What’s holding your business back? What is keeping it from growing faster? Is it a “Who” a “What” or a “Where”? Has your business plateaued? Is it the same or smaller than last year? What’s going on and how can you reverse a slow-moving or no-growth trend? Or, better yet, what can you do to take your company forward to a new level of success?
These are all valid questions and the answer will be different for each shop. Some businesses aren’t growing because the sales staff is unfriendly or have become complacent. For some, it might be a matter of product quality or the lack of determination to get orders out on time. Still others have a showroom right out of the 1960s—old, discontinued stock, samples with misspelled words or enough dust to plant a garden.
For some, it is location. I once visited a very busy shop in Virginia. They had a beautiful showroom and they were turning out awards by the dozens—mostly from winning bids. But the work areas were dark, damp and poorly lighted. It was like working in a dungeon. The worst part, however, was their location. Even in the middle of the day, I felt like I needed a police escort to go there and even when I made it safely to the storefront, I had to feed a parking meter—they didn’t even offer free parking. It was terrible. They survived only because they were really good at low balling bids from schools and government agencies. And that’s fine, but…What if they were located in a relatively high traffic area with easy off-street parking and an inviting exterior? Theirs was an old warehouse with a barely visible sign in front. What if they were located in an area of town where women felt safe going, even at night?
Retailers don’t have to be paying the high rent of a shopping mall to have high traffic, they just have to do their homework to see where the people are—or at least where lots of cars pass daily. I have learned the old adage “location, location, location” really is as important as what they say it is. Granted, it has to bebalanced with cost but a deserted warehouse district in the slum area of town? Really?
But this article isn’t about choosing a location, upgrading work areas or even revamping showrooms. We all know those are important and the decisions around them can be very complex. What we want to consider here is our equipment and that’s what this article is all about. Our industry is somewhat unusual in that a large percentage of what we sell is items that we produce, or at least items that are of minimal salability without the value-added services we provide. Think of it this way: A disc is always a disc, but once we add a mounting hole and an inscription, that same disc can become a dog tag for Fido or a key tag or many other things.
Nowadays, 99 times out 100, what determines both what we produce and how long it takes to produce it is our equipment. It’s a challenge to look at, really look at, your equipment and what you might want to do to take it to the next level of performance and productivity.
This might not be easy. Let’s face it. It can be difficult to objectively evaluate what’s working and what’s not in our businesses, and then commit yourself to making the changes necessary to grow. Many shop owners will find this threatening—especially to their pocket books. I assure you, however, an occasional hard look at the reality of things is beneficial to all concerned.
I am amazed at how many people are running really old computers. I’m talking about slow, low-memory clunkers running Windows XP Pro or even Windows 98. True, if you run only lasers, particularly old lasers, you can get by with a fairly small, older computer but if you work with color or some of the newer lasers, you really need to an up-to-date computer. Often, the best and least expensive way to upgrade a computer is just to replace it. Dell, for example, offers new computers with the adequate specs for $675-$800. Computers with super-fast speeds or additional features are likely to take a new computer to the $1,000 mark. Gaming computers are often a way to get more for your cash since they are focused on speed, good video and lots of memory—three of the things you want in a good graphics computer. Refurbished computers can be a way to cut costs down to the $300 bracket if you shop wisely. You don’t have to buy a super expensive machine but try to find one with the following features:
- RAM: If you are operating laser engraving machines, you should have 16 MB of RAM (random access memory). Sublimators and other color printing computers should have a minimum of 16 MB but 32 MB is preferred.
- Processor Speed: The best way to up the processing speed of your computer is to replace it. Buy the fastest processor you can afford without going crazy with the price. I suggest nothing less than an i5 processor at 3.5 GHz. The fastest current processors include an Intel i7 at 4.2 GHz or the slightly slower AMD Ryzen 7-1700 3.8 GHz.
- 32 or 64 Bit: Both are fine for laser engravers but if you are going to upgrade for other reasons, go with the 64-bit processor.
