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How the printing industry is surviving COVID-19

The printing industry is in the midst of yet another battle, as it fights its way through the coronavirus pandemic.


July 8, 2020
By Andrew Snook

Topics
One of the ways CJ Graphics is helping frontline workers is through the production of social distancing guards. Photo: CJ Graphics.

The printing industry has never in the past century been without its share of challengers and doubters.

When radio became a popular choice of households in the early 1900s, many people predicted the fall of print. It never happened.

In the post-war era of the 1950s, when television became a staple in homes around the world, print was again predicted to die off. Not only did it stay alive, but it continued to share in a healthy slice of the marking and advertising pie.

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When the internet’s popularity took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many experts again predicted that many aspects of print would disappear. The new digital world certainly made a significant impact on the printing world in many different segments (possibly none more than the newspapers industry) and is still creating new challenges for the industry to overcome. That said, many companies in the printing industry have found ways to adapt and continue to run profitable operations, introducing new services and technologies to their businesses.

If things were not challenging enough for many in the industry, enter the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which has hit a countless number of industries fast and without mercy across the globe. Canadian companies in all sectors have had to find ways to adapt and be agile in our new reality, which includes stay-at-home orders, social distancing, supply line challenges and a great deal of personal protective equipment.

Although the printing sector has been allowed to continue its operations, since it was identified as an essential service, many companies have needed to be extremely agile and change directions on its operations to keep their doors open. Add to this, the complexity of trying to keep your workers safe and adhering to constantly changing health and safety policies, and the industry may be in its biggest battle to date.

Keeping people safe

Although managing operations around the pandemic is a new and fierce challenge for Canada’s printing industry, some companies do have experience with being deemed an essential service during a state of emergency.

One of those companies is CJ Graphics Communications Solutions (CJ Graphics) in Mississauga, Ont., which was deemed an essential printer going back to when the massive northeast blackout occurred in 2003, knocking out power throughout a large part of Ontario, as well as the northeastern and midwestern United States. CJ Graphics provides a variety of labelling products for the pharmaceutical and food and beverage industries as part of its operations. So when the pandemic hit, the company already had some safety procedures prepared for dealing with a state of emergency.

“We are used to stringent rules,” says Jay Mandarino, president and CEO of CJ Graphics. “The first thing we did was shut our building down, nobody could come from the outside in. Then, only people who could get a drive here could come. Anybody that took transit or anything else was not allowed in the building, because they couldn’t control where they were coming from. People have to abide by the rules at home. Here, in every part of the building we opened all the inner doors everywhere, we have stations and tissues everywhere that people can use. They get masks and gloves in reception. And, of course, we have sanitizing hand gel at every workstation and every desk.”

The company also had to shut down its shipping and receiving area but uses a sensor for when drivers are coming to offload materials, so no employees need to have direct contact with them.

“Front reception directs everybody,” Mandarino says. “If somebody has to come in and pick something up, we have a separate table in a vestibule.”

Social distancing practices (everyone working a minimum of two metres away from each other) and other work safety policies are also being practiced.

“All the office people and salespeople that can work from home, work from home,” Mandarino says. “We were 230 people, now we’re 60 people over multiple shifts, so it’s like a ghost town… and of course, anybody who doesn’t want to be here we encourage to stay home. We don’t want anyone to feel unsafe. Maybe they’re susceptible to someone else, maybe they’ve got older parents, we’re really trying to control the environment.”

To keep the environment safe for workers at Burnaby, B.C.-based Hemlock Printers, president Richard Kouwenhoven says his company has been following the guidelines put forward by public health officers of B.C. since March.

“We do a full disinfecting of our workplaces and workspaces both by our staff and our cleaners,” he says. “At the same time, we started putting together daily protocols to keep the facility clean. That is managed by our production manager. Daily cleaning of desks, computers, all the touchpoints in the building, any workspaces being shared.”

Management also downloaded the various safety guidelines options off the Government of Canada website and printed out them out, along with their own safety signage, and placed the materials throughout their entire building.

