Follow these four steps to increase shop efficiency and boost your bottom line.
By Sigrid Tournquist
The secret to an efficient shop boils down to understanding chargeable time versus non-chargeable time—and then doing whatever possible to decrease non-chargeable time. How the workspace is arranged, whether or not workers can easily find and access what they’re looking for, and whether or not they have a clear and specific work order process all play a part in designing a workplace where time is not wasted and the profit margin grows.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to streamlining operations, following these four steps can lead the way to creating unique solutions that work for your unique shop.
1. Design work orders that really work
Not surprisingly, efficiency starts with effective communication. And for custom marine canvas shops, the communication hub is none other than the humble, hard-working work order. “Many mistakes can be avoided by proper communication,” says Jay Hanks, owner of Allerton Harbor Canvas, Hull, Mass. “Like when you’re writing up the job. Does the work order have all the information there? Do people follow that information?”
Hanks identifies two components of effective work orders—having the right information in the work order and making sure that information is accessible.
Chris Patterson, owner of Weaver Canvas, Wilmington, N.C., designed a work order process that addresses both of those critical elements. At Weaver Canvas, each employee has a separate work rack that houses the work orders he or she is responsible for. The racks hang vertically but the work orders sit sideways—in a landscape mode—with the vital information displayed at the top—customer name, order date, deposit date, boat location and category of work to be done (repair, pattern, fabricate and/or install). “The racks are easily visible so you can readily see the overall project information,” he says. “It’s a simple process but it works well.”
The work orders are made up of three different colored copies: white, yellow and blue. To start, the copies all have the same information on the front, including the detailed scope of work, location of the boat and expected delivery date. The white copy includes the bid on the back and goes to finance. The yellow copy is simply a placeholder and stays in the employee’s rack to let everyone know what that person is working on. And the blue copy is for the fabricator to take to his or her station to access work details and also use it to record time and materials.
A work order’s job isn’t necessarily over after the project is complete, however. Production manager Jess Flegel and shop manager Cat Sieh from Oyster Creek Canvas Co., Bellingham, Wash., advise using work orders to record any difference in the number of hours bid versus the number of hours worked on each project. “Let’s say you bid 20 hours on a job and it came in at 30. I would make note of that on the work order so when you have a similar job, you can pull the work order to see that you need to bid higher next time around,” Sieh says. “Tracking time makes a big difference in efficient bidding for future projects.”
2. Keep inventory in plain sight
If you can see something, it typically takes less time to access. Fabricators agree that keeping materials visible is a huge time saver, which translates into a reduction in non-chargeable hours. Allerton says that in a small shop like his (roughly 1,500 square feet), making use of wall space is an especially efficient solution. “We hang a lot of our bindings, hook-and-loop and tapes on the wall—and the wall is pretty much filled up.”
Flegel and Sieh agree and suggest that simple solutions such as storing inventory on the wall can serve two purposes. “We moved away from storing zippers in the boxes they come in to hanging them on pegboards,” Flegel says. “Not only are they easily accessible, but you can easily see when you’re running low.”
When using visible containers, Patterson points out that they don’t have to be costly. “Our inventory is not hidden,” he says. “For instance, we keep all our fittings in visible containers. Early on we had an employee who was a cook and he kept his fittings in big plastic spice jars from Costco. We’ve been doing that ever since. As soon as an order of fittings comes in, we dump them into the spice jars and label them so the whole inventory is immediately visible.”
3. Think outside the box with storage solutions
Not everything can be visible, but everything can have its place—and with a little thought and creativity, storage can be an important part of the efficiency puzzle. “The main thing I stress when it comes to this topic is to not just think about two-dimensional space. You’ve got to maximize 3D space,” says Kyle Van Damme, part owner of Marine Tops Unlimited Inc., Omro, Wis. “Get creative with the areas of your shop above 8 feet and under tables. Pretend your shop is a tiny home, and really think outside the box to maximize the space you have.”
Hanks designed a hanging panel storage solution based on something he saw used in the dry cleaning business. He took the idea from a portable garment rack, shaped like a Z, and modified it to serve the fabric needs of his marine canvas shop. “The Z-rack is on wheels so it can be pushed around when necessary,” he says. “Instead of putting hangers on it like they would in the dry cleaning business, I modified mine by adding a top and installing tracks underneath so we can slide fabric in and out.”
For items not used every day, such as patterns, Hanks had an apprentice make up bags from leftover fabric. The bags are approximately 5 feet long and 15 inches in diameter, with large numbers on the outside so they can be stored high in the shop and still be visible. Before each pattern goes in the bag, it’s recorded in a notebook so everyone knows which pattern corresponds to which number.
No matter how well conceived a shop’s inside space is, some items are better stored in a separate space. “Foam is probably the hardest item to store simply because of its bulk,” say Tess and Rocky Griner, owners of Merritt Island, Fla.-based Bow To Stern Upholstery and Repair LLC. “We utilize a prefab shed for this purpose that is just outside our work area.”
4. Create and re-create shop layout
Creating the right shop layout is without a doubt a moving target. Oyster Creek’s Flegel and Sieh put aside time each year to assess how shop layout is working and what might be changed to operate more efficiently. “It’s always a work in progress,” Sieh says. “We’re always reorganizing, refining and tweaking. But we also do a larger rearrange about once a year during the holidays when we’re not so busy.”
How they move things around depends on observing how things function. “That’s how we see what we need to change,” Flegel says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all.”
“We actively look for logjams in our workflow and adjust accordingly,” Sieh says. “The number one thing to ask is: Do you have enough tools and machines for the number of staff you have? If everybody is doing a shop task on the same rainy day, are they bumping into each other or waiting to use a tool or machine? If they are, you need to think about buying another tool or sewing machine.”
Van Damme spent three years planning the floor plan of his shop’s redesign, which was finished last year. His approach was to design a layout that had work areas with designated purposes as opposed to ones that were multipurpose. “Our old shop had way too many multipurpose areas where we would have to clean up a work in progress to clear space for another project,” he says. “It robbed us of efficiency in a trade that demands that you be efficient. Our new shop has several single-purpose areas that allow us to jump from one project to another and back again if we do run into issues where we cannot go any further at any given moment. It allows us to maximize our working hours.”
Each shop is different, offering different services and having different processes. But by designing work order processes that maximize communication, storing inventory in plain sight, creating unique storage solutions and redesigning floor plans when needs change, you can create a nimble organization that maximizes your chargeable time.
Sigrid Tornquist is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Top tips for shop efficiency
“If you use a material often, order in bulk to save money. Many suppliers
offer a large spring order with better pricing and terms.”
– Kyle Van Damme, Marine Tops Unlimited Inc.
“Clean the shop at the end of each day. Place tools used throughout the day in the correct location, deal with trash and safely store finished products.”
– Tess and Rocky Griner, Bow To Stern Upholstery and Repair LLC
“One way to help reduce the cost of non-chargeable time is to have the lower-paid staff clean and organize the shop. We have a part-time high school student who keeps things where they belong.”
– Jay Hanks, Allerton Harbor Canvas
“If you’re a smaller shop, we recommend getting a handle on your cash flow issues first. Take a 30 to 50 percent materials deposit on all jobs.”
– Jess Flegel and Cat Sieh, Oyster Creek Canvas Co.
“We keep our van stocked with shop fittings and tools so it’s ready to go and we don’t have to take that time right before going out on a job.”
– Chris Patterson, Weaver Canvas