Peak Season Preparation

One of our peak seasons is almost upon us, so we’ve been asking team members what that means to them. In this article, Adrian Tolley shares his experience, frank views, and the preparations currently underway. 


What’s meant by a peak season?

A peak season is defined as a period in the year when there is likely to be a greater number of orders entering the business than we are normally geared up to receive, and for which we will need to be production-ready in order to manufacture and despatch these to their normal SLAs. Typical milestones are Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Back-to-School and Christmas.


When does the planning begin? 

Generally, just after the previous peak season ends as it’s the best time to gather the data on what worked well and what gave us challenges. Involving almost everyone in the business, we use this as a starting point for process improvements, investments, recruiting, training, upgrading or potentially removing products that didn’t work well for us. The outcome is always a more successful/less stressful peak than the last.


Why do we prepare? 

When a customer has invested heavily in market research, product development, content creation, marketing and launch, they need to trust that their manufacturing partner is equally invested in being able to return on that investment.


What about forecasting?

Everything starts with a forecast. Typically, we’ll base this on the previous year’s actuals. With existing products, this is easy enough given that we may even have a few years history and so can project forward. But it’s not so easy with new products, of course. 

Some clients have sophisticated sales models based on ROI vs marketing spend. Others take a more “finger in the air” approach. Some can even turn the dial-up, or down, based on capacity. Again, the only thing we ask for is a realistic number; it’s better to be having a conversation around how we did against forecast when that forecast is accurate. 

A product that has oversold could lead to stock-outs, capacity challenges and longer SLAs. Too few sales, and we may be left holding materials that someone is responsible for. Either way, this can result in difficult conversations afterwards and therefore better to invest time in factual information rather than simply a ‘best guess’. 


And stocks and supply partners?

Using the forecast, we break it down into components and turn it into a physical number. Given the longer lead times required to acquire materials, the three months we used to allow is now more like 5 or 6. Forward planning has therefore become even more complicated. 

We have to be sure we have everything available to avoid “the wheels falling off”. For example, there is no point in having all the paper in the world on-site if we don’t have the requisite boards, glue, laminate, ink, packaging, labels etc., as no products are leaving the building unless everything is in place. There are stories of £1m presses standing idle while waiting for a $1 part! This means we always have fallbacks, buffer stock and, crucially as a group, shared resources (including parts).


Load/stress testing?

When we know we have products that are going to be process heavy, an obvious starting point is to test the servers, software, rendering engines, processors, disk space, CPU’s, RIPs, imposition engine, workflow and manufacturing equipment to make sure they can all cope. 

A prime example was when we identified that one of our client’s books was likely to cause a problem as each file was over 200mb and a block of 50 internals was taking 27 minutes to clear the workflow. With a print time of 14 minutes, this would result in a backlog, and we’d still be printing them now! But, by simply downsampling the artwork, we reduced this to under 40mb with absolutely no loss of print quality and they now take 3 minutes to land on press. Incidentally, the external fix involved a new server at the cost of £100k! 


How do people fit? *

The history books are littered with the after-effects of incidents such as war has had on the British production engine; famine following First World War because there were not enough farmers to pick vegetables, a steel shortage in the Second World War resulting all the railings being cut off every churchyard, school and country house, etc. 

Brexit and Covid has taught us the value of our workforce. We’ve failed to train enough lorry drivers to supply supermarkets and deliver fuel to petrol stations and have relied on European workers to help fill those voids. The picture is no different in print-production. Without the free movement of people, or visas, we are finding there is no one to fill those voids either.

*Personal opinion is not necessarily representative of that of the company 😊


Return on Investments (ROIs)

Most continuous improvement processes require investment in something as an outcome. Proving the ROI is one thing but, with a new product, we always evaluate the process required to deliver volumes of that product. Because doing it, and doing it at scale, can be two completely different propositions. 

So, everything from a new bench to a new building could be considered in the quest to fulfil demand. As an example, simply buying a cheap “Thumb Cut” round-cornering machine would allow us to make personalised playing cards; however, using a ram punch gives us the facility to produce tens of thousands of sets of those personalised playing cards a week. 


Preventative Maintenance and Peak Support

In the event of a breakdown, we rely on finding the shortest path to a fix. Virtually all newer equipment has some form of on-board diagnostics that can be supported remotely and accessed by an engineer, or by operators on-site and relayed back. 

In some cases, the engineer may even arrive with the part and we can be back up without affecting the SLA. In support of this philosophy, HP has an extensive package of products available, from out-of-hours telephone support, right the way through to engineer on-site. 

However, the best form of diagnostics is always finding a problem before it becomes a serious problem! Therefore, in the run up to peak season, the only way to do that is to take the machine apart and investigate what needs replacing before it breaks. HP’s PQV programme is now part of our peak season preparation which can include several days of press downtime while the engineers go through the presses, replace any worn parts and release it back into production. 

As an example, last year we were seeing a press issue running into peak and upon diagnosis one of the HP presses required a new writing head. We had two choices: 

  1. replace the most expensive part of the machine OR 
  2. hope that it would hold out until after peak 

We opted for 1. The replacement arrived but the install didn’t go to plan and so the replacement head had to come out again which meant 16 hours installation and calibration. All of this took place over Black Friday weekend, the worst possible timing. We knew that we could never recover the SLA so we immediately contacted all our customers and informed them that we would be 2-3 days outside SLA with no possible way of picking this back up. Given the circumstances, all were fine, so we continued to communicate with them and everything still went out before Christmas. We’ve added the writing head checks to the PM schedule for this year.


“The Curve Balls”

These are invariably caused by circumstances beyond our control such as higher than expected peak demands, late orders, overselling against forecast, breakdowns, shipping delays, chip shortage, an energy crisis or even a global pandemic! 'Force Majeure' can leave us short of something, be it capacity, people or materials. The route cause analysis that’s carried out in the aftermath could form the basis of anything from a change of supplier to the way we recruit and retain staff, right the way through to finding a new production partner, such are the lengths that we’ll go to, to address them.

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