Now Is the Time to Automate
Reflections from the INg conference
The Imaging Networking Group (INg) recently held its 2021 Executive Workshop in Orlando, Florida. The workshop is one of two annual conferences that are hosted for its members: a group of around fifty mid-sized, high-volume print and electronic service providers and direct mail companies. INg provides a forum for its members to discuss critical business and technical issues facing their companies and shares best practices on running and growing their businesses. Thus, INg’s conferences are more focused on networking and discussions on contemporary challenges than educational seminars.
The Orlando event sessions covered topics such as:
- A USPS update with Robert Cintron, VP of Logistics for USPS
- e-Presentment and e-payment
- Privacy and data security legislation
- Disaster recovery
- Paper pricing and supply issues
- RFP strategies
Much of the networking conversations revolved around postage, labor, supply chains, and paper.
Most of the mailers I spoke with were generally seeing mail volumes increasing, despite recent postal cost increases. Nonetheless, they are concerned that anticipated twice-per-year rate increases might have more of an impact, especially on first-class mail. INg members were, however, more concerned with postal delays and uncertainties about delivery times.
Labor is currently a huge issue in the industry. Everyone I spoke with is struggling with hiring and retaining people, especially for trained positions. One attendee commented, “It feels like Thanos snapped his fingers, and half the people disappeared.” Several noted that it’s not just pay that attracts and retains employees; the work environment, physical space, and benefits are equally important. Also, printers are now competing with all other local industries for employees—not just other printers.
The attendees are addressing these issues in a variety of ways. Most are raising wages and prices. At this point, few have lost customers due to these price increases. Labor issues are mainstream news, so clients understand that everyone else is raising prices, as well. Printers are also more motivated than ever before to automate their shops. Automation helps businesses get more work out with fewer people, and cloud-based tools let them leverage resources between facilities and sometimes offer work-from-home options. The ability to work from home, at least part-time, has also become a must-have perk for younger workers.
Supply Chain and Paper Issues
Paper availability is a significant obstacle now, and it will continue to be a problem through the coming year. I shared a drink with a paper vendor at the event who constantly fidgeted to keep his name badge discreetly out of view so he could avoid unpleasant conversations. Paper supplies are so bad that many companies outsource jobs to competitors because they don’t want to deplete their paper supplies for more prominent customers. Surprisingly, almost none of the attendees were accepting new customers because of their lack of paper and staff. One printer required a client to order and pay for the paper for a February project back in October—and is still unsure if it will be delivered in time. Others are renting warehouse space and charging their customers storage fees. In addition, frequent paper price increases are forcing printers to renegotiate contracts and SLAs.
Keypoint Intelligence Opinion
I, for one, am excited by what I heard. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling depressed after spending days discussing market issues, but I was trained as an engineer—that’s what we do. We’re more focused on fixing problems than promoting successes. I’m excited because, despite all these challenges, print and mail volumes are growing. Supply chain issues affect much more than paper and are starting to drive onshoring to bring books and other materials printed in China back to the US. And, frankly, labor shortages might be the kick in the pants our industry needs to double down on finally automating workflows.
This is an exciting time to be in the printing industry, especially for those of us involved with production automation and cloud-based solutions.
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