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Standard Operating Procedures, Part 1

(February 2004) posted on Fri Mar 19, 2004

Davis explains how to develop and use standard operating procedures, to help keep your business efficient and profitable.


By Rick Davis

Increasing competition from other printing methods in this uncertain economy puts a lot of pressure on us to do quality work, deliver it to clients on time, and do so in a way that is profitable for our businesses. That's why it is so important for screen shops to follow standard operating procedures--guidelines that clearly describe an efficient way to perform a certain task and achieve predictable results.

Many printers feel their businesses have achieved the maximum potential for productivity and profitability, but the truth is that they do not know what that maximum potential is until they have fixed procedures in place. Every shop, regardless of size, workflow, equipment, or specialty, can benefit from creating and instituting such standard operating procedures. This month, I'll start a series on setting up standard operating procedures in a garment-printing shop by looking at some weak spots in prepress and how standardized procedures can eliminate them.

Standards for artwork and separations

It is hard to identify a standard operating procedure for the image-separation process because the routine the art department uses to separate graphics usually differs from job to job. Because the art department's most basic objective is to output the separations and deliver the films to the screenmaking department in as timely a manner as possible, you should implement a scheduling system as part of your procedure to ensure that separations flow efficiently from the art department to screenmaking.

Another standard operating procedure worth applying to the art-production process is to not over-engineer the graphics--keep them as basic and straightforward as possible. Some companies produce artwork with a "more is better" mentality when it comes to separations, always striving to use as many press stations as possible, even when a job could be printed effectively with half as many colors. This way of thinking results in jobs that suffer from added costs, more time in production, and higher reject rates. In most cases, the customer will not detect the additional colors, so there is no payback for over-engineering the graphics.

Some companies print with these additional separations to make their work more difficult for bootleggers to reproduce. But rather than use this expensive method to thwart illegal reproduction of their images, shops should implement standard procedures that minimize separated colors and address the bootlegging issue with specialty tags or labels built into the garment. This approach will prove less troublesome on press and more profitable in the long run.

Film output

Few things can bring the productivity of a garment-printing business to its knees faster than separations that do not register. Press operators can spend hours attempting to resolve a registration issue that has nothing to do with the graphic, screens, or press, but lies in the films themselves. Not many shops can afford these productivity losses, which justifies the need to establish a standard procedure that involves conducting registration tests and calibrating film-output equipment on a regular basis.

Most manufacturers of film-output equipment describe processes and methods that you can use to check and confirm that the films your shop produces are consistent in quality and always in register. You should follow the manufacturer's guidelines for testing and calibration of the output devices and assess your equipment every two or three weeks if you want to maintain consistency.

If you don't use a pin-registration system in your shop, then you most likely spend more time aligning films to screens and screens to presses than shops that do employ pin systems. But even if you do use pin registration, you may not be realizing the full efficiency and enhanced productivity it can provide. This generally occurs if pin registration isn't closely linked to all your prepress and press-setup procedures.

The standard procedure you set up for using the pin-registration system should apply to all styles and types of prints your shop produces, including single-color and multicolor prints, oversized prints, and sleeve and specialty location prints. The procedure can be tied to templates for each garment style and graphic type to ensure consistency and repeatability.

Although the procedure is established primarily for the art department, it should include other departments and be written to ensure smooth transition and consistent alignment from department to department. You also should write the procedure in a way that ensures that the process is repeatable and predictable from run to run.

Film handling

Proper film-positive handling and organization practices are often overlooked, especially when production is at its peak. There really is no need for a set of positives to go any further than the screen room. When film positives go to the press area, it's usually because the press operator needs to check registration. But when the films are exposed to the press environment, they become susceptible to solvents, inks, and adhesives that can quickly destroy any positives they come in contact with.

Dust, debris, and other particles found around the shop also can be attracted to the films, compromising their quality. The standard operating procedure that you develop for film handling should specify where films can and cannot go in the shop and how they should be archived for future use.

Another important procedure worth documenting involves cases in which you need to outsource a printing job and send a set of positives to a sub-contractor. Your policy should include a sign-out tracking system that allows your staff to easily refer to and locate any positives that leave the plant. Many facilities prefer to output a second set of films and keep one set in house as a master set in case the outsourced set is damaged or destroyed. You may want to make generation of a second film set mandatory in your standard procedures for film handling, but keep in mind that producing extra film can be costly.

Recipe for productivity

The operating procedures you write for your facility should be easy to read and follow. Experienced employees and new workers alike should be able to read the step-by-step instructions and execute all tasks for a job with a minimal amount of additional instruction. You also should have the procedures translated into any other languages spoken by your management or staff.

Establish standard operating procedures to identify the best practices employees should follow at each step of the process. At the front end, the procedures should address all the factors that influence image accuracy, registration, and film-positive quality, from calibration of output devices and pin registration to proper film handling and storage. Next month, we'll extend standard operating procedures further down the pipeline and look at key screenmaking functions.


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