Printing During a Pandemic
When COVID-19 hit, Houston Independent School District’s in-plant jumped into action. HISD Printing Services was suddenly tasked with printing student course packets for all of the newly closed district’s 287 schools, under very tight deadlines.
“We’ve extended to 24 hours a day, and we are struggling to keep up,” says Chuck Werninger, senior manager of Administrative Services.
Yet 165 miles west at The University of Texas at Austin, print work slowed to a trickle as quickly as the campus closed down. Printing for upcoming events and classes was all canceled.
“We had some work in the pipeline that we finished up, and we are supporting online teaching, virtual meetings and the medical school,” says Richard Beto, director of Document Solutions. The in-plant is printing wide-format backdrops for virtual meetings, for example. But the overall drop in work has been astronomical. Campus building closures have shut down three of Beto’s retail operations, stopping that revenue stream cold.
At the University of Massachusetts, Boston, things are even slower.
“Right now, revenues are flat,” laments Kahrim Wade, director of Print & Mail Services. “Our print shop has not been deemed ‘essential.’”
And that is the nature of the in-plant industry right now; in-plants have been split into two camps: those deemed ‘essential’ … and those that aren’t.
In-plants that oversee mailing services are more likely to be in the essential group, while some print-only operations have been temporarily closed along with their companies and campuses. College and university in-plants that are open have seen drastic decreases in work orders. Managers have reduced staffing, split employees into shifts to keep them apart, and kept designers, customer service reps and others at home, where they meet now only on computer screens, via Zoom or Microsoft Teams video conferences. At some shops, managers trek in a few times a week to run the handful of jobs that need to be printed.
“We will have our digital press operator go in tomorrow and handle a few things,” says Tammy Dunham, manager of Print Services for the Nestlé Purina PetCare Co., in St. Louis.
This is the new normal for many in-plants. Others are completely shut down, with managers procuring printing from their laptops.
“It has been a few weeks since our team went in last for any print jobs,” notes Jimmy Vainstein, senior program manager at the World Bank Group’s in-plant, in Landover, Md. “Our print operation is only available to source jobs considered emergencies or critical that cannot be postponed.”
He has, however, noticed an uptick in interest in interactive media, such as virtual reality, a service his operation provides. “Our clients are rapidly exploring ways to virtualize events or improve their online presence using immersive media,” Vainstein reports.
Busier Than Ever
Even as some shops experience a drought in print work, in-plants serving hospitals, grocery chains, governments, and school districts are busier than ever — so busy that some have had to outsource print work to keep up. The essential nature of their services has become obvious in the wake of the pandemic.
“Being in the grocery business, we’ve got to stay open for everybody,” remarks Paul Wannigman, manager of Print Services for Coborn’s Inc., a grocery chain based in St. Cloud, Minn. His three-employee in-plant has been extremely busy printing signage, shelf tags, and other essential pieces to guide nervous shoppers through the new grocery-buying experience.
“I’ve at least tripled — quadrupled — my volume,” he proclaims.
Through it all, Wannigman’s positive, dedicated attitude has not waned.
“We’re just happy to take on anything we can to make everyone else’s job easier,” he proclaims.
In Western Washington, Tacoma Public Schools’ in-plant is similarly awash in work.
“Our in-plant went into overtime producing curriculum packets,” says Printing & Graphics Coordinator Mike Griswold — the same situation most K-12 in-plants find themselves in right now. “The first round was 1.8 million impressions.” The second round: 3.8 million.
Hospital in-plants are booming with business as well, much of it signage: directions to guide patients to a specific entrance, signs listing COVID-19 symptoms, signs denoting isolation areas, signs prohibiting visitors.
“It’s just a blur of printing,” remarks Larry Mills, manager of Printing Services at Monument Health, in Rapid City, S.D. “On average, we’ve been working ... between 55 and 60 hours a week. Last weekend I went in four hours on Sunday.”
State printing operations are all considered essential, and most have seen a COVID-19-related spike in unemployment notices and checks, and other public assistance and health-related mailings.
