Adapting to Hardship in Alaska
Cold is a way of life in Anchorage, Alaska. When you live in a subarctic climate, bordered by snow-capped mountains, you expect wintery conditions — from October to April.
“Right now it’s 11° at 10 in the morning,” shrugs Kim Stanford, director of General Support Services at the University of Alaska, Anchorage (UAA). That’s just the way it is in Alaska. Below zero days are not rare. Snowstorms can make road conditions “horrendous,” she says. Nineteen hours of darkness on winter days can turn moods sour. But Alaskans are a hardy lot. They plug in block heaters so their car engines start on the coldest days, drive through deep snow with barely a slide, and go about business as usual in conditions most people in the lower 48 would take a sick day to avoid.
Running an in-plant in a harsh, remote environment like Alaska has its own challenges. From extremely low humidity levels that add shocking levels of static to paper, to extreme delays for equipment service (if, for example, a vendor’s sole technician for the entire state happens to be 400 miles away at the moment), the work environment is a little bit tougher for Stanford than it is for most in-plant managers.
And now, in a world slammed by COVID-19 — yes, it’s even up here — conditions have gotten even more extreme. Campus buildings are closed and locked, with e-learning now the norm; print work has slowed drastically; staff hours have been cut; and Stanford, like her peers down south, is grappling with how to stay both viable and valuable on a campus without events, activities, or even people.
As she and her staff know well, though, survival is all about adapting, so as circumstances have changed, they have looked for opportunities to help. For example, when customers who were working from home felt inconvenienced by not being able to come to the print shop to see proofs, Stanford initiated a courier service. Her staff will bring proofs and even completed jobs to customers’ homes, to make life easier for them.
When the bookstore was outsourced, and students could no longer purchase course packs there, the in-plant took on that business. Students can now order them via the shop’s EFI Digital StoreFront portal — and they’ll pay less than what the bookstore was charging. The in-plant also guarantees a two-day turnaround on course packs, far less than what the out-of-state textbook vendor can provide.
“We’re showing that we can adapt, and we’re there to support them,” Stanford says.
Like many in-plants, UAA’s Copy & Print Center showed its value in the early days of the pandemic by printing all the COVID-19 safety signage for the university and assisting with installation. Installing wide-format graphics was already a specialty of the in-plant, brought on by a desire to provide better service.
“We can respond faster, we can schedule faster, if there’s any questions or concerns or issues, we’re right there,” she lists. “Any time you can tell a customer, ‘we can take care of that for you,’ it just goes over much better than saying, ‘we need to call and schedule someone.’”
This has contributed to a recognition of the in-plant’s value on campus, and the strong support it gets from Student Affairs, to which General Support Services reports.
“Overall, our strength lies in our ability to make things happen for our customers,” Stanford emphasizes.
A Full-Service Operation
With 14 employees, General Support Services includes the Copy & Print Center, the mail room, central receiving, recycling, and surplus property. Located in the basement of UAA’s Enrollment Services Center, the Copy & Print Center uses Konica Minolta digital presses for its production work, and a pair of HP inkjet presses — a DesignJet Z6200 and a Latex 360 — for its wide-format jobs, along with a Graphtec FC8600 contour cutter.
Wide-format printing, including wall and window graphics, has grown over the past three years, Stanford says, from providing 10% to 20% of the in-plant’s revenue. This was helped in part by a promotional booklet the shop created with samples of various substrates.
“They can actually see what the different vinyl banner materials are like,” she says. “That really made a huge difference.”
The in-plant recently won a 2020 ACUP Award for one of its impressive wide-format projects: a combined wall graphic and door wrap. It also won ACUP Awards in 2019 and 2018.
One new service the in-plant is researching is dye-sublimation printing of promotional items like mugs and shirts. Departments like Admissions and Conference Services have expressed interest in purchasing such promotional giveaway items, she says, and they can also be sold in the UAA Campus Merchandise Store. It’s just one more way Stanford is listening to what customers want and adapting her in-plant’s services.
The mail center has been drastically impacted by the pandemic. With most buildings locked, delivery routes have been revised and departments now must make appointments to come and pick up their mail.
The decrease in print and mail volumes due to COVID-19 has led to partial furloughs and reduced hours for Stanford’s staff. Only four employees still work full time. She took advantage of the slowdown to focus on staff training and cross-training, one of her priorities.
“What I don’t ever want to hear is someone telling a customer, ‘we can’t get that mailing out,’ or ‘we can’t get that graphic printed because so-and-so is out,’” she says. “What our goal is, is to always just make it happen.”
A Remote Environment
And that’s an important goal in a part of the world where self-sufficiency is vital. Though Anchorage is not exactly a frontier village — it holds about 288,000 residents — it’s still a remote place, nearly as close to Tokyo as it is to New York City. Some supplies, such as specialty paper, may take two weeks to arrive, coming up on a barge from Seattle.
“We’ve run into that with large-format paper,” Stanford reports. “We try to always keep at least one roll back, if not two rolls back. We should never be on the last of anything.”
Planning ahead is also important when replacing equipment, she adds. Some vendors have only one service technician for the entire state of Alaska, so she weighs service availability heavily when considering equipment.
The in-plant’s remote location also makes it harder to find skilled employees.
“We’ve had production technician positions vacant sometimes for six months or a year,” Stanford laments. “The pool is smaller here.” Though she and her staff are used to Alaska’s cold by now, the dry climate can bring some complications in the pressroom.
“It can cause problems with static,” she says.
When humidity is low, paper sticks together, causing misfeeds and jams. Low moisture content in paper can also impact toner adhesion, affecting quality. Stacking, trimming, and folding become challenging too when paper sticks together. With inkjet printing, low humidity can cause ink to spread and show through, and it leads to drying issues as well.
“We struggle with humidity levels in our shop,” Stanford admits. While the ideal relative humidity level for a print shop is about 40%, it can plummet to 15% in UAA’s shop, she says. The in-plant’s main humidifier is supplemented by several floor units in the winter, but still, “we rarely see ideal humidity levels,” she says.
These issues aside, Stanford is committed to providing quality printing to UAA, with the best service possible. She and her staff know they have a crucial responsibility to make UAA look its best.
“Whatever we put out is representing our campus,” she says.
If they see problems in a file, they fix them.
“We don’t just say, ‘that’s the file the customer sent,’” she says. “It matters to us.”
So as daylight slowly creeps back into the dark Alaskan skies, and a COVID-19 vaccine brings hope for a return to in-person classes at UAA, Stanford looks forward to better days ahead and the opportunity to continue serving the university with the dedication and adaptability the in-plant has always demonstrated.
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited nearly 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, co-sponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.