The return of in-house printing: the good and the bad

The proliferation of digital technologies is making graphic arts increasingly more accessible. From the ability to design your own print collateral all the way through to finishing, there seems to be more options than ever regarding how much you take on. Most businesses exist somewhere between the extremes of printing everything in-house or outsourcing all print-related work. Technology allows us to participate further out on both ends of this spectrum. 
In today’s landscape print providers are able to provide companies thoroughly integrated web-to-print solutions that make ordering small quantities of brochures, business cards, and many other pieces of print collateral no more than a couple of mouse clicks away. Likewise, digital solutions providers have options for companies to absorb the work in-house. There are a variety of reasons to explore the latter option: increased security, the ability to asset-manage and more control over timelines are some of the advantages that will be discussed in this article. Further, some drawbacks such as the need for volume, capital equipmenta purchases, and the need for specialized labour will also be discussed.

inhouse2Advantages of in-house printing

One reason for in-house printing services is the need for security. Perhaps you are dealing with sensitive financial data for clients. In such cases one could claim that it is easier to maintain liabilities if all the work is done by company employees. An example of this is key card printing. If lost and new ID cards are an administrative burden or a security risk you may invest in this type of solution. This type of specialized printer is not a big capital investment, and you’ve likely seen one sitting in the security office of your company if you use key cards.
A more complex example of security needs is transactional data printing. The typical example of a transactional data document is a bill that you get in the mail. This type of printing has been dominated by digital for quite some time. Ongoing trends in this market are typically tied to colour, with new full colour digital being more accessible. Further, marketers have been keen on using the captive audience as an opportunity for promotions. This practice is typically called transpromo, which you can read about in a past article. While there are certainly opportunities to be very innovative in this area, it should be noted that the volumes in transactional printing are declining as more and more people move to online statements. It will be interesting to see whether this shift in volume causes more people to keep the printing-in house.
Timelines are also a factor when considering printing work in-house. Often print providers have access to faster equipment, so we are not talking about how long it takes to print something. Rather there is more control within a company to prioritize time sensitive jobs. As is the case with all instances of in-house work, you become your own customer. On a side note however, this is known to pit individual departments against one another. As such, internal customers also need to be managed.
In addition to owning all of the work, in an in-house printing scenario you also own and have access to all of your assets. This is an advantage that resonates with
in-house design teams. We know that having one team work on your brand as opposed to dispersing it across many vendors can make the output more consistent. I had a chance to speak with Erika Hille, intermediate graphic designer at World Fishing Network, where design is managed in-house. She comments, “while we do have external clients, our biggest client is ourself. We work on the same brand from one project initiative to the next. Does it get tiring staring at same thing day after day? Sometimes, but the challenge is the same as it would be in an agency setting: to constantly evolve in order to keep the content engaging while still maintaining the core values of the brand. We have to do this to keep our brand and our product successful.”
Further, it means that you own the process and all of its parts. Once again this is an advantage only if it is well managed. As an example, having all of your assets sitting on the desktop in one hard drive is not really any more efficient than calling your provider for the file.

Disadvantages of in-house printing

In order to entertain the idea of printing in-house, you first have to ensure that you have the volume needed to keep the staff and equipment busy. Even if you like the list of advantages above, the sheer cost of having a department idle negates them. If the volume of work that you do is there, you need to start assessing the risk and cost of owning equipment. Digital devices tend to follow the razor blade business model, where the hardware is fairly affordable, but the consumables (that you have to continuously replenish) are fairly pricey. Thus when assessing the cost of owning equipment it is important to think about it holistically. Include the cost of the equipment as well as consumables and maintenance at the very least. There are other considerations as well – people often forget to account for the higher utility costs they will likely incur. Then there is of course the cost of staffing.
At the end of the day producing printed work takes time, and so the real question is whose time do you want to consume and why? Think about your core competencies and how producing your own printed collateral would fit with them. Assess if you have enough volume to consider in-house printing. Lastly, make sure that if you do choose to do so, you need to think about the workflow and staff to ensure you get to reap the advantages. No one is advising you to just buy a fancy multi-printer and hope that regular office staff will just know what to do and that the quality won’t be compromised.
Like with every workflow, there rarely is a one-size-fits-all solution. I’ve received some tips from the pros to help identify the best fit. Firstly, a good print provider will not stand in your way if an in-house solution will save you money. Often they will partner with you to help you understand your capabilities, and in return absorb some of your more complex, and likely higher margin work. Don’t be afraid to talk to your printer if you are considering in-house work. Secondly, you want to think about scalability. Perhaps you want to start slowly and build the catalogue of items you are able to produce. This can mean savings in equipment costs and a better final result as you improve your processes. Lastly, think about the products you produce and their requirements. For example, high-end business cards with special finishes may not be ideal for in-house work. Producing internal reports and presentations on the other hand can work quite well, and even result in less waste since employees can unintentionally abuse network printers. At the end of the day your workflow should make you employees’ lives easier, so always ask yourself “will this make us better?”

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  1. This article supposes a small print environment and appears to look at digital connected devices when it references in house printing. The outsourcing craze in the 90’s has largely gone away as many companies who outsourced work to various digital equipment manufacturers or commercial shops found that not only were they not reaping savings they were in fact spending much more in the long run. Due to up selling, poor contract management or unfamiliarity with buying the product and the fact that the knowledgeable staff they once employed had moved on. They no longer possessed the ability to manage the costs effectively. The “core competency” argument is a fallacy. If it were true all companies would outsource payroll, IT etc. JD Irving built an empire by 1 simple rule. When he did enough business in 1 area he started to provide it himself, building competency along the way and in effect paying only himself for the work. As printers e need to re-examine this process from the ground up.
    S. MacDonald


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