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Shop layouts that produce big payouts

July 1st, 2009 / By: / Feature, In the Shop

Efficient and proficient shop layout and workflow optimize production, inventory, safety and the customer experience.

Marine fabricators have a desire to maximize their shop layouts to optimize production, inventory, safety and customer experiences. But that is easier said than done, especially when it comes to small, clutter-filled shop environments. Can it be done? Sure, say the experts. You just need to remember that focusing on a streamlined, well organized, proficient shop environment is key.

Shop environs and workflow

Shop layout plays a big role in the marine fabrication market. In fact, the layout of your shop greatly impacts employees’ productivity and efficiency and customers’ overall experience. Is the shop aesthetic? Is it clean? Is it comfortable? Is it energetic? Is it quiet? These things affect the senses, which in turn affect work performance, productivity, and responses to the environment. And using shop layout as a marketing tool is becoming more common, as shop owners have to differentiate themselves from competitors. Marketing a clean, organized system to prospective clients indicates that you are an expert in your field and someone they can trust to get the job done correctly.

And while you don’t want customers walking around your workspace for many reasons, workflow matters to your customers. “Walk-ins can see how you work, and a clean organized shop with some of your IFAI award plaques on the wall will impress them at the get go,” says Dave Hickey at DRH Canvas & Marine Ltd. in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“They will know they are in the right place. Workflow starts at the front door, so think about how you do business and that will help you to organize your space.”

For Chris Patterson at Weaver Canvas in Wilmington, N.C., drawing out his building floor plan to scale and cutting out pieces of construction paper to scale helped represent equipment and table sizes. “I could then sit and play with the floor plan without moving a bunch of heavy equipment,” he says.

When establishing proper workflow within your shop, you must start with the restrictions of the building itself. “We have moved seven times in the life span of Canvas Designers,” says Mike Erickson at Canvas Designers in Riviera Beach, Fla. “Each time we have grown in square footage to what is now 15,000 square feet. From this experience we have learned that the most important factor that will affect efficiency in the shop layout is the flow of the product. This part of the layout can either create log jams or pileup of products.” Within Canvas Designers’ space, one bay has upholstery and woodworking, another has canvas and CAD, and the last has metal fabrication and hurricane protection products.

Erickson says that separating the customer from the production area is another important factor. “A shop has many pieces of equipment that can be dangerous and create liability if the customer is injured,” he says. “Customers are typically passionate about boating and will tend to hang around and waste your employees’ time if they are allowed to meander around the shop. This restated layout controls where the customer is and allows you to develop a sales area or showroom that gives you the opportunity to expose your customers to other products you might be able to sell them.”

Less is more

Shop organization fundamentally boils down to deciding, sorting and storing. The key to being organized is to actually use your storage tools. Indecision creates piles. Lousy storage creates piles. Laziness creates piles. And piles create stress.

Increasingly, marine fabricators are assuming a new role: strategists familiar with human behavior and how shop layouts affect that behavior. These individuals focus on understanding the bottom line issues of comfort, health, safety and productivity patterns that are affected by a disorganized shop environment.

“When designing a shop, space is important and necessary for producing high-quality work,” Hickey says. “You will need to start at the entrance and figure out the flow of goods—such as in the front and out the back; or maybe in and out the same door. You need a workflow plan. Sit down with a pencil and pad. Write down some thoughts of how you like things to go, make little drawings and then things will begin to take shape. Efficient shop layout will make you money and help your production move smoothly.”

When determining proper shop layout, Eric Walton at Custom Canvas Alaska says there are some key factors you need to consider:

  • Work Patterns. Set up the tools you use in a handy, designated spot. If the shop requires two hammers and you only have one, get another one.
  • The size of raw materials and the proper placement based on their size.
  • Project size. As a custom shop that does more than boat tops, Custom Canvas Alaska sometimes needs a large, clear floor to layout and mark fabric panels. Arrange your shop while keeping in mind all the various projects that may cross the threshold of your shop, and allow for certain shop components to be moveable.
  • The types of services your shop offers. Working from a floor plan can help in determining what goes where.

“Shop layout should support a logical work flow that minimizes steps and minimizes the amount of moving of the product as it is produced and stored, waiting for installation,” Patterson says. “Try to avoid walking back and forth over and over every time you need something. Tool belts are a real time saver for scissors, markers, seam rippers, six-inch rulers, etc. Every few steps to retrieve something add up. Minimize them.”

Equipment placement

Placement of equipment and supplies is another important part of shop layout and design. “Keeping work areas clean is very important, so you will want any wood working and steel framing equipment in a separate area if possible,” Hickey says. “Keeping this equipment in a separate area contains the dust, dirt and debris all in one space.”

Walton adds that the requirements of the equipment should dictate the placement. An RF (radio frequency) welder needs a clean environment, designated work area, and, on occasion, space for large projects,” he says. “Likewise, by keeping the sewing workstation versatile and movable, the station can be made to accommodate a number of different criteria.”

