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Many artisan entrepreneurs react to growth rather than preparing for it. But when you “plan big,” you’re ready for every opportunity and have the systems in place to handle increased volume. Here are six expert tips for shifting your process from one-at-a-time to batch production, saving money, and becoming more efficient.
While this might feel contradictory to the spirit of a handmade business, it’s crucial for growth. If you decide to outsource a production step or hire contracted help, you need to quickly explain how you do it and your expectations for quality. And depending on how fast you grow, having this resource will maintain consistency across your team. Even if you never plan to grow beyond one person, the act of documenting your process will force you to step back and think about whether you’re going about it the best way possible.
As a starting point, create a simple document that’s easy to access and share, like a Google Doc. Write down each step, in order, with a descriptive title and as much detail as possible.
For example, let’s say you have a step called, “Apply base coat of wood stain.” The step would explain: “Using the wood stain selected by the customer in their order, use a natural bristle brush to apply one coat to the wood surface. Allow to dry for 24 hours.” You could include the brand and item number of the wood stains you use, the type of paintbrush, and a photo of the piece before and after it’s painted.
Check out this step-by-step description of how to mod podge pictures on Ehow.com. Their website is an excellent model for how you might structure your documentation. For more complex steps, you might consider having someone film you – or set up your phone on a stand while you work.
Measure the actual time spent on each step. To start, jot each one down in a notebook and use your phone timer. It’s helpful to do this a few times so you can get an average – see if there are circumstances that shorten or lengthen the process. By tracking your time, you can more clearly see the problems and potential solutions.
Are there any low-value, time-consuming steps that jump out at you? Remember your time is valuable. Focus on ways to eliminate, improve, or outsource those first. Even small scale improvements can help one person do more. As you evaluate which steps you might want to outsource, consider these two helpful criteria:
After timing yourself, you might also realize that the effort to set up and breakdown your at-home work area is a major time eater that doesn’t add value to the final product. If having a separate studio isn’t feasible, you could consider a makerspace like NextFab, where you share resources at a lower cost for a membership fee.
Do you find yourself throwing away scraps of material? Are you just below the threshold to get higher quantity discounts, so you buy more than you need? It’s a common problem for growing artisan entrepreneurs.
One of the benefits of being part of NextFab is accessing the collective experience and helpfulness of your fellow members. Staff might suggest a different supplier for better deals or you could go in together with another member on a large order. You could discuss a new product that would use up your scraps or sell them to someone else who needs them. Also, when you need smaller quantities or want to reduce waste, you can head over to our partner Resource Exchange, Philly’s creative reuse center, to shop their reclaimed materials. They’re conveniently located near our North Philly location.
One of the first suggestions we often make to artisan entrepreneurs is to look for ways of clustering similar tasks. For many handmade products, there are several artistic mediums involved, each with their own tools and necessary workspace. Rather than creating one product from beginning to end, we encourage you to fabricate each element in the quantity needed before moving to the next step. This saves both time and mental/creative energy.
For example, member Mel Sage of Sage Woodworks has an organized process to streamline her production of three-dimensional woodcrafts. On a recent episode of NextFab’s podcast, she explained, “All of the pieces are numbered (when I design it on the computer), so I know where to place them when I’m actually assembling it. I’ll have the laser cutter do all of my cutting and scoring of all of the tabs and the numbers.”
You could also apply this concept to the non-creative aspects of your business. Perhaps block out time for packing and shipping products at the end of each week, rather than disrupting your workflow by doing it several times.
Look for any opportunity to avoid reinventing the wheel. Where in your process can you use templates for measuring or producing elements of your craft? They might take time to set up initially, but the effort is well worth it for mass production.
As mentioned above, NextFab’s digital fabrication tools can help you build in large quantities quickly and accurately. Many of our members employ jigs, which hold their work in place and guide cutting into a pre-specified shape or size. Resources like these can ramp up your production significantly. It’s also a way to ensure consistency for each product.
If you’ve decided to outsource certain aspects of your handmade business, you’ll need to estimate what volume would make outsourcing financially feasible. Many manufacturing companies have minimums, and small batches can be expensive. But that being said, there are many options for artisan entrepreneurs. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit.
NextFab is well connected in the maker community and can direct you to outsourcing partners or freelancers within the membership. Depending on the size of your business, you might want to start out with a part-time assistant and grow towards working with a fabrication partner. There’s a solution for every expanding handmade business.
Here’s a great example. NextFab Member Khai Van needed to rapidly scale his production of MiniAlley Bookends. He hired a few friends to run the laser cutters at NextFab, painted the bookends in the studio, then assembled them by hand at home. NextFab also ordered bulk plywood for Khai and cut it to size for him to aid in production.
NextFab staff can help perfect your designs, identify opportunities for efficiency, choose the best materials, and create a mass production process that works for you. Curious about how NextFab’s digital fabrication tools can help scale your handmade products? Schedule a call with our Sales staff now.