A True Blue Asset
At a university with the slogan “I am True Blue,” it’s only fitting that Middle Tennessee State University’s in-plant goes by the name BLUE print Solutions on its Murfreesboro, Tenn., campus. Known for its strong customer focus, the in-plant is a case study in organizational efficiency and responsive service. That combination keeps the operation profitable, its customers happy, and its parent institution pleased with the way things are being done.
Overseeing BLUE print Solutions along with a separate production printing facility is Ed Arning, director of market development in the Creative Marketing Solutions unit of MTSU’s Division of Marketing and Communications. Thanks to a restructuring that took effect at the beginning of 2019, Creative Marketing Solutions now comprises graphic design and photographic services as well as printing. The consolidation, according to Arning, has made an already successful in-plant even more effective in its mission.
The restructuring plan merged separate design and printing departments and appointed a traffic manager to route orders for design, photography, printing, social media, and other services wherever they needed to go. The aim, says Arning, was to give customers “one pipeline in, one pipeline out” access to Creative Marketing Solutions, using the in-plant’s customer-facing presence as a front door to one-stop shopping convenience on campus.
“We are far better off,” declares Arning, citing closer coordination between design and printing and more precise information for customers about job costs and delivery dates. Workflows have been “streamlined dramatically,” he adds, as the unified operation strives to provide “more clarity about services, faster, by working as one team.”
Friendlier than FedEx
Accounting for six of Creative Marketing Solutions’ 16 full-time employees, plus another five part-timers, the in-plant includes two separate printing operations:
BLUE print Solutions, located in a 2,300-sq.-ft. facility that has occupied in MTSU’s student union building since 2014. It holds several midrange copier/printers, a trio of wide-format devices and small bindery equipment.
A larger 3,000-sq.-ft. production facility on campus about a quarter of a mile away, which houses the in-plant’s mainstay digital production presses as well as its larger postpress equipment.
BLUE print Solutions, says Arning, provides a “student friendly, campus friendly” retail environment similar in concept to the printing counter of a FedEx or a Staples store. With decor highlighted in MTSU’s signature royal blue, BLUE Print Solutions projects what Arning calls “a Main Street front door” image to the school’s 20,000-strong student body and other members of the campus community.
Arning says that transitioning the operation to all-digital printing with “elite color equipment” in 2013 led to “dramatic growth in orders, revenue, and profit” as MTSU began to realize how much of its printing it now could keep on campus. The in-plant’s offset presses — once installed in a basement underneath a dormitory — are long gone; only a mothballed, two-color Heidelberg GTO ZP remains, awaiting delivery to a buyer.
Arning credits university President Sidney A. McPhee and other administrators with recognizing that the “explosion” of digital printing could be a good thing, both for the school’s printing services and for the population that relied on them. The in-plant currently produces about $1 million worth of printing per year, with monthly volumes fluctuating according to what Arning calls “the historic collegiate up-and-down cycle” of seasonal work.
‘A Very Smart Way to Operate’
By charging back for its services and accepting cash from students at the BLUE print Solutions counter, the shop generates a stream of income that keeps it dependably in the black. According to Arning, growth driven by on-campus orders has shown the university that it needn’t turn to off-campus sources to get its “vivid” color printing done.
Keeping the money and the profit on campus through right of first refusal has turned out to be “a very smart way to operate,” he says.
There are exceptions. Long-run work, such as an MTSU alumni magazine with a circulation of 100,000, is outsourced, as is anything else that exceeds what Arning refers to as “sensible capacity” of the shop’s digital equipment. Bulk mailing sent to an outside lettershop represents an opportunity that the shop hopes one day to capture, he adds.
Apart from these tasks, there’s plenty of work for the in-plant to do with its complement of production color and black-and-white digital presses, the centerpiece of which is a Canon imagePRESS C10000VP color press installed last December. Wide-format equipment consists of a pair of HP Latex 365 printers and an Epson Stylus Pro 11880 aqueous device. On the software side, the shop uses edu Business Solutions’ Print Shop Pro for print management, Enfocus PitStop Pro for file quality control, and Adobe InDesign for creative applications.
Students come to BLUE print Solutions when they need graphics-rich presentation materials for their course work, printed and bound on demand. The Admissions office is one of the in-plant’s major departmental customers, turning to it for the recruitment and scholarship literature the office sends to students and their parents. The shop supports the school’s athletic programs with media guides, posters, sidewalk and arena signage, and “hard plastic credentials”: ID badges for security and other purposes at athletic events.
Most of the variable printing the shop does is connected with fundraising campaigns for the university’s alumni association. It also prints promotional material for the Division of Marketing and Communications, its parent department. Special assignments have included printing sidewalk graphics to guide visitors around school grounds during recruitment tours and other events — a form of graphic output that Arning says many people on campus hadn’t encountered before.
Additional volume comes from the unsolicited work the in-plant insources from nonprofits and similar external clients that approach it for assistance. As a member of the Tennessee Government Printing Alliance, a coalition of state-run in-plants, the MTSU shop works with various government entities to help them manage their print spending more effectively.
Tying it all together, says Arning, is a determination to do whatever it takes to enable customers to get their printing done.
“We’re very proactive about consultation,” he says, noting that most people have had little or no exposure to printing and thus need the kind of guidance the in-plant can provide. “We are the resource that joyfully says, ‘How can we help?’”
Arning is an MTSU graduate who joined the Division of Marketing and Communications in 2013 after a long career in the commercial printing industry. With his background in marketing and sales, he sees his present role more as promoting what the in-plant can do than being in hands-on charge of its routine operations.
“I’m not a guy with wrenches and screwdrivers in my hands,” he says, but rather the face of the division and the in-plant before administrators, deans, chairs, faculty, staff, and students. “I paint the picture for them.” The job frequently has him out and about on campus, evangelizing the shop’s services and support. (It’s not for nothing that Arning taglines his e-mails with the advisory, “I spend a lot of time in your offices, away from my desk.”)
Next on his to-do list is expanding the mailing operation, an activity he describes as “microscopic” at present, but one that could grow by complementing the shop’s Xanté envelope press with a folder-inserter, space permitting. In progress is a study aimed at determining what would be needed to make bulk mailing an internal capability.
Arning says optimism is the keynote as the MTSU in-plant “transitions to the new culture” brought about by the restructuring of Creative Marketing Solutions within the Division of Marketing and Communications. He believes that in-plants in general are entering a golden era of prosperity with the help of digital printing.
At shops that take proper advantage, he says, “it’s tough not to make money, because digital printing is so efficient.”
Related story: Tennessee In-plant Opens Retail Center