How to Manage Deadlines in the Decorated Apparel Industry

In today's decorated apparel industry, customers expect you to shorten your overall lead times, meet delivery promises 100 percent of the time, and of course have perfect quality. 

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The apparel decorating industry is deadline based. Today, customers expect you to shorten your overall lead times, meet delivery promises 100 percent of the time, and of course have perfect quality. If you can improve your delivery performance, which will ultimately increase customer satisfaction, you’ve just increased the odds of not only keeping existing business. But, managing a production schedule and providing on-time delivery can be a daunting task. There is nothing worse than a customer showing up to pick up an order, only to find that their order is not ready.

Additionally, every company needs a sound production plan to maximize productivity. Effective planning is a complex process that spans a wide variety of activities to ensure equipment, materials, and human resources are available when they are needed.

There are many variables involved with every order, and any hiccups can create a domino effect towards disaster. Developing a roadmap for production planning helps you know where you are going and the time that is needed for you to get there as well.

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Larger organizations have people, resources, and technology to help manage the production process. This often leaves the smaller companies scratching their heads when it comes to managing production.

In addition to on-time delivery, there are many benefits in developing an effective production plan. It improves process flow, eliminates wasted time, and reduces labor costs. It also means that you can order only what you need for when you need it to reduce inventory costs. Plus, it optimizes equipment usage, which increases capacity.

One of the easiest methods to ensure that all required steps are taken is to have a preproduction checklist. This checklist will cover everything required to get the order through production. The checklist can be a form that is attached with each order, or it can be a spreadsheet. Key elements for a checklist include:

Garments: Determine if the items needed are in stock or if they need to be ordered. If they are in stock, immediately allocate them for the current order to ensure that the goods don’t get used for other jobs. If garments need to be ordered, establish a deadline for receipt of the merchandise in order to meet the production deadline. It may be necessary to order goods from various sources if all of the goods are not available from a single source. When ordering from multiple sources, designate a numbered bin and place all incoming garments for that order into that bin. Utilize a system to allow a manager to know when all of the merchandise has arrived. Some companies use sheet protectors with red and green paper. When the red paper is visible, more goods still need to arrive. When the green paper is visible, all goods have arrived and the process can move forward to the next stage of production. Another option is to have two sets of shelving that separates the orders into each category.

Order Type: Is this a new or repeat order? If it is a repeat order, are all of the necessary preparation items, such as screens and digitizing, already completed?

Artwork: Does artwork or digitizing need created? If so, will it be done in-house, or will it be outsourced? What is the due date for receiving completed artwork?

Artwork Approval: Is the artwork approved? Did the customer sign off? What is the due date required for artwork approval in order to meet the deadline? It is good practice to always have artwork approved in writing by the customer.

Supplies: Are all the necessary supplies in stock and ready for production?  Thread, backing, topping, appliqué material, or any other production-dependent items are all critical parts of being able to deliver according to schedule.

The next part of the production planning process is scheduling the production. All of the prior elements play a critical role in getting to this point. If the digitizing isn’t ready and approved or if the merchandise is not in or if a special color or type of thread is not in, then scheduling production is pointless. You can’t produce what you don’t have.

The best production system for the small embroidery company is to take the KISS approach.  Less is more. Trying to maintain an elaborate system will do nothing more than over complicate things, and in the end you will spend more time planning the production than the time it takes to produce the goods.

When it comes to production, the variables we will focus on are machinery, capacity, thread colors, and people.

Machinery: Choosing the right piece of equipment is very important. The goal with production is to produce the merchandise as efficiently as possible without sacrificing quality. Sometimes, it makes more sense to run a job on a smaller machine, rather than on a larger machine for efficiency. For example, it would be better to do three runs of an order for six pieces with 3,000 stitches each and four unique thread colors on a two-head versus one run on a six-head. The reason is because of the setup time involved. The setup time to change four cones of thread on six heads means that 24 cones of thread need to be changed. Changing four cones on two heads means only eight cones of thread need changed. That combined with a 3,000-stitch design makes it much more efficient to run the job on the smaller machine.

Capacity: Embroidery machines can only produce so much per day. A common mistake people make is to take shift time divided by machine speed to get the number of possible stitches in a shift. A much better approach is to take an average number of stitches per day that your shop produces. Many embroidery machines have a counter that you can reset or log to see the daily stitch production. Oftentimes the end result is a fraction of the actual machine speed. Each time the machine trims, changes colors, has a thread break, or is off for any reason, the average stitches per day will be affected. Factoring in setup and all other variables, a time for the job should be calculated, and then that block of time should be set aside for the job. If you are busy enough, then sooner or later you will run out of blocks of time to place on your schedule.

Thread colors: As previously stated, changing thread colors takes time. An experienced operator can change a cone of thread quickly, but it still takes time. Most embroidery machines have slots for 15 colors of thread. It is good practice never to change a set of common colors. Leave the first 10 color slots with common threads and only change the last five. This will ultimately add to overall efficiency. Black, white, red, royal, yellow, navy, green, gold, tan, and orange are examples of 10 common colors.

People: Having people to produce the goods is an important part of the process. Always have a “Plan B” in the event someone does not show up for work unexpectedly. A machine without an operator is not very efficient. Cross-training individuals is good practice for all positions within a small production environment.

During a peak period or a schedule that is filled with critical deadlines, it is a good idea to have an additional shift on standby. Having a crew to create a safety buffer allows for production to stay on course. If production stays at capacity on a long-term basis, consider bringing in additional equipment to help satisfy the demand.

Even the best production plans run into emergency situations. However, with a well-thought-out production plan, the emergencies become the exception rather than the norm, and you can keep on time with production.

Ed Levy, Hirsch Solutions Inca

Ed Levy

Ed Levy is an industry veteran and director of software technologies at Hirsch Solutions.

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