Surviving in a Lean Economy

Major shifts in the garment race have blocked many printers from the finish line. Find out what you can do to stay in the running during an economic downturn.

The garment-screen-printing industry has seen some rather radical changes in the past 10 years. The market as we knew it is now gone. We’re working under a new set of rules, and some have already fallen victim to this rapidly changing marketplace. As we head into 2009, garment screen printers who can’t minimize their overhead and streamline their production workflow will most likely not survive in these lean economic times. Some printers have diversified by entering into different markets of garment embellishment or converted over to digital imaging. Some who tried to wait it out have since closed their doors due to their inability to remain competitive.

One consideration that many large printers have had to face is the need to decrease their minimum run size. This can come as a hard pill to swallow for established companies with years of experience that are quite comfortable with minimum run sizes of 100, 200, or 250 dozen. Now only a select few command most of the licensing market and business from large corporations, which is not as plentiful as it has been in the past. That means you as a printer not only have to get used to smaller run sizes, but you also need to ensure that you have the procedures and standards in place that will allow you to remain competitive.

Remember that larger shops can easily pick up bad habits that hinder productivity. Bad habits creep into a facility when the minimum run size is huge, production is constant, and having Saturdays off is a rarity. If you do have to decrease your minimum production run size to remain competitive, you still have two advantages in your favor. First, you still have the chance to identify the weak links in the production-flow system and correct them. Second, since production has most likely slowed to one degree or another, you have a prime opportunity to standardize those procedures and processes that may either need tweaking or require complete overhauls.

Standardization
System standardization is a fairly straightforward process. As it applies to the screen-printing process, standardization is required to the greatest degree in the areas of pre-press operations. In the screen room, processes that demand standardization are screen tensioning, degreasing and rinsing, coating, exposure, and washout. Each step of the process requires training, documentation, and enforcement. These steps will smooth the workflow throughout and maximize quality, consistency, and productivity.

You must establish optimum tension for each screen mesh that you use. Once you establish these levels, be sure to document them all and keep your records in a master procedure file. You also should mount this documentation in the work area in a step-by-step format. Your documentation should be straightforward and plainly worded so that anyone introduced into that department could follow the instructions to produce a screen that meets the set standards. This procedure not only ensures a consistent screen, but it also minimizes the need for excessive supervision over a new position. The employees should be able to walk themselves through the processes with minimal intervention.

The same procedures apply to the remaining parts of the screen-production process. The areas that require the greatest enforcement are those where the bad habits of shortcuts may come into play under heavy production periods, when time is at a minimum. The most prominent place where screen quality suffers is in insufficient rinsing once you’ve degreased the screen. Although the process of rinsing the screen with a high-power pressure washer can be a tedious one, it is crucial to the longevity of the screen on the press. Properly executing a procedure like this ensures maximum production efficiency on the press and contributes to the overall efficiency of the production flow within your facility.

Press setup is the next process on which to focus your standardization efforts. More time is lost due to a lack of true standardized processes than most screen printers. Some plants have setup crews that specialize in nothing more than getting the press set up and running in a short amount of time. Other facilities leave it up to the individual press operator, assistant operator, and dryer catcher to get the press torn down, set up in register, and running without delay. Although facilities can justify both approaches, I’m of the belief that the press crew can tear down and set up the press in the most efficient manner once the proper responsibilities have been assigned, standardized, documented, and posted to ensure consistency.

The need to minimize production downtime is greater than ever and required to remain competitive within the market. Keep in mind that if you must decrease your shop’s minimum run size, you will need standardized processes to shorten press downtime as much as possible. The process should immediately go to work as soon as you print and count the last garment—and confirm the count. Accurate count is yet another process that you must standardize to reduce downtime. The following is an example of how this process would work. As soon as the count is confirmed, job responsibilities are as follows:

Press operator Check the work order and confirm the design, garment style and color, and screens and inks for accuracy. The operator can then start fitting the screens into the press and registering them. Registration devices available to large shops today easily shrink the setup time for an automatic garment press to less than 45 minutes from the last shirt of the previous production run to the first garment of the next run.

Assistant press operator Remove the screens from the press and place any residual ink into containers while the press operator checks the production order. Return the inks to the ink department and the used screens to the screen-cleaning area. Return the dirty squeegees and floodbars to the to cleaning area and return to the press to assist with setup for the next job.

Dryer catcher Finish packaging the goods to be sent to either the packaging or shipping department, complete paperwork, and forward the paperwork to the next department. Finally, return to the press to assist in any remaining setup task that may be required.

I hope that you’ve come away with an idea of what you can do with standardization on your production floor. Keep in mind that no standardized process can be successful until its supporting functions also are standardized and running smoothly. Those support areas include inventory management, ink-room standardization, dryer-catching procedures, supply processes, and equipment maintenance.

A fat marketplace in years gone by made it easy for many garment screen printers to get away without using standardized procedures. Now that the market has changed and grown much more competitive, standardization may spell the difference between a shop surviving or shutting its doors.

Have a comment about this article? E-mail it to the editors at screen@stmediagroup.com.

The opinions and recommendations expressed in this column are Mr. Davis’s and not necessarily those of Screen Printing magazine.

Rick Davis
Rick Davis is the president of Synergy Screen Printing in Orlando, FL. A 27- year veteran of the textile-printing industry, Davis is a member of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology and has a background that spans production management, artwork engineering, application testing, and industry consulting. He is a frequent contributor to trade publications and a speaker at industry trade events.

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