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Optimizing Your Operating Procedures

(October 2004) posted on Thu Sep 30, 2004

Discover how to focus your procedures on continual improvement and what can happen if you don't.


By Carol Swift, Peter Kiddell

Established screen-printing companies with aging workforces nearing retirement have been contacting us lately. The managers of these companies are young, and they rely on the skills of their older teams to run the production process. This is an untenable position, for when key employees retire, so does their expertise. So, how do managers cope?

One way companies can protect themselves is to adopt robust standard operating procedures that capture this expertise and serve as the basis for process improvement. Instead, however, many businesses move into technologies that don't need the skills previously required. The new skills needed are based on information technology (IT) that is perceived to be easier to implement. But without knowledge of or direct experience with the new technologies, companies can become vulnerable to competitors everywhere.

Knowledge versus experience

"We must be a knowledge-based economy" is the current mantra. If we want to be a knowledge-based economy, why are we short of plumbers, toolmakers, nurses, doctors, and screenmakers? Some managers may assume that anybody can make a stencil. But this isn't necessarily true. Anybody can be taught how to make stencil, but it's unlikely that most would understand the parameters that influence stencil quality or the effect of changing those parameters.

Screen printing is a holistic process and is very challenging. Digital printing, on the other hand, is far less problematic. Fewer people are necessary in digital production, equipment has a smaller footprint, and it's far easier to find the causes of problems. But digital printing is helping to build the wall of competition higher.

Your major clients may soon practice do-it-yourself methods by bringing the same digital equipment in-house. They're unlikely to enjoy the same quality level as the work that you produce for them, but we are convinced clients have two sets of glasses--one to look at your work and the other to view their own efforts. The first set clearly has a 10x magnifier attached. The second pair should come with a seeing eye dog!

You can overcome these challenges by becoming so proficient that you make the removal of work unthinkable for the client. Also, make sure your customers are aware of all the services they enjoy when you handle their jobs and all the services you can provide that they may not be unaware of. You don't want to hear, "You mean you can print photoluminescent inks? I thought you had to be a specialist to do that!"

Continuous improvement is not something you aim for; it must be one of the fundamental principles of your business. Two areas you have to look at are machine utilization and rejects. Machine utilization refers to how long any press is producing quality product, not how long it is occupied. If rejects are generated, that is lost time and productivity.

Remember the narrow-minded time and motion study practitioners of old? These managers would appear by the press at the beginning of a run with a clipboard and a stopwatch in hand to observe the operator in action and determine how his productivity could be enhanced. Of course, the operators would commence with slow, deliberate movements, taking great care to check the squeegee, stencil, ink condition, feeder, machine interlocks, etc., all in an effort to make the process look more time intensive than it really was. These operators knew the time and motion study would recommend procedures be completed in 20% less time, so the operators made sure to build that extra 20% into their measured time. The result was that they ended up working at the same speed as usual--no improvement whatsoever.

Today, management is much more likely to work directly with production staff to optimize the process. To gauge the effectiveness of procedures, that stopwatch should still be there--just not so overtly as before. The watch should start as soon as one job finishes, when the final sheet leaves the print line. The timer stops when the first print of acceptable quality for the next job makes it off the press.

You would be amazed where time can leak away in your production process. Some of the ways are illustrated by the following scenario, which traces the start of a typical day in an operation where standards are not in place:

9:00 a.m. "Where is the job card?" Work instructions often should be renamed "misinformation sheets." It is almost as if the company's major competitors had visited overnight and changed job details deliberately to confuse the staff. Incorrect print order, ink, substrate, size, and machine are the obvious failures of the system. But variables like incorrect dryer settings are the often the real viruses that screw up the system. "Don't worry, Harry knows what the settings are," says a production employee. Too bad Harry's out for a vacation.

9:30 a.m. "Where is the substrate?" The substrate should be close at hand and ready to be printed. Ideally, it should be allowed to acclimate to the shop's environment for at least 24 hours prior to printing. Otherwise, print distortion may occur.

Another nightmare results when the substrate is dirty and causes problems on press. Buying cheap, badly finished substrate is a false economy. One dirty substrate on press can cause 15 minutes of downtime and numerous rejects. If dirty substrates are a regular problem, change your supplier. Of course, it may be a simple case of static electricity attracting contamination and slowing the press. Static eliminators may reduce this problem. Tacky rollers--automatic or manual--also can also help reduce contamination.

When a press is stopped because the stencil contains a piece of detritus, the screen has to be cleaned, which can damage the stencil. You face a triple whammy--downtime, stencil damage, and rejects. The simple rule is keep it clean--during manufacturing, in transit, in storage, and on the press.

10:00 a.m. "Whose got my friggin' Allen wrench? Where is my squeegee holder? Somebody has nicked my flood coater!" These may be common cries for your press operator. Ideally, he should know where the tools are, keep a set of squeegee holders in good condition by his machine, and protect the edge of the flood coater with a plastic cover when not in use.

10:30 a.m. "Is this a stencil or a colander? There are so many pinholes it looks like a halftone print." Sometimes printers spend more time repairing pinholes than printing. Out comes the blockout, and the cursing printer picks his way across the milky way of pinholes. We know that dirt is one cause of pinholes, but when there is a galaxy of small holes, it is likely to be the result of ineffective drying after coating. Incomplete drying also causes the emulsion to be undercured and break up during the print run. Occasionally, stencils do have to be remade, but if you're remaking one or more screens for each job you do, then you have problems that must be addressed.

11:30 a.m. "Are we ready to print?" If standard operating procedures are nonexistent, the answer is "no." Unless all the operators set and operate your presses in the same fashion, you'll get varying results from the same machine. From a simple setup, one operator will alter the machine to suit his own preference, which causes lost time and quality variation when the next operator comes along.

Ink is probably the largest variable in the process. Automatic ink dispensing is an absolute boon because it results in accurate mixtures. Even without these systems, use of electronic scales with careful record keeping will result in repeatable mixes. Some printers still insist on using the squirt, dollop, or glug method for measuring amounts of ink, and they fine-tune this method by seeing how the ink runs off the spatula. Managers should recommend that such workers seek employment elsewhere.

Time to standardize

The lost time described in the scenarios above actually occurs in many print shops. Your shop may be better or worse. Maybe it doesn't happen on every job. Just consider the sales value of one minute of production time and multiply it by the number of jobs you produce per year. You'll probably need a stiff drink. And this isn't even counting lost time in the screen room or lost profits from waste and rejects.

The workflow depicted in the previous timeline is actually conservative. We've seen many instances where more than a day of production time was lost when shops faced several of these problems simultaneously. Before you kick the stuffing out of your staff, remember the times when you've told them to "make it work" with a stencil of questionable quality, dirty substrate, or knackered machine. When it is too expensive to replace the failing UV lamp, making do and mending is ok for the cowboy printer, but not the professional screen printer. Screen printing can be a profitable enterprise, provided that you make it the controllable, measurable, and predictable process it should be.

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