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Smaller Might Be Smarter: On-Demand/Short-Run Solutions for Your Business

One key production process that is ideal for on-demand/short-run production that you may want to consider is sublimation. In addition to the production advantages and versatility of the sublimation process, the startup costs are relatively low.

By Jimmy Lamb, Manager of Communications, Sawgrass Technologies

In order to meet your customers' needs, you may need to change your operational parameters

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  • When I first got into the business of decorated products, I subscribed to the concept of "bigger is better" in terms of order size. In fact, I had this vision that once I got into the big jobs, I would be on Easy Street - I was so nave! The reality is that, in today's marketplace, the big jobs are few and far between and typically very slim in terms of margin. If you are a big shop that is geared to big production, you have the capabilities to deliver profitable orders based on the economy of scale. But for the small- to medium-sized operation, you may not be so lucky.

    One thing I learned over time was that I made more money on 12 orders of 12 pieces than on one order of 144 pieces. Certainly the production time was longer for 12 separate jobs, but the resulting mark-ups were so much higher than it made up for the lower level of production efficiency inherent with small piece jobs. But do small runs actually need to be less efficient and therefore higher in production costs? It all depends on the systems you are using.

    For the most part, materials costs are pretty low for most forms of decoration; it is the production downtime that eats into your profits. For example, with screen printing you have to deal with color separations, burning screens, installing and aligning frames, etc, etc, meaning you can spend hours setting up for a job. With embroidery, switching jobs on a six-head that requires a massive change out of thread can really run up the costs as well. Thus it sometimes takes longer to set up the job than it does to run it when dealing with small orders. So it would seem logical to avoid the short runs, right? Maybe not.

    Over the past few years, due to economic stress, people have been reluctant to spend money which leads them to change their buying habits, something you have to deal with whether you want to or not. This challenging trend of a reluctance to spend, leads clients to spend any smaller amounts spread over time in order to better manage cash flow. This translates into larger orders being broken down into a series of smaller ones spread over some range of time.

    Another trend that is emerging is to not only order in smaller units, but also wait until the last possible moment to do so. "Can you have this ready after lunch?"

    As a decorator, you may not like these disturbing new trends, but there isn't a whole lot you can do about it. If you increase your rush fees, customers are likely to go somewhere else. Same thing with quantity discounts. If you put higher surcharges on smaller quantities you may see your orders evaporate as clients search out cheaper alternatives.

    The real solution is to realize that, in order to meet your customers' needs, you may need to change your operational parameters such that you engage in on-demand/short-run production, which is fast becoming the new normal for product decoration and customization. Whether you sell apparel, signage, or promotional products, the concept is the same; you need to produce smaller runs quicker and still turn a profit.

    A good first step to exploring this concept is to ascertain how much production time is required to produce something with your current equipment selection. Be sure to focus on downtime factors such as job setup, which can really derail your profit margins when dealing with smaller runs.

    For example, if it took an average of one hour to set up a logo for production, but only 15 minutes to produce the job itself, you would spend one hour (of downtime) for every 15 minutes of production. This could get quite expensive, as you have to recoup the setup time in your pricing.

    But what if you were able to reduce average setup time to five minutes or less? If so, you could easily reduce production downtime to a reasonable level and turn more orders quicker, regardless of order size. Thus, you want to start focusing on processes that can enable you to meet this challenge of minimizing setup time. Plus you will want to examine the actual real-time production methodology to see where you can make additional modifications to further improve your efficiency.

    One key production process that is ideal for on-demand/short-run production that you may want to consider for your business is sublimation. Setups for full-color, highly detailed designs are relatively quick, on the order of five minutes or so. Combine that with average transfer printing time of about 30 seconds and average heat press time of one minute and you can see just how quick and easy it is to produce something in a short timeframe.

    In fact, not only is it quicker than a process like screen printing, it's also cheaper and has full-color photographic capabilities, allowing you to go way beyond your current capabilities if you are using processes like screen printing and embroidery as you can apply the same design to plaques, awards, signage, gift items and even promotional products. Bottom line, you can quickly deliver an entire package of product options, even if it is mostly single items.

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    Though it's an ideal on-demand/short-run solution just by its versatile nature, maximizing your sublimation efficiency begins with your equipment choices, so if you are considering adding the process to your shop, you need to base your decisions on production efficiency, not just the initial price tag.

    There is a tendency with all of us to get blinded by price, such that we do not really see what we are (or are not) getting for our dollars. For example, a low-cost sublimation printer that is fast and easy to use may only have the capability to print on 8.5- by four-inch paper, which sounds fine (and is actually) for most applications. When it comes to maximizing efficiency, however, you will want to focus on printing as many images on one sheet of transfer paper as possible.

    For example, if you had two 8 by 10 plaques to produce, you would have to print the image twice if using this printer. On the other hand, if you had a larger printer, with a maximum paper size of 13 by 19 inches you could print two images at the same time. But it's not just a larger print field that makes the difference; you will also need a heat press than can handle the bigger prints.

    With sublimation production, the heat press is a very critical component as the sublimation chemistry demands specific heat and consistent pressure to create vivid images that won't chip, peel, crack or fade when washed. They come in a variety of styles and sizes, but you have to know a few things when it comes calculating the usable pressing field of a heat press.

    Typically, the outer edges of a heat press will be slightly lower in temperature than the core area, which limits your true production area. This will vary with brand, but with the better quality brands you should have reliable heat out to within one inch of the outer edge on all four sides. Thus, a 20 by 24 inch press would yield an ?18 by 22 inch production area.

    So if you bought a printer capable of 13 by 19 inch paper, you would want to match it a heat press along the lines of 20 by 24 inches in order to maximize both the printing and the pressing aspects of production.

    Yes, larger printers and presses cost more money, but, in the long term, you should be able to recoup that investment in reduced production costs. Think about this. If it takes an average of two minutes to print and press something, then two items done separately would take four minutes, whereas done together the production cycle would be around two minutes, or half the time. This will add up over the long run - significantly! And of course it reduces the cost of every job where you can apply the concept.

    But it gets even better. Small stuff, like coasters, can yield huge time savings when you print and press in multiples, even with different designs on different coasters. In other words, it's not just about doing one larger order, but potentially several small orders in the same production cycle.

    In addition to the production advantages and versatility of the sublimation process, the startup costs are relatively low with ready-to-print systems starting at about $550 (not including heat press). Thus, you won't need to break the bank to keep up with your customer's demands. Of course, larger systems will cost more money, but even at the top end of the equipment scale, sublimation comes in way under the cost of many of today's popular digital printing systems. In addition, with its ability to decorate so many unique substrates, sublimation has potentially the best ROI of any production system in the marketplace. Small or large, sublimation is a viable resource to keep the orders flowing.

    To sum it up, being successful at delivering on-demand/short-run orders is really all about efficiency, something that sublimation can achieve quite well when applied correctly. In the ever-evolving marketplace, you may need to quite subscribing to "bigger is better" and instead embrace "smaller is smarter."

    Jimmy Lamb has more than 20 years of apparel decoration business experience. He has extensive knowledge in many facets of commercial embroidery and digital decorating including business startup, operations, techniques, marketing, sales, mobile, digitizing and management. In addition, Lamb is a frequent speaker at industry events and trade shows domestically and internationally. Currently, he's the manager of communication for Sawgrass Technologies, where he has been instrumental in developing their educational seminars and Webinars.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, April/May 2013 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2013 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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