Stitches

Automate Your Shop

From design shortcuts to paperless offices, there are many ways to streamline your processes and increase your efficiency. We explore a few ways shops are using software to save time.

Jan Calahan of Oaktree Embroidery in Oakland, CA, remembers one of the first moments she realized how much time she could save using software. She and her sister were attending a trade show not long after opening her first embroidery shop 14 years ago. At a class for CorelDRAW add-on program Smart Designer Pro, Craig Mertens, owner of Digital Art Solutions, asked how many decorators had trouble creating an arched text effect. Hands shot up across the room, Calahan’s included.

When clients wanted their text arched, Calahan was accustomed to cutting out individual letters, then placing each by hand to give the spelled-out word that distinctive curve. “To put the letters on, it was painstaking and horrible,” she says. After seeing Mertens click three buttons to make perfectly arched text appear onscreen, Calahan leaned over to her sister and whispered, “Hand me my purse.” She purchased that early version of Smart Designer and never looked back.

These days, Calahan can rattle off a long list of software she’s tried and programs she can’t do without, from one that digitizes her tackle twill files with the push of a button to another that helps her easily create and cut rhinestone designs. “The way business was 14 years ago to the way it is today, it’s completely software-based,” she says.

There are so many software packages available to help automate an embroidery business, streamlining the process from the time an order is placed until the finished product is picked up or shipped. But many shops, even larger ones that appear to be thriving, aren’t taking advantage of available technology. Or, they’re relying on a cobbled-together combination of competing programs and stacks of paperwork or maybe even an order hastily scrawled on the back of an envelope.

“It’s startling how these businesses are successful, and it’s almost by mistake,” says J.P. Hunt, vice president of sales and marketing at InkSoft, which develops online design and business software for decorators. “People spend more time managing their Frankenstein system and processes than they do running their business.”

One of the problems shared by many small-business people is the lack of value they place on their own time, according to Ed Levy, director of software technologies at Hirsch International (asi/14982) and owner of Digitize4u, an embroidery and digitizing operation. He’s talked to shop owners who would rather spend two days digitizing a piece of art than shell out $50 to outsource the work. In the long run, he says, the shop owner ends up losing more money than was saved; the hours lost to digitizing could have been better employed marketing the business or making sales, potentially bringing in hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

In the same way, software that automates a shop’s processes comes at a price, but it’ll help a shop save time, increase efficiency and ramp-up production. “If you have something that’s repetitive and you can replace that process with automation, it’s counter-productive not to do it,” Levy says. The other huge benefits of automation software are error-reduction and consistency: “Automation is a series of set-in-stone rules. If I put a process in place for handling long text, that process is going to occur over and over and over consistently,” he says. “You don’t have that judgment call; you have pure, hard, factual actions.”

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Use Design Shortcuts

It’s pretty much standard for a shop to create artwork with graphic design programs like CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator, but oftentimes no one in the shop has formal graphic arts training. Luckily, there are add-ons like Smart Designer Pro that drastically cut down the learning curve and add countless shortcuts and features to such programs. “Somebody can be instantly effective in it,” Mertens says of Smart Designer Pro. “You’re just making choices, instead of having to learn steps. Something that could take months to learn in CorelDRAW, they can do that in minutes.”

The program turns text effects that once could be achieved only through 20-step processes and condenses them into the click of a button. Calahan estimates that she only requires about a quarter of CorelDRAW’s functionality to run her business, and she doesn’t have time to click through “every little box” to explore all the features or do complicated things like creating split-front tackle twill artwork for jerseys from scratch. “I need to be able to have the tools right at my fingertips,” she says. “It just really takes CorelDRAW back to a level of understanding. I have no graphic art background behind me at all, but I can create some killer stuff.”

Many software packages also offer high-quality clip art to jump-start creativity, and interactive design templates, such as one in Smart Designer Pro that allows users to throw together a professional-looking sales flier in five minutes. It doesn’t make sense to spend an hour putting together a sample design to attract one client, but if you can spend an hour creating fliers for 15 potential clients, it’s time well spent, Mertens says. “It’s a phenomenal marketing tool,” he says.

When it comes to converting a design into stitches, software that recognizes vector artwork can cut the design process by several hours, depending on how complicated the design is. Vector recognition preserves the shapes of an electronic design file, saving the digitizer from having to redraw the design, Levy says. “Now, the digitizer’s role is just assigning stitch types and workflow,” he says.

