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Digital 2.0: Digital Workflow - The Next Big Thing in Profitability

The current business environment calls for new priorities such as increased productivity and a focus on creating efficiency and automating systems. Productivity gains are being recorded throughout the economy. Read on to learn more.

By Chris Bernat, Partner, Vapor Apparel/Source Substrates

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  • The last few quarters have been no joyride for anyone in the apparel printing business. Like most other sectors of the economy, the apparel decorating community has seen a loss in volume, a tightening of access to capital and bad debt linked to faltering retail sales. Very few decorators have escaped any of these issues in the last 12 months. A select few actually grew in 2009.

    Many people in the business were forced to let members of their staff go, which revealed flaws in operations "managed" by employees. Gaps in information occur and error rates increase. The lack of automated data begins to show its effect on the business and information accuracy becomes a concern. Yet, there is no room for these errors in the new world.

    The current business environment calls for new priorities such as increased productivity and a focus on creating efficiency and automating systems. Productivity gains are being recorded throughout the economy.

    The Labor Department reported on March 4, 2010, that productivity jumped at an annual rate of 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter, even better than an initial estimate of 6.2 percent. This surge in productivity was much stronger than the 3.8 percent gain for all of 2009, and more than triple the two percent increase in 2008. American business is investing in efficiencies.

    Top-line revenue growth will remain critical, but building a reliable and cost-effective business automation system is a must to capture your share of the productivity gains going on around you. The elimination of costs will be essential to maintain competitiveness. Increased accuracy and productivity will be needed for profits to expand at a higher rate than costs. You need a digital mindset and you need a workflow system that improves transparency, accuracy and customer satisfaction.

    Numerous books were written about the merits of technology automation - "Business @ the Speed of Thought" by Bill Gates is one vetted example. Gates' book speaks about how technology should reduce response time, foster easy adaptation to change and remove time from processes. It explains why technology and business are inextricably linked and highlights real issues and how they could be improved dramatically with technology.

    Developing a "digital mindset" about these ideas is important. It starts with thinking about how your people spend their time and what information you would like to be able to get in an instant. Digital printers have a unique opportunity to maximize this type of automation.

    Survival of the Fittest
    Economic cycles are worth understanding. We are entering a business cycle where Darwin's concept of "survival of the fittest" is the number one factor in the market. In the 1990s, the main concern was beating others to the market and getting a Super Bowl commercial secured for your sock puppet spokesperson. Money was loose and the market rewarded growth and expansion. Companies were judged on how they were positioned for growth.

    The focus now is on finding and implementing cost reduction tools. Those who invest in automation of information flow will see the benefits immediately. Everyone is starting to look at the cost of getting things done. How much time does it take us to order shirts? How much inventory do we typically carry? Can they tell us how many blue mediums we bought last year? Why can't we get lower minimum orders on shirts? These are questions that are being asked in today's apparel marketplace.

    It may sound cruel, but those who do not automate their businesses will find themselves falling behind every time they seem to make a gain. Employees will become overloaded and additional costs will be incurred to manage the additional revenue. On the other hand, building a customization interface for your customers would allow your employees to focus on quality and not the paperwork details. Those who build a digital workflow will be able to profit from bursts of orders.

    If you think your business is too simple to take advantage of this type of system, you are wrong. Consider the following:

    • What if you could automate QuickBooks for yourself and your customer and eliminate the data entry requirement with a daily batch file? How much time per order would that save? Would it reduce errors?
    • What if your customer could go online and upload all the names, numbers and sizes for an order? Who currently is responsible for the spelling of last names?
    • How much time would you save if you ran credit cards automatically?
    • What if that online form automatically sent your head of production a print-ready file? And a work order? And a packing slip? How much time would that save?
    Start Smart: Think it Through and Define the Goals
    Systems of this type are the new strategic decision for companies that see the writing on the wall. These companies want to secure their current employees' future by enhancing competitiveness. Companies from all areas of the apparel industry are automating wherever they can.

    Customers have to be part of the equation. In many instances, it is the decorated apparel brands that must define the needs of the workflow, so their input is critical. All parties involved must define the goals.

    Building a neural network requires that you look at your customers' needs and how they dovetail with your production capacity and profitability requirements. A system must take into account the reality of how things work and strive to improve flow and efficiency.

    Some of the goals should be macro:

    • Automate any process that requires significant data input
    • Create a system that does not allow for exceptions in production
    • Hook into proven third-party automated systems
    Some of the goals should be more specific:
    • Use customer input data to populate work order documents
    • Implement the ability to upload artwork from customers via the Internet
    • Automate all QuickBooks entries

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    Features to Consider
    Taking a look at technology automation raises all types of questions. Should I buy an online/backend system designed to work with anyone's business? Should I deal with a local web developer? What else is out there worth considering? There are some standardized elements that most printers, brands and organizations would like to have.

