Uncorking the Bottleneck: Managing Capacity
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Uncorking the Bottleneck: Managing Capacity

Any print business, regardless of size, has to effectively manage the volume of work that comes into its shop, and juggle the various resources to deal with any changes in that volume.

By Richard Romano

Many shops identify capacity management as a primary "pain point."

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  • Managing a shop's volume of work can take any of a wide variety of strategies, from buying equipment, to buying very flexible equipment, to outsourcing work, to investing in workflow software, to adjusting the workforce, or even just spec'ing jobs correctly during the sales process.

    About four years ago, a small digital print shop based in the UK began offering customized photo books. They ran a Facebook promotion, and, expecting a modest bump in volume, the shop was shocked when the promotion went viral and orders poured in by the bucket-load. The small staff and limited equipment had to work around the clock and on weekends to keep up with the demand - after all, criticism of the shop's service could just as easily go viral. Although it's been said, "that's a good problem to have," it wasn't really. The company did manage to fill all of its orders in a timely manner, and learned a valuable lesson not only in the power of social media management, but also capacity management.

    Defining Our Terms
    What is capacity management? Wikipedia isn't much help for our purposes: "A process used to manage information technology (IT). Its primary goal is to ensure that IT capacity meets current and future business requirements in a cost-effective manner." A bit tautological, but we can use that as a jumping-off point and define capacity management as "effectively managing resources." While that can apply to all aspects and departments of the enterprise, in the specialty printing industry it refers to the ability to respond to changes in work volume. If a shop is said to "run at full capacity," that means that all equipment is running productively for all available shifts. This is good and bad; it's good in that the company is not paying equipment costs for gear that is sitting idle some of the time. It's bad, though, in that the company may not be able to handle any significant increase in volume, even a temporary one. Print companies have three options when their capacity is maxed out: They can buy new equipment; they can outsource the work, or they can turn jobs down.

    So any print business - be it small- or wide-format - has to effectively manage the volume of work that comes into its shop, and juggle the various resources to deal with any changes in that volume. While deluges like the one that the British photo book producer had to contend with are not the norm, most print businesses do have peaks and valleys. Those companies that have been in business for any length of time and serve a small number of vertical markets have, over time and with experience, come to anticipate where those fast and slow times occur, and can plan accordingly. But there are always surprises, and sometimes the peaks are tremendous, and the troughs plunge to the bottom of the ocean. Even when volume remains at an average level, managing capacity can still be a challenge, particularly if certain presses can only handle certain types of applications.

    This is why many shops identify capacity management as a primary "pain point." Managing a shop's volume of work can take any of a wide variety of strategies, from buying equipment, to buying very flexible equipment, to outsourcing work, to investing in workflow software, to adjusting the workforce - or even just spec'ing jobs correctly during the sales process.

    Flatbed Printer

    Managing capacity is not an academic issue; for years, industry statisticians have pored over capacity utilization data, and "do we have overcapacity in the commercial printing industry?" was an oft-discussed topic. For the shop itself, however, managing capacity has serious implications for customer satisfaction and, ultimately, retention. Can a customer's job get turned around in a timely manner? Is the job correct? Is the quality up to snuff? At the same time, managing capacity effectively also affects the shop's bottom line. Are jobs moving through the workflow efficiently?

    You would think that the goal of any print shop is to operate at maximum capacity, but not all shops max out their available equipment, either by choice or by chance. There is a term called "burst capacity," where the shop keeps some percentage of its overall capacity in reserve in order to handle short "bursts" of volume, such as high-volume and/or short-turnaround jobs. It makes the shop less inclined to have to turn jobs down - which no one likes to do. At the same time, capacity management is not just about equipment capacity; it's also about workforce capacity, which may not be as flexible.

    Especially in specialty printing, and where virtually every job is a custom job, the usual workflow efficiencies don't always apply - and the bottleneck may not be in production at all, but in capturing the job specs themselves.

    That's the rub: The bottleneck. Capacity management is largely about finding and unclogging bottlenecks, and more often than not, that's a moving target.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Holland & Crosby Ltd. is an 82-year-old shop that focuses on point-of-purchase (POP) displays for retailers across Canada - names that include Reebok, Toys R Us, Foot Locker, and Lowe's. The company offers complete "soup-to-nuts" services for clients, from conceptualization and design, to production printing, to finishing, to collating/packing, to assembly and installation. They began in screen printing, but started down a digital road for a unique reason: In parts of Canada, signs, displays, and other materials need to be in both English and French, and digital printing became a more cost-effective way of handling the shorter-run French-language versions. However, "as [digital] became bigger, faster and better, it started to become a more viable print option for all our work," said Scott Crosby, vice president of sales and marketing. The company began investing in digital equipment in 2004, and by 2010 had transitioned completely to digital. Today, the company's arsenal comprises an Inca Onset S70 - they were first in North America to install this machine - an Inca Onset S20, a Durst Rho 320R, and a smattering of cutting and finishing equipment.