“Our daily mailings have increased from around 30,000 to 40,000 pieces per day,” remarks Ryan Betcher, operations manager of the State of Montana’s Print & Mail operation, in Helena.
One interesting development at several state printing operations has been that, due to their experience delivering mail and printing around the state, they have been called into action to distribute essential personal protective equipment (PPE). The State of Oregon’s Publishing & Distribution operation was asked by the Oregon Health Authority to store and distribute PPE. The in-plant cleared out a portion of its paper warehouse for storage and used its shuttles to deliver to hospitals and care facilities.
When the federal PPE stockpile became available, State Printer Tim Hendrix was asked to prepare another warehouse to store these items and coordinate their delivery. He is now working 10-day shifts, with one day off, to handle this.
“The ability for us to retool in 24 hours and use our own staff to essentially complete this mission, I think, is recognized by leadership,” he says. “Everybody stepped up in an incredible way.”
A New Set of Procedures
Busy or slow, in-plants all face a new set of procedures in a world plagued by a pandemic: endless sanitizing of surfaces, social distancing from coworkers, face masks and gloves, no delivery of mail or finished jobs. Many shops are looking for ways to keep staff — whether homebound or in-house and underutilized — busy and engaged. Professional development is suddenly a key initiative.
That’s certainly been true for Wade, at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who has his staff attending LinkedIn Learning courses on topics like resolving conflicts and learning Excel. He holds video meetings on the Zoom platform to conduct team-building exercises, “which really, really helps,” he attests.
In Austin, Texas, Beto is also stressing professional development, using LinkedIn Learning and other sources.
“We are creating a list of books that staff can read that are aimed at their particular positions,” he explains. “The idea is to read two chapters a day [and] provide a two-paragraph summary indicating how it relates to their job. They would provide this to their supervisor.” He’s also implementing cross-training and operational improvement initiatives during this slow time, with the goal of permanently correcting any shortcomings in the shop’s procedures.
Both Beto and Wade oversee mail operations, and each has pared down staff and services in that area. While Beto’s operation is still delivering mail to a limited number of buildings that his staff can access, other in-plants have halted mail and package delivery, asking customers to pick these items up (while keeping strict social distancing procedures).
At Messiah College, in Mechanicsburg, Pa., mail for priority clients is placed in lockers. Clients can get a key from a safety officer, then leave the key in the locker. Mail employees then remove and sanitize the keys.
Sometimes employees go out of their way to get packages to customers. At North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, Central Receiving, part of Administrative Services, has started accepting FedEx, UPS, Amazon, and other packages that are typically delivered right to customers’ offices, but which can’t be now that campus buildings are closed. Staff is contacting recipients and offering them curbside pickup.
“They arrive, and we run it out to their car,” says Monica O’Brien, assistant director, Technology & Payment Services.
The Signage Boom
Signage is experiencing a big boom during the COVID-19 crisis, particularly at health care facilities. Grocery chains — essential businesses — are also in need of numerous posters, window clings, and floor wraps. At Coborn’s, Wannigman and his two coworkers have been giving their HP Latex printer and EFI hybrid printer a workout, pumping out signs reminding shoppers about social distancing, notices about early shopping hours for the elderly, and other graphics.
“We’re dealing with 58 stores, two to four posters for each,” he says. “We’re drinking from the firehose.”
Each store has ordered 2,000 tags saying “temporarily unavailable” to place on empty shelves. Wannigman and his staff are working mandatory overtime to get it all done.
“We have to get it out the door, and if it’s going to be 8:00 tonight, well then, we’re here till 8:00 tonight,” he says.
Jobs come in constantly, and the staff works tirelessly to get them all done, though Wannigman insists that is not out of the ordinary.
“Everything has become spur of the moment,” he says. “Being an in-plant, we’ve always helped people out at the 11th hour.”
Though they are taking all the usual sanitizing and distancing precautions, he acknowledges that working in such close quarters could be an issue.
