Smooth Stitching

Efficient embroidery production workflow is essential to a shop's success.

By Deborah Jones, Contributing Writer

Compare and verify production time on the machine to the estimate on your schedule planner.

August 23, 2019

Have you ever watched an auto-racing pit crew change a tire? There’s no wasted movement because the most efficient procedure has been identified and is followed each time.

Even though embroiderers don’t want to work at such a break-neck pace in their shops, the principle still is sound. Procedures should allow products to flow through the shop using the same methods repeatedly.

Established procedures allow goods to move freely from one point to another without stoppage or slowdowns. This is just as important for the singlehead shop as it is for large shops with many embroidery heads. If you have one or two singlehead machines, you should maximize production efficiency because those embroidery heads represent 100% of your production capacity. Large shops generally have more flexibility with regard to machine choice, start date and other variables, but their efficiency strategies can be scaled down to make production more efficient in shops of any size.

Work can’t begin on any order until all components are available. Identifying the timeline for receipt of digitizing, thread, stabilizer, blank goods, etc., is critical to scheduling machine time. Nothing hurts productivity more than having to remove an order from the schedule because a thread color isn’t in stock or the proof hasn’t been approved.

A pre-production sample, sometimes called a “first article,” must be stitched on the same or very similar material using the same colors. If a stitched object or logo doesn’t show up well on the sample, pre-production is the ideal time for adding an outline or changing thread colors to ensure the customer is pleased with the final product.

This also is when the production manager should ensure the digitized design is production-worthy. If there are data-related thread breaks — or even excessive trims that could slow production — editing may be done before the job hits the production line.

Using a Schedule Planner
In production shops I have managed, I used a schedule planner form to identify the variables and target dates on which all elements would be in place. The planner is not the schedule; it’s the place to record the particulars of each job. The planner makes scheduling easy and flexible.

On the planner, information is relative to the production timeline, such as when digitizing will be completed or when goods will arrive. It also allows a place to identify important job characteristics that impact scheduling.

For example, different job types require changeovers of hoops, thread colors and even needles at machines. Recording these details allows orders to be grouped based on thread colors common to the jobs; needle types required for specific fabrics; hoop sizes or specialty holding fixtures; and machine sewing field size and other capabilities.

Grouping orders allows effective scheduling, which enables an embroiderer to:

1. Produce samples or first articles. Embroidering the actual goods using the final digitizing can expose changes that may be needed before the order makes it to the production area.

2. Stage orders ahead of production. Placing orders in line outside the embroidery area makes it possible to substitute the next order in line for the scheduled order if a problem arises.

3. Schedule finishing operations. Getting the work off the machines is only half the story. Scheduling finishing time ensures cleanup won’t become a bottleneck.

The Schedule
Now it’s time to place the jobs from the planner on the schedule. The planner identifies the promise date for each job. The time at which all elements will be in place is called “Earliest Start.” The “Latest Start” is the last date on which the job can be started to ensure the promise date still can be met. The time between the “Earliest Start” and “Latest Start” is called “float.”

Generally, production scheduling principles dictate that priority is given to jobs with the shortest amount of float, so these jobs are put on the schedule first.

Some large shops use a magnetic board for the schedule to keep it flexible, while some small shops use a dry-erase board. These methods work well because they are visual and easily can be referenced by all shop personnel. I usually start with a digital form — either in Microsoft Excel or Word — and then transfer it to the visual shop schedule.

Most shops, including those I have managed, use job jackets — clear, heavyweight plastic document holders — to contain all materials relevant to the order. You may think of them as sheet protectors on steroids because they can hold the paperwork, sketch, photograph, sample swatch or other small, lightweight items related to the order.

Initially, the job jacket may reside on the production manager’s desk until the goods arrive; then, it is placed with the goods to be embroidered. As soon as an order is moved into the staging area, its paperwork “lives” in the job jacket, which travels through the shop with the goods as a constant reference.

Along with the materials to be embroidered, some production managers like to place other items, such as special-order thread or precut stabilizer, in the box, buggy or other type of container. This depends on each shop’s setup, but all materials needed to complete a job, including digitizing approval, should be in-house and available for any job in the staging area.

Ideally, materials flow through the shop in a natural pattern. This sometimes is in a U-shaped flow, with the items being received at a rear door; flowing to prep; then to the machines; and finally to finishing and shipping, which is located near the rear door. In this way, jobs truly flow through the “production river” without stopping.

The key to the efficient workflow is planning and repetition of procedures. For example, a simple wall chart showing standard placement guidelines helps keep things consistently flowing without an operator stopping for additional instructions.

If this sounds basic or mundane, remember that planning is key to establishing a rhythmic order instead of a chaotic atmosphere. In a production shop, order results in upbeat attitudes and it becomes fun to attempt to beat last week’s numbers. Better efficiency really is its own reward to production team members and that’s enough to put a smile on any production manager’s face.

Deborah Jones has more than 30 years of experience in the computerized embroidery field. She runs myembroiderymentor.com. For more information or to comment on this article, email Deborah at djones@myembroiderymentor.com.

Timing Odd Jobs

Some jobs, like making patches, require fabric to be assembled and cut. Other jobs, like apparel embroidery, require garments to be counted and inspected prior to production. Time studies provide the average times for these standard tasks.

A time study is easy to do. For example, for prep time on an apparel order, record the time it takes to unpackage the shirts and do a quick inspection for flaws. You can do a time study on finishing tasks by recording the time it takes to trim and fold typical jobs. You may be surprised by how much time is added to the job; accounting for the extra time upfront can help throughput by helping you better balance your labor schedule. Then, use these averages in the “Prep” and “Finishing” columns of the schedule planner.

If this sounds like it doesn’t apply to you, consider the following: One of my friends had a 6-head machine and the trimmers weren’t working on some of the heads. I agreed to help her get the shirts trimmed because the extra time needed had put her behind schedule and jeopardized her ability to meet the job deadline. It took about five minutes to trim one garment, compared to one minute on garments embroidered by the machine’s heads with working trimmers.

Accounting for finishing time is critical, especially if it’s outside your shop’s norm.