Friday, February 25, 2011

Setting A Price On Craftwork: Task Switching

In my last post on the topic, I mentioned the idea of doing one operation to many pieces. I want to talk a little more about that.

In project management, they talk about "startup cost". In accounting, this refers to the costs associated with starting a business. In project management, it refers to the time that it takes a person to start a task or change from one task to another. It is critical to keep this in mind when doing craftwork for a living. Let me start with an example...

Let's say a jeweller needs to make 100 pairs of earrings. Each one has a square of stone hung from a French hook by a rim of gold. The intuitive way to proceed is to cut and polish two stones, cut the gold, solder, burnish, attach the hanging ring and attach the French hooks. Whew! That's one pair done.

Now let's look at the startup costs.
1. Get out stone, put on protective gear and start up the cutter. 2 minutes. Cut two stones.
2. Put on a coarse grit belt. 3 minutes. Rough out stone.
3. Switch to medium grit belt. 2 minutes. Start polish.
4. Switch to fine grit belt. 2 minutes. Finish polish.
5. Get out gold, metal snips, etc. 3 minutes. Cut gold.
6. Get out soldering iron, etc. 2 minutes. Solder gold.
7. Get out shaping and burnishing tools. 2 minutes. Burnish gold.
8. Get out mounting hardware. 2 minutes. Attach hardware.

Overall, it's probably taken an hour to make this pair of earrings, 18 minutes of which was spent switching tasks. This is a low estimate based on quickly switching tasks and staying focused. Many people don't have a separate area for each task so things need to be moved around a lot when switching tasks. Tools can get misplaced in the process, taking even more time.

If you're anything like me, task switching also feels like a great time for a quick break. 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there and poof! The day is gone.

This is the point where many crafters look backwards at the numbers. "I bring in $25 for a pair of earrings and they only cost $5 in materials and take an hour to make, so that's $20 an hour." Once we take income tax, overhead, and the financial and time cost of making the sales, it's probably more like $8-12/hr.

To reduce the startup costs, this jeweller could do each operation to all 100 pairs and the startup costs would drop to 1% of what they were. That 18 minutes of startup cost per pair of earrings becomes 10 seconds per pair. To make the whole batch, she would have saved 30 hours in repetitive tasks and her wage will have jumped to $12-18/hr.

If she could find a niche or improve the customer experience in some other way, she could probably raise her retail price and earn the $20/hr that she wanted.

In my space-limited studio, I've reduced repetition by performing my tasks in a pipeline. First I warp the beam for 80 yards of cloth, then I weave it all and store the cloth on top of the loom or in mouseproof boxes.

Even the weaving is pipelined. I get out enough weft yarn to finish the cloth I'm making in that color and line it all up on a shelf. I wind all the bobbins I have (40) and keep them organized in a box. Then I sit and weave until they're gone or my body needs a break. The cloth collects on the back beam until 1. the current color is finished or 2. there are 30 yards of cloth on the take-up beam.

And, when it's time to sew, I reconfigure the studio for that task and make lots of whatever product it is that I'm making. It's easier to pull out cloth and make many colors of the same product than it is to refer to my design notes and retrain myself to measure, cut and sew a different product.

So, if you find that you have to charge prices higher than your competition in order to pay yourself a fair wage, look for ways to cut out task startup costs. See if you can make many copies of an item in less time than you could if you were making them one at a time.

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