OU Puts Specialty Services on the Everyday Menu
An in-plant is and always will be a printing department. For many in-plants, however, there’s now a supporting role: doubling as an emporium of specialty goods.
This is becoming particularly true for in-plants on university campuses, where the population’s appetite for graphic products begins but in no way ends with documents. Managers of university in-plants are learning that if they can decorate, engrave, emboss, or otherwise embellish something, people will see added value in it — and will want to buy it from the in-plant instead of from an outside source.
In this way, notes Sherri J. Isbell, assistant director of Printing, Mailing and Document Services at the University of Oklahoma (OU), the in-plant gains not only an additional revenue stream but a stronger hold on the spending habits of its customer base. She says the menu of nontraditional services that OU’s in-plant now offers to students, faculty and alumni “opens their eyes up” to its full range of services — and keeps them coming back.
The newest of the in-plant’s specialty services are garment printing, laser engraving, contour cutting, wide-format latex printing and promotional products. Isbell reckons that these and other value-added offerings now account for about 20% of revenues and will represent an increasing share as the campus population becomes more aware of them.
One way to encourage that is simply to let people come in and watch. Students get “excited,” Isbell says, when they see the shop’s Colex contour cutter at work, and their excitement often prompts them to buy more things from the in-plant. So the cutter serves as both a marketing tool and a production device.
No Secret Made of It
Isbell believes in using all of the means at her disposal to promote what the in-plant is capable of. Yard signs, brochures, direct mail and social media postings help to spread the word, as do online videos depicting the specialty services (vimeo.com/ouprinting). Also useful are in-person sales pitches at open houses and other university happenings.
“We attend every event we can possibly get an invitation to,” says Isbell, whose approach is to set up a table and represent the in-plant in keeping with the theme of the activity. At a “green day” program, for example, the shop’s environmentally responsible operating policy would be the thing to emphasize.
OU’s Printing, Mailing and Document Services operation is the nation’s largest university in-plant by annual sales ($16.7 million) according to In-plant Graphics’ 2016 ranking, and the seventh largest in-plant overall. Overseen by Director John Sarantakos, the fully integrated printing, finishing and mailing facility is staffed by 80 people. It serves 700 departments and a university population of about 32,000 from production sites on and off OU campuses in Norman and Tulsa.
Isbell says that because the needs of customers change continuously, she is always on the lookout for new products and conveniences to offer them. Right now the best-selling specialty service is promotional products, she says, a mainstay of the OU in-plant for 15 years and an offering that continues to post year-over-year growth. Large-format output, augmented by the recent installation of a 64˝ latex printer, is number two.
Print It, Wear It, Flaunt It
Printing on clothing became part of the mix in June of 2016 with the addition of a Brother GT-381 direct-to-garment printer, accompanied by a pre-treater and a heat press. These units transfer heated ink onto fabrics in full color as an alternative to screen printing, which isn’t cost efficient for the small orders of T-shirts, sweatshirts and other garments that the in-plant typically receives.
With the help of this “fabulously produced process,” says Isbell, the shop can turn out batches of 50 or fewer pieces at competitive prices, individualizing each shirt if that is what the order calls for. (Bigger jobs continue to go to outside screen printing services.) Customers can submit their own printable images, or the in-plant’s staff designers can create the desired look for them.
Isbell’s rationale for choosing and cost justifying garment printing as a value-added service applies to all the other equipment investment decisions the shop has made. At the time of the purchase, she knew what the ROI would be based on current demand. She also knew that savings gained by printing garments in-house with full quality control could be passed along to customers. And she correctly anticipated that those who ordered T-shirts for campus expos and similar events would also turn to the in-plant for signage, note pads and other printed items in support of them.
The OU in-plant won’t consider adding any service “unless we know we’ll have customers waiting in line for it,” Isbell says. As for the cost difference between doing direct-to-garment printing in-house and having it done outside, “we documented that before we made the purchase” of the Brother equipment, she notes.
Engraved for Posterity
Demand, quality and cost also drove the OU in-plant’s investment in an Epilog Fusion M2 40 laser engraver, installed earlier this year and upgraded to its latest version in June. With its powerful CO2 laser tubes, this device will precision-etch almost anything that Isbell and her team can place on its 40x28˝ engraving table: cups, mugs, awards, name badges, rubber stamps, tiles, photo frames and even OU-owned iPads that the school wants to identify as its own.
Rising demand for items like these made it necessary to replace an existing engraver with a unit offering the larger format size of the Fusion M2 40: a machine able to handle, for example, the imaging of six plaques at once. This not only ensures rapid, cost-efficient production but also the kind of quality control that can only be achieved by keeping specialty work like engraving in-house.
From Signs to Stress Balls
A good deal of the display material that OU’s in-plant produces is for outdoor use. Indoor signage can be run on the shop’s 64˝ Mutoh ValueJet printer, which can process both roll-to-roll and rigid media. Signs that have to be durable enough to withstand weather and other tough conditions now can come from a rollfed 64˝ latex printer that the shop installed this year. Isbell describes it as a versatile device that lets the in-plant print with high quality on vinyl, textiles or whatever other substrate the job calls for.
Promotional items — practical things like pens and screen wipers as well as gewgaws like stress balls — have been making money and building customer loyalty for mainstream printing businesses for years. There’s no reason why they can’t do the same for in-plants.
The OU shop strongly endorses the idea. The Printing, Mailing and Document Services website (ou.edu.priting) links to more than 40,000 promotional items that the in-plant sources from vendors licensed by the university. Special requests are accepted, and customers can obtain free quotes for as many products as they’d like to order.
Responses to a recent IPG survey bear out the idea that college and university in-plants tend to be more progressive than other sectors of the in-plant community and more willing to try new things. There’s no stronger case in point than the OU in-plant and the commitment it has made to value-adding specialty services.
Asked whether the in-plant will offer more of them, Isbell replies that she has no specific near-term plans to do so. But, that almost certainly isn’t the end of the story.
“We are always looking to grow as our customers’ needs change,” she says.
Patrick Henry is the director of Liberty or Death Communications. He is also a former Senior Editor at NAPCO Media and long time industry veteran.