Most embroidery software also has smart functions that automatically apply suitable underlay, pull compensation and stitch density settings for different fabrics.

Manage a Paperless Business

Many shops are slaves to their paperwork, with owners losing valuable time when they have to search through stuffed file cabinets or teetering stacks of purchase orders. “We’ve seen some very large-volume companies running on paperwork,” says Jay Malanga, president of ShopWorks, which makes the business management software OnSite. “It’s brutal; their costs are a lot higher than if they were automated.”

Good business management software can help a shop better track its orders. The more hands involved in processing and fulfilling an order, the more important it is to stay organized. Paperwork can help with this, but what happens when you have to change an order? Or when you need to process a reorder six months after the original is placed? How much time do you waste sifting through paperwork? How often are mistakes made? With business management software, it’s easy to change an order and make everyone in the company aware of that change without having to reprint and redistribute paperwork, Malanga says. And if you get a reorder, it’s simple to bring up the original and clone it, he adds.

Business management software should be seamless through all aspects of your business, from accounting to order processing and fulfillment, allowing you to enter data once, instead of having to input the same information in several places, he says. Another bonus: Programs like OnSite integrate with UPS and FedEx shipping programs, pulling their data into your shop’s records for easy package tracking.

Automate Production

Once your orders are stored electronically, whether in a simple spreadsheet or in more robust business management software, you can make that data work for you, using software to cut down on human error and increase your efficiency. One area where this is really valuable is in fulfilling orders with variable data, such as jerseys with individual names and numbers for youth sports leagues.

In the old days, Calahan remembers, Little League moms would write children’s names on a piece of tape, stick it on a blank jersey, and her shop would take it from there. This, of course, led to many misspellings. “Sometimes you can repair it, but most of the time you’re buying a new jersey, which is very costly,” she says.

Now, she gets the information electronically, significantly cutting down on mistakes. When personalization is done manually, data shows that at least 5% of the orders have errors, says Brian Goldberg, president of Pulse Microsystems, which developed Pulse ID and other software. “If we eliminate the human interaction, we can eliminate the errors completely,” he says.

Pulse ID takes electronic order data – things like the desired color, the text, design placement and whether there are color or text changes in a template – and converts it into a form easily read by the embroidery machine, he says. There’s no need to carry a disk or thumb drive to the machine – the order is processed and sent automatically in a matter of seconds. Once a machine operator is ready to print, he or she just scans a barcode on the garment and puts it on the machine. Operators don’t even have to set the needles; it’s all done for them, Goldberg says. “It’s a big elimination of labor costs,” he adds. “We have some clients who handle as many as 200,000 designs a day. If you had a human dealing with those, it wouldn’t be possible.”

He gave an example of one business that was able to triple production after implementing the software. The company specialized in personalized dog collars. The work involved – typing in data, sending it to the machine, mounting the collar and setting the needle – meant each employee could handle only two machines, he says. Thanks to production automation from Pulse, each operator now is able to oversee six machines without trouble.

Take Your Design Online

Another way a shop can save time is to add an online design studio. Customers love how easy, convenient and fun they are, and online designers lift the burden of art creation off the decorator’s shoulders. The biggest holdup in the decoration process often is getting a client to approve the artwork, Hunt says. “Until you can get a customer fired up about a design, you can’t really get to the next level. You can really be efficient and remove the bottleneck by delegating design to your customers,” he adds.

With sites like CustomInk and Zazzle steadily growing in popularity, customers have begun to expect all custom decorators to offer similar services. “Being online with a great, functional website is as critical as having the phone and power connected to your business,” says Brenden Prazner, product marketing manager at DecoNetwork, a software company that offers online design and business tools. “Without it, you cannot compete, and you won’t last as a business.” Not all online design software on the market today can accommodate embroidery, but the number of programs that can has been growing.

Australia-based decorator The Print Bar has been using an online-based design and management system since it opened in 2011. Empowering customers to design their own T-shirts has really freed up employees, says Athalia Foo, marketing manager. “In the past, custom-design businesses like ours would have involved a great deal of one-on-one interaction with clients to place orders and create designs,” she says. Those one-on-ones cut into efficiency and productivity, significantly lowering output. With an online designer, customers can log on and start creating whenever and wherever they want. “It gives our customers great self-satisfaction when they have the power to create their own custom garments from scratch themselves. It’s a truly thrilling and often a very special experience,” Foo says.