Action, Automation, and Diversification Shore Up UK In-plant
Located in the heart of the Sheffield City Region in Yorkshire, England, Sheffield Hallam University is one of the U.K.’s largest and most diverse universities, with a community of more than 30,000 students and 4,000 staff. Print Shop Manager Paul Bishop, a Sheffield Hallam alumnus himself, manages a team of five full-time and one part-time in-plant staff, and notes that his in-plant has the sort of working environment where people tend to stick around.
“The man I replaced was here for about 30 years,” explains Bishop. “I’ve done 16 and a half now. I can’t believe it.”
While there may not be a great deal of turnover at the print shop, Bishop and his team have experienced unprecedented and accelerated change over the last two years as the university manages the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has hit the print shop hard, with internal income down 38% when compared with pre-pandemic levels, and external income down 26%.
“You can’t even hear the machines at the moment,” says Bishop. “We’re not at full cost recovery, but we are starting to show a little bit of profits on our balance sheet. We are expecting to get some extra work in, but if we’re not meeting our budget, questions will be asked.”
Items such as student course materials, posters, and leaflets are the print shop’s bread-and-butter work, and it also produces display materials and wall, window, and floor graphics. As at U.S. universities, when COVID hit, all the teaching, unsurprisingly, went virtual.
“As soon as that happened, there were no course notes or booklets to print,” explains Bishop. “Then the thinking became, what’s the point in going back? September is usually our busiest time, we would work seven days a week, double shifts. Now, we don’t need to do any overtime. That was happening before the pandemic, but it’s really accelerated that change.”
Advancing Despite Adversity
But Bishop and his team weren’t going to let the pandemic lead them down a road to obsolescence. Setting about ensuring their work remained crucial through COVID, the department took on the social distancing signage, producing more than 50,000 signs to keep people safe on campus. Bishop worked out an agreement that saw the print shop take control of the procurement and supply of all stationery requirements for the university, diversifying the in-plant’s offerings and helping it promote its services.
“People are now coming to our site and ordering stationery, and getting a chance to learn about the print services we provide as well, so it’s an additional way to get work in,” says Bishop.
In a significant move, he successfully negotiated to make the in-plant the sole print buyer for the university, so it now has first right of refusal.
“The idea is we place the print with an account manager so we know what’s going out, and we keep everything that we are able to produce or that is more cost effective to produce in-house.”
If he determines the shop cannot produce a job cost effectively in-house, he will utilize an “external print framework” set up in conjunction with the other major university in the area, the University of Sheffield. The two negotiated with external printers and created a list of them that each can use independently to get the best value.
The print shop team is also focusing on bolstering its in-house services — not just due to COVID-related changes but to continue the transformations that were already underway. These include increasing the in-plant’s scanning capabilities, utilizing variable data printing to meet growing demand for personalization, and investing in the ability to create embellished print. The shop is also looking at how it can add value on the packaging side.
“We work with the university’s packaging department, which produces work for external customers from start-up businesses to very well-known retailers, but there is work that we could be bringing in-house,” Bishop explains. “For example, the university is sending personalized boxes out to students as a ‘Welcome to Sheffield Hallam’ gift that we’re not producing. It’s also good for the team to have some more interesting and varied work.”
Automating for the Future
As well as ensuring the print shop has the means to expand its range of services, another key element to shoring up the shop for the future is an investment in automation to reduce costs and meet changing demand. Due to go to bid for new equipment in 2020, the in-plant felt compelled to revise and extend its contract with the incumbent, Canon, due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“We decided to offload one of our two mono production printers because of the decline in demand there, so we now only have a Canon 140, which was retained from the previous agreement, and we also retained the Canon 750 color production printer, allowing us to bring in a top-of-the-range Canon imagePRESS 10010VP as well. We also installed a module for long-sheet feeding so that we can now offer landscape booklets to our customers.”
By renegotiating this contract, he says, “we’ve reduced costs by up to £50,000 ($67,642) a year.”
On the software automation side, Bishop replaced the shop’s previous MIS system with EFI PrintSmith, significantly reducing administrative time with a seamless flow of work ordered via MarketDirect StoreFront into the new MIS. The in-plant also utilizes EFI JobFlow and Fiery Central to reduce the time needed to process jobs.
“We can use this workflow for approximately 50% of the jobs we receive and are looking to increase the percentage going forward,” Bishop says.
The time savings have also been significant; Bishop confirms that the average booklet setup time since implementing new workflows has been reduced from a minute and 16 seconds down to just 24 seconds.
On the other end of the process, Bishop also updated the finishing department in the print shop to further position the team to meet demand for growing areas such as embellished print, signage, and packaging.
“As we move into new areas, we also brought in a Vivid VeloBlade, for signage and die-cutting, and a Vivid Matrix laminator, which again helps us add value to our products,” he says. The shop hasn’t traditionally produced much of the rigid university signage, so he feels the VeloBlade will help move it into that market.
Bishop’s plans to keep adapting and finding new ways to add value are far from over. He’s contemplating further wide-format improvements, perhaps by consolidating the current Canon and Roland wide-format printers to invest in a larger, faster model. He’s also looking into boosting the university’s scanning capabilities, and his team has written a proposal outlining how the in-plant can provide a hybrid mail solution for the university, noting the potential benefits and cost savings.
Despite budget concerns, Sheffield Hallam University’s in-plant is taking initiative and making the right moves. As well as a strong team, Bishop credits the support he gets from the university itself, along with the information-sharing among fellow members of the Association of Creative and Print Managers in Education (ACPME), as key assets.
“We are proactive. We’re not waiting for things to happen,” says Bishop. “We’re making sure we’re changing, and we know we can’t rest on our laurels. We are keeping our name out there, offering a good service, and staying relevant. If we keep doing that, we’ll be fine.”
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Karis Copp is a U.K.-based journalist and communications specialist. With a background as a writer and editor in the print industry, she writes about print and technology news and trends, reports on industry events, and works with businesses to help them tell their stories and connect with their customers. Follow her on Twitter @KarisCoppMedia.