What Is an In-plant?
I had an interesting conversation with Dwayne Magee recently. Dwayne is the president elect of IPMA and manages the in-plant at Messiah College. During the course of the conversation he surprised me with a question: “What is an in-plant anyway?”
Hmm. Good question. I’ve often questioned the use of the term “plant” when describing what we do. Plant sounds so “industrial.” We don’t think of churches, government agencies, schools, non-profits or companies as being “plants,” but many operate internal print facilities. I’m not sure how the name evolved, but it clearly sets the tone of a discussion about internal service providers. IMHO people are swayed to a negative perception when one talks about “in-plants” because of the industrial connotation of the word “plant”.
That said, what is one? One answer is rooted in the early days of the industrial revolution when industry leaders recognized the need to control all facets of the supply chain in order to meet their business objectives, and vertical integration evolved as a management model. In its simplest form, the vertical integration model is based on the notion that there is a point where an organization uses so much of a resource that producing it internally makes sense, both from an economic profit/loss perspective, but also just getting the product or service out the door. That is, the organization becomes its own supplier to guarantee that is has adequate supplies of one or more vital elements in the supply chain.
So an in-plant is an internal supplier of, in our case, document management services. The scope of service varies from organization to organization, but services provided could include:
- Marks on paper (offset and/or digital production)
- Mail management
- Storage, warehousing and distribution
- Print procurement
- Variable data printing
- Document security
- Copier/multi-function device/printer management
- And on, and on
Services are provided primarily for the parent organization, although some organizations actively pursue bringing work in-house to defray some of the costs.
From this perspective one could think of an in-plant printing operation as a centralized print management service where an individual or group of people is responsible for providing the organization’s marks-on-paper needs effectively and efficiently.
Who should have one and why?
Dwayne wasn’t finished. “I get that,” he mused. “So who should have one? And why?”
Any organization that buys large amounts of a commodity or service should look into moving to internal production. How large? That’s up to each organization, but the analytical models are fairly straightforward.
Why start one? Simple answer: to control price and supply. Another, somewhat more esoteric reason has to do with institutional loyalty. Sure printing may not be “core” to the operation of the school, or hospital, or company; but when the print staff work for the organization, they tend to become part of it. I doubt that you’ll find many in-plant managers that don’t have stories of times they went the extra mile and saved the day on an important project. External suppliers don’t do that, at least not on a regular basis, and certainly not without charging for it. But we’re expected to. We may not be a core process, but we’re an important one, and saving peoples’ butts could be a part of every in-plant managers’ job description.
The new buzz term is “full stack business model.” Netflix and Amazon, for example, are going into the video production business to ensure the availability of material for their streaming services. Apple not only owns businesses that make core components of its iPhone, but it has also opened stores to control at least a part of the distribution channel. And recently I read that a major US airline had bought an oil refinery as a way to ensure supplies of a vital commodity: jet fuel. All are examples of vertical integration, and it would not be a stretch to call an Apple Store an “in-plant distribution center.”
But is Netflix in the video production business? Could it buy videos for its customers to watch instead of producing them? Could Apple sell iPhones through other outlets? Could the airline buy jet fuel from commercial distributors? Of course they could. But these companies made a strategic business decision to control at least a good-sized chunk of their supply and/or distribution chains.
In my view, in-plants fall into this business model. When an organization buys so much printing that it begins to be concerned about the size of the expenditure and the impact of an interruption on core business objectives, it begins to look for ways to control and/or manage costs. Internal production is a natural result.
What is an in-plant? Here’s one way to look at it: An in-plant is a group of people dedicated to providing a mission-critical service on time and at a cost that allows the parent organization to be competitive. So when someone in your organization questions why your organization has an in-plant, remind them that internal production is a well-established management model with a long history of success. Try to get your MPS vendor to match that.
Related story: Who Still Says 'In-plant?'
Ray Chambers, CGCM, MBA, has invested over 30 years managing and directing printing plants, copy centers, mail centers and award-winning document management facilities in higher education and government.
Most recently, Chambers served as vice president and chief information officer at Juniata College. Chambers is currently a doctoral candidate studying Higher Education Administration at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU). His research interests include outsourcing in higher education and its impact on support services in higher education and managing support services. He also consults (Chambers Management Group) with leaders in both the public and private sectors to help them understand and improve in-plant printing and document services operations.