    Holland and Crosby's busy periods are aligned with retail's peak seasons - spring and fall, as well as Christmas and back-to-school time. Valleys also tend to come at predictable times, but, said Crosby, "there have been some surprises." The downtimes give the staff a needed breather to regroup and reorganize. "Going at 110 percent 52 weeks of the year would be a bit much, but you don't want those valleys to be too deep or too wide."

    As it is for most printers, managing capacity has been a challenge for Holland and Crosby, but one solution has come thanks to the ability of the equipment to handle a wide variety of different applications. "Most of our print technology is pretty versatile," said Crosby. "If it's a rigid substrate it has to go on one of the Onsets, because that's a flatbed machine, but if it's a flexible substrate it can go on any of the three machines." The only limitation is size; anything over five feet has to go on the Durst Rho. But generally, "[they] manage capacity by moving the work around three different machines."

    More important than the equipment, however, is the staff. "The biggest challenge for small to mid-size companies like ours is the ability to manage our manpower," he said. "You can't get inexperienced temporary people in, and you can't afford to hire full-time people and increase your staff for the few peaks there are, because then it's a huge burden during the valleys."

    So Holland and Crosby takes advantage of what Crosby refers to as an "expandable workforce," or staggering the start times of existing staff. "Parts of our workforce start at six, some at seven, and some at eight, so we have coverage on the floor from six in the morning until six at night," he said. That way, they are already operating in a 12-hour window, and since the company is not running at 100-percent capacity anyway, they can expand and contract the day, or even add weekend time, as necessary.

    Crosby is quick to add that the biggest advantage the company has in managing its workload is the quality of the employees. "You need people that understand your business and understand the importance of every step. We're fortunate enough to have a team of people here that is really committed to our goal, to service our clients, and really understand the retail business. It has enabled us to be very flexible and responsive to the needs of our clients."

    The Bouncing Bottleneck
    A substantial part of capacity management is unclogging bottlenecks. However, Crosby's experience in what he calls "chasing the bouncing bottleneck" is a very familiar one for many shops: As one part of the workflow is upgraded, the bottleneck moves elsewhere, and becomes a moving target.

    "When we were screen printers, the bottleneck was definitely in print production," he said. File intake, film and screen preparation, getting the press running and up to color all took time, and the amount of time those various processes took could be highly variable and unpredictable. The transition to digital sped up the actual print production process, yes, but then "the bottleneck moved to finishing. Digital cutters operate at half the speed the printers do." So they invested in faster digital-ready finishing equipment, and solved that issue. But then, "the bottleneck moved to prepress to keep up with the speed of the press." That led to investment in workflow software to resolve that bottleneck. But "now the bottleneck has moved to the front office and our ability to input all of the data to get the job up and running." Virtually all the work Holland and Crosby takes on is custom, and the amount of information and detail required to make sure a job flows seamlessly through the system can be tough to capture, capture correctly and manage efficiently. The company is in the process of investigating management information systems (MIS) to help unclog that bottleneck. At which point it may cycle back to print production...

    Improving Communication
    Like Holland and Crosby, and indeed most shops, FASTSIGNS of Erie-Pa. has its own peaks and valleys. FASTSIGNS -Erie, Pa. started as a small family business in 1993, and became a FASTSIGNS franchise in 2007. The coldest and snowiest days of intense Great Lakes winters can be slow periods for the company (They had 140 inches of snow last winter.), and like many companies that serve the retail industry, the period leading up to the holidays is a very high peak. The company serves primarily retail and food franchises, as well as other small businesses in their local region. They have a flatbed printer, vinyl plotters, solvent printers, a flatbed digital cutter, and traditional signmaking equipment - CNC routers and channel letter benders. Their biggest capacity management challenge, at least in terms of digital printing equipment, is aggregating enough jobs to justify firing up the flatbed. "We try to nest jobs if we're going to start up the flatbed printer," said Levi Stutzman, consultant and digital signage specialist for FASTSIGNS-Erie, Pa., and scion of the company's founders. "We want to make sure we have x amount of jobs to justify starting it up."

    However, the primary strategy in managing capacity has been improved communication. "The better communication you have between sales and production, the better," said Stutzman. "If there are any hang-ups in production, it's usually a lack of communication, where something wasn't specified that needed to be."

    Straining the Limits of Machine and Man
    Solace comes in the form of more versatile equipment and staff, so work can easily be moved around the shop. Improved MIS and workflow management systems can automatically schedule and route jobs to where there is available equipment. Then again, given the highly customizable nature of much specialty printing, capacity management may very well remain a pain point for the foreseeable future - especially, as one British photo book printer can tell you, when the company's marketing and promotion efforts work too well.

    Richard Romano has been writing about the graphic communications industry for almost 20 years, and covering wide-format printing since 1998. He is a senior analyst for the news and information portal WhatTheyThink.com, covering wide-format, production inkjet, and environmental sustainability. He is the author or co-author of more than half a dozen books. His most recent book is The Home Office That Works! Make Working at Home a Success - A Guide for Entrepreneurs and Telecommuters, www.homeofficeworks.com.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, July/August 2014 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2015 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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