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At ASU Print & Imaging Lab, it's all about the students

April 20, 2012

Student workers are a common sight at higher-ed in-plants, but they're usually something of an afterthought – a source of cheap labor. It's rare to find an in-plant where 79 percent of the employees are students.

That's the scenario at the Arizona State University Print & Imaging Lab, though, where students outnumber full-time employees 11 to three. What's more, the Mesa-based in-plant exists predominantly as an academic enterprise within ASU's College of Technology and Innovation – even as it pumps out a huge quantity of printing for the university's four campuses.

"We are an educational laboratory," explains Cathy Skoglund, manager of operations and business development, who was hired six years ago to expand the shop's educational focus and modernize its processes. In addition to giving student workers hands-on experience, the lab hosts tours for graphic arts students from ASU and high school groups. Skoglund credits this educational focus with keeping the in-plant in business.

"If [this] wasn't an educational environment, [it] would have been long gone, replaced with outsourced printing," she remarks. "But because it's about the students and we're providing education to students, it has secured my in-plant."

Those students are in ASU's Graphic Information Technology program. In the Print & Imaging Lab, they have access to a range of graphic arts equipment, such as a new seven-color HP Indigo 5500 digital color press, a two-color Heidelberg QuickMaster 42, a Halm envelope press, two HP Designjet wide-format printers and the Bitstream Pageflex iWay online ordering system.

Great hands-on experience

Students work about 20 hours a week in the in-plant, located in a 6,500-square-foot facility in the Technology Center on ASU's Polytechnic campus. The hands-on experience they get, Skoglund says, all but guarantees them jobs when they graduate.

"It's exciting to see the students that come in here, and when they graduate, once they get out into the workforce, they're just absolutely amazed at how much they know," she says. "They had no idea how much they were actually getting out of working here."

To prove it (and inspire current employees), the in-plant has a "Where Are They Now" wall with photos of former student employees and bios describing where they are working now – companies such as Fujifilm and Consolidated Graphics.

To better motivate her student workers, Skoglund makes sure they're compensated.

"I rely heavily on my students, so I never want to just have somebody work here for free," she says. "I need them to take it seriously. It's definitely not a place that they get to do their homework."

Since the in-plant is entirely self-funded, employees are paid from the lab's profits.

"The university does not fund us at all, so we support ourselves by selling print to ASU," Skoglund says.

Since her arrival in 2006, Skoglund has made several notable improvements, most significantly to the workflow.

"When I got here, everything was done by fax," she says, referring to order taking, proofing and approvals. "It would take two to three months to get a business card."

ASU had purchased but not yet implemented the Pageflex iWay online ordering system, so Skoglund learned the system and built templates. Then she launched it as ASU PrintOnline and ended the faxing.

"Once we did that, our turnaround times went to two to three days, and it became much more efficient," she says.

More streamlined workflow

Automating the workflow cut out many time-consuming tasks and allowed Skoglund to bring in more student workers. Today, 80 percent of all jobs the in-plant prints are managed and processed through ASU PrintOnline. It provides preflight reports, PDF proofs and pricing, all online, and allows ASU customers to easily search for and order their required materials. Jobs are tracked throughout the entire production process and can be stored for up to two years.

These jobs include all of ASU's stationery including business cards, letterhead, note pads, note cards and envelopes. In addition, the shop produces high-quality color products such as brochures, flyers, booklets, newsletters, photo books and postcards. Most of these are printed on the HP Indigo 5500, which the in-plant installed in December to replace its HP Indigo 3000.

"It was cheaper for me to upgrade," says Skoglund, noting that the 5500 has a lower click rate. Now, she says, paper jams are rare and the quality is much improved. Using white ink, the 5500 can print on black, silver and other color stocks, and can even simulate foil stamping. It can print on specialty media such as vinyl, plastics and magnets.

The in-plant also has had great success in its wide-format printing area, where two 60-inch HP Designjet printers (a Z6100 and a 5500) along with a GBC laminator print and laminate trade show graphics, high-resolution prints, banners, spider stands, canvas wraps and more. Two students work in this busy area.

The in-plant has started using personalized URL (pURL) software from MindFireInc to create recruiting pieces for ASU. To promote this capability, the in-plant held an open house in February and showed it off to graphic designers and creative personnel. They loved it, and Skoglund anticipates doing more variable data projects with pURLs in the coming months.

A sustainable operation

In 2008, the ASU Print & Imaging Lab became one of the first in-plants to get chain-of-custody certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The shop now does about 4,000 FSC jobs a year.

"ASU has a very strong sustainability effort," Skoglund says. The in-plant's house stock is 100 percent post-consumer recycled, and all letterhead, envelopes, notepads and note cards are printed on this paper. The FSC watermark is in ASU's letterhead, she adds.

In the future, Skoglund plans to look into outdoor wide-format applications and garment printing, and she hopes to extend the in-plant's Web-to-print system to student orders. But for now, she's content with the way her operation is fulfilling the educational mission of ASU and preparing her student workers for successful careers.

"It's a unique scenario," she says.

Written by Bob Neubauer