essays on an important topic in the industry today. Here, Marshall Atkinson discusses printroom efficiency and automation.

In the back of any shop owner or production manager’s mind is usually one nagging thought: “How can we get more produced today?” Shop production efficiency is a dragon that every company must slay in order to retain customers, drive down costs, and allow for growth.

Most companies face five common obstacles to making their printrooms efficient. These challenges tend to linger in many shops, but they can be overcome using the following strategies. After all, if you can unglue the bottleneck that is causing the disruption, you can accomplish (and produce) more every day.

1. Maximize Capacity
Capacity is an often-used word in production, but to me, it refers to two distinctly different things. The first is the capacity of your staff; the second is the capacity of your equipment. You need to understand both.

Let’s start with your employees. You can have all the latest technology and gizmos on the floor, but if your team only understands a fraction of what to do, or hasn’t been properly trained, then your production output will suffer. If the sales staff books a four-color process job or silicone ink print order on a polyester Dri-Fit shirt, but you haven’t taken the time to master those print techniques, then your capacity to print that type of job will be very low. Sure, you might blindly strike gold the first time, but that’s not a good way to operate.

Staff capacity can be broken down into three questions about any type of job you might consider taking:

• Does your team know how to do the work?
Do they have the proper training, equipment, skill, or experience with what’s on the sales order? If nobody has mastered the ability to print with a discharge underbase, there might be a colossal slowdown when that job comes up on the schedule. This will definitely affect your day’s productivity.

• Does your team want to do the work?
Let’s face it: Not every job is fun to do. Some employees hate to run certain types of jobs. Who wants to print on two-ply nylon jackets or oversized beach towels? Staff attitude is something to look out for in shop efficiency, as it can have a direct impact on production speeds and quality. In these cases, you may need to become a cheerleader or even another hand on the job to get them produced quickly.

• Is your team equipped to actually do the work?
Do you have what you need on the production floor to produce the job correctly? As we all know, sales folks like to book jobs and “figure it out later.” What if you don’t have the right ink, platens, or tools to handle the order? Capacity with your staff is about aligning what can be achieved in production with what your sales team is allowed to sell. “Ready, Fire, Aim” is not a good strategy.

Your equipment capacity is simply the volume of product you should be able to produce in a day. This is important: Understanding the daily performance for each piece of equipment in your company gives you the benchmark measurement of production. Without this key performance indicator, how will you know what’s going on?

All you need are two tools: a production log and an Excel or Google Doc spreadsheet. Use them correctly and you can build the speedometer to measure your production. Your production log should be easy to fill out and measure items that are important to you. I would suggest these considerations at a minimum: number of impressions, number of screens, downtime in minutes between jobs, and misprints/defects. Make the catcher for each press responsible for filling out the form. At the end of each day, log the results and graph them on the spreadsheet.


No one likes paperwork, but an effective production log is a critical tool for improving your shop efficiency. It can also help you troubleshoot ongoing sources of downtime and defects to address.

Why is this important? This is the easiest way to determine that Press 1 prints at an average rate of 475 impressions per hour, uses 23 screens per day, spends 23 minutes between jobs, and has a misprint rate of 0.04 percent. Graphing these results over time can show you the impact of your production management decisions, too.

For example, adding one more “floater” to the production floor to help scoop ink, lay out shirts, break down or set up jobs, or perform other miscellaneous tasks could mean reducing the average downtime between jobs by 10 minutes. At 475 impressions per hour, that’s adding
79 shirts to each printed stack. If the press prints 10 jobs a day, that’s 790 shirts you printed today, not tomorrow. This is the type of decision that would show up on your graph in a positive way.

Sure, it’s no fun to keep, record, and log production numbers. If you’re more tech-oriented, use connected tablets or workstations and have these data points entered as the crews work on jobs. This way, everything is calculated automatically and uploaded in real time.

Be sure to share your findings with the production crews and other team members. People are naturally competitive, so they’ll want to have the best production numbers and the lowest defect rate. Sharing your production team’s capacity will bring out the best in your staff. For your sales or customer service folks, this data is gold because it can help them determine what’s needed to complete a big order or when it could possibly ship.

2. Improve Communication
Effective communication is always one of the top challenges in any organization. In a production setting with a focus on efficiency, this is one of the biggest factors in understanding where your shop’s bottlenecks and friction points are. After all, if you don’t have accurate, up-to-date information about an order, how can you produce it efficiently?

