COVID-19: One Year Later (Part 2)
Over the past year, in-plants have seen their work mix change because of the pandemic. The most obvious change has been the increase in COVID-related graphics and signage. Though it seemed at first this would be a temporary surge of work, the need for replacement graphics, as floor stickers peel and regulations change, has continued to keep in-plants busy. Chuck Werninger, senior manager of Administrative Services at Houston Independent School District (HISD) feels the cat is now out of the bag for wide-format graphics.
“I don’t think they’re going to go back to thumbtacks,” he observes, now that customers have experienced the ease of removable wall signs. “I think we’re going to start doing a lot of that, and in the past we didn’t. Everybody knows that it exists now.”
His in-plant installed a 64˝ Canon Colorado 1640 roll-to-roll printer to handle the growing demand for COVID-19-related signage, then quickly added two more to keep up with the surge in demand.
“We did a whole year’s worth of work on those Colorados in about a 90-day period,” he proclaims.
This followed a very busy spring when the in-plant printed mountains of course materials for the district when schools first shut down.
“We salvaged what was going to be a sour year, and we ended up having a profitable year because of COVID,” he remarks.
He admits, however, that “it’s confusing to try to figure out what’s going to come back next year.”
Course Pack Resurgence
At Messiah University Press and Postal Services, in Mechanicsburg, Pa., course materials also helped keep the in-plant busy.
“One of our insourcing clients is an organization that specializes in producing course materials for homeschooling,” explains Director Dwayne Magee. “As you can imagine, they found themselves with an abundance of new orders and so, subsequently did we.”
Course packs also made a resurgence at UT Austin, which experienced its highest total sales of course packs in years in the fall of 2020, thanks to launching an e-commerce site where students could download them.
“Our course pack business is now a mainstay,” says Richard Beto, Document Solutions director at The University of Texas at Austin.
Still, he worries about keeping his operation in the black after losing so much event-related printing.
“I didn’t realize how our revenue was driven by events,” he laments.
The evaporation of printing for events has compelled in-plants to seek new work — even work they never considered. UT Austin is doing much more fulfilment for departments that are all working remotely and can’t have their staffs do it.
“Because there are no events, they have to reach out to [people] in other ways,” he says. So customers have increased their mailings and are shipping more promotional items. The shop’s promo product sales have gone up as a result.
New Types of Work
Other in-plants have also seen a change in the types of work they do.
“Our department has gained new work during COVID from four area hospitals, which has been our saving grace,” reports Katy Folk-Way, director of Creative Communications at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We also continue to do outreach to other institutions that we are loosely related with, such as community colleges. Mail Prep is busy kitting and mailing packages that include all sorts of items that departments want their students to have.”
The Seattle in-plant has also printed many new booklets for the medical centers, as well as large mounted posters for hospitals with the current (and ever changing) COVID-19 restrictions.
Though the self-supported department is not currently recouping costs, Folk-Way says, “our projections show that we will be above breakeven again by February 2023.”
“We have actively sought out work from other departments where staff are working from home,” says June Lewis, manager of Print and Document Services at Kellogg Community College, in Battle Creek, Mich. “We have taken on a variety of jobs that involve scanning, mailings — folding, collating, and stuffing envelopes — and special projects.”
The rebranding of Messiah College to Messiah University gave a boost to that in-plant’s letterhead, envelope, and business card printing, Magee says. Also, the school’s recruitment and fundraising needs kept the in-plant’s printing and mailing services busy.
At Coborn’s, Wannigman notes that the tremendous growth in online grocery shopping has created more work for his in-plant, which prints envelopes with a checklist on the back for use by store employees gathering items for online orders. The shop went from printing 5,000 a month up to 50,000.
Terri Bischoff, director of Creative and Print Services at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Ind., lays out how the in-plant’s current workload looks at the university: “Offset printing is for recruitment, some grant program materials in our College of Nursing and Health Professions, some orientation pieces that will be mailed out, and appeal letters. Digital printing is for course materials, direct mail — such as postcards — business cards, and stationery. Large-format we are doing posters, yard signs, lettering for signage, and displays. Our graphic designers are relatively busy and have been creating more digital graphics.”
In South Carolina, Tammy Elliott, director of Print Services at The University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn., lists the types of work that keep her in-plant busy: letterhead, envelopes, notecards, postcard mailings, newsletters, small banners, COVID-19-related signage, lamination, and bulletins for chapel services.
While not a new product, Werninger notes that postcards have undergone a process change during the pandemic, because his team had time to rethink the process. Previously, postcards were printed in bulk on an offset press, then addressed with an inkjet printer.
“Now we do that in the variable data software, print it on the inkjet [press], and we just cut it and throw it in the mail tray,” he says, requiring fewer people and less time.
The PPE Pivot
Some in-plants, like the Ithaca College Center for Print Production pivoted early on in the pandemic to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face shields, masks, and acrylic sneeze guards. Operations Manager Glen Harris reports that after producing 70,000 masks (in partnership with a local organization that employs adults with disabilities), the in-plant stopped production in late January.
“We are currently still producing shields, as the shield materials are mostly materials that we normally stock,” he says. So far, the in-plant has produced 15,000 shields.
“Most of the work that we are doing now is still pandemic-related,” he adds, such as signs and floor graphics. “I’ve been designing and producing acrylic barriers in custom orientations for use around campus. I’ve also made custom barriers inside several vans for use in transporting possibly infected individuals.”
The in-plant purchased a Colex Sharpcut just months before COVID-19 hit, he says, and it proved to be fortunate timing.
“It has kept us going with all of this work. If we did not have it, we may have all been furloughed,” he says. “This machine has been responsible for saving the college thousands of dollars.”
Across the country, the State of Oregon’s Publishing & Distribution operation continues to coordinate the distribution of PPE to hospitals and care facilities around the state. State Printer Tim Hendrix and two staff members run the state PPE warehouse, which has expanded to testing and vaccine supplies, like syringes and alcohol wipes.
Three hours north, Creative Communications at the University of Washington has similarly become the PPE purchasing and distribution point for campus.
“We were the only department that had the combination of great vendor relationships, easily adaptable digital storefronts, and fast delivery methods by e-bikes and trucks,” reports Folk-Way. “This doesn’t make money for us but has been a visible project for the greater good of the UW, and we have received much praise for our work.”
Putting Out Fires
Other managers can also point to new tasks that keep them busy but aren’t very profitable. Liz Bowden, Duplicating Services manager at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says much of her time these days is spent putting out fires, fixing problems, and explaining processes to customers.
“Our daily lives are so much fuller, even though our production is so much lower,” she says.
She notes the in-plant is doing a lot more shipping these days, such as welcome kits for new students, lab kits for classes, and graduation gifts.
One of the most noticeable changes Bowden has noticed is in the way she, her team, and their customers interact:
“We’re all kind of taking care of each other more,” she notes. “The group team mentality has really come together.”
She checks in on employees more often to ask how they are holding up, and is not so quick to judge people harshly for how they act, understanding that they may be facing very stressful situations at home. Customers seem more appreciative of their efforts and are less likely to get angry over not getting something on time, because they understand this isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Staff seem more willing to pitch in instead of waiting for someone else to do it.
“This idea of the work silos has really started to crumble,” she observes.
Bowden says University of Illinois employees are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, and she, for one, is not going to hesitate. While she may have harbored some doubts about the vaccine’s hasty development before she got sick, she is now completely on board with getting her shots.
“I’m not going through this again,” she declares.
Related story: COVID-19: One Year Later (Part 1)
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.