- Video Card: This may be the most important component of all. Most of today’s computers come with a ho-hum video circuit on the motherboard. That’s fine for lasers and small graphics programs but it falls far short for running the heavier graphics programs such as CorelDRAW, PhotoShop, Illustrator, etc. For this, you need something that can “redraw” the image on your screen super-fast and handle the processing of those big graphic files. There are hundreds of stand-alone video cards on the market and you don’t have to float a loan to buy one. Expect to spend about $150 for a good board that has as much built-in memory as you can afford and on-board cooling as well. Beware, some of these boards require a large power supply and a lot of physical space to mount it inside your computer, so buy the computer first and then buy a video card that will work and fit in it. I recommend the NVIDIA GTX series. They do a great job, aren’t too expensive and have models that fit in both single slot and double slots in your computer cabinet.
- Hard Drive: Newer computers have SATA drives and you can buy a SATA 2 to 4 TB drive for $70-$100. This is enough space to hold everything you have even thought of keeping on your computer. To make it easy, keep your current hard drive as it is and just add this as a “D” drive. You might also consider adding a portable USB drive. It may not run as fast but you aren’t likely to notice the difference and you can move it from machine to machine, take it home at night, etc. These run about the same price as the internal drives.
- MONITOR: Still squinting to see the graphics on your screen? Maybe it’s time to upgrade to a larger, better monitor. Although many of the large monitors are expensive, if you shop around, you can find really nice 27" monitors for under $200. I have a 32" curved monitor that I paid just over $200 for. Of course, resolution is more important than size so don’t take less than 1920x1080 dpi but paying much more than $200 for better resolution is probably not worth it. Prices are down on these big monitors so stop squinting—it isn’t good for your bottom line or your eyes.
- SOFTWARE (Operating System): What version of Windows do you run? If it is lower than Version 7, you are in serious need of an upgrade. Even with so many people who still love XP, we have to face it: XP is over and we are up to Version 10. Yes, there will be a learning curve and you will always love XP more than any other version (I do, too) but more and more software will run poorly (if at all) on the old operating systems as will your printers, scanners and other peripherals. It’s time to catch up with the times. Just bite the bullet and do it.
Chances are, you use a scanner from time to time. Be advised, like most equipment, scanners age. Even if they aren’t used much, the light bulb in older scanners gets dim and changes temperature over time. When this begins to happen, it is time to upgrade to a new scanner. Most people don’t know how to really tell a good scanner from a bad one other than going by brand. Here’s the secret: It’s called Dmax and it is a quality scale ranging from 1-4 that measures the darkest area of an image that can be scanned and still show detail. The higher the number, the better the scanner. Scanners that don’t list a Dmax in their specifications probably leave it out for a reason. In the Epson line of scanners, it takes about $225 to get where there is a Dmax listed (3.4). For $1,000 you can get a 4.0 but for most of what we do, a 3.4 is more than adequate (aren’t you glad?). Don’t be too impressed with all the 6400 dpi and 48-bit capabilities, you won’t use them.
As for upgrading to a larger scanner such as an 11" x 17" flatbed, expect to pay from $3,000 to $4,000 but if that is what you need, there are a number of good ones on the market, including four from Epson.
LASER ENGRAVERS: Is it time to upgrade your laser? Consider these reasons why it might be time:
- Age: In the days of the pantograph, they lasted forever. A part here and some oil there and the lifespan could be 50 years or more. Then came lasers which introduced us to a new phenomenon—life expectancy. Lasers don’t last forever. Like most electronic devices, they have a life-span of 7-15 years and although there are lasers that have been running for far longer, they are the exception. If your laser(s) is getting on in age, perhaps you should be thinking about replacement.
- Backup: Do you run only one laser in your shop? Many do. So, what happens when your only laser goes down? In a perfect world, you can have parts in 24 hours but even then, you will be down for three days, maybe more. Can you survive it? How many really angry customers will you have to face when it happens to you (and sooner or later, it will)? Wise engravers begin planning for a second laser as soon as their work load reaches the point where their laser is busy 50 percent of the day. Not only do I recommend having a backup laser, I recommend your second laser be larger and/or more powerful than your first. By the time you should be thinking about a backup laser, you should understand your laser business well enough to know what you should include in your next purchase.
