Having a repeatable system for evaluating prints is essential to setting quality standards for your shop and ensuring that everyone adheres to them.
An important aspect of evaluating prints is assigning responsibility and accountability. In most shops, the puller (the person taking the shirt off of the platen and laying it on the dryer) and the catcher (the person taking the shirt off the dryer once it’s passed through) are responsible for paying attention as they work and look for issues. These two are your biggest quality-control points.
The loader, who is often the lead press operator, also may be involved. This person is expected to slide the T-shirt on the platen, but also check periodically to see how the shirts are looking as they are placed on the dryer.
The lead press operator or production manager will usually be the person to do the final signoff on a press proof. Once that shirt is approved, it becomes the gold standard for the rest of the run.
Hand in hand with evaluating prints and keeping quality high is documentation. You always should have a complete rundown of how a job was done.
Mesh counts should always be recorded, but sometimes they change mid run. You might say, "Hey, it doesn't look great. Let's go to a higher mesh count for this color to help pull back the deposit." That needs to be documented.
Learn More: FREE MESH GUIDE CHEAT SHEET — Marcotte.ink
Then you should have a postmortem of all the changes, and make sure the screens, sequence, ink colors, and additives were all written down for the next time you do that job.
These notes are invaluable for ensuring you do not waste time reinventing the wheel. For example, maybe there was an issue until a certain platen temperature was achieved. The notes should be complete enough so if a new person was repeating a job, he would know exactly what to do and what issues to watch out for.
This process should not take that long. It should be a quick matter of writing down the sequence, squeegees, squeegee durometers, angles, pressure, Pantone colors, and screen meshes. I also recommend that it is always notated in that order.
When a problem is caught during a run, the first thing I do is stop the press, and I review how it was set up. That means starting with the first color. Do I see an issue there?
If yes, then you’ve found the issue. If no, move on to the next one. If you don’t find any issues in any of the colors, then it has to be in the process. If it's not a screen, ask yourself: Is it how you're loading it? Is an attack issue? What are the other variables?
Essentially you check every variable one by one to figure out where the breakdown is occurring. As you eliminate possibilities, you can more easily identify what variable it is and fix it. Sometimes it’s easy. If the print is coming out crooked, then it’s probably in the loading.
I, myself, always like to improve on my work and my business and for this reason, I recommend getting other printers whose work you respect or industry experts to look at your prints and get their opinion.
I've been lucky enough in my career to work with guys like Lon Winters, and other printers like him who are amazing. You can get feedback from them at industry trade shows and events or even through email.
I've also got a lot of buddies who run shops. I've been lucky enough to be in hundreds of businesses throughout the Midwest as an M&R sales rep and can call people friends who work in those shops.
Sometimes, I’ll take a photo, and ask "What am I doing wrong here? I can't get this to look better." And I'll get feedback. And the same thing happens to me. They’ll send prints to bounce ideas off me, and ask “This issue is coming up. Any ideas?"
The more active you are in the industry, the more the industry helps you. It's always good to talk to your peers and experts, and ask why they're better and how they do things differently. What about their prints wow you?
Sometimes the answer is they've got a hybrid digital screen printing system or a $500,000 piece of equipment. If you don’t have the same machine, trying to achieve the same results may not be realistic. But you can still strive to make your two-color print as good as their two-color print.
I think it's imperative to never be complacent. Always be looking at your surroundings and for ways to improve based off of those who impressed you.
Sometimes, it’s not profitable to ensure every print is the best it can be. As a printer, you have to find that middle ground between perfection and production. For me, that’s knowing what my pillars are.
If you pride yourself on being the fast and cheap shop, do not kill yourself on that hill of perfection. That's the wrong hill to die on, because you’ll put yourself out of business. Finding that balance is knowing who you are, who your customers are, and being true to that. But make sure if something's worth doing, doing it right.
So if you're newer, you might think, "If the customer loves it, then it's okay." But you should still think, "I’ve got to be better, and then work on it.” And if the customer doesn’t like it, fix it.
When you get a box from Amazon and don’t like what you got, you return it. Make sure you're never putting your customers in that spot, because the only way your business is going to thrive is if your customers support you.
Quality always needs to be imperative, but do not get caught in the mentality of paralysis by analysis. For example, don’t get hung up on losing one dot out of 1,000 under a loupe. It’s about finding that sweet spot between quality and perfection.
If perfection is 100%, and you're already batting the 97%, you're still delivering quality. Yes, it's awesome that you want perfection, but not at the cost of your business.
Another issue some printers have to tackle is getting employees on board with the standards you want to set as a shop. When bringing new people in, you have to set the culture and the expectations. If you present yourself as lackluster and blasé, then your employees will do the same.
But if you present a demeanor of "Hey, this is good. Can we do better? How do we improve it?” If you continue to incubate and foster that idea of let's push the envelope, I think that's infectious. It kills complacency, and it gets people excited.
If you're having a hard time getting buy-in when it comes to achieving consistent quality, it may be because 1) your goals are too lofty; 2) you haven't trained everyone correctly; or 3) you need to work on the culture and the atmosphere in your business.
If you make it clear your core pillar is to produce the best shirt and the customer experience, it should be clear as day to everyone. If you haven’t done that, band together as a company to fix it.
Quality does not happen by accident. It’s an ongoing process that is supported by constantly evaluating all aspects of your shop and a mindset of constant improvement. By using some of the tips here, I hope you find that perfect balance for your business.