Versatility Brings Viability to Iowa In-plant
When Nathan Thole stepped into the role of director of Printing and Copy Services at Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames, Iowa, three-and-a-half years ago, he knew the in-plant would need to boost its creativity level and expand its product offerings and capabilities in order to flourish.
“We are not going to be able to live on black-and-white copies and printing forever,” he flatly states. “It is always dwindling down, so we have to be creative with our product diversity and offer more and more as we go.”
In a short amount of time, Thole’s moves — with the help of a dedicated and talented staff of 29 full-time Printing and Copy Services employees and a small group of student workers — have intrigued internal customers with a diverse range of products, boosted business and visibility for the in-plant, and even garnered an impressive industry honor.
ADA-Compliant Braille Signage
One notable ongoing project that has made a physical, social, and financial impact on campus has been the creation of ADA-compliant braille signage using an Océ Arizona 2280 GT flatbed UV printer and a Colex SharpCUT SX1631 flatbed cutter.
“When we first started the project there was some pushback because there were other departments that wanted to use their own machine to do this,” Thole recalls. “Luckily, we were brought into the conversation and were able to right-size the equipment to do it for the entire campus. We were able to realize a lot more efficiency that way.”
The in-plant is able to work with 4x8´ sheets of material, raising productivity levels while lowering costs. Some signs are created using ⅛˝ acrylic material, but the majority have been or will be printed on a foam PVC substrate.
“We had to do a lot of testing at the beginning to make sure we could print on those substrates and that it would adhere and hold well,” Thole says. “It needs to hold up to people rubbing on them to read the braille. It was a complex recipe and process.”
“We are building up ink 12 layers to get to the right height, and you have to get that to a real tight tolerance,” Thole explains. “It’s not just piling ink up, it also has to ‘dome’ at the end. Each dot has to have a dome — it cannot just be a flat top.”
All told, the university will need up to 50,000 total signs. ISU Printing and Copy Services hopes to be able to save the school well north of $800,000 by producing them in-house. The shop’s efforts were recently recognized by the In-Plant Printing and Mailing Association (IPMA), which honored the in-plant with the coveted Organizational Impact Award during its annual conference in June.
“It definitely was a big feather in our cap to be able to show that to the upper administration and leadership,” Thole notes. “A lot of the people involved with this project didn’t even know that [ADA-compliant signage] was something possible for us to do.”
ISU Printing and Copy Services celebrated its IPMA award with an employee appreciation barbecue and invited everyone that was involved with the project. Of course, the shop’s new trophy was on full display.
“We are very fortunate to have a lot of support from management and the other departments at the university,” Thole states.
Cutting Vinyl Lettering
About two years ago, the in-plant installed a Graphtec FC8600 contour cutter for cutting roll material. While not a huge financial outlay, it allowed the shop to create ISU department nameplates and vinyl lettering for the sides of vehicle doors.
This task traditionally was completed by the on-campus sign shop, but that department often faced workflow bottlenecks, and projects took weeks to complete. The in-plant can now turn this type of job around in less than a day.
More recently, the ISU Printing and Copy Services team has been prepping to begin offering even larger vehicle graphics that are much more elaborate and complex than what has previously been produced. The in-plant plans to provide completed printed materials to the transportation department, which has an employee who is getting certified to handle vehicle wrap installation duties.
“It allows us to have a pretty neat partnership with another department on campus to provide this service,” Thole explains, noting that the university previously did not permit campus vehicles to have full graphics on them. He is confident the operation will soon get approval to move ahead with this.
Thole points out that the campus bookstore has purchased a 40-ft. utility trailer, and the plan is to have it wrapped with university-themed graphics by October.
“They will have that sitting out at all the football games to sell apparel and other merchandise,” he says. “We have a lot of blank white vans and trucks running around campus and a lot of departments want to be able to put graphics on the side of them and show off their services. Hopefully we will be able to take advantage of those moving billboards.”
Thole adds that vehicle wrapping gives the in-plant another product that people might not have thought it could provide — and the shop already has the equipment that can do it.
“We aren’t buying anything new, and that is the best part,” he stresses. “It’s more justification for our existence here, and a good thing all around.”
Core Printing Capabilities
While some of the flashier capabilities the in-plant offers are good for industry publication headlines, Thole points out that he isn’t taking his eye off the core printing needs of the university. This includes production of departmental brochures, student booklets, and variable data mailings.
“We do lot of recruitment materials for the admissions department, including letters to potential students,” he says. “The more variable you can make them, the better. Obviously, that makes it a lot more attention-grabbing. And we are always looking for ways to improve the finishing end and make sure the accuracy is there.”
ISU Printing and Copy Services is home to two Heidelberg Speedmaster 52 presses, a pair of Heidelberg Quickmaster 46 presses, as well as a Kodak NexPress SX3300 and a Konica Minolta bizhub PRESS C7000.
The in-plant’s staff of 29 includes five full-time copy center employees working at on-campus satellite locations; two full-time graphic designers that handle prepress duties; and four full-time customer service reps.
Thole markets the in-plant’s new and traditional services to other state schools and Iowa state agencies like the Department of Transportation, and insources work from them.
“One thing we have done is hold a lot of open house events, where we show them all the new things we can do,” Thole explains. “While they are here, we also show them all the existing or traditional work we have done. We have samples set out for them to see, and that has always been very well received. I’ve seen a lot of orders come in as a direct result.”
In the future, Thole would like to upgrade the online print ordering experience for his customers. He envisions a more interactive storefront where customers can choose products, see prices, and create brochures and other materials based on pre-loaded templates.
But a bigger item that Thole admits has been on his radar is the potential addition of a high-level production inkjet press. He recalls attending a demo a few years ago and being surprised and impressed with the print quality. Attending the Inkjet Summit only further convinced him.
“I think that’s a route that we need to strongly consider, and we have the level of work that would support it,” Thole confides. “We outsource almost $1 million in print each year. Even if we brought back in a small percentage of that, we could help justify it.”
Thole focuses back to his in-plant team when thinking about the success the shop has enjoyed to this point.
“I have a great staff that keeps the day-to-day stuff going,” Thole concludes. “That allows me to go out and research some of the newer work.”
Related story: Iowa State In-plant Earns Organizational Impact Award