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Build Your Business: Management
Once a job is set up on the press, we run samples and do a visual inspection. We check that the image is in registration, and that the print matches the original color and tone. Photo courtesy of Anderson Studio, Nashville.
Quality should be a lynchpin of any business. For my shop, it’s something that customers have come to expect and it has been a key factor in our success.
Most of our business comes from referrals, and people seeing our work in the marketplace and in competitions. This means quality is a big part of what brings new customers to our door and keeps them coming back. Success lies in not only having the ability to produce quality work, but also doing it consistently and efficiently. And that means having a quality-control system.
We began our basic approach to quality control more than 30 years ago by evaluating the variables involved in the screen-printing process: mesh counts, screen tensions, inks, etc. Then, we set standards for each particular situation that we try not to vary. The system has been altered to accommodate simulated process color, but it’s still basically the way we’ve continuously done things.
Each department has charts displayed by the workstations that detail the specific requirements for each situation. In the screen-making area, there are specifications for tensioning meshes for different job types and we stay within those standards. Screens are grouped by category and placed in separate racks for coating — also according to posted specifications. So they all are coated the same way with the same emulsion each time. Where the squeegees are laid out, there are charts indicating which one is to be used in a specific circumstance. We do this for every stage in the process.
These standards have been developed through the years and incorporate our own experiences, as well as input from other printers and consultants. We’ve taken bits and pieces of conversations about what works and adapted them to fit our shop.
Having standards in writing helps us familiarize newer employees with them, and allows our production manager to focus on the production schedule and meeting deadlines rather than job details. It provides a readily available reference and ensures continuity regarding how we do things. The system gives us quality and repeatability.
We also have tech sheets for each job so that if it is rerun, we have every detail about it in front of us. We can tell at a glance which screen, mesh type, line count of the halftone, brand and ink colors were used, as well as the squeegee and angle, air pressure for printing, off-contact distance and all the other job specifics.
In essence, what we’re doing is documenting the variables and how we address them. This supplements training and eliminates the need for questions in order to repeat the process and the results; it streamlines workflow.
Documentation is a great troubleshooting tool that also helps address issues and resume printing quickly. If a job’s results aren’t replicated when it is rerun, you can reverse-engineer it to pinpoint the problem. You can refer to the tech sheet and check all processes and variables against it.
For example, do all of the screens and meshes match? A 200 or 196 Saati isn’t the same as a Murakami. The respective tensions, thread diameters or percentages of open area are different. This changes the required ink amount which, in turn, affects the dot gain and halftones.
If that turns out to be the case, you have to compensate for it by adjusting the separations or changing the mesh count. This is a problem we encountered when we integrated a second brand of mesh into our shop. Having standards and job documentation helped us adapt and tweak things as needed with minimal hassle. You still will run into snags, but it takes less time and effort to resolve them.
Documentation is important, but it’s people that actually make quality control work because it’s a shop-wide process.
Everyone has to be aware of its importance and their role in it, and everyone who has a part in the process is responsible for the quality of what goes out the door. It’s a team effort.
Developing a quality-conscious staff begins with hiring. Turnover can significantly impact a shop’s ability to maintain quality control. The more personnel changes and short-term employees you have, the bigger challenge it is.
I look for quality individuals who seem suited to the position and who I think will stick around a while. You want someone who not only can do the job well, but who also is eager to do it. Sometimes it takes hiring someone on a trial basis for a few days to see if it works on both sides, but it’s worth finding out before investing in training.
The standards and tech sheets help, but quality control needs to be part of everyone’s training. Learning what constitutes quality and how to achieve it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes months before people begin to understand what to look for, even if you point things out to them. You have to be patient and show them what quality looks like; it takes repetition.
Show your staff a good screen and shirt versus bad ones. Train them on what they need to look for and what to do to get the correct results.
We start by training new hires in their specific areas, and eventually everyone is cross trained, although employment is more job-specific now than it used to be. But we try to educate everybody about the entire printing process so they know what is going on.
CHECKS AND BALANCES
We have quality checkpoints throughout the printing process, beginning with the art department. There, the artwork is proofed. In the screen room, we ensure everything is blocked out, that the image is washed out and exposed properly, and that it matches the sample proof. Then, we register the screen on the press and approve the setup.
Next, we run samples and do a visual inspection. We ensure the image is correctly registered and placed, and matches the original color and tone. We take the sample to the front-office staff and ask them to sign off on it. This includes sending a sample to the customer for approval. (We always keep the sample the customer approves with the tech sheet, should questions arise.)
The printers also have samples of the job near the unloading station on the press, and the catchers have them at the end of the dryer. We also do spot checks during the run to ensure the image stays within set tolerances with respect to the original image parameters and that we don’t lose detail.
We continuously look for issues, ranging from ink and color consistency to improper screen exposure caused by emulsion that has gone bad. The latter can occur is the emulsion an old lot number that has been sitting in a warehouse for a long time. We check our squeegees and make sure they’re sharp for every job instead of waiting until they look worn down. The little things in screen printing can make a big difference, especially in halftone work.
Different types of printing — retail/custom and contract/tour merchandise, for example — have different quality requirements, as do specific clients, and what constitutes a reject differs accordingly. Thus, for a retail job, we inspect the entire shirt to make sure there is no lint, dirt, etc. on it, including spots or stains from manufacturing.
But for contract jobs, our primary concern is print quality. If we catch a shirt that has a hole in it, we’ll reject it, but we’re being paid for the printing and that’s where our quality control is focused.
We set high standards, and I have a good crew that knows what our customers expect of us and what I expect of them. But even with rigorous quality-control procedures in place and literally a dozen people — some with decades of experience — inspecting a print, things can slip by. We’re human and it’s an ongoing process that we continue to fine-tune and improve upon.
Andy Anderson is the owner of Anderson Studio, Nashville. Since its founding in 1976 as a custom screen-printing shop, the company has built on its reputation for quality and innovation to become a much-sought-after contract printer. For more information or to comment on this article, email Andy at email@example.com or visit andersonstudio.com.
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