- Low Wattage: Do you have a need for a higher wattage laser? Many of us bought a 25-30 watt laser the first time around. They were relatively inexpensive and we kept hearing, “You can do anything with a 25 watt laser that you can do with a 50 watt.” That is more or less true, but if you work with wood or use your laser to cut out wood, plastics, acrylic, etc., you quickly learned that what differs between the two lasers is the time it takes and the depth of cut. For the best productivity when laser engraving wood, you need a 50-100 watt laser. For cutting wood or acrylic, you need all the power you can get. Let what you make from your low wattage laser pay for a more powerful machine. Keep the low wattage laser as a supplement to the new laser. By the way, there are a lot of jobs that are easier to do with a low-wattage laser than a more powerful one. Engraving films, many plastics, glass and various other materials is often easier with a low-wattage laser because it is sometimes difficult to control how much power is transferred from a hotter laser.
- Bigger Footprint: If you have a “mini” laser or even a laser with a 12" x 24" table, you might find that it’s time for a larger platform. A smaller desktop laser with a table in the 12" x 16" or 12" x 18" range is often a good place to start your laser business but over time, you might find you are turning away jobs or wasting time and material with a smaller laser. The solution isn’t always replacing it, but more likely adding to it. Either way, an upgrade to a 12" x 24" or larger capacity offers you the ability to lay an entire quarter sheet of material in the laser. A larger laser offers the ability to do larger jobs but you can also gang more small jobs onto a larger sheet of material.
- Speed: Judging the actual working speed of a laser can be tricky. Impressive numbers thrown out by over anxious salespeople can be misleading and after you run a laser for a while, you have a better understanding of how this “smoke and mirrors” trick is done. Speeds of 86 ips can sound good but is the power such that you can actually take advantage of that speed? Having said that, some lasers are much faster than others and that speed can make a big difference when engraving large jobs. To determine the speed of a particular laser, trying taking your own material and Corel file on a flash drive to a trade show and ask them to demo the machines you are interested in and time how long it takes. Now that you have some experience under your belt, you know what to look for.
- Vision/Tracing Capability: Although they have different trade names, nearly all of the lasers available in our industry now offer an optical recognition system whereby one or more cameras mounted inside the laser trace a preprinted image to cut it out or score it. This is great when combined with some type of color printer/UV printer. Having this capability can open up many new product opportunities for your business, such as labels, decals, cards, puzzles, stationery and more.
- Cylindrical Devices: With the popularity of the metal travel mugs, not to mention wine glasses, wine bottles and cylindrical industrial parts, a cylindrical attachment has become more and more in demand. If your laser doesn’t accommodate one, it may be time to upgrade. If you do, the deeper the Z dimension, the better. This isn’t so much to accommodate the cups as it is the handles. Adding a 4" lens to your collection might also be a good idea—again, to accommodate handles.
- Expecting Too Much: A single type of laser won’t do everything. If you engrave a lot of metal using laser-markable chemical coatings, perhaps it is time to add a fiber laser that will permanently mark metal without chemicals. Perhaps you bought a Chinese laser with a glass tube thinking it would not only cut well but raster engrave as well. Proponents of glass tubes say they do cut well but aren’t much good for raster engraving. Maybe you bought a standard “gantry” laser only to find out your jobs are mostly very small and come in large quantities, such as key chains or ink pens. In this case, you might be better off with a “galvo” laser that is known for its speed and the ability to attach an automatic feed apparatus to it. Consider your options. Perhaps it is time to step up into a different type of laser.
- Fume Extraction/Filtration: For a variety of reasons, perhaps you should consider adding a good carbon-based exhaust system to your laser(s). Keeping a clean, safe work area means more than sweeping the floor, it includes keeping the air clean of exhaust fumes and particulates that might be unhealthy for you and your staff. A wide variety of self-contained laser exhaust systems are available which many operators use when they take their laser systems on the road. They can also be used in work environments where a standard exhaust fan cannot be vented to the outside. These units work with three stage filters that include a pre-filter, a HEPA filter and a charcoal filter. The first two filters clean the air while the charcoal filters the smell and then releases the cleaned air back into the work area. They are quiet, require very little maintenance and larger ones can accommodate more than one laser.
