How the Largest In-plants Have Fared During COVID
Amid lockdowns, staffing challenges, supply chain shortages, and the need to work differently, 2020 and 2021 have been years like no other. Even the country’s largest in-plants experienced setbacks and alterations to their businesses due to COVID-19. We talked with several of them to find out how their operations were impacted. This article features the thoughts and experiences of:
- Katy Folk-Way, director of University of Washington Creative Communications (Seattle).
- Kristen Hampton, director of Print and Mail Management for the State of Michigan (Lansing).
- Monica Hassan, deputy director of the Department of General Services for the State of California (Sacramento).
- Bret Johnson, manager of Mayo Clinic’s Print Production Unit (Rochester, Minnesota).
- Steven Lewis, director of the Printing Division of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City).
- Wes Troup, business solutions associate at the World Bank (Landover, Maryland).
These large in-plants provide a range of products, from transactional printing to commercial applications, like books, flyers, and brochures. Their wide-format printing services got a big boost during COVID due to the need for health-focused messaging and wayfinding signage. The surge in demand for this signage altered the types of output some of these in-plants provided.
At the World Bank, for example, the move away from in-person events and meetings changed the 82-employee in-plant’s focus from producing meeting materials and annual reports to doing a great deal of wide-format work, including signage and floor graphics. University of Washington (UW) Creative Communications went from producing graphics for events and symposia to printing COVID-related messaging. The experience was similar for Hampton at the State of Michigan, whose in-plant produced “a lot of COVID decals for floor and walls,” 99% of which were printed for Michigan’s state buildings and facilities.
Interestingly, Lewis says his in-plant at the LDS Church saw a significant bump in fine art reproduction — latex inkjet printed onto canvas, then mounted and framed — when the church directed all its facilities worldwide to display images of Jesus Christ in their lobbies. This project, he says, was made possible partially by shifting employees from other areas of the shop where work volumes were suppressed.
Changes to Product Mix
The pandemic, says Hampton, changed what her 63-employee in-plant produced in other ways too, particularly the printing it does for the state unemployment agency. She notes that as unemployment numbers rose in the state, so too did the need for related printing.
Folk-Way says one significant change for her 71-employee shop was a cessation in the creation of course packs. While course pack production had been declining at UW before COVID, the move to fully remote learning rendered them unneeded. She adds that while some professors prefer course packs, UW students by-and-large prefer digital versions.
Also, she adds, UW’s in-plant was bolstered by taking on a significant amount of work from both UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s Hospital. “That saved us,” Folk-Way reveals.
Steven Lewis says perfect-bound missionary books — a mainstay for the 200-person LDS Printing Division — went digital during the pandemic, as did the Church’s missionary outreach.
For some in-plants, managing the pandemic meant handling staffing and production in new and different ways. For Lewis, this meant altering break and lunch times to “space people out,” as well as adjusting the facility’s entry and exit points. Shifts also changed. He says as volumes declined on the operation’s web presses, production shifted from six days a week to five, and the length and frequency of other production shifts were also adjusted.
Johnson says his 46-employee facility at the Mayo Clinic adjusted hours between its shifts to provide spacing and to allow for disinfection of production equipment. At the State of California’s Office of State Publishing, “the implementation of teleworking was an early disruptor,” says Hassan, but that disruption settled down once roles and processes were clarified.
Supply Chain Concerns
Early on in the pandemic, says Hassan, the main supply chain challenge was in the shortage of PPE supplies, which were in great demand and essential to getting the state shop’s 311 employees back in place. Since then, she says, shortages in paper and printing supplies are “now an industry-wide problem.”
Johnson says his shop has looked at alternative products, such as different papers, as a way to manage supply challenges. While he says the Mayo Clinic has a fairly large footprint with its supplier, and thus holds somewhat of an advantage in supply acquisition, his shop’s recent move from sheetfed to roll-fed printing after adding a continuous-feed inkjet press has placed it into a supply type for which it does not have an existing allotment.
Sourcing From Overseas
Lewis says a shortage of paper for the printing of scriptures forced his in-plant to change from a domestic supplier to a mill in France, a move that has been complicated by shipping delays. Further, he says, sourcing framing material — most of which is produced in Asia — has been a challenge. While he reports no major issues there, “lead times have stretched,” he says.
Hampton says her shop is experiencing a shortage of both envelopes and roll stocks. While her operation is on allocation, she says it is trying to be proactive with how materials are used, and it is “stockpiling” materials for the approaching tax season.
While all shops featured in this article say shortages have not required them to stop producing any jobs, most are relying on careful sourcing and inventory management to weather the storm. Troup notes that while getting the wide-format supplies “was difficult at first, that has turned around.”
Among in-plants seeking to acquire equipment, none have experienced delays and nearly all have added equipment in the past year. Johnson says Mayo’s in-plant has installed an inkjet press and finishing line and is in the process of purchasing both a wide-format printer and an automated cutting unit.
Lewis says the LDS Printing Division has added an HP PageWide Web Press T250 inkjet web press and is moving printing away from offset and toward “a more variable approach.” The ability of that inkjet press to handle gloss magazine stock, he says, will help the LDS Church produce the more than 80 regional versions of its magazine, each with run lengths from “several hundred thousand down to 500-600.”
Hampton says the State of Michigan’s operation recently added a new BlueCrest Epic inserting system, and has a new envelope press and MIS system on the way.
Proving In-plant Value
In all cases, the in-plants highlighted here have proven their value during the pandemic, and some in interesting ways. Troup says his shop made it clear very early in the pandemic that it was available to produce documents. He says the World Bank’s internal clients have been “very grateful that printing was being done,” and he strived to put the shop “front and center whenever there was a need.”
Hampton says her in-plant proved its value by continuing to fulfill quick-turnaround and rush projects, and by coordinating delivery. Folk-Way says her operation has shown its value through proven, sustainable practices, which helped keep the in-plant “in a good place” within the university structure.
For these in-plants, surviving and thriving during a pandemic, and amid labor and supply shortages, has required a mix of strategic thinking, careful planning, flexibility, and the inherent need to serve the needs of the parent organization. In all cases, these shops have proven they are not simply departments within a larger organization, but are instead essential tools for its success.
Related story: Solo Acts: The Trials of the One-Person In-plant