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EVP, Marketing at Specialty Print Communications

Against the Grain

By Dustin LeFebvre

About Dustin

A third-generation printer, Dustin LeFebvre delivers his vision for Specialty Print Communications as EVP, Marketing through strategy, planning and new product development. With a rich background ranging from sales and marketing to operations, quality control and procurement, Dustin takes a wide-angle approach to SPC


Holding Mill Accountable for Lack of Consistency in Stock

I ran into a “situation” the other day. It’s the sort of situation that happens in this business with a high mean and an exponential distribution. It can happen, but that doesn’t mean it should happen.

Here’s the background. Our client, a major retailer, awarded us a big program—ongoing execution of its loyalty program welcome kits. These weren’t simple kits. They’re totally data-driven and duplex laser imaged throughout with multiple personalized offer cards attached. The sheets are assembled, stitched and inserted with other materials into a closed-face envelope. It’s a match of more than 10 items with 2D barcodes up the ying yang.

Prior to starting the job, we rigorously and laboriously tested the paper stock. Tested, tested again, and then tested until the cows came home.

After the first batch of stock yielded 1.5 million kits, we reordered the same stock from the same manufacturer and undertook exactly the same production process. But when the shells arrived at the lasers for imaging, they started twisting and misfeeding. Production plummeted by 40 percent and rubber bands started appearing all over the machines like chicken pox on a first grader. I think we’ve all been there at one time or another—a situation.

I examined the new stock and compared it to the old shells. You know, the stuff we tested like crazy and with which we had never had problems. The two didn’t match up. I went into full-on investigative mode. The old paper mic’d 4.8 and had a true matte finish. The new stock mic’d 4.2 with more of a dull finish.

My heart raced. Had I made a terrible mistake? Had I mistakenly ordered the wrong stuff?

I checked my PO. Whew, no problem there. Next possibility…Had the mill shipped the wrong item? I checked the roll manifest. Nope, it matched the PO. Was it the wrong basis weight? No, stocks were both 80#-lb. text.

So what had happened? How was a product from a single source so different from one order to the next? I called in the tech rep to help me solve the feeding problem.

I explained the situation and what came next won’t shock many of you who have ever had a paper challenge. The tech rep launched into full CYA mode.

I was informed that the company’s specifications for matte stock range between a 15 and 38 gloss reading and that both batches fall within the “mill tolerances.” I was also told that the matte product is machine finished;  whatever comes off the machine is the final product.

As if the company had no control over what was actually happening on the machine!

The rep had used the word “tolerance” and tolerance seems to be the operative word here. It’s how the manufacturer ducks its responsibility to deliver consistent goods. But it also presupposes a good deal of tolerance on my part—and my customer’s part, too. It assumes that we both will tolerate their inconsistent product and poor performance.

The brief explanation of my problem is that this matte product is made very differently on different machines at different mills as a result of different pulp sources and so on. If I want the true matte finish with the thick caliper, I need to specify a certain mill.

So suddenly, I’m responsible for ordering not just a specific product, but for specifying the mill and the machine on which it is produced? Where does this end? Should I hit the road to specify forests, or trees?

What baloney! The lack of consistency across the manufacturing platform was appalling. It was almost as disgusting as the take-no-responsibility-for-my-inconsistent-product attitude.

It’s time paper mills are held accountable for the product they deliver. And when I call them in to help me figure out how to run a job, how about they get their hands dirty rather than recite some company line that skirts all responsibility. How about they solve problems rather than causing them? I never once mentioned