Storing fabric and supplies in an organized area will save time and keep these products clean, neat and readily accessible for use at all times. “The phrase to remember is, ‘time is money,’” Hickey says. “Don’t waste time looking for that 2 ½ yards of forest green fabric you know you had, or those ‘lift the dots’ long-neck studs you need right now. The way to plan storage of supplies and location of equipment is well worth planning, and will actually make you money.”

The separation of designated areas is determined by several factors—namely, the physical layout of the shop, workflow and efficient and safe positioning of equipment and supplies.

“Locating fabric racks next to a door may cause a safety issue, and having a framing table near an exit may be something to take a closer look at,” Hickey says. “Moving fabric around a lot takes time, and that will cost you money. Have the fabric where it is used. Keep foam in the upholstery area, and steel in the frame shop. Don’t be running around trying to just throw things in a spot to get it out of the way.

“Cut on the cutting table, not at the sewing machine. Work in the frame shop bending steel, not on the cutting table. If you clutter up the cutting table with seating, then it has to be moved to use the cutting table. If you are cutting at the sewing machine, it is not efficient and may lead to mistakes and inaccurate work. Keep your work in designated areas, as this will save time. Be safe and keep jobs where they are supposed to be.”

By watching others work and being aware of his own work patterns, Walton is able to modify where he has a tool or where he goes to get a snap, buckle or other item. “Having a designated workstation, I’m able to have things where I need them,” he says. “We all have a special tool or supply that we like to call our own, so color code.”

Canvas Designers uses modified garment racks to hold, store and move enclosure jobs around the shop. This protects the enclosure panels, doesn’t allow imprints in the vinyl from stacking, and saves needed table space.

“We store our fabric rolls on a pallet rack with cardboard tubes to organize the colors and types of fabrics,” Erickson says. “We have added a board and series of tracks in our crew vans similar to the garment racks. When our crew takes an enclosure set to the boat for installation, they roll the rolling rack out to the van and just slide and transfer the enclosures from the rack to the van.”

Allocating proper management over each area of your shop is also paramount. Even if your shop has only two or three people, you can still create “ownership” of each area. At Canvas Designers, each floor department has a supervisor who allocates the jobs to the individual employee in their departments. “We have a manager who handles the upholstery department; another that handles metal, another that handles hurricane products, another that handles the field work and another that handles the CAD department,” Erickson says.

Safety matters

Safety is a big commitment to you and your staff, as well as to your customers. “You must be compliant with all Workplace Health & Safety Act (WHS) regulations,” Hickey says. “This will cost you your business and quickly take away your dream of owning your own business. Have a good WHS program in place and follow it. Take the first aid training, hazardous material handing and any other courses available to keep you, your staff and your customers safe at all times. Do not short cut this area, as it will cost you.”

For Custom Canvas Alaska, safety is of the highest priority. “We do our best here in the shop to run it safely,” Walton says. This includes designated work areas and, where required, hard hats, hearing and eye protection, gloves, and steel-toed shoes.

“I believe we are one of the few sewing shops around that requires a sewing machine operator to wear safety glasses,” he says. “I am sure that anyone who has sewn for a while can tell you of a time when the needle broke and hit them in the cheek, perhaps even the eye. No job is worth losing your eyesight over.”

To keep safety top of mind, Patterson and his team have weekly safety meetings. “Keeping the shop clean and walkways clear, tools returned to their storage area, makes for a safe shop,” he says.

Technological help

As software and other technological advancements infiltrate the marine fabrication industry, shop owners utilize these programs to help streamline all facets of their business.

“Most programs are adaptable and can be customized for you,” says Hickey, who had a specific program designed for his company. “It will take you some time to get your process of work flow in some sort of direction, but once you have it done, it will be worth the effort.”

Canvas Designers syncs Quickbooks and Outlook with their PDAs and cellphones. “We use AppendIT to organize an electronic file linked and connected to our vendor and customer list in QuickBooks,” Erickson says. “We store job pictures, CAD files and anything electronic related to the customer and job. This allows us to easily go back in history and refer to for future use.”

For Custom Canvas Alaska, utilizing a digital camera is very important when going to a job site to measure a project. “In the shop, when we have figured out a certain way to do something, we also photograph it. It’s very helpful later when we need to do ‘it’ again. The camera also helps with invoicing,” Walton says. “We completed that job on such and such a date, here is the equipment number. Digital shots are cheap and a picture can answer a thousand questions.”

Whatever method you choose to organize your shop depends on a multitude of factors including your workload, number of employees, size of your facility, and types of projects you typically complete. And while shop layout is paramount for any size shop, experts agree that one thing’s for sure: organized workflow impacts customer service, profitability, timeliness, and, as Patterson sums up, “workflow is essential and can make or break your business.”

Maura Keller is a freelance writer and author based in Plymouth, Minn.

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