At Hemlock Printers, the company has implemented video conferences for quality control. Photo: Hemlock Printers.

“By mid-March, we closed our two U.S. sales offices, around the same time California was issuing its stay-at-home orders,” Kouwenhoven says. “In mid-March, we asked salespeople to work from home, they were the first to get to work from home. We started accommodating work from home for other staff after that.”

The company had recently upgraded its some of its systems, which allowed various departments to work remotely, including the accounting, sales and marketing departments.

“At the same time, we closed the main facility to visitors. The only people that can come in were people to service the equipment, if absolutely needed,” Kouwenhoven says.

For internal meetings, Hemlock is doing a lot of its meetings on Microsoft Teams.

Due to a combination of the current economic conditions and new work-from-home policies, the company had about half of its employees in the building.

“Because of the economic impact, our workload has dropped so we’ve implemented work sharing through the federal program and are waiting to hear back if they get approved,” Kouwenhoven says.

“We’re able to scale our capacity down to the workload we have now, and less people coming in, less travel, less people in our building, which is what the government is looking for.”

Implementing the new social distancing policies at Hemlock has been challenging to implement simply due to human nature and being used to a different routine, but Kouwenhoven says everyone at Hemlock is following the rules.

“It’s the nature of our business, we’re working in groups a lot,” he says. “At the presses – with the exception of our small press – we have two people on them. We’re trying to have this crew work at a distance. But they’ve been working, in some cases, for decades without that. So, we’ve had to separate some people.”

The PDI Group in Kirkland, Que. has also been closely following all of the guidelines being brought forth by the federal and provincial governments for keeping employees and customers safe during the pandemic.

“We have implemented all the government recommendations regarding the prevention of COVID-19 in the workplace,” says Jamie Barbieri, president of PDI Group. “We have closed our reception area and limited any outside visitation to essential services only – those visitors are required to wear mask and gloves when entering the building and are screened prior to entry for symptoms and recent travel.”

MET Fine Printers in Vancouver has also reduced its office staff, allowing employees to work remotely at home, keeping only a skeleton crew in rotation.

MET Fine Printers has installed a heat detection camera to check anyone
coming into the facility for
a fever. Photo: MET
Fine Printers.

“The plant has a day shift 12 hours a day, three days a week, then another shift comes in for three days, and we do regular full sterile cleanses of the workplace,” says Nikos Kallas, president of MET Fine Printers. “We’ve also installed a heat detection camera to scan anyone coming into facility to check for fevers.”

Scott Gray, vice-president of sales and marketing at Mitchell Press in Burnaby, B.C. says the majority of the staff there are also working from home.

“Sales teams have been working remotely, and I’d say probably close to 60 per cent of our production coordinators and admin staff, so we have mitigation plans in play,” he says. “But the work has dried up pretty dramatically. So, we’re trying to figure out how to square that circle.”

Fighting back and staying agile

Many companies are scrambling and attempting to change at least part of their product focus in an effort to create products that will help frontline workers in their battle against COVID-19.

CJ Graphics is busy producing a wide variety of products for companies deemed as essential services. “One of the most popular products we’re making for COVID-19 are what we call social distancing guards – we have four models,” Mandarino says. “Basically, one is just a blank special plexi, another one has a transaction window, one is a tabletop version and the other one is a larger tabletop version. We have them in hotels, condo buildings, reception areas.”

Another unique product to come from CJ Graphics is the production of hospital beds, which the company got approval for in early April. It is in the process of finalizing the costs on those and has plans to ship across Canada and into the U.S. The company is also producing face guards for frontline workers.

“Most of these things we’re not really making any money on them, we’re doing them at cost to give back and keep some people busy here,” Mandarino says.

At Hemlock Printers, to ensure that customers are still receiving the same level of service that they’re accustomed to, the company has implemented video conferences for quality control where customers can see products and talk with operators.

“The client is able to see a job on press using a tablet and they can talk to the operator,” Kouwenhoven says, adding that they’re promoting this new service through a blog on the company website. “That’s a way for us to continue operating and supporting some of the things that they typically do with us while complying with the distancing rules.”

