The Tide is High at University of Alabama
OFTEN TIMES, when a university in-plant experiences a growth surge, much of the credit starts with the person at the very top of the educational food chain. In the case of the University of Alabama, that honor belongs to President Dr. Robert Witt.
When Dr. Witt took the Crimson Tide's reins in 2003, enrollment stood at 19,000. His aggressive growth initiative has resulted in a nearly 100 percent enrollment increase to 35,000 this past fall. In an age of multi-channel marketing, it was the humble yet time-tested success of printed recruiting materials that played a significant role in the population surge at Tuscaloosa, Ala.'s legendary 180-year-old institution.
Yes, Bama is back, and University of Alabama Printing Services has played no small role in the recruitment renaissance. The in-plant, which boasts 31 full-time workers and 20 part-time students in its employ, has facilitated the student surge by producing recruiting brochures and mailers (both mass and direct mail) for the university's 13 schools. In doing so, Printing Services has defied trends, with long-run offset work done on a pair of four-color Sakurai presses. Higher print volumes and larger printed pieces keep the offset gear humming.
"We've exceeded enrollment records in each of the last seven years," notes Bill May, director of Printing Services. "And it's not just student recruiting [fostering growth]; many of our run lengths are more cost-effective to produce offset than digital. It's more cost effective to run offset when it exceeds a few thousand copies. The size of many materials exceeds the sheet size of digital printing [13x19˝] as well."
Aside from recruiting materials, Printing Services churns out products in support of the school's athletics department, from media guides and posters to ticket office materials and clinical literature. Another area of support is University Advancement, the school's fundraising division, along with general printed products (e.g., business cards, letterhead, envelopes). In terms of marketing communications, Printing Services produces magazines, alumni literature and brochures for a variety of organizations affiliated with the university.
Busy Digital Division
It's not to say that digital printing is the red-headed stepchild for Printing Services, which has a $4.4 million budget. The in-plant's digital division is led by a Canon imagePRESS C6010VP digital color press, backed by two Konica Minolta 5520s, an Océ CS665 Pro and an Océ VarioPrint 6160 high-volume black-and-white machine. Also under the auspices of Printing Services is the satellite Crimson Copies unit, located in the student union building. Plus, May's department oversees 650 black-and-white and color copiers across campus, along with campus network printing (Uniprint).
Printing Services also does its share of variable data printing, primarily mail merge lists, for student communications and almost any application that requires addressing, inserting and numbering.
"We're slowly but surely moving toward digital as well," May says. "We're positioned to move into higher-volume digital equipment quickly if the demand changes because I don't have any capital dollars invested in digital equipment right now. All my production equipment is included in our copier program—no equipment cost, no lease, supplies or service, just on a click basis. If I decide I need to buy an (HP) Indigo or a (Kodak) NexPress, I can buy it almost immediately. We've got good leverage with our Canon copier program. We're really pleased with it."
While not a major aspect of its operations, Printing Services produces some unique and eye-catching large-format signage. Armed with a 60˝ Roland printer and an engraver, May's shop produces banners, event signage, vehicle wraps, and building, road and parking signs. Wall skins are popular, along with an assortment of awards and a number of laser-engraved items. A variety of substrates, particularly vinyl, are employed.
Printing Services boasts full binding and finishing capabilities, including spiral and plastic coil binding, saddle stitching and, more recently, case binding. The case binding capability enables the in-plant to produce short-run bound books such as dissertations, theses, coffee table books and other short-run works. Another acquisition, a 30˝ Heidelberg cylinder press, performs die-cutting, scoring and perforating work that previously was outsourced.
MIS and Digital Storefront
To manage productivity, Printing Services obtained an EFI ePace management information system (MIS) about five years ago to replace its Hagan system, which was no longer being supported. A scheduling module was added about a year ago, and within the last six months, a digital storefront module was implemented by –Assistant Director Tom McLeod that is expected to be operational early this year.
"The storefront will primarily be an online portal for faculty, staff and students to produce business cards and other Web-to-print type services," May notes. "We've been testing it the last two to three months, working out some of the kinks."
In the short term, the in-plant has a bid out for a new Halm envelope press, and May expects it to come online in the first quarter of this year. An item that is more in the long term is the relocation of Printing Services.
Located in the heart of campus, about a block and a half away from Bryant-Denny Stadium, the space that Printing Services occupies is considered high-value real estate, and there is an effort in the works to relocate the printing division and free it up for academic purposes. The university recently acquired nearly 200 adjoining acres that currently hosts a state mental hospital, and the campus' master plan envisions Printing Services taking up residence in a newly constructed building on that site.
The state hospital is waiting on the completion of its new facility, which should be finished at some point this year. Thus, Printing Services isn't likely to be relocating prior to 2013. Still, May has a vision for what he would like to see in the new accommodations, starting with a bump from 25,000 to 35,000 square feet of space.
"We want to improve plant layout efficiencies," he says. "I envision a layout that provides for better employee parking and traffic flow for deliveries. We have 18-wheelers coming in and out of here every day, and our location now is not ideal for commercial traffic. We anticipate further growth, which means more traffic congestion, so a move to the perimeter of the campus makes more sense.
"As for the building, I look forward to a facility that's more open for production operations. I'd like to add a state-of-the-art training facility, conference rooms that can accommodate the entire staff and private meeting rooms for conferring with customers."
With new digs will come new equipment as well, with an additional inserter and inkjet system for the bulk mail processing area slated to aid the workload currently burdened by two systems.
"If we're inserting and addressing a run of 100,000 pieces, it may take several days to complete," May notes. "Meanwhile, we've got to push other, smaller jobs out the door, so it'd be nice to have a third system. Right now, I'm out of space—can't really stuff anything else in this building."
The inserter/inkjet system, May says, is probably a couple of years from fruition. He is blessed to have a strong relationship with the associate vice president for finance, Virginia H. Johnson, to whom he reports, and she has always been extremely supportive of the shop's needs, he says. Printing Services has a rolling five-year acquisition plan, a reserve fund used to cover the cost of new equipment.
Commitment to Excellence
While Printing Service's relationship with the higher-ups is rock solid, there is no room for complacency. The shop does not have the right of first refusal, but the constant practice of providing high-quality, excellent service and a good value keeps May & Co. on their toes.
"The whole staff has that commitment to excellence that I expect," he says, "and I wouldn't trade my staff for anybody."
It seems the university doesn't have any compunction about availing itself to Printing Services, and the same can be said for some off-campus clients. The in-plant has several customers at other local colleges and businesses within the Tuscaloosa community. They bring the shop everything from magazines and brochures to high school football programs. One of its more far-reaching customers is an out-of-state wildlife nonprofit.
If anything, Printing Services is a model for university in-plants. It enjoys continuous growth in offset and digital; when it needs new gear, the bids go out; somewhere there are blueprints for a major addition with the shop's name on it; and when new technologies emerge, no one is sticking a proverbial head in the sand. Plus, May has a pair of skilled right-hand men in McLeod and fellow Assistant Director Daniel Sieber.
When it comes time to hang up his printer's loupe, May is confident that he will have achieved one of his primary goals.
"One of my aspirations is to leave Printing Services in a position of strength. Hopefully, I will have left it a stronger organization than the one I came to work for 25 years ago," he says. "I think I've been successful in that regard."