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How to Build an Accurate Production Schedule

October 31, 2011

By Marshall Atkinson, Contributing Writer

Hopefully, sales at your decorated apparel shop are at a point where your production schedule is crowded and full of orders. As everyone knows, it’s pretty easy to prioritize work when there are fewer jobs to sort through. However, once the schedule is full and moving toward maximum capacity, any production manager will start to feel overwhelmed. In fact, the experience can be likened to juggling running chainsaws. In this article, I will outline the need to link building an accurate production schedule with the understanding that every person in the company plays a role in this effort.

The basic goal in having a production schedule is to prioritize and predict when an order will hit the production floor, and the duration of that particular work order’s production cycle. This information has to be shared with the customer service and sales staff, and built so they can be trained to comprehend the schedule and make some decisions regarding accepting new orders. There is nothing worse than the cold, hard stare a production manager will give a sales rep when handed a newly entered rush order that “has to go” on an already booked day. Something has to give, and it’s usually the order that has been scheduled and sitting for two weeks.  

Having the full involvement of everyone in the company regarding the schedule can mitigate those circumstances. The age-old theory of overbooking print production that’s akin to overbooking an airplane flight — where the airline will purposely sell more tickets than they have seats available, and just issue a voucher for the guy that gets bumped — doesn’t work in a production environment. It leads to upset clients, stressed out staff and increased labor costs. There is a better way.

The production schedule has to be published on a calendar and made available as a company-wide reference tool. Whether you are using software such as Shopworks, a whiteboard or just a big cork bulletin board with index cards that represent orders, defining your system and setting up some rules and standards that must be followed will go a long way in keeping your schedule current. Standardizing the work, lead times and actions that your staff must follow is the only way to get a predictable schedule.  Tailor any standards to your work, company culture and clientele, but here are some I would suggest using:

1. Orders from the client must be entered 100% accurately in the system.
Include as many notes, instructions and detailed information as possible. Anytime someone in production has to “go upfront” to find out what the client wants to do for the order, it causes downtime that can throw your schedule off in big chunks of time. An extra two minutes on order entry can save 20 times that amount of time on the shop floor in downtime. Complete written information, a color copy of the design showing placement on the shirt and even a previously printed sample (if available) will go a long way toward keeping your presses churning.

2. Orders must have an accurate ship date listed.
It’s extremely common for sales and customer service  staff members to “pad” the ship date for an order, as they may have learned to distrust the production staff on when something will be ready. This does everyone in the company a disservice, as the production staff knows this and doesn’t trust any of the input dates within the system, so it’s a vicious cycle. Use the real information, as production scheduling decisions should be based on exactly when something has to ship, and not a moving target. This cannot be stressed enough. If your production manager has ever asked, “When does this really need to ship?”, you are not doing it right.

3. There needs to be some sort of visual prioritization method for important orders. Yes, I know all orders are equally important, I’m referring to those that are associated with an event date, key customer or some other reason the order is a priority. These orders will be scheduled and produced first to ensure they are completed on time. The visual could be a sheet of different-colored paper the work order is printed on, the job name typed using bold text, or a “$” is placed in front of the client’s purchase order in the system so it can be searched and ranked easily. Regardless of your method, giving the production staff a visual heads up on these types of orders instantly communicates the importance and saves time. If you have this set up well, you don’t need a special daily production meeting to communicate production priorities.

4. Workflow standards.
Have a basic set of guidelines as to targeted deadlines for tasks to occur. When these don’t happen according to the standard, there has to be an adjustment somewhere with the schedule and how you are organizing your production. For example:

a. Work Orders must be processed the same day the purchase order comes in. The day the customer wants the order delivered won’t change, so if it takes a day or two for the order to be entered, you are short-changing your production staff. Orders are not complete until all information is received.  Before pushing the work order out to the floor, order entry performs a quality-control step to ensure the order is entered 100% accurately.

b. As a daily task, the production department reviews the orders placed in the system the previous business day. Regardless of when it ships, the order is scheduled to an actual production press on the day it has to start to completely finish production the day before its published ship date. This happens each day for all orders. For the production scheduler, this is where understanding the capacity of the press per shift — and what types of orders are commonly printed on each press — will help. The goal is to constantly focus the production schedule based on real information and always be proactively looking out several days in advance. This is the most important key to getting a predictable production schedule for your company. You have to schedule the job immediately and work backward on when everything is due.