ROTARY ENGRAVERS: Rotary engravers are another type of engraver that seems to last forever. Most engraving tables can be repaired or upgraded fairly easily. A number of the manufacturers offer system upgrades where you can continue to use a sound mechanical table but upgrade the computer electronic parts.
- Controller: What doesn’t last forever is the controller. These electronic control centers, like all electronics, have a life expectancy of about 10 years. I have a super engraving table but my controller is far past the point where it should be retired. Not just because it is holding me back with what I can and cannot do with my table but because the controller requires a Windows 98 computer to run it! I suspect there are a lot of people who, like me, have put this off. It is embarrassing to even talk about.
- Table Size: I started with a very small table. It was okay for the time but soon it was holding me back. I now have an 18" x 24" table which suits my needs well. For those who have need for them, there are much larger tables available. Some of the new engraving plastics available, such as Rowmark’s Heavy Weights, open up many opportunities for applications such as large exterior signs that require a larger than average table.
- Stamina: Engraving tables, like most things, have varying degrees of “beefiness.” Many are made for engraving plastic and not much more. Others are tough enough that they can be used like a CNC machine. This level of ruggedness is determined by the motors, gearing and the type of spindle used in its construction. The important factor is that you are using the right table for what you need to do. If the table isn’t substantial enough, you’ll spend all your time doing repairs.
- Vacuum Chip Removal: Still brushing away those pesky little chips of plastic from your engraving table? If so, you definitely need to add a chip removal system. They are worth their weight in gold. Along with chip removal, you also gain a different type of depth nose that makes setting the depth of your engraving so much easier. This is a must!
Johnson Plastics Plus offers the Quality One beveler which is set up to integrate with a vacuum chip removal system.
SUBLIMATION: If you are one of the thousands of operators who do sublimation, you might want to consider some upgrades like these:
- Computer: As stated before, it amazes me how many shops are still running really outdated computers. If you are running anything earlier than Windows 7, you should be upgrading your computer’s operating system. If you are a sublimator and your computer has less than 16 MB of RAM, you should be upgrading to 32 MB.
- Software: Software and software upgrades are expensive but using software that is so old it will only run on older versions of Windows is just too much. Most of us use CorelDRAW. If you are running anything earlier than the X series of Corel, it is way past time to upgrade. I hear of people still running Version 10 or earlier and I wonder how they get by.
- Printers: The days of using Epson desktop printers for sublimation are gone. If you still use an Epson printer, it is time to upgrade—period. If you have one of the Ricoh printers, you will probably find a long, long lifespan for your printer and that’s good but if you haven’t upgraded to one of the Sawgrass printers yet, you are missing out on the new free design software and driver software available for those printers only.
- Printer Size (Desktops): If you are using one of the 8.5" x 14" printers like the Ricoh 3300 or the Sawgrass SG400, consider upgrading to the SG700 with its ability to print 13" x 21" cut stock and rolls. Not only does this solve the problem of a tiny transfer on a 4X shirt, but it also opens up the ability to do larger products or gang products to increase efficiency.
- Printer Size (Wide-Format): There are some really nice wide-format printers available for sublimation and many reasons for larger users to upgrade to 24" to 96" wide printers. When added to a wide-format heat press, the sky is the limit. Make car mats, tabletops, flooring, flags, towels, cut-to-sew and much more. Contact your sublimation dealer for details.
- Heat Press (Wide-Format): No matter what size heat press you have, there are times when it isn’t big enough. If you are finding this to be true more and more often, it may be time to upgrade to a bigger size. I recommend a 16" x 20" press even for beginners. After some time, you will begin to sense if you need something bigger like the new Geo Knight DK255 which is 20" x 25" and air operated or a shuttle press that allows you to load one platen while the other is under the heating element. There is also the ability to upgrade your press to a duel element press with one heating element on the top and one on the bottom for two-sided products.
UV PRINTERS: UV printing isn’t new but the cost has held many of us back. Perhaps it’s time to take the plunge into a new type of full-color printing. UV doesn’t require specially treated substrates (that doesn’t mean it will print on everything—it won’t). Recent advances have brought things like cylindrical printing, printing on shirts and FDA approved inks to the market. Many have purchased less expensive, smaller UV printers only to find they need something larger and more robust. Others have run into the white ink problem and have become frustrated with the clogging of print heads and the high cost of replacing them. For these and others, it is time to upgrade to a better system.
