Why You Should Track Production

In today’s ultra-competitive screen printing industry, it’s absolutely essential that you wring out every last ounce of fat (read: inefficiencies) from your shop’s production system—and the only way to do that is to have precise measurements of your production rates.

Streamlining your facility into a lean, mean printing machine begins with capturing information about your production rates—then taking a long, hard look at the data to see what it means to your business. Without such detailed information and analysis, there’s really no way to know how well you’re performing, or even whether you’re charging the right prices, veteran screen printers say.

“When I got into this business in the 1970s, you could just print T-shirts and make money, but it’s a whole different ballgame now,” says Geoff Baxter, Director Digital Products Division M&R, Glen Ellyn, Ill. “If you’re not efficient, that work is going to China. You have to figure out where your inefficiencies are, and then fix them.”

In other words, you must be able to accurately forecast and schedule production and know the true cost of production. Arriving at these critical figures cannot happen without a deep understanding of your facility’s production rates—figures that provide a wealth of information and benefits.

Cost and pricing. Tracking production rates allows you to determine how much you can produce every day, which in turns allows you to determine the true cost of production. “Most print shops have no clue what their overhead is. They base their pricing on their competitors’ prices. But you have to see what it costs you to produce one shirt,” says Charlie Taublieb, president, Taublieb Consulting, Greenwood Village, Colo.

Adds Baxter: “It’s the only way you’ll find out what it costs to manufacture product. Too many people in our industry don’t have a clue what their cost of manufacturing is. A lot of people get the price list when they go into business from the guy down the street,” he says. “They assume that if he can print for $.25 a shirt, then they print for $.22 a shirt, but it just doesn’t work that way.”

Industry veteran Mark Coudray, president, Coudray Serigraphics,San Luis Obispo, Calif., says that a printer’s true production cost is a function of how many hours a month he’s actually printing. “Let’s say your costs are $30,000 per month. Divide that cost by the hours per month—usually about 176—and you get about $170 per hour,” he says. “If you use that number as your cost of production, you’re always going to lose money.”

That’s because you have to look at the number of hours you’re actually producing, convert it to a percentage of the hours per month (176 in this example), and divide it by $170 to get your true number, Coudray explains. “That $170 figure usually becomes about $350 to $600 an hour. That’s because your actual production time that’s generating income may be about 35% to 50% of available time,” he says.

Scheduling. Tracking your production rates has the added benefit of making scheduling easier. “I have a lot of customers with time-sensitive events, and in order to determine if I can get their order done on time, I have to know how many pieces we produce every day, every hour,” says Alan Geber, president, Innovations In Print, Lakewood, N.J. “It’s just good for us to know how many pieces we’re capable do doing every day.”

Asks Taublieb: “How do you schedule when you don’t know how long things take? In general, printers say ‘two weeks’ for everything—but they don’t know why. When you have that production information, you set up your production board. When a customer comes in, you look at your board and you can tell your availability.”

Bottlenecks. Production data also can help point out bottlenecks in your shop. By looking at the data and searching for patterns or numbers that seem out of range, you can easily spot inefficiencies. “If it always takes an hour and a half to set up a three-color job, obviously somebody is messing around,” Baxter says. “Look for downtime that happens for no good reason. You might find downtime due to pinholes, which could mean you’re not making your screens properly. You’ll be surprised at what you discover.”

For instance, Baxter says he has done time studies at various screen printing facilities in the past years to track production efficiencies. He discovered that, surprisingly, many shops were actually producing only 40% of the time—which means they weren’t making money 60% of the time.

“This is a manufacturing process,” Taublieb says. “As much as I hate paperwork, I have come to the understanding that if you can’t identify problems based on repeated offenses, you can’t resolve the problem. If you don’t know you have a problem, how can you get rid of it?”

Management from afar. Geberpoints out that tracking production data also can help you manage without actually being on the floor. “I can look at what we produced, how many jobs were done on any given day, and check it against a previous day or week,” Geber says. I can see whether or not my shop was actually working.”

By tracking production routinely, you also can drill all the way down to an individual job, Geber adds. “We track every single day, every shift, and I can see which jobs are profitable versus which jobs are not profitable. It’s a very valuable tool for us.”

Better price estimates. By constantly re-evaluating production estimates versus production realities, you can gradually get better at quoting jobs, veterans add. “We did a job with 20,000 zip-up sweat shirts, and afterwards, we figured out that it wasn’t as profitable as it should’ve been,” Geber says. “We were able to say, ‘For future runs, this is the price point we need or we’ll have to pass on the business.’ ”

Geber says he evaluates daily numbers by comparing them to what he has determined as his shop’s average figures. “If we’re below average, I can break it down,” he says. “Did we have screen problems? Did we bring a job to the press without the inks being mixed?”

Resource management. Accurate production rates also can help you determine when it’s time to hire additional employees, even if it’s just on a part-time or seasonal basis. “You can evaluate your needs better,” Taublieb says.

Still, despite all the many uses of detailed production information, it’s probably not a good idea to use the data as a way to monitor individual productivity. “When you start doing that, you’re holding a club over the employee’s head,” Coudray says. “They’re aware of it, and they might game the system. Having production measurements in place allows you to concentrate on the problems at hand, not the people.”