Ordering plastic engraving stock to fill an order should be simple, but not always. (Photo courtesy of LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ.)
Although it may sound simple, one of the most critical elements to completing an engraving job—at least a profitable engraving job—is figuring out how much material to order. Even a tiny mistake here can make the difference between making a big, fat profit and losing your shirt, not to mention possibly losing a customer because some ordering glitch caused you to miss the delivery deadline. After 20 years in this business, I have made lots of mistakes which have taught me some expensive, but valuable, lessons. Maybe you can learn something from my blunders.
I do sublimation, laser engraving, rotary engraving, sandblasting and, occasionally, my own wood working. I like the variety of jobs that these techniques bring in and the fact that, pretty much, every day is different. One day I’m building trophies and the next I’m engraving plaques or acrylic awards. And yet the next, I’m building a shadow box for some special
Most of the time I make out alright. I try to figure the pricing for my jobs so I don’t abuse the customer but, at the same time, I need to build in enough safeguards so that I don’t lose money when something goes wrong. But when I do goof, it’s usually a dandy and I end up losing money on the job.
Ideally, we should all inventory enough of everything so when an order comes in, we would automatically have what we need on the shelf. In reality, of course, that rarely happens, especially with a big order, and it is usually those big orders that have tight deadlines and leave little room for error.
When it comes time to order material for a job, there are several factors to consider. Here’s a look at what I’ve learned over the years.
The First Issue: Time
When a job comes in, the customer has often waited until the last minute and now is in a panic—and that can put you, or me, in a panic to get the job, and then get it done on time. Beware, however, that this is fertile soil for doing something really foolish.
Most of us are within one or two days of a supplier’s warehouse and we get used to that quick delivery, but guess what is going to happen when you are really in a hurry? The distributor won’t have enough of whatever you want in stock, or at least not in the warehouse nearest you. Now, what should have taken two days to get, takes four. Can you feel the pressure building?
When working on those short notice jobs, pick up the phone, even while the customer is there, and check your distributor’s inventory. Shipping even one sheet of engraving plastic next-day or second-day air from another location can be extremely expensive. You need to know these things before you accept the order.
The Second Issue: Waste
Every job creates waste. Plastic engraving jobs, plaque orders, metal orders, clock orders, you name it—you must always allow for waste. The really tough question is, “How much waste?”
Let’s say you are filling a plaque order for 100 plaques. Normally, I would think in terms of ordering 10% more than I actually need to cover damaged products and waste, but should I really order ten extra plaques to fill this order just in case something unexpected happens?
Well, that depends on several factors. First, how are the plaques packaged? If they come from Tropar, R.S. Owens, Barhill or a few other high-end companies, you can be reasonably confident that they are going to be packed really well in individual boxes, which means the risk of damage during shipping is minimal. And if you have had much experience with these companies, you will also know that very rarely will you receive a defective plaque. So, what should you do?
The first thing I do is ask two questions: One, is there a healthy discount on a larger order than what I actually need? Two, is this a product I use a lot of? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” I might increase the quantity in my order to capture the better price and know I have extra in case something goes wrong. If not, I would most often order one extra if the product comes from a trusted source and is really well packed.
On the other hand, if the plaques are just bulk MDF boards, I’m probably going to up my order so I am ordering full cases. When plaques are shipped in full cases, they are far less likely to be damaged in transit and, if they are damaged, it will usually involve several boards. You can get a refund or replacement on those items later but you may not have enough time to place a second order and meet the customer’s deadline, so it’s important to have enough “clean” product the first time around.
The Third Issue: Shipping Cost
If you are ordering 100 MDF plaques and they come packed 10 to a box, I would order an extra box. First of all, these boards are not very expensive. Secondly, I know I can probably use them within a fairly short period of time. But most important, what will it cost me to forego that extra carton now and then ship that extra box later? If I have to ship even one or two plaques next-day air, I will lose my shirt. It is wiser to order some extra merchandise now than take the risk. If I had plenty of time to fill the order and I bought from this distributor every couple of days, I would probably order only what I needed but having plenty of time to reorder is rare for me and I’m guessing it is for you as well.
Ordering Plastic Engraving Stock
Ordering engraving plastic should be the simplest thing we do. Yet, I can’t tell you how many times I have messed it up and either ended up with enough plastic to last a lifetime or having one sheet less than I needed to finish the job.
A lot of us price plastic by the square inch. I know that the average sheet of plastic is going to cost me about 2 cents a square inch to buy and I sell it for about 25 cents per square inch. It only stands to reason that if we price it that way, we should also order it that way, right? Wrong!
