Direct-to-Object Printing: An Opportunity for Your In-plant
Blaine Gabriel was looking for a new opportunity. So, the director of Ohio University Printing Services purchased an Epilog laser engraver for his in-plant roughly 20 years ago and began creating name badges. He soon discovered many other uses for that laser engraver such as plaques, wood products like mantle clocks, and wooden lapel pins.
From there, the Athens, Ohio in-plant’s journey into imaging objects continued with the purchase of a Mimaki JFX 200-2513 flatbed printer seven years ago. That system, he says, has allowed the shop to print directly onto notebooks and three-ring binders. Looking forward, Gabriel plans to build a jig to print directly onto golf balls.
This is just one example of an in-plant that has looked beyond paper and expanded into direct-to-object printing. While not a major revenue generator, it allows these shops to provide a needed service that further enhances their value to their parent organizations.
Ohio University Printing Services produces a range of print applications including documents, wide-format, signage, and apparel, and currently has 12 employees on staff. The advantages of doing direct-to-object imaging in-house, Gabriel says, include speed, cost, and control over the finished product.
“A lot of our work is same-day,” he says, “and controlling quality is a factor.” For instance, he says it’s important that the university logo is placed and sized appropriately. Run lengths, he says, are, “all over the map,” and the ability to print “many-up” on the flatbed helps speed production.
“We can print 48 color name badges at one time,” he boasts.
Recently, as a give-away to raise awareness for his shop’s direct-to-object abilities, the in-plant printed 600 ceramic coasters featuring the university logo and scenes ofthe campus. Beyond coasters and golf balls, Gabriel envisions imaging other objects.
“I can see us expanding into something unique,” he says. “This is stuff we hope to sell on campus.”
But the opportunity is not confined to the boundaries of the university. He says the shop also does a lot of work for local businesses.
Both the laser engraver and flatbed systems came online at the shop very quickly, Gabriel says.
“The engraver was easy to set up,” he notes. “The flatbed was two days to set up, a day of training, and it was off and running.”
An Expanding Range of Offerings
University of Oklahoma Print and Mail Services recently took a strong step into direct-to-object printing with the installation of a Mimaki UJF-6042 MkII e flatbed object printer. Director John Sarantakos says it will be used to produce short-run swag, awards, and braille signage. Before acquiring the flatbed, Sarantakos says the 62-employee shop was using a dye-sublimation printer to produce items including name badges, awards, and coffee mugs.
“It’s not a huge product offering,” he says, “but something we could do in-house to supplement ad specialty stuff.”
Sarantakos says much of the direct-to-object work his in-plant handles is quick turn because customers often wait until the last minute. It is that need for speed that has enabled the shop to image items using laser engraving, dye-sublimation, and UV-cured inkjet.
“It allows us to turn a ‘no’ moment into a ‘yes we can’ moment,” he says.
While the new Mimaki printer was only recently installed, the shop is gaining a stronger sense of the value it will bring.
“Our goal is to produce short-run novelty items that can be done at a lower price point,” Sarantakos says, “and for those ‘we forgot’ items our customers are known for.”
One of the goals of the Norman, Oklahoma-based shop, Sarantakos says, is to use the new system to expand its offering of printed objects. “Our goal is to identify 10 to 20 products, stock them, and have them available for 100-or-less last-minute jobs.” He says the shop will convey it has those products in stock and can have them printed and ready for an event. Though this work will bring in a profit, he says, “it won’t be a huge percentage of gross sales.”
Despite the good reputation it has on campus, Print and Mail Services continually markets its services.
“We give tours, open houses. We try to get more face time with the university community,” Sarantakos says. This effort includes sending salespeople out with marketing pieces and samples. “They seem to really appreciate it,” he shares.
Badges for People and Pets
Name badges were the direct-to-object entry point at Nestle Purina PetCare’s St. Louis-based in-plant. The eight-employee shop uses graphic design, digital printing, wide-format printing, and a range of finishing equipment to produce coupons, marketing materials, and items for the company’s public relations and community affairs departments.
“Lots of short runs,” says Tammy Dunham, senior manager of Office Services & Accounting.
The in-plant started producing name badges using dye-sublimation inkjet printing in 2017. While that task was initially intended to produce attractive name badges for visitors, she says, it later expanded to meet the needs of the company’s “Pets in the Workplace” program. The pet nametags are either rectangular with rounded corners or shaped like a dog bone. The color-printed badges feature a logo on one side and pet information (name of owner, etc.) on the reverse.
“We were looking to do fun badges,” Dunham says, “so we didn’t do engraving. We moved it to dye-sub.”
For Dunham, expansion into these new products was a problem to solve.
“We engraved [badges] for a long time — more than 30 years,” she says. “Then we were printing them onto pressure-sensitive material — very labor intensive.”
While producing nametags with dye-sublimation, using a Sawgrass SG800 printer and a GeoKnight DK20S heat press, “is not without its own labor challenges, it is an easier process,” she says. To date, Dunham estimates the in-plant has produced roughly 500 pet tags.
Dunham is not currently seeking to expand the variety of objects the in-plant images.
“It’s not really what we want to get into with the setup we have now,” she says. Even so, the shop has produced a variety of one-off and very short runs of t-shirts, plaques, and even a custom-printed chef’s apron.
As a percentage of the in-plant’s total production, Dunham says direct-to-object items are, “probably one percent.” These are not billable jobs and don’t generate revenue. But they do generate good will and enhance the in-plant’s value.
“People from off-campus, big brands, love the badges,” she shares.
While Dunham says the in-plant didn’t experience any challenges in getting started with its dye-sublimation system, she does remember overselling the capability.
“I spoke too soon about what we could do,” she says. “It took a bit of time to do it the right way.” Today, she adds, the process is well under control.