c. Approved art is due from the client two days before the job is set to run. This gives the art department time to separate the file and update your system with accurate art notes regarding PMS colors, mesh counts requested, flash and cool-down stations, and print order. I recommend that a color copy showing the art and placement on a shirt is printed and placed with the work order documents.

d. Receiving should have 100% of the inventory for the job, all hangtags, stickers, boxes or other items needed to produce the order at least one day before the job is to run. Blanks need to be verified and counted against the work order. If complete, organize the complete job inventory in an area by the last digit of the work order for easy staging by the production team.

e. Separations need to be ready for the screen room and screens burned on the specified mesh for each plate one day before the production run. This ensures the screens are ready and can be staged with the blank inventory prior to production. Presses should never be waiting for screens to come out of the screen room. Group the screens on the staging rack and use a piece of masking tape to label the screens by work order number and ship date.

f. The production team’s goal is to completely print the job one day before the order has to ship (with the real ship dates). This is an admirable goal, but as they say, “production happens,” and the goal won’t always be achieved. That’s OK. By working proactively to finish orders early, this also leaves room for a rush order to be produced or time to solve some other challenge that may arise.

The main ingredient in getting an accurate production schedule is communication. The calendar should denote each day of the week, with every job being printed for each press. Show the total number of impressions booked per day so sales reps can review to see if an order can be accepted or not, based on how much production capacity is available. If it looks questionable, other orders can be moved around or other allowances made to accept the job (Including contracting the order out to another printer, keeping it in-house and working overtime, moving another order for the same client, etc.).

A big help in understanding what’s happening on the production floor is to keep a daily production log.  Think of this log as the speedometer for the shop floor. This is an important tool to help you understand your print capacity in real terms, not vague ones. There are three key indicators that need to be measured in print production: setup time, production time and downtime.

1. Setup time is the measurement of the amount of time needed to accurately set up the screens, prepare the job, get everything registered or whatever is necessary for production approval prior to the job. This is measured in minutes per screen.

2. Production time is the measurement of when the job starts after approval until the last shirt is produced. This is essentially how fast the press is moving. This is measured in Impressions per hour.

3. Downtime
is the measurement of anything that prevents the press from printing. This could include waiting on ink to be mixed, ripping a screen and waiting for a new one, waiting on an artist/client to approve the job, equipment failure, etc. This is measured in hours per shift (or minutes, if that’s easier for you).

The daily data gathered on this production log can be kept on a simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and a daily average for each press determined. This is extremely valuable information to use for your production schedule, as you can use it to accurately estimate blocks of time for each press for the work being scheduled based on the parameters of the order. For example, let’s say screen printing press No. 1 sets up at an average of 6 minutes per screen, runs at 438 impressions per hour and has an average of 1.5 hours of downtime per day. You’ve booked a 10,000-piece, one location full-front, six-color order. Using your production log information, you can deduce that it should take 36 minutes to set up the job, and you can expect 3,022 impressions the first day, but 3,285 impressions thereafter. If the crews print slightly over those averages, you should expect to finish this on one press in four days.

This information can be entered on the calendar and would show that Press 1 is booked up for four days until that job has completely finished printing. If your front office staff is trained in understanding the calendar, any prospective new orders can be added based on the actual availability of the production capacity. In an overbooked situation, options like moving booked jobs on the schedule, contracting jobs out to other printers, staying late or running overtime to complete the jobs can be explored.

To download an example of a production table that you can use to keep track of the daily performance of your floor managers and press operators, click here. To see an actual production log that we use at our shop on a daily basis, click here.

In conclusion, if your shop needs an accurate production schedule, it’s important to point out that it’s a team effort. This isn’t a task that the production manager is going to handle on his own. If the art isn’t ready, the shirts aren’t in, screens aren’t burned or there’s some confusion on the order’s instructions, it will be difficult to keep to a set schedule.

Due to the complex nature of the orders in this industry (every order is a custom job), keeping the orders moving through your shop step by step and on time is always challenging. Having a proactive, detail-oriented, and “team-player-mentality” effort from everyone in the company will pay large dividends with the schedule.  

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions, Milwaukee. He previously worked for the apparel decorating firm T-Formation, Midway, Fla., for nearly 18 years as both the art director and vice president of operations. Atkinson also has participated in trade show and webinar industry panel discussions regarding sustainability and the Consumer Product Safety Information Act (CPSIA).  For more information or to comment on this article, e-mail Marshall at, visit or connect with him via his LinkedIn page at

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