“If one of the three of us does get it, we’ll have to shut the whole place down,” he says. “But until then, let’s work like nuts and get everything done. Keep our corporation happy.”
K-12 Busy, Higher-Ed ... Not So Much
While most college and university in-plants that IPI talked to reported a drastic drop in their workload, all K-12 in-plants we contacted were incredibly busy. Why such a difference?
Werninger attributes it to the way these institutions have approached elearning up to this point, both due to the age and economic situations of students. Higher-ed students, who have paid for their education, are eager to continue learning and have quickly adapted to online classes, something they’re already familiar with.
“Your average eight-year-old is not consuming wifi education and submitting homework assignments that way,” points out Werninger. Many students are poor and have neither laptops nor Internet available. Even those that do are not as invested in online education as college students. Printed learning materials have become essential in this time of shuttered schools.
That’s why Omaha Public Schools Printing & Publications Services was called into action to print 2.6 million pages worth of lesson packets for elementary and special education students. In-plant employees worked seven days a week for 18-20 hours per day using both their Xerox Brenva and Baltoro inkjet presses. The massive volume of pages ultimately forced the in-plant to get assistance from a commercial vendor to complete the job, giving Manager Steve Priesman an opportunity to compare the cost difference.
“Ultimately, we determined that the cost of the internal production, which included significant overtime, was around 5 cents per page,” wrote Priesman in an email. “The cost of the production done commercially was around 15 cents per page.”
The operation continues to use its inkjet presses to print packets for pickup by parents at one of seven sites throughout Omaha. Food is also being distributed to students at these sites.
“In addition, we’ve called staff back to work on signs — typical wide-format vinyl banners — for our playgrounds and fields,” Priesman adds. “Unfortunately, with good weather we see children playing on playground equipment and congregating on playing fields. The signs are intended to remind the public that the equipment should not be used, and social distancing is critical.”
At HISD, in addition to curriculum materials, Printing Services has also been asked to print, insert, and mail a quarter million report cards. Though the shop’s Canon VarioPrint i300 inkjet press is up to the task, “We don’t do many quarter million runs,” attests Werninger.
In normal times, the in-plant prints report card shells, and the schools imprint personal information on each. Now Printing Services will print all that variable data.
Werninger is optimistic that the current pandemic will serve to open the eyes of faculty and staff at HISD to the importance of the in-plant.
“I’m hoping for us that this is going to cause us to get a … better equipment package and encourage more internal printing,” he says. Currently, Printing Services prints only 5% of the district’s printing, he says, with the bulk being done by teachers using the copiers in their schools. With schools all closed, teachers are now forced to send that work to Werninger’s operation, giving the in-plant an opportunity to shine.
“I’ve long argued for the fact that the principals and the teachers are experts in educating kids. I want them to focus on that,” he says. “Why don’t we let the printers do the printing?”
Looking ahead to the summer, Werninger anticipates a surge in summer school enrollment this year, and a continued need for printed materials.
“My guess is it’s not going to die down at our normal … lull of activity between June 1 and July 15,” he predicts.
College and university in-plants are hoping for a similar surge in printing work once the pandemic abates and their campuses reopen. At the moment, though, many of them are genuinely worried about their financial situations.
“Usually between March and June we process about $90,000 worth of work, and I’m guessing that we’ll probably lose most of that,” remarks Dwayne Magee, director of Messiah College Press & Postal Services. “Looking at those statistics has been rather grim.”
Though he’s not the only manager making that assessment, some are looking to a time beyond the pandemic, when business picks back up.
“I think we’re going to come out on the other end of this stronger,” believes Wade, with the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Colorado State Printer Mike Lincoln has staff reaching out to customers now, asking agencies what they plan to print in the months ahead so the in-plant can make preparations now. “I want to make sure we’re the ones at the front of the conversation,” he says.
Whenever we reach the other end of this pandemic, managers say, all of our lives will be much different than they were a month ago.
“This is going to end eventually,” concludes Werninger, “and when it does, we’re going to be awakened to a new world.”
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.