Chuck Werninger Shares His Inkjet Story

Submitted by CCumings on December 18, 2018
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Chuck Werninger is Senior Manager of IT Administrative Services at Houston Independent School District. You might be familiar with Chuck as he was a speaker on the "Investing in Inkjet" panel at this year's Inkjet 101 — or perhaps you know him from his active contribution to several other industry publications and events. It’s safe to say that wherever people are talking about the future of print, Chuck is sure to be part of the conversation.

Houston Independent School District (HISD) added the Océ VarioPrint i300 to its fleet in July 2016. We spoke to Chuck back then about the district’s decision to make the switch, and you can read the case study to learn about why it seemed like the right fit at the time.

Now, heading into 2019, we wanted to check in with Chuck to hear how inkjet has changed HISD’s print shop and what advice he has for others who are considering making a move.

CC: I want to start with a comment you left on Stephanie Pieruccini’s recent article Inkjet Production Workflow — The Integration Puzzle. Stephanie writes about how automated production doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so creating a successful, connected workflow requires equipment, systems, software, and processes to be integrated. You had an interesting response to this: “The inkjet workflow changes many things. We were ill-prepared for how quickly work began moving through our shop due to the sudden lack of places for jobs to stop like they had in the past. Suddenly, jobs were delivering hours after receipt instead of the usual couple of days.”

CW: Yes, we were really focused on buying a print engine. I think everyone in the industry is so stuck on the engine — comparing print quality, making sure their customer will pay for the quality level —  that it’s possible to never get past that one thing to realize that inkjet changes so many other things. And there’s this other paradigm of digital versus offset. Twenty years ago, printers were reluctant to let that “junk” in their shop, and then later they were reluctantly willing to let it in. But now the quality is nearly the same. It is every bit as good, but the workflow is very, very different.

In our shop, when a job comes to our i300, one operator loads it in one end and tapes the box of products at the other end, and that is a real change in workflow. We don’t have job bags stacked up in offset, drying, bindery, the cutter, the folder, for signatures, — there are simply no longer all of these stopping points. There is one very high-quality product going from end to end with one operator and one machine. It's different in terms of the way we lay out our shops. We are currently migrating to a job bagless workflow. That is a big change because we don’t need to spend any time looking for the job bag. The velocity of jobs coming in and going out of our print shop has increased dramatically.

CC: The HISD community is huge, with about 250,000 students, teachers, and staff. What sort of things do you find yourself printing?

CW: We are a school district printing organization, so we exist for the purpose of supporting our students and giving value to teachers and the learning process, and we do that in many ways. I’ll give you a recent example. Every year, we have a student design competition where students design greeting cards, and the superintendent picks one to use as greeting card for the whole school district that year. The community can then purchase greeting cards from the winner and all the finalists in 10-packs. So you can get a full-color, folded, scored greeting card with an envelope with the design of your choice, the name of the artist, and their school logo on the back of the card. You can choose one of seven messages, in English or Spanish, and your pick of the 31 finalist designs, and a custom quantity of packs. I ordered one pack with one design and one with another design and received mine in the mail two days later. The total bill was 16 bucks. High-quality, cost-effective, full-color finished goods in small quantities. That, to me, was a huge victory. Most school district printing operations aren’t in that type of business. 

We print some of the things you’d expect a school district print shop to print. We do a lot of formative assessments throughout the school year. We print marketing materials for individual programs or events. We have 287 schools and quite a few magnet programs, so we print brochures and retractable displays to educate parents about these programs. But then we also print things you might not expect, like a banner for our High School of Visual and Performing Arts students who marched in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. It all comes from our print shop.

CC: You mentioned that the i300 finished far more work in a day than you had planned. How have you compensated for the additional capacity that the i300 has brought you?

CW: We started inventing new lines of work! With the i300, the print quality is fantastic. As a lot of printers are figuring out, it’s not quite as good at some print techniques, but it’s extremely fast, cost effective, and full color. We are printing things that we never before printed.

Imagine today’s generation of students studying art, biology, literature, geography, and chemistry with materials run off a third-generation black-and-white photocopier. To them, it seems like something right out of the seventies, but that is the reality in close to 90% of schools — they do not have a color copier at all. So when you make full color available to students in a kindergarten classroom, you’ve opened up teaching opportunities and learning channels that were completely closed for purely cost reasons.

What the i300 has made possible is full-color teaching and learning, and not only is it affordable, but it costs roughly 40% less. We are now designing resources that are used in the classroom, printed in color, that are exactly what teachers want, and they don’t have to buy it themselves.