The driver of communication in your shop is the team that enters or manages the order. Everything revolves around the work order. While a lot of shops have mastered the art of going paperless, most still rely on using a printed work order that travels around the shop as the job goes through each step in succession. Either way, the quality and completeness of the information in the work order determines much of what happens in production.

Has your art team had to send multiple revisions to a client because the instructions weren’t complete? Has your production team suddenly discovered that there are youth shirts on the order and that the art is too big to fit? Did you produce an order on time, but it didn’t ship correctly because the shipping instructions changed but weren’t updated? All of these problems and more (I’ll bet you have examples, too) were caused by order instructions that weren’t as good as they needed to be.

If you want more efficient production, start with how you are handling your information. Use standard procedures and stick to them. For example, for scheduling, try working backwards from the ship date to set the timeline for when things are due. If the job has to ship on the 12th of the month, then the goal should be for production to finish the job and have it ready to ship on the 11th. Let’s say that printing should be completed by the 10th. This means that by the 9th, all of the inventory should be received and checked, and the screens should be burned and ready to go. In order for those things to happen, the blank goods should be ordered and the art produced by the 7th. Order entry should be completed with a receipt detailing the timeline by the 6th.

Does your shop have a similar scheduling procedure in place? If not, I’ll bet you’re struggling to keep up. One of the biggest problems in pushing shop efficiency is waiting on other departments to complete a task. Production can’t run a job that has to ship today if the screens are still drying, or if they’re waiting on the XXL lime green shirts to come in.


Shirts are being staged by job number in the order they are planned to go on press.

An effective tool to manage this chaos is a shop operating system. Every department enters and completes their chunk of information regarding an order. Staff is trained to review and understand items in the system, and when something isn’t ready on schedule (e.g. screens not burned), then that prompts an action.

The best way for shops to stay on schedule and have outstanding efficiency is to look ahead in the system for problems. For busy shops, that means evaluating this several times a day. Remember, today’s production schedule is set. By lunch, you should be staging jobs for tomorrow or the following day. Run all the priority jobs first thing in the morning.

You should also set your crews up for success by flagging potential issues and making them impossible to miss. For example, printing on polyester shirts may require a low-bleed ink that cures at a lower temperature than standard plastisol. Highlighting a note that states “Use Polyester Ink – Cure at 270 Degrees” could mean the difference between printing the job correctly and experiencing a huge dye migration problem. If your team is struggling to remember what to do, make it easy by alerting them to potential challenges early.

3. Get Organized
Take a step back and examine your production area. Is everything clean and neat, with jobs lined up and ready to work? Does each production group have all the tools they need, or do you see team members walking across the shop floor to get a tape gun or pallet jack?

Of course, your production area is limited by the size and shape of the building. Optimally, you want a straight shot from receiving to shipping without any backtracking in the workflow. This could be in a straight line, or even some sort of circle. What you don’t want is a logjam, where blank goods and orders bump into finished goods. If your shop floor were a street, you’d want it to be a one-way avenue without any intersections.

One of the biggest culprits I’ve seen on shop floors is clutter and non-essential items in the way of the work. A good rule of thumb: If you aren’t currently using something, it should be stored somewhere else. Big, open spaces attract boxes, filing cabinets, broken down equipment, and other random junk. Don’t give in! Treat your production floor as the most valuable real estate in your company.

What about that “important” stuff that’s in the way that nobody wants to discard? Sometimes, you have to prove that no one is using it. Rip off a piece of masking tape and put the date on it. If three to six months go by and nobody has touched it, then throw it away. It sounds minor, but it makes a difference. If your team has to walk around that pile of junk or array of filing cabinets every time they need to go to the screenroom, they’re wasting time. Those minutes add up.

For a better shop layout, get some concrete floor marking tape and cordon off places for staged inventory, pallets when they’re being loaded, and even completed jobs to be staged for shipping. Mark off walkways and shipping lanes. Create “streets” in your shop.

At each press, line up jobs in the order they have to be produced and constantly replenish the group as orders are ready. Your production crews should never ask “Hey, what do I print next?” The management team makes the decision for them constantly. If a job has to go in front of another, another crew member restages the line. All shirts, screens, ink, and work orders are brought to the crew. The press team never goes anywhere – ever. All they do is set up the job, print it, break it down, and move onto the next.

