Red Light, Green Light

Decorating apparel is child’s play when your shop has maximum efficiency.

Have you ever driven across town and made excellent time by zipping through green lights at each intersection? That’s exactly what it is like to have your shop set up for maximum effectiveness for production. Each step along the way is like one of those intersections. Do you fly through the production process without any issues (green)? Do you have to slow down at points (yellow)? At any time do you have to stop and figure something out (red)?

Think about your shop for a moment. Are you hitting all green lights? If not, where do the yellows or reds crop up? Let’s break down the production route and illustrate what needs to happen to turn all of the lights green.

Work Order

Believe it or not, the best place to start looking at maximizing your shop is with the work order. Everyone in the shop depends on the information in the system to be able to do their jobs with little difficulty. If information is missing, incorrect or confusing, then the chances that the order will hit all green lights are pretty slim. Obtaining all of this information can sometimes be a chore, as customers don’t always give us all of the order details we need. A few extra minutes on the phone with the client, or that one extra email that will verify some confusing bit of information can make a tremendous difference. In your shop, if anyone from production has ever had to come up front and ask “what’s this mean?” then you aren’t doing something correctly. Red light.

Enable your press operators to achieve maximum efficiency by staging the day’s order (garments and screens) around the press.

Standardizing the verbiage and procedures that your shop uses will speed-up decisions your staff makes on a daily basis. Examples could be that the standard adult full-front image size is 12” wide, that all underbase screens are burned on a 110 mesh, or that rush orders are scheduled to be printed first thing during the day. Standardizing your language helps your crew make decisions faster, as instructions and expectations are clearer. These can be anything really.

Also, use the work order number and both ship and in-hands dates to maintain workflow speed. These will help you order inventory and allow all your departments to prioritize jobs.

I would also add that a great art mock-up or approval form that shows exactly what needs to be handled out in the shop is critical to minimizing your downtime. Specific instructions that detail ink colors, thread colors, art dimensions, location information (such as distance in inches from the collar or other landmark) and other key information will allow your production staff to completely comprehend what needs to happen.

Get Prepared

To speed production, and get as many of those lights green as possible, your production management team needs to work diligently in preparing the press operators and crews for success. This is an ongoing, never-ending, herculean task. The morning begins early, with printouts for each press crew of all the jobs that need to be produced. All of the jobs are “kit-packed” by the presses and lined up in priority order. Kit packing is where you bring all shirts, screens and inks to the press for the job. Nobody from a press crew should ever leave their workstation to go get anything; the faster way is to load them up with the necessary elements for their jobs so they can concentrate their efforts in just one thing: printing.

For kit-packing jobs, line up each job in a designated area by the press. These should be in order, and this will free-up your crew’s time wondering what to do next and where the items needed to run the job are. As production happens during the day, the catcher loads the shirts for an order onto carts, while the press operator and puller take down the old job and set up the new one. The constant flow is just reloading them with kit-packed jobs. If you ever see someone from a press crew walking into the ink or screen room looking for something, then your shop floor management isn’t doing their job preparing them for success.

Depending on how many manual and auto presses your shop has to support, pushing for greater throughput by kit-packing jobs could take a team of people to work ahead of your print crews. Someone has to schedule the work, move the inventory and stage it by the press. Someone needs to review the jobs to be printed and either locate the right ink or mix it for the job. Depending on the size of your company and amount of work scheduled, that could mean a few extra people. Tightly run shops push tomorrow’s production jobs out the day before. Being organized is the key.

Shop Layout

For increased efficiency, your shop layout is very important. Some companies have more available floor space than others. Some have more equipment too. In terms of floor space, consider the immediate areas around your equipment as the most valuable real estate in the shop. Any clutter that is preventing your team from producing at a higher rate needs to be removed; you want your space clean and organized. Clearly demarcate staging areas for jobs with taped lines on the floor. In limited-space areas, use sturdy metal racks to stage job-labeled screens to keep them out of the way, but near the presses for easy access.

Do an analysis on the items around your shop floor. “Why is something placed there?” is a good question to ask. Typically, nobody will know the answer. It’s always been there is what you are going to hear most often. People will walk by a problem every day and not realize the impact something might have in their work life. For example, if you have filing cabinets next to your production work area, how much more effective could your team be if they didn’t have to walk around that every day? Could that item be stored anywhere else in the building?

Here’s a neat trick: use a “spaghetti diagram” to see how a press team might be burdened by their environment. This simple exercise could tell you a lot about the inefficiencies of your floor space arrangement. Simply take a sheet of paper and draw out the press and the objects on the floor around the equipment. Use your pen to draw the steps needed by the operator to set up the job. A simple, continuous line is drawn as the person walks around gathering items and getting them into place. Obviously, at the end of the exercise, the drawing is going to resemble a plate of spaghetti. Shops with efficient set-ups will have the lines tightly encircling the press. Shops that might have some challenges will have the lines scattered all around, and even some off the page, as the operator had to go somewhere not on the map.

To that end, keep extra squeegees and floodbars available to press crews near their equipment, so the operators don’t have to travel far to change out the items for the next job. Have several sets for each press, so while one is being cleaned, another can be inserted into the press and you can keep printing. Don’t think you are saving any money by limiting the amount of extra floodbars and squeegees, as the lost production time you may have with a press waiting on a clean squeegee will far surpass the cost of the surplus items.

Also, have tables or storage for each press to hold all the miscellaneous items needed in that area: Pantone books, a tape measure, markers, box-cutters, calculator, tape, spray tack, shop rags, junk shirts for registration, a T-square, a tape-gun and other items. Make sure that each press has duplicates of all the items, so someone doesn’t have to walk across the shop to get a T-square or a Pantone book to set up a job.

Have a simple system in place for screens – new screens go on the rack, and used screens are put on the floor when they are done.

To keep track of partially-received jobs, order them according to the last digit of the work order number. Work order numbers that end in 8, for example, are all placed together.


This is a critical component for shop efficiency. While you should have your staff cross-trained (so that every critical task in the shop has at least three people that know how to handle it), also ensure that the basic, core level tasks are covered as well. Everyone should know how to read a work order and how to consult an art approval or mock-up to get key information about a job.

This is a labor-intensive business, and training is a top priority to being efficient. One well-trained employee that works smart can easily outpace several clock-puncher type employees that don’t have the same hustle. The old adage “Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill” is exactly correct.

Set some rules for your shop on what your staff can and can’t do. While it seems overly dramatic to have rules for every little thing in the shop, if you don’t address something, your staff could take advantage. It’s better to set clear expectations. For example, can someone just walk off and go the bathroom, or should they ask for someone to take over running the press so it doesn’t stop? Can they take a phone call? If lunch ends at 12:30, is it OK to come shuffling back at 12:40? If you want more jobs printed a day, you’ll address these examples and more with your shop and set the tone.

If you truly want to maximize your production for the shop, spend the time out on the floor with an open eye. Where are the bottlenecks and friction points? These are your yellow or red lights. Do your different departments and teams work together to solve problems, or do you have a bunch of finger-pointers that make excuses? One great tip on how to resolve these challenges is just simply asking “why” when confronted with a problem. “Why do we have this issue?” Keep asking why. In fact, if you ask why at least five times, you can usually trace the challenge back to the root cause. Work on your problems constantly. Ultimately this can lead to a better run, more efficient and productive company – with more green lights.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions, Inc. (www.visualimp.com) and Ink to the People (www.inktothepeople.com). Follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt, read his blog at atkinsontshirt.com and contact him at matkinson4804@gmail.com.