    The Customization Interface for your internal staff, independent reps and end-customers should include the following types of features:

    • Display products with category filtering and color swatching
    • Customized text including text location and options (text color, font, size and orientation)
    • Display graphics library with category filtering
    • Upload feature for customer artwork submission
    • Offer multiple design locations (center back, center chest, left chest, all-over, etc.)
    • Display configured design on selected products
    • Multi-quantity/multi-size selection
    • Input a roster of names and numbers with appropriate sizing specifications
    • Generate production orders
    • Printable design delivery (including variable data)
    • Shipping integration (tracking numbers and label printing)
    • Generate packing slips
    • Inventory management data integration option
    • QuickBooks or alternate accounting data integration
    • Order status reporting tools
    • Order history and reporting
    Case Study
    American Backcountry, a well-established outdoor retailer brand, recently made the strategic decision to invest in a dynamic automation tool. The company has worked hard to develop a strong relationship with several large Boy Scout camps that needed sublimated performance apparel garments customized at the troop level. Finding a customization platform that could harness customization and deliver on production requirements took time, resources and analysis of many options.

    "We had a lot to consider in this decision," said Frank Hintz, Owner and Founder of American Backcountry. "In the end we elected to work with a team of specialists as well as our local Web developer. This was ideal for us. We got local touch and industrial strength customization that ties right into production."

    American Backcountry worked with Archetype Solutions of Emeryville, California. Archetype's expertise is in the creation of online custom-order apparel, denim in particular. The company has designed online solutions for JC Penney, QVC and other major retailers. Working with American Backcountry was the first time they focused on graphical print interfaces.

    "Our goal is to enhance the customization experience for the customer while dramatically lowering the paperwork and manpower needed for the production side," said Marybeth Luber, CEO of Archetype. "We offer an integrated solution that includes both the online ordering interface and supply chain tools and we build customized versions of our technology to suit our partners' unique needs."

    The company worked with American Backcountry to build a system that automated virtually all aspects of an order. They created a number of back-end tools and administrative elements to ensure all orders can be effectively coordinated. The system even allows for bar coding at each point in the production process, which can be plugged into an online customer service interface to provide customers with real-time order status.

    "We built a system for American Backcountry where not a single human hand touches the order until it is ready for transfer to production," said Jeffrey Campbell, Chief Technology Officer at Archetype Solutions. "When you look at accounting for both sides of the order, creating a packing slip, shipping, generating a work order and typesetting the customization in the artwork, we eliminated over 25 minutes of labor per order".

    By focusing on all the issues at play, American Backcountry was able to build a digital workflow that truly changed the dynamics of their business. The company has seen customer satisfaction increase, errors in paperwork and production drastically reduced and production has more visibility. The functionality has been extended to integrate with UPS World Ship, causing additional productivity gains.

    Looking to the Future
    When you sit down to determine your path, consider wisely all of your options. Investment levels must be put into proper perspective. Is $50,000 a lot of money if your new digital workflow eliminates 30 minutes of work for every order, virtually eliminates errors and plugs into all of your accounting systems and digital printers?

    For the digital printer who wishes to scale with multiple digital production platforms and offer customers multiple product lines, this type of digital implementation can become the central nervous system of your company. An apparel production house that offers direct-to-garment production for cotton, digital sublimation for performance garments and cut-and-sew large format sublimation for fully-customized athletic jerseys could manage all of these centrally.

    A hybrid screen printing and digital shop can tap these productivity enhancements and offer clients additional value-added services such as automatically stocking screen-print runs for clients when inventory hits a certain level. Printers with the vision to do so can offer customers virtual inventories comprised of no decorated inventory.

    There are several "plug and play" applications being marketed to the industry that offer some incremental improvements and allow organizations to get a lock on their processes. Building a comprehensive system with off-the-shelf applications is challenging and can be done, but you will need some custom applications.

    Most companies seeking a robust and comprehensive system with quality outsourced hosting will utilize customized development. Manufacturers of superior digital equipment want to offer more value by integrating into proven systems and platforms. The market is increasing for companies offering this vertical expertise to the apparel decorating market. SGIA will continue its efforts to educate members in this critical area by displaying a number of work flow concepts in the Digital Apparel Production Zone at the 2010 SGIA Expo (Las Vegas, October 13-15).

    Chris Bernat, a Partner at Vapor Apparel/Source Substrates, has written on mass customization for SGIA and other industry publications. He is a contributing writer for Impressions Magazine and other periodicals on the topics of sublimation and customization.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 3rd Quarter 2010 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2010 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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