Working Together for Mutual Success
Though many organizations around the country have in-plants, it’s not often you find a company with five different in-house printing operations. But that’s the strategy American Electric Power (AEP) has in place. Its Workplace Services division has in-plants in five different locations: Fort Wayne, Ind.; Corpus Christi, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Roanoke, Va.; and Tulsa, Okla.
“It’s all AEP, but different operating companies within AEP have different needs,” explains Cindy Hohman, office support supervisor of AEP’s Fort Wayne location. “We evaluate how each operation can best serve its region. Depending on the jobs, we transfer them between us [through] the MIS system.”
AEP Workplace Services maintains a shared print ordering system through Rochester Software Associates’ WebCRD.
“We support each other all the way across the board and set ourselves up to take … advantage of the different locations’ strengths,” notes Hohman.
AEP is an investor-owned electric utility that delivers power to more than five million customers in 11 states. Each AEP operation has both print and mail services, but Fort Wayne is the only full offset and bindery location, and prints many of AEP’s larger runs. The other locations specialize in digital black-and-white and color printing, in-line and offline finishing, and large-format printing. To support their respective regional needs, and one another, the five locations use a mix of technology that includes Canon and Xerox black-and-white and color printers, Mutoh and HP wide-format devices, Challenge cutters and drills, and Rhin-O-Tuff and Akiles spiral binding equipment.
The in-plants’ traditional gamut of jobs includes booklets, flyers, and forms. In 2019, Hohman says AEP’s five in-plant locations had 6.2 million black-and-white clicks and 11.4 million color clicks, and Fort Wayne added 18 million offset impressions. Fort Wayne is also the central location for stock forms and safety tags, and prints all of the inserts that go into customers’ paper bills, which can include rebates, regulatory requirements, and smart meter communications for customers who have replaced their analog meters. All of AEP’s seven operating companies require inserts, and with five million total customers, Hohman says her location can print anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million impressions a month depending on what operating companies need to communicate.
Transferring jobs through the MIS, Hohman says, has proven to be a very efficient process, and has helped the operation retain clients and gain jobs through word of mouth.
“They’re having conference calls and video chats, and sharing best practices. They let their colleagues know that they entered [a job] through the e-system that will transfer to them. Additionally, we print and insert large mailings in-house. Fort Wayne is capable of running up to 20,000 pieces, and we can get them out,” she says. “We have bulk mailers we work with at three of our print/mail locations that will do pre-sort work for us.”
A Collaborative Effort
There are some jobs, however, that require all five operations on deck, including the safety manual utilized by all AEP employees.
“If they don’t have the app on their phone, they have the hard copy safety manual, and when we reprint that every year, it takes all five of us to do this and help each other out,” says Hohman.
Earlier this year, AEP reduced its print operations from eight to five.
“There was a need to make some more cost-effective decisions to support our operations,” says Hohman, adding that the in-plant had seen changes in print volumes for certain jobs — primarily black-and-white reductions. In addition, mail and print services have been combined to report to the same supervisors at each location, and AEP eliminated its longtime intercompany pony service, which delivered print jobs and parts, supporting all AEP business units across the country.
“Until last year, it was extremely cost effective, but we couldn’t justify it anymore,” she says. The in-plants now ship via UPS and XPO Logistics.
Such decisions, Hohman says, are based on evaluating how the company has changed and looking at all aspects, including the supply chain, parts, and utilities. She and her counterparts at the four other locations — Sean Davy in Columbus, Juan Terrazas in Corpus Christi, Allen Crowder in Roanoke, and Jak Kidwell in Tulsa — have monthly conference calls and coordinate the collection and reporting of metrics to the corporate offices.
“We benchmark our services every year against outside providers, and we still provide a substantial value to the company, both cost effectively and in turnaround times,” says Hohman, adding that urgency and confidentiality are important factors in the services the operations provide.
“Our support team includes Minissa Bowers in Columbus, who evaluates our cost systems, looking at our numbers and seeing where we’re at with prices for jobs, and we report all of this to upper management and corporate in Columbus. They are extremely supportive of our operations,” she says.
Such support has enabled the five in-plants to expand their technology mix and services. For example, all locations are now able to print on poly labels and have water-resistant, non-tear material in-house.
“We’ve made some changes in what substrates we use, and what we print in-house versus outsource,” says Hohman. “It’s been a cost savings and much faster, since some things we’d have to wait four weeks for. Any one of our shops is being set up so they can source that substrate themselves, so it’s been a real plus.”
Fort Wayne also acquired an Intec ColorSplash CS4000, which Hohman says has taken the burden off of the press operators, and a Xerox Color C75 for printing specialty jobs and smaller runs on poly material that would previously jam.
A newly acquired, refurbished Agfa Acento PT-R4300S computer-to-plate system using aluminum plates has also improved print quality on Fort Wayne’s presses.
“To keep our cost down, we needed a reliable rebuilt system, and Platesetters.com worked with us to locate and rebuild the Agfa, and provide installation, training, and remote support,” says Hohman. “There is a learning curve with the new workflow, and the prepress team is working together to adjust our setups. I am pleased with the new equipment. Although I have been the supervisor for 26 years, the team is where the technical, mechanical, and software experience and knowledge lies. They contributed greatly at every step in the research and review process.”
Adapting Amid COVID-19
Like many industries, AEP and its in-plants have shifted their operations in response to COVID-19. Hohman says it has significantly impacted AEP’s utility training.
“Since February, there has been no in-person training at all,” she says. “Training manuals are a big part of what all five shops do.”
With the rapid changes and shutdowns, she says the projects customers would normally request have been put on the back burner.
“The projects they may have had with larger power customers … changed, so it impacts what we’re providing in print,” Hohman says. “It has slowed considerably but is starting to pick up slowly, since some of the training has started to pick back up. We’re definitely not back to the level that we were prior to February.”
The in-plants are ensuring AEP’s remote employees have jobs shipped directly to them so they don’t have to come into the office or go to the post office. This includes hard copy forms, notices, tags, flyers, informational brochures, and safety items they may be running out of in the field or at their service centers.
“If you’re working from home, you can’t just go back to the office; you have to notify when you go in,” she says. “And if we have people in the field, they need it sent to a specific work location. When they submit a job through our website, it automatically populates their office location, so we double check.”
As all businesses navigate the challenges of COVID-19, the pandemic has further emphasized the value of AEP’s collaborative business model.
“I learn something new every day,” says Hohman, who has been part of the AEP family for 33 years. “It’s been a really good career, and this group of people has been amazing.”
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