- Size: Size is a true restriction in the UV world. I have a 10" x 24" system in my shop and not having that extra couple of inches is sometimes a problem. Given the proper amount of work, the day could come when I have to upgrade to a 23" x 48" system or even something larger. Those systems are available and the prices are actually coming down on them.
- Speed: Some of the UV printers on the market are painfully slow. Some print in only one direction. These things are reason enough to do an upgrade and since you are considering an upgrade on those restrictions, don’t forget to consider upgrading size and features as well.
- Cylindrical Capability: Water bottles are a super-hot product right now as are all different kinds of drinkware. Many companies, and individuals, would love having their full-color logo or photograph on these products. Cylindrical capabilities give you the opportunity to be their supplier.
- Shirt Ability: UV ink on cotton (or just about any other fabric) is now possible. For about the same price as a good DTG printer, you can buy a UV printer that can print shirts plus thousands of other products as well.
- FDA Approved Inks: If you print anything that might be used by children, especially infants, you are required by Federal law to keep a record of what you used to print them and be able to produce that document should a child become ill using your product. Using FDA approved ink removes much of the liability. Add to that the ability to print on items used in connection with food and you have an obvious advantage and a good reason to upgrade.
BEVELER: Are you still using that little Scott beveler you started with? If so, you might want to check out what’s available. There are at least three reasons to upgrade your beveler:
- Power: Those little beveling machines are great to start with but if you bevel as much as I do, you can hear that little motor straining for all it’s worth. Give it a break and look at one of bigger bevelers on the market.
- Vacuum: When I upgraded my beveling machine, I opted for one with a vacuum chip removal system and I love it. There are at least two ways to accomplish this: One, Gravograph offers one with a vacuum built in and others offer models that can attach to a vacuum.
- Radius Capability: When I upgraded my beveler, I went with the Gravograph unit. Not only does it have a built-in vacuum but it can also bevel rounded corners on things like name tags. I don’t use it much but it is there when I need it.
SHEAR: I have always wanted a 24" shear but couldn’t really justify the cost. Fortunately, I have a safety saw I can use to cut 24" lengths of plastic and light metal (leaves a rough edge on metal that has to be filed down). Perhaps you are in the same fix with your 12" shear and need to do an upgrade:
- Quality: Do you have a “cheap” shear that doesn’t cut straight, leaves burrs and is a pain to use? It’s time to upgrade. Consider the AccuCutter 4001 and 5001 lines of guillotine shears. They are available in 7" to 25" lengths, can be air operated and should last a lifetime (you will have to sharpen the blade a few times in that length of time). I’ve tested these cutters and they exceed anything else I have seen. Yes, they are an investment but nothing compares to their safety or quality.
- Size: If you need a way to cut 24" lengths of metal, there is nothing better than a good shear and that’s a good reason to upgrade to a 25" shear. They aren’t cheap ($2,000+) but they are an investment if you build large plaques or signs.
DTG: Direct-to-garment printing systems are super popular, especially the ones that can print white ink. There are a number of brands including the Brother GT-3 Series that prints shirts (including black), towels, coasters, sneakers, socks and just about anything else you can get to lay flat or fit on one of the jigs. Or, you might upgrade to the DTG multi-head machine and do up to six shirts at a time. Or, you might just want to add another printer like the one you have to double your output or make one portable to take to events or as a backup. There are a lot to choose from so do your homework.
The two big objections to upgrading are always the same. “What I’ve got is still working” and “I can’t afford it.” Yes, I know, it hurts to think about paying for these expensive machines but consider this: If you have an older machine and replace it with a new, state-of-the-art machine, a rule of thumb is that you can get up to 50 percent more productivity with the new machine. In other words, the new equipment will do 12 hours of work in an 8 hour day.
Regarding the affordability, “You can’t afford not to” when your competition is beating you up by offering what you can’t offer or doing it faster and less expensively than you can do it. I hate to say it but it’s true, “A shop with obsolete equipment will go the way of the dinosaurs.” You have worked too hard and invested too much to let that happen to you! Take a serious look at what you have and be honest: What do you need to upgrade?