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Step 10. Develop Your Decoration Processes & Operations

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Decorating custom products can be a tricky process when you are first starting out.  However, the better organized your operations are, the easier it will be to fulfill orders.  There are many moving parts to each different decoration process. Also, different equipment for every process, and a wide variety of products to be printed.  Developing your operations and mastering your decoration processes may be one of the final steps towards starting a product decoration business, but it is perhaps the most critical step.  This is because all the work and all the planning that led to starting your business will be for naught if you cannot produce a quality product through efficient operations.


It is important to take the time to strategically organize your shop so that you can take full advantage of your capacity, and minimize your constraints. An organized shop will allow for production to flow smoothly, as employees can be more efficient in their movement. You will likely see fewer mistakes and less waste in general in an organized shop. It can be difficult to produce truly efficient work when operating in a confined or disorganized space. Whether your shop offers embroidery, wide format, sublimation, direct-to-garment, or direct screen printing, make sure that the equipment setup and workflow make sense. For instance, it does not make sense to have a pretreating machine for direct-to-garment printing located across the room from heat presses since they have to be used together. The majority of decoration businesses start out in either a garage or a basement, and working in such tight quarters makes logical shop organization even more important.


Mapping out your decoration process, or processes, can be quite beneficial.  The first step is to map out your shop using graph paper, making sure that the proportions are correct.  Once you know how many square feet you have available, measure all equipment, tables, storage receptacles, and other items that will be in the shop.  Create paper figures that are representative of everything in the shop and move them around your drawing to figure out the placements that make the most sense for your space and workflow.  Be sure to revisit your shop alignment once you have practiced your decoration processes to make sure that they are optimized for your space. There will be some trial and error involved, but it is better to get the errors out of the way before you are open to the public. 


Once you have your initial shop setup figured out, the next step is to research and develop your decoration processes.  Test out printing different types of designs on all the different substrate that you plan to offer your customers. This allows you to practice your craft, and learn what does and does not work when it comes to your production process.  For instance, when direct-to-garment printing t-shirts, different shirt blends and colors will require different amounts of both pretreat and ink to create the best possible end product. The only way to determine the exact levels needed for all the products and designs that you will offer is to test them and record your results.  By perfecting your process you are setting yourself up for success.


Research and testing can be an expensive process if you are not smart about it.  Do your best to find old garments and other substrate at home, at a thrift store, or even from friends and family.  Buying brand new garments for testing is a waste of money if there are other options available. Also, make the most of each garment- there is quite a bit of printable space on your average t-shirt.  So, only printing once onto a practice garment is also wasteful. As a small business, it is wise to find ways to save money wherever possible.  


In the product decoration industry, you are only as strong as your supply chain.  Without quality products, affordable prices, and dependable service, it would be impossible to maintain a successful product decoration business.  Pricing is one of the most important factors, but too many businesses sacrifice better, more reliable customer service for cheaper products. Also, pricing will change over time as the market (especially cotton) and dollar values fluctuate, but quality service and dependability do not.  Turnaround time is another critical aspect of the supplier-decorator relationship. It is crucial to be able to depend on your supplier to have inventory in stock and get it to you in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable price. 


The last thing to consider when choosing a supplier is the brands that you are looking to offer.  Brand names do not ensure great quality, but sometimes the demand for a certain brand can outweigh the importance of higher quality.  Since there are a vast amount of apparel and gift product brands it is impossible for suppliers to carry every single one. So, it is important to know which brands suppliers carry or what alternatives they offer.


Managing inventory is another essential skill for a product decorator, and smart inventory management can also save you a lot of money. It is imperative to not run out of blank products, but it is also imperative to not have more merchandise on the shelves than you can sell.  For a small decoration business, you should try to operate using the Just-in-Time (JIT) inventory method. JIT involves only purchasing what you need to fulfill orders and having it arrive as close as possible to when you are ready to begin production. This will help to prevent you from purchasing excess inventory, and if you make a mistake while printing a garment (which you absolutely will), do not throw it out!  Keep your mistakes to use as test shirts. Think of each purchase as an investment in your business. Along the same lines, make sure that you stay up-to-date on the necessary maintenance for all your decoration equipment. Quality equipment is expensive, and as such it is very expensive to repair or replace. 


The work is not done when your operations are up and running.  There will always be ways to improve your production process, so expect and plan for a continuous refinement of your operations.  Operations management is the backbone of any business. If you do not have a quality product, or if it costs too much or takes too much time to create, then the business cannot last.  Being able to effectively manage and maximize the efficiency of the production process is the difference between a successful business and a business that is just scraping by.  

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