To help frontline workers in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Hemlock is providing infographic signage created by federal and B.C. provincial governments.

“Any organization in the Metro Vancouver area can order from us batches of this signage to put up – whether it’s a grocery store or a public space somewhere, where they want to communicate the distancing rules or hiking rules,” Kouwenhoven says. “We’re printing those with no charge with support from HP, because we’re printing it on our Indigo [press],and Spicers [Canada] is donating paper, and a local courier is doing free delivery. We’ve pulled together a small group of companies to make that possible and we’re seeing some orders come in, which is nice.”

In an effort to aid frontline workers, PDI Group has been able to tweak some of its equipment in order to manufacture personal protective products such as facial visors and countertop deflectors.

“Also, we have been doing a lot of COVID prevention signage and printing,” Barbieri adds.

MET Fine Printers partnered with a brewery and is producing 5,000 bottles of its own hand sanitizer that it plans to distribute among frontline workers.

Biggest hurdles

Mandarino says the biggest challenge is adjusting to a new reality filled with uncertainties.

“Who knows what’s coming up? Are we getting subsidized? We’re a larger company, so originally the funding that was available didn’t apply to us, now I hear that it does. But by the time you get it, when you get it, there are just so many questions that haven’t been answered yet,” he says. “This is catastrophic. It’s not just Toronto, it’s not just in Ontario, it’s not just in Canada, it’s the whole world.”

Mandarino says that the coronavirus pandemic will generate serious financial challenges for many companies.

“We have to really figure out how that’s going to play into cash flows and dealing with banks,” he says. “We do a lot of retail stuff and, unfortunately, we’ve have a few retailers who were already in tough times and will likely go under because of this. We’ve already received information from people saying that, ‘Unfortunately, due to the economic hardships of these times, we’re unable to pay our bills at this time.’ And what do you do? Now we become a bank. There’s only so much cash flow people have, so it’s really strenuous that way.”

Kouwenhoven says the biggest challenge is keeping staff and customers informed. “Keeping our stakeholders informed in an environment that is changing so fast is a challenge. You have to formalize your response and communicate it,” he says.

PDI Group’s Barbieri agrees. “One of the most difficult challenges we have had is dealing with the large volumes of information that are communicated publicly – interpretation, accuracy and facts are hard to handle and getting access to answers is even more challenging,” he says, adding that the reduction and adjustment in the workforce has also been difficult to manage, as has the lower demand in services. “As we have obtained a designation to remain open in support of our customers who are deemed essential services, we have had to modify our communications methodology and workflow to accommodate those of our customers and employees working from home. The access to technology tools and workflow automation systems and networks are a challenge for those working from a home computer and many security issues have arisen. The overloading of internet bandwidth and teleconferencing systems have also proved to be an issue lately.”

Kallas says that keeping morale up during the pandemic, while managing through the decrease in business present the biggest challenges. That said, his company has faced adversity before.

“Our company burned down two years ago in Vancouver and we adapted and worked through that. We’ve been through a very challenging time before, so we’ve built contingency plans,” he says, adding that those plans allowed for employees to work remotely relatively seamlessly. “We kind of forced ourselves into it when our company burned down. We got everyone on laptops to get them on our systems and put them all on cellphones.”

Although uncertainty is certainly part of the new post-pandemic reality for Canada’s printing industry – and some companies will more than likely be forced to close their doors – many companies plan on toughing it out, adapting to their environment, and continuing to generate much-needed products and employment for their employees.

“So far we’re lucky, we haven’t had to lay anybody off – and it’s not our intention to do that – so anything we do is as a team,” says Gray. “Whether we take advantage of work share or some of the new programs being rolled out by the government – we’re still waiting to find out more information on it – we spent so many years trying to get this team together that we don’t want to let anybody go. Everybody is in it for the long haul together.”

 

Andrew Snook was the interim editor of PrintAction Magazine.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of PrintAction. Click here to check it out.