The art of project management on contour cushions

July 1st, 2016 / By: / Interiors & Upholstery, Projects

The horseshoe-shaped seating for an aft cockpit required an elaborate checklist to ensure that all the customer’s requests were fulfilled.
Photo 1: The horseshoe-shaped seating for an aft cockpit required an elaborate checklist to ensure that all the customer’s requests were fulfilled.

Marine fabricators are a unique group of craftspeople and business owners. Many of us are familiar with the notion that creative pursuits are right-brain activities, while math and logic are left-brain activities. As marine fabricators, we utilize the right sides of our brains for design solutions that meet customers’ aesthetic and practical expectations. At the same time, we utilize the left sides of our brains for business activities like managing shop operations, doing complicated mathematical calculations, and making sure that all project specifications are completed.

The two sides of our work come together through good project management skills, so each person on the team knows what he or she is responsible for and the corresponding deadlines. My business has been fortunate to have an inspiring coach who repeatedly stresses, “Any project that we don’t plan will take us to hell!” Most fabricators would agree with this motto.

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Photo 2: This diagram shows the layout for the cockpit cushions.

Detailed spreadsheets

We use an Excel spreadsheet to list the job details from start to finish along with realistic timelines. Here are the type of details we include:

  • Travel to the job site.
  • Patterning at the vessel with all cushion perimeters marked and all identifications noted as well as photos.
  • Materials needed. If necessary, include your research time to identify customers’ preferred choices. Check for stock items and submit purchase orders. Follow up with local suppliers or on items being shipped.
  • Production card planned with name of team members and their tasks and processes.
  • Team review with photos to discuss scope of job, time frame and assigned tasks.
  • Examine the patterns for all necessary indicators, such as notches, zippers and seam joins. (For the project described in this article, a non-skid backing was included.)
  • Layout diagrams for materials and foam.
  • Cutting directions for material.
  • Sewing details, including any required training.
  • Inspections and daily review to ensure accuracy and timing.
  • Foam cutting and Dacron toppers.
  • Foam inserted into covers.
  • Inspection of new cushions before delivery.
  • Transportation and installation at the vessel.
  • “After” photos to post on Facebook, other social media sites and newsletters.
  • Job review with team members.
Photo 3
Photo 3: The pattern for the cockpit cushions.
Photo 4
Photo 4: Early pattern for a single seat cushion.

Reviewing this list of everyday responsibilities can be eye opening. Depending on the size of your business, you may have separate personnel handling these tasks, or some employees may have multiple tasks.

Verify that all of the details are noted on the final pattern to ensure that each component of your project will be delivered in a timely and profitable manner. As you know, any forgotten detail will cost you time and employee frustration.

Planning sleeker contour cushions

A recent fabrication project involving contour cushions for a 43-foot catamaran drove home the importance of project management. For this seating project, the scope and sequence of the project was complex. By thoroughly detailing every aspect of the job, I could accurately project the time needed for the production schedule, including the purchase of materials.

Our creativity was unleashed on this project as we experimented with a sleeker contour for the new catamaran cushions. The captain of the vessel had forwarded sufficient details with an area layout along with material preferences and requirement dates. That was enough information for us to provide an estimate.

We commenced to pattern the horseshoe-shaped seating of the aft cockpit, which we learned is the most used seating area of this vessel. We prepared a checklist to review with the captain during our visit to confirm the details for the following:

Photo 5: Final pattern for a single seat cushion.
Photo 5: Final pattern for a single seat cushion.
  • Cushion design. (See photos of sketches and final pattern indicators)
  • Total number of cushions.
  • Materials for top and bottom material.
  • Thread type and color, topstitching details.
  • Zipper color, size and slider location. We like to place slider tabs on the inside for cushions that won’t be opened frequently.
  • Foam type and density.
  • Dacron toppers.
  • Nonskid base.
  • Piping, ties, snap tabs, Velcro® and other components.
  • Starboard base. For the captain seat we supplied a new ½-inch panel starboard.
  • Bolsters and accent pillows, including quantity and sizes.

All of this information was used as the guideline for filling in our job spreadsheet.
We entered all data and updated the spreadsheet for a final accurate job cost. Keep in mind that job sheets can act as templated guides on future projects; we can tweak similar spreadsheets for new projects with just a few changes.

Photo 6: Notched contour area for accurate joining of top and bottom faces.
Photo 6: Notched contour area for accurate joining of top and bottom faces.

We include the following:

  • All job materials.
  • Separate pricing for all components and percent markup.
  • Quantities.
  • Shipping costs.
  • Task times for each phase (total labor hours) for a final accurate job cost.

After the seating project was started, the boat owner requested the patterns with the job. In the past we have been asked to retain patterns, and we keep a 2 percent inventory of material in case the owner needs an emergency replacement. Currently, many projects are digitalized and it is easy to maintain or provide a duplicate for any item. Company policies vary for storing and providing job patterns.

Encouraging your employees

Project management includes encouraging and coaching your employees. Shop owners and managers need to ensure that employees have the skills to thrive under pressure, and that requires communication, training and recognition. We need to cultivate new employees by exposing them to small projects in which they can gain confidence. All employees, no matter what their length of service, need to be recognized for their skills that result in a well-executed project.

Photo 7: Bottom face with non-skid fabric and zipper installed.
Photo 7: Bottom face with non-skid fabric and zipper installed.

At the end of a project, ask your employees what their biggest learning experience was. Point out aspects of the work that you appreciated. Build on their strengths and coach them on their weaknesses. It is essential that team members feel satisfaction for contributing toward a successful project.

Terri Madden owns Sand Sea & Air Interiors Inc. in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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