Have you ever had a customer spend an hour (or more) of your time placing a highly-detailed custom order only to announce that it needs to be filled by lunch time? It’s tough enough getting people to spend money in today’s challenging financial climate, but then to have them place a set of unrealistic conditions on the job such as an impossible deadline…well, it can be quite disheartening to say the least.
At one time this type of situation was a rarity, but more and more it’s becoming the norm. Why? Because the constraints of the economy have made people reluctant to spend money, thus they want to hold onto it until the last possible moment. Along the same lines, average order size is decreasing, as again people are being frugal in every possible way. In fact, many customers are even going so far as to turn a traditionally large volume order into a series of small orders delivered over an extended period of time. Again, this conserves cash and cash flow by spreading the purchases over multiple accounting cycles.
As a business owner, you may not like these disturbing new trends, but there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. If you jack-up 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 alternatives. So what are your options? Hmmm…let’s see; wait it out and hope you don’t lose business or modify your capabilities to meet the changing demands of the marketplace. (I would suggest the latter…)
Welcome to the world of On-Demand / Short-Run production, which is fast becoming the new normal for product decoration and customization. Whether you sell awards, plaques, promotional products, signage or apparel, the concept is the same; produce smaller runs quicker and still turn a profit.
To effectively modify your business model to embrace this new customer mindset, your first step 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 eat a hole in your profits when dealing with smaller runs.
For example, if it took an average of one hour to setup a logo for production, but only fifteen minutes to produce it, you would spend one hour (of downtime) for every job, regardless of the size of the job. On a large run, you can easily recoup the setup time, because your equipment will stay busy producing revenue for an extended period of time, before the next setup.
On the other hand, if you suddenly were reduced to four piece orders, then you would spend an hour of setup for an each hour of production, which 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 fifteen 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 which 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 fifteen minutes or so. Combine that with average transfer printing time of about thirty 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 engraving, it’s also cheaper and has full-color photographic capabilities, meaning you can add a picture of the MVP to his plaque, along with graphics and custom text. And just as easily, you can apply the same design to photo panels, gift items and even apparel products, meaning you can quickly deliver an entire package of product options, even if it is mostly single items.
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 don’t really see what we are (or are not) getting for our dollars. For example, one of the lowest cost sublimation printers (Virtuoso SG400) is an awesome unit that runs fast and furious. However, the largest paper it can print on is 8.5” x 14” which sounds fine for most applications (and it is actually), BUT, when it comes to maximizing efficiency 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” x 10” award plaques to produce, you would have to print the image twice if using this printer. But if you had a larger printer such as the Virtuoso SG800, with a maximum paper size of 13” x 19” you could print two images at the same time. Ok, so that doesn’t sound like a real impressive savings, and in this case it might not be. But let’s take it a bit further.
In addition to the printer, you also need to invest in a heat press that offers a pressing field equal to or greater than your maximum paper size. With sublimation production, a balanced and accurate temperature is critical to the process. 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” x 24” press would yield an 18” x 22” production area.
So if you bought a printer capable of 13” x 19” paper, you would want to match it a heat press along the lines of 20” x 24” 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 press and print something, then two plaques 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 if ideal for achieving. If you can reduce downtime and increase production effectiveness you can meet the needs of those who are shifting to this purchasing paradigm. If not… well you might just see a stream of people heading down to the street to someone who can deliver.
*All ideas expressed in this post are the exclusively those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the policies or opinions of Decorated Apparel Magazine. The author represents that he or she is exclusively responsible for the content contained, and that he or she is the owner of any intellectual property used or expressed, and has the right to publish any statements or images contained herein. All content is offered 'as-is' and Decorated Apparel Magazine does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of any statements contained in this or any other post. Your use of any advice or statements of fact or opinion offered are completely at your own risk.