Marshall Atkinson shares the tools – and wisdom – needed to handle large orders

Your client has let you know that you won that gigantic order. Congratulations! It’s going to be the biggest order your shop has ever printed and, along with that, the biggest payday. Then it hits you. It’s also the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, and the biggest liability if something goes wrong. The first bead of sweat starts rolling down your forehead as you feel the panic setting in. How are you going to pull it off?

Keep calm. Below are some tips for making sure that your big payday happens without a hitch.

Produce a sample and get it approved

The big order probably has a time deadline, so it’s imperative that a sample order is created and sent to the client immediately. Print it on the press you are going to run the job, with the crew that will be printing the order. Don’t sample it manually and then try to replicate it on your auto in a few days as you may end up struggling to match the final print.

For big orders, most shops throw the sample in for free as this is more about an insurance policy than getting paid to print a sample. Make sure that more than one person in your shop sees the sample and everyone agrees that it is the best you can print. Triple check that the sample is exactly what they wanted. I can’t stress this enough. You want to send perfection.

Get their approval in writing. If the order has multiple locations, and not all of them are approved, try to get the job started by asking if one or more of the locations can be approved so you can start printing.

Check your ink stock

Want to see a shop owner go ballistic? Run out of ink during a long print run. You know what you need for this big order. Check your stock levels and make sure you have enough. If you are not sure, place an order. Ink isn’t produce from the grocery store; it won’t go bad if it sits on the shelf. If you are mixing your own ink colours, make sure you mix a little more than you think you need. There’s nothing worse than not being able to match a colour during a long print run for some reason. Colour matching is crucial.

Inventory shipping concerns

Be sure you ask how the inventory is coming in for the order as you need to prepare. Don’t get caught on the hop when the truck backs up and you are not ready. Have a plan in place for when the truck arrives. This means some space created for the inventory to call home, empty skids ready to load and paperwork accessible to use during check-in.

When unloading, be sure to segregate the boxes by size on different pallets as this will help you check them in later. The more organised you keep your inventory, the better. Make sure you crack open every box, and doublecheck size and colour. I’ve seen more than one job have the wrong shirts delivered, or missing one size completely, and this is something you want to discover immediately, not at the press a few days later when you have a deadline approaching.

Make the job easy

Handling big jobs is better if you stay prepared and double-check everything as the job is being produced. Have a second set of screens burned in case something happens on press so you can quickly swap one out. Make sure you have a support team in place that can keep ink in the screens, and shirts loaded on the carts or table so the loader doesn’t have to stop.

Every once in a while trade out loaders so that there is good quality in loading and your staff stays sharp. Give a puller or catcher some experience running the press on a longer job, and have the regular press operator in the puller position mentoring them. This keeps your crew fresh, focused and engaged in the job.

For press speed, nice and comfortable is better than teetering on the edge of too fast. If the loader is skipping boards because they can’t keep up, slow it down a bit to ensure quality. Keep a production log and record the total number of impressions produced per shift as well as any misprints. This is extremely valuable information to use later for estimating for other potential large orders, so make sure your crew takes it seriously.

Every time you stop the press you are losing about 15 shirts an hour

Tricks to increase speed

When printing longer runs on dark colours, after a bit your platenswill heat up due to increased exposure fromthe flash cure units. You can back down the dwell time under the flash units as the heated boards will help with this process.

Also, make sure that your squeegee stroke length is tuned into the actual size of the image. You don’t need to have everything travel several inches past the image as that just slows down the printing. Adjust on press, as this small amount of time can really add up over a longer print run.

As mentioned above,watch your press speed and load at a comfortable pace. Not stopping is the key. Have support crew add extra ink or load your shirts on the table or cart, as this will increase your throughput considerably. Remember, every time you stop the press you are losing about 15 shirts an hour.

Keep quality a priority

Quality prints are important, especially on larger orders. You don’t want to run the risk of your client rejecting or complaining about the order, so make sure your management staff keeps a keen eye on the job. Hang up a printed sample and have your catcher compare your sample with one off the belt occasionally. They should match. Watch your placement, as you can have a great-looking image but it could be printed crooked or offcentre. Train your staff to look for key items with the print and know what to do to correct any challenges. Most shops use a 2% per impression defect ratio, but for large orders it is common in the industry that this is reduced to 1%. If you are doing your job right, you won’t even come close to that.

Make sure that your ‘recipe’ for printing the job is recorded, so that you know how to replicate the job if there is a re-order later. Record all mesh counts, Pantone colours in sequence, squeegee durometer, placement (3″ down from the collar for example) or any special tips for running the job.

Contracting part of the order

Some orders are so huge it will be impossible for you to meet the deadline. One way to be able to take that order is to consider farming out a portion, or even the entire job, to another printer. This is a tricky business as you need to partner with someone who you can trust, has room on their schedule, and can produce the job and meet both quality and timing considerations.

If you go this route, be absolutely clear on your expectations on the order with over-communicated instructions. Make sure an approved sample is provided. During production check in with them frequently for progress updates and to discuss any challenges.

Get the okay from your client if you feel you need it. If you don’t want to disclose you are contracting part or the entire order to another shop, that’s acceptable too. However, at the end of the day, you are responsible for the order. If the other shop has a challenge with the order, you are on the hook to make it right.

If you are ordering the blanks you absolutely need to get a very large deposit

Communication

For large orders communication with your staff regarding the expectations and job information is the key to starting out on the right foot. There can’t be any last minute surprises, and it is imperative that all of the details are correct on the work order, art approval form or mock-up, and especially shipping dates. Don’t use a padded date as that creates confusion and distrust with your production staff. Use the real date, and as the job progresses have everyone informed as to the status. On the client side, your customer service rep should occasionally send them a note regarding progress and to let them know that the order is on track.

Intangibles

Huge print runs can affect the other jobs on your schedule. They will tie up a press (or presses) for days at a time, and may put a strain on other orders in the system. If you don’t have a second shift or print on weekends, you may consider working some overtime for this large order just to get it out of the way. Overtime and any other special considerations should have been thought about before accepting the job, but if you get in a situation where you need it, always opt for getting the order out. Keep the morale up amongst your press crews. Bring in pizza, doughnuts, coffee or refreshments. Say ‘thank you’ and show your appreciation when your staff starts to show strain. Get in there and help out.

Finishing the job

Get the order prepped for shipping by stacking the skids neatly. Skids should be organised so that they are all one shirt size as much as possible. All boxes should be clearly marked with order information on a label, with the label placed on the box in the same location on every one. Neatness counts. Don’t handwrite anything, use your system and print a label. Once all the boxes are labelled and stacked neatly on skids, wrap each skid with shrink-wrap to secure it. This is important, as the load may shift during travel and you don’t want them to fall over or become a problem.

Show me the money

For any order in your shop, collecting the payment is imperative to keeping your business running smoothly. When discussing gigantic orders, this can make or break a shop as a ridiculous amount of money can be on the line. Often, these large orders will have the customer purchasing the inventory, which is good for the screen printer as that doesn’t tie up a huge amount of cash.

If you are ordering the blanks you absolutely need to get a very large deposit before even entering the order in your system. Don’t buy any inventory unless you have a deposit. Get money up front, have signed purchase orders or contracts, run a credit check, and be sure to have several conversations about payments.

Also, it’s important that you outline your defect and misprint policy on this order. What percentage is the ratio for the order? Does it have to ship 100% complete? Are extra shirts being ordered with the initial inventory to cover any potential misprints, or is that your responsibility? Every client is different, so don’t assume your policy matches how they think this order will work.

You don’t have to be scared of a monster job if you’ve never handled one before. They are just much larger cousins of the orders you handle every day. The trick for successful production is to stay organised, keep an eye out for trouble, communicate expectations with your staff and your customer, and keep track of progress as you go. You can do it!

Marshall Atkinson is the Professional Services director for InkSoft, and program owner for the new InkSoft Production Manager software. In his Professional Services capacity, Marshall provides coaching to shops on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning and strategy, employee motivation and management and sustainability.
marshall@inksoft.com