You Want It? This In-plant Can Do It
When in doubt, diversify.
Adding products and services won’t solve every problem that an in-plant has to deal with. But, as Print Plus at Nipissing University has found out, the richer the mix, the greater the relevance — and the more rewarding the task of supporting internal and external customers becomes.
Located on the Nipissing campus in North Bay, Ontario, not two miles from the shores of Lake Nipissing, Print Plus produces all of the usual items that an academic in-plant typically turns out: course materials, tests, day timers and the like. But a glance at the services menu also reveals 3D printing, braille embossing, buttons, badges, and so on down the alphabet to T-shirts and wide-format output.
With the help of these specialties, Print Plus has transformed itself from an ordinary campus copy shop into a premium printing establishment with a reputation that isn’t confined to the grounds of the university.
The menu has become as broad as it is for two reasons. One, says Shelley Demers, Support Services coordinator, is a desire to keep as much production within the walls as possible — something that Print Plus seems to have little trouble achieving, despite the fact that it doesn’t have right of first refusal on the university’s print work.
‘Why Shouldn’t We?’
Another reason is a reluctance to say no to any member of the school’s population of 5,000 students and 700 faculty and staff.
“Anything they need help with, we’ll give it a whirl,” Demers declares.
This calls for ingenuity and a keen sense of the North Bay area print market.
“Customers ask us, ‘Can you do this?’ And we ask ourselves, ‘Why shouldn’t we?’” says Heather Hersemeyer, director of Technology Services. “We’re here to help. We look at what other shops are doing, and we say, ‘Why can’t we do that?’” If the in-plant can’t do the job to the customer’s exact specifications it will suggest modifications to get it done with the resources it has. Comparing prices with what retail print centers at the local Walmart and Staples are charging helps to keep Print Plus economically attractive.
Outsourcing happens only if the request is beyond the shop’s capabilities: when someone wants, for example, a vehicle wrapped or a large architectural drawing scanned. According to Demers, Print Plus isn’t in competition with local print vendors, some of whom have assisted the in-plant by showing it how to carry out various production tasks.
The shop’s workspace is divided between a production area and a customer service area where orders are placed and jobs are picked up. The unionized staff consists of three technicians under Demers’ supervision, supplemented by four student workers. Print Plus also provides printing services to Canadore College, a community college located on Nipissing’s North Bay campus.
The in-plant’s mainstay machines are a Xerox D125 black-and-white production printer and a Xerox Versant 80 color press, both equipped for punching, stapling and bookletmaking. The shop also operates a Xerox C70 multifunction color printer and supervises a small fleet of copiers/MFDs.
Print Plus expanded into wide-format production six years ago with the installation of a Mutoh device, later replaced with a Roland TrueVIS VG-640 printer/cutter. Supported by a laminator, the 64˝ unit creates window graphics, posters, decals, gallery wrap canvases, and the large signs and banners that adorn the gym. Working with these tools, Print Plus manages to stay consistently ahead of its goal of keeping as much production in-house as possible.
“People just come to us,” Demers says, frequently at the recommendation of other departments. She says that Faculty and Administrative Support Services acts as a “feeder” to Print Plus by designing what internal customers need and routing the jobs to the in-plant. When the university’s Finance office gets word of big upcoming print jobs, it shares the news with Print Plus so that Demers can pitch the in-plant’s services.
Value-Added Services: ‘Our Savior’
Even so, Print Plus has had to think creatively about securing the business it needs to remain useful to its customer base. Like all academic in-plants, it has experienced declines in volume for bread-and-butter items like course packs — hence, the decision to broaden the offering with value-added services, which began with the embrace of wide-format graphics. This technology, says Demers, “was basically our savior” at the outset of the in-plant’s quest for a business model not dependent on traditional print.
The strategy opened the way to adding, for example, a button-making machine: a small investment that would meet the demand for a popular item on campus. In the same spirit, Print Plus has found ways to recapture the production of magnetic name tags and desk plates. With its Braille embossing printer and tactile engraver, the in-plant produces signage that helps to make the university grounds accessible for everyone.
A dye-sublimation printer lets the shop decorate almost anything that can be worn or flaunted: ball caps and toques, clothing, mugs, plaques, pet tags, name tags, ornaments and phone cases, among many other items. Anyone wanting a mounted, vinyl-on-Plexiglas award display need look no further than Print Plus, which will be happy to whip one up with the help of its 24˝ vinyl plotter.
One of the in-plant’s most popular additions has been the MakerBot Replicator 3D printing system that sits in full view in the customer service area. Demers says that sometimes, it also travels to classrooms for demonstrations of the additive manufacturing process. Out of its build chamber have come 3D renderings of topographical maps, musical instruments, replacement parts for phys-ed equipment and even a life-size replica of a human brain.
A Richer Customer Experience
All of these services operate at break-even or better, according to Demers, who notes that bringing in extra revenue isn’t the mandate: providing a richer customer experience is. What she’d like to add next — though she admits that Hersemeyer, her boss, occasionally “has to rein my dreams in” — is a photo kiosk. She explains that North Bay, a lakeside community about 200 miles north of Toronto, has just two photo service outlets, making this another natural opportunity for Print Plus.
The in-plant already has a solid go-to reputation in North Bay, where orders from schools, churches, a regional health center, local businesses and individuals account for about one-third of the shop’s total workload. Print Plus avoids advertising its services, but it wouldn’t need to in any case: word of mouth, networking, referrals from alumni and social media interaction are where the external base of business has come from. The in-plant’s unionized work force attracts work from customers who prefer to buy print from union shops, notes Demers.
Hersemeyer points out that while having an external clientele helps, letting that part of the effort grow too much wouldn’t square with the main mission of Print Plus. Like many schools, Nipissing University has faced financial constraints, and the in-plant’s primary job is to make sure the school has a source of print and graphic services it can depend on. Print Plus still identifies itself as an in-plant, and “the university’s work is still the core,” Hersemeyer says.
What’s most important, adds Demers, is to give everyone who needs help from Print Plus “a small hometown experience” of customer service — including, with every order, friendly smiles from a staff she calls “awesome to deal with.”
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.