Here’s the problem: All jobs involving sheet materials that I will fabricate involve waste. Furthermore, certain jobs involving using plastic or metal engraving stock inherently have a lot of waste built into them. That being the case, who should pay for the waste? The customer? Or should you just eat the waste because it is part of the cost of doing business? If you answered the latter, it has been good knowing you and may you have better luck in your next business venture than you’re having in the present one.
If a customer comes in and tells me he wants 20 2"x10"signs cut out of walnut plastic, I know two things: 1. There is going to be significant waste, and 2. He’s going to pay for it. Why? Woodgrain plastics have a grain to them and although some engravers seem to be unaware of this fact, I would never send out a job with the grain running top to bottom, even if the customer says he doesn’t care. That is my reputation on the line, not his.
Even a lot of materials without a really pronounced grain have some kind of subtle texture that, 75 percent of the time, goes unnoticed. But when you put several plates close together, such as on a directory sign, you’ll notice a difference in appearance. I find that the best course is to preplan my cutting layouts to avoid these situations.
In a case like this, I always draw out a cutting plan. I’ve done this long enough so I usually know how much plastic I’m going to need but I draw it out anyway. Why? Because that is where I most often make mistakes. I know that trusting “math in my head” is begging for trouble.
Since I stock mostly quarter sheets of plastic, I start by drawing a rectangle on a sheet of paper and mark it as 12"x24". I then mark the direction of the grain, if any. Plastic that comes from a distributor should always be cut with the grain running in a landscape direction. Note that you can request that it be cut in the other direction to save material for specific jobs. Most suppliers are happy to accommodate you in this way but it always pays to ask, or to specify, how you want your fabricated material cut.
In the rectangle that I have drawn, I divide the space up into as many 2"x10" rectangles as will fit. Simple, right? Wrong! If you take a 12"x24" sheet of material and divide it into 2"x10" pieces, you can get 12 out of a sheet, right? Wrong! Although most plastic comes slightly larger than the specified 12"x24", we haven’t accounted for the material that will be lost during the cutting operation. In my shop, that can be significant because I prefer to use a power saw to do most of my cutting (it’s fast, clean, accurate and it can handle a full 24"x48" sheet when I need to). The downside is that the blade has width to it. In my case, the saw “kerf” causes me to lose about 1/8" of material with every pass. That missing plastic has to be accounted for. In our example, I will lose five passes at 1/8" each or 5/8". Clearly, we are no longer going to get 12 pieces out of that quarter sheet of material. Now, we will get only 10 full-sized pieces (Fig. 1).
I know what you’re thinking: “If he doesn’t use that saw and cuts the material with a shear or a laser, he will get a better yield.” And you are right but, chances are, it won’t get me back up to 12 pieces because when you cut material you will almost always have waste, especially if the edges of the material are going to be visible in the finished product. Sometimes you can get away with some rough cuts or banged edges, if you are going to cover that particular edge in a sign frame or something, but anytime you are counting on that when placing your order you are taking a terrible risk of coming up short.
In conclusion, when ordering plastic, draw out your cuts on paper before writing out your order and don’t forget to allow for material waste when cutting or when the material has a grain or texture.
Ordering Metal Engraving Stock
Metal such as brass or aluminum is usually a bit easier to figure than plastic because it often doesn’t have a grain but, also, because a shear produces far less waste in the cuts than a power saw. However, there are still a couple of things you need to know.
First, a few metals DO have grain. Satin gold and silver brass and aluminum have a grain that is going to dictate how the material must be cut. Occasionally, the size of your shear will also dictate how you can cut the metal. For instance, if you need a finished sheet that is 14"x9", there is no way you can cut it with a 12" shear, let alone have a choice as to which way the grain is going to run.
Second, I insist that all metal leaving my shop be cut on all four sides. This makes all sides “burr-down.” If you aren’t familiar with this term, just run your finger over the top and bottom edges of a sheet of cut metal. One edge will be very smooth while the other will be rough (often sharp enough to actually cut you). Burr-down means the top or face side of the material is smooth while the rough side is always on the bottom. Not only does this remove any danger of the customer cutting themselves on the metal, it makes a higher-quality
The reason I mention this burr-up/burr-down issue is because it must be taken into consideration when ordering metal for a specific job. Doing a four-sided cut to obtain burr-down will create at least 1/8" of waste on two sides of each piece you cut. If you are cutting two 6"x8" pieces from a 12" sheet, you can usually fudge a tiny bit on each piece with no problem and always get your two pieces. But if you are trying to get 12 1"x3" pieces out of a 12" sheet, you are going to be disappointed. Due to the waste of cutting each piece on all four sides, you will only get 11 pieces, not 12.
The biggest problem I have with metal, however, isn’t the waste from cutting; it is damage due to shipping. Even with the super boxes now being used to ship metal, it still gets dinged on the edges or corners at times. One tiny ding and you automatically have about 1/2" of waste. If both sides are dinged, you can easily lose an inch.
Another issue with coated metals like black brass plated steel is the occasional imperfection that is always right in the middle of a cut piece, never in the part you are going to throw away. If you are cutting 6"x8" pieces, one imperfection can cost you an entire plate making it easy to underestimate your order. Since I use a lot of metal I usually order in lots of 25 or 50 sheets so the occasional imperfection doesn’t hurt too much, but if you are ordering for a specific job and don’t think you will have a use for this type of metal in the near future I suggest you order at least 10% extra.Ordering Plastic Engraving Stock
A Rule of Thumb
Well, have I made my point? It is better to invest in a little extra product or material than to have to deal with rush orders, especially if you have a deadline. Waste, damaged material and flawed products are a painful reality and even with a distributor who tries their best to check the quality of what they sell, it is still going to happen. They can’t open every box, examine every sheet of stock to insure a 100% no return rate—it just can’t happen. And as for those distributors that bring in carload lots of stuff from Asia and resell it, the defect percentage can be huge—you just have to expect it.
I think we can all agree that in this business, everywhere you look, you are going to incur various amounts of waste, scrap or spoilage, especially when you are fabricating. It can get mind-boggling figuring out how many strips or pieces of cutoffs you lose as you do your cutting-to-size.
Still, it’s important to know not only how much “extra” to order but, also, how much material and money you’ll lose for purposes of quoting prices. Some of you might be interested in a rule of thumb that is often used in the woodworking and metal working industries for estimating and pricing fabricated material waste. The most common allowance—the magic number—is 15%. For example, if your material estimate is to use 10 sheets of plastic or brass, allow 15% extra (1.5 sheets extra) to cover yourself. Or, if you are working from your inventory, add an extra 15% to your material cost for purposes of quoting the job.
Paying the Price
So, we have established you are going to have more waste than you might expect. The question is, who is going to pay for it? You or your customer? And the answer is simple: Your customer. If they order 24 clocks that are special order, you should actually order 25 and divide the extra cost over the other 24. If you don’t need clock number 25 and sell it to someone else, you have made an extra profit. If one clock is defective and can’t be sold you are no worse off and eventually you can get a replacement but you won’t have to rush in a replacement and incur shipping charges that cost more than the clock itself.
I often use that extra clock (or whatever it is) as a display sample. If I already have a sample, it goes into inventory but I mark it as a “freebie.” That reminds me I have nothing invested in it so when some group comes in begging for a giveaway for their organization or silent auction, guess what I use?
We have been talking about how to figure an order so you don’t come up short when it’s time to engrave it, but there is another element—the element of mistakes! We all do it. It is just part of the job. You are going to make mistakes. So, you brought in 12 fancy plaques with Florentine edges on them. One has a mistake and the awards banquet is tomorrow, now what? Well, you might be able to overnight one but, if you ordered an extra, you can just use it. Later, you can order a replacement plate when you place your next order with that company. And who pays for making the correction? No one. The customer has already paid for the extra plaque so there is no argument as to whose mistake it was—yours or theirs. Even if you made the mistake yourself, you still come out looking like a hero.
Ordering material and product for an engraving shop may sound easy, but it isn’t. There is an acquired skill as to how much extra to include in your orders. Order too much and it sits on the shelf for years. Order too little and you have to rush order additional material or product to finish the job and that usually eats you alive in shipping costs, even if it isn’t a rush shipment.
Note that there is one final issue that I debated whether to include in this article, which is totally intangible and unlike all of the more physical issues such as cutting errors or material grain direction: loyalty. No matter how skilled you are in estimating and anticipating problems that can wreak havoc with your job production, there will be times when the only satisfactory solution is having the full and total cooperation and support of your supplier. A good supplier can help you to make or break problem jobs, often by jumping through hoops to get you what you need in the shortest possible time frame.
The best way to get suppliers to go that extra mile for you, when you really need it, is to show some loyalty to them. A good starting point is to make sure you always pay them on time. Another is to give them a steady amount of repeat business. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t shop price on what you need, but it is to say that when (not if) a supplier realizes that a customer is trying to nickel and dime them and driving a hard bargain on every small purchase, the supplier will be a lot less likely to go the extra mile when the customer needs it most.
Although the tips listed here are simplistic, they are the result of real-life mistakes I have made over and over again. I still find myself tempted to cut back on orders and “take a chance” that I won’t have any defective products in my order. Let me just tell you outright—I always lose.
You’ll have to excuse me now. I have to figure out how much plastic I need to make 5,000 plastic tags of assorted sizes and colors—this could take a while.