CC: I would imagine that one challenge for you might be persuading teachers to come to the print shop for all their resource needs, rather than printing quick B&W copies of something in the teacher’s lounge. Is this the case? If so, how do you sell them on the value of the print shop?

CW: This is an ongoing challenge and a huge opportunity that faces us right this minute. Each school is supplied with black-and-white copiers, and the only cost is to put paper in the machine, which is why you’ll see paper on all the kids’ school supply lists. When teachers call us, it comes out of their school budget. Sometimes, if they don’t have any budget left, they pay for it with their own credit cards. (It’s a sad state of affairs, but most teachers in any district spend a significant portion of their paycheck buying resources for their classroom. All the fun, engaging things you see on the bulletin boards in classrooms — these resources are often purchased by the teacher.)

What we are tasked with doing is giving them materials they can't get anywhere else. We ask them what they need, interview them to find out what they’re missing, and learn what tools would help them be more effective. Then, we design it, put it in our storefront, and make it available for them to buy in small bundles.

CC: So your print shop has a storefront?

CW: The storefront is actually something new, an outcome of our growth. We’re currently building it out, and it will go live to small beta groups throughout the spring. In the summer, we’ll make it available to the entire district. Our high volume is when teachers return for the new school year in mid-August, so by then our goal is to make the storefront as attractive, engaging, and useful as we can. It will have hundreds of tools that they might find helpful, all available in small quantities so that one teacher can get one classroom’s worth of a seating chart or a sign-in sheet. They also have the ability to upload their own artwork for us to print.

CC: It’s been two and a half years since you installed your i300. Knowing what you know now about what this press can do, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to invest in inkjet?

CW: When I was weighing the investment, I was worried about whether it was going to be ready for an operation as big as ours. Most people have a five-year buying cycle, and I knew I didn’t have five years. Inkjet was really changing the entire world of print, and I knew it was go time, but there were couple of critical considerations. First, the volume. You have got to have the volume. We produced a consistent 1 million images per month of combined black and white and color, so I knew it made sense from a cost perspective. We combined five different machines’ worth of volume in order to get there, and we now have significant excess capacity. We are staffed to where we can produce 5.5 million images per month, which is a tremendous amount of additional capacity for us. Before, the challenge was getting it all done, and now the challenge is keeping it busy. It just really does not take that long to produce work.

The other consideration was images per minute. A lot of people look at the roughly 300 images per minute that the i300 does and say that’s not fast enough. What I’ve learned is that the i300 is much more efficient in terms of total throughput. We had five machines — a black-and-white that did 100 per minute, two that did 120 per minute, one that did 144 per minute, and a full-color that did 75 per minute. If you combine all of those, you get close to 600 impressions per minute and it seems like the math doesn’t add up, but we actually have so much more capacity with the i300 because of all the other efficiencies that inkjet creates.

Inkjet is truly a complete change. The color is stable, so it doesn’t need to be recalibrated. The throughput is consistent. We can schedule an entire week’s worth of work in the print queue, and the operator’s job is just to make sure it doesn’t stop. The operation checks to make sure the paper is loaded and is on hand to confirm the quality level and that the right jobs are coming out, or maybe to change the print queue if there’s an urgent request. The operator’s role is totally different; in the old workflow, they were involved in every step.

CC: Anything else you want to share with the thINK community?

CW: When I was looking at inkjet, I was worried about whether the market was right. Let me tell you, it was right three years ago, and now’s the time to do something about it. We are serious about the next addition to our fleet, and it’s definitely going to be inkjet. We’re not going back to the old way. Compared to the previous technology, the uptime is far better, on an order of magnitude. Toner devices are a bygone paradigm. Both the service model and the pricing model (which is driven by the service model). The price is always higher, and there just is no place where it makes sense.

I have a buddy with two very high-quality toner devices from another vendor. I told him, any month, whether you're selling a lot or selling a little, there is no place that you can beat me. There is nowhere you can win. That’s a scary place for a business leader to be stuck, when they can’t win in a busy month or a slow month. I’m right in the middle, where I can be cost-effective in the slow months and the busy months, and the whole time, I’m learning things that I can apply to our future with inkjet.

We’ve heard some folks say that, as a school district print shop, we have a low-demand clientele. But keep in mind that I’m using an i300 that is 2015 technology. The machines that they are installing today have absolutely no compromises — all the workflow advantages without any of the quality tradeoffs. I love the old offset gear, but we’re not going back. Now is the time when the industry is deciding who’s going to be in the game five to ten years from now. If you don’t have at least one foot in this pool, you’re going to get left behind. If you make a five-year buying decision that doesn’t include inkjet, you’re not going to be involved in the next decision.