A great trick for press crews to use is to mount a flashing light on the end of a high pole by each press. When a press operator needs a job approval, has a question or problem, needs more white ink in a screen, etc., they simply turn on the light and a manager comes over to help.

While you are organizing the floor, utilize shelves to help get things off the ground. At each press, have racks available for saved screens. Have a rack or cart for used screens that need to be reclaimed. Get all of your ink off the floor, make sure your buckets are clean and ink-free, and organize them in an inkroom on shelves by PMS number. (Make press operators who drip ink everywhere on buckets spend a day cleaning them.)

Near the screenroom, designate shelving units for production screens and organize them by job and number of colors so that one shelf has the one-color orders, another shelf has the two-color orders, and so on. Have a separate shelf just for rush orders so there isn’t any searching when it’s time to get a critical job out.

The goal when organizing any production floor is to make it easier for production teams to complete the orders. The less work they have to do to get the jobs produced, the more they can accomplish every day.

4. Minimize Downtime
This is where the real speed of production happens – or doesn’t. In your shop, what percentage of the available time for each press is spent actually printing? Do you know?

Your shop only makes money when those presses are spinning. To get more accomplished each day, spend some time and effort thinking about all the reasons your crews aren’t printing and try to alleviate those challenges.

For example, there’s a lot of talk about the greatness of computer-to-screen (CTS) imaging systems and the impact they have on the screenroom. But another benefit that is barely mentioned is that when using these systems, the screens are pre-registered to each other perfectly. Using a registration jig can have a dramatic effect on your setup time as each screen is already registered in the CTS system with three points of contact. On press, that accuracy is duplicated with the jig, and the screens lock into place quickly. The real effort is just adding the floodbars, squeegees, and ink. Shops can go from 10 minutes a screen for an average setup to under five minutes. That can be a dramatic improvement if you are setting up multiple jobs every day.

Employ the same staging principles in your bagging and shipping area to make sure no bottlenecks or errors occur there.

Earlier, I mentioned the need for using production logs to track what happens with each press crew daily. If each crew writes down the challenges they are facing, the data on how long and why presses are down can be used to resolve those problems.

For example, maybe the press crew was struggling with registration for a job, so the print wasn’t consistent. When working through the challenge, the crew discovered that one of the press platens wasn’t level, and this was causing issues with the print. The crew then notified the press maintenance technician to level the press after the shift. Documenting these sorts of corrective steps in the production log will help you address similar challenges in the future. Over time, you may see a pattern develop with a press, a certain type of ink, or even with a customer who’s always delaying the job during an onsite approval.

5. Invest in Training
Lastly, let’s discuss employee training. Your shop is only as good as your people and their skills. Your equipment won’t run itself – you need staff to operate it and make decisions about what needs to be handled when. That only comes when you dedicate time and effort to training them.

Here’s a simple exercise: Write down your three biggest staff-related production roadblocks. You might have a lack of trained press operators, or an inkroom with only one guy who knows how to mix a Pantone color with your ink system, or perhaps you have more than 100 screens that need to be reclaimed.

Next, ask yourself what you’re going to do about those challenges. In many cases, you simply need to spend more time training your staff so you can get the bench strength you need to compete. When you have more people who are properly trained, it raises the bar throughout the shop. If your press operator or ink guy calls in sick, you have a backup. When you buy a new press or have to expand to a second shift, you have trained people ready to go.

Also, when people are trained properly, they can flag things that don’t look right. So when you print PMS 202 over a white underbase and it comes out pink, someone who’s trained will know not to ship it. Production efficiency increases when you don’t have to do a job over.

Production efficiency isn’t just knowing how to do the right things, but also how to do things right. When you have well-trained employees operating within a well-designed and efficient system, the impact to your business will be enormous.

Explore the rest of The Automation Issue:

The Automation Issue, Steve Duccilli

Killing Your Top 5 Time Wasters, Mike Ruff

Going Digital: Automating Sales and Marketing, Mark Coudray

The Benefits of Screenroom Automation, Johnny Shell

MIS: Whipping Your Data into Shape, Eileen Fritsch

An Automation Wish List for Your Printroom, Marshall Atkinson

View more from this Screen Printing issue