From the Editor: Hiring Frustration? Try Automation
As we start off this new year, in-plants are still faced with many of the same challenges that have haunted them for the past two years: paper shortages, a drop in demand for printing, and a scarcity of skilled workers. This last challenge was labeled a top concern by 38% of the in-plant managers who participated in our Trends and Services in the In-plant Industry (2022) study.
In the commercial printing world, a much higher 83% are concerned about labor shortages, with 62.5% rating it a “significant concern,” according to the 2022-23 State of the Industry Survey. When we surveyed many of the largest in-plants in the country recently, 67% said they have open positions they can’t find qualified applicants to fill.
What can be done about it, though? For many, the solution is automation: adding equipment and software to handle repetitive tasks so workers can focus on more important duties. This can mean Web-to-print systems to automate the job capture step; replacing offset presses with easier-to-operate digital printers; or adding bindery equipment that sets up for the next job with the push of a button. By making your shop’s devices easier to run, fewer operators are needed, and less skilled workers can run the machines. In the 2022-23 State of the Industry Survey, 52.7% of commercial printers noted they are investing in capital equipment specifically for automation purposes.
I was talking with Del Shankle of the CHRISTUS Trinity Mother Frances Health System’s in-plant when he broached this topic.
“We see the handwriting on the wall of … not being able to find experienced and qualified people,” he told me. So he’s in the process of automating his in-plant. One of his first steps was adding a Duplo DC-746 slitter/cutter/creaser. Because of its automation features, job setup requires little manual intervention. Operators simply scan a bar code and the machine adjusts automatically for the new cuts. This ease of use has eliminated the bindery bottleneck in the shop. Cutting 1,000 business cards, for example, has gone from 20 minutes to two.
“Adding the Duplo really has given us almost a full-time [person],” Del said.
Larger in-plants are adding digital presses and moving offset work to them because a single operator can run more than one digital press, versus a more labor-intensive offset press. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Printing Division now has two inkjet presses and has moved offset work like magazines to them, in part because they are far easier to run than offset presses.
“We’re not immune to the workforce challenges that everybody faces,” said Director Steven Lewis. “Being able to bring in equipment that can be operated with fewer people … is critical.”
Reducing touches on the front end is equally critical. In-plants have found that automating job submission lets them deploy staff to other roles. When Chino Valley Unified School District’s in-plant went from hand-keying orders to using a Web-to-print system in 2020, speed and accuracy improved, and employees suddenly had more time for other tasks. This enabled the shop to add new services and increase its value.
“If you automate the front end ... you take all those people out of the process,” agrees Pat McGrew, managing director of the McGrew Group. “You can free up a lot of people.”
Still, many in-plants worry about the cost of new automated equipment and workflow software. McGrew says that’s not the way to think about it.
“The investment that you make is going to pay it back in FTEs and in optimization many, many fold,” she contends. The cost of the software, she adds, is less than a third of the cost of one employee.
So if your choices are continuing to fall behind due to a position you can’t fill or investing in automation to ensure your future, the decision doesn’t seem difficult. Don’t overlook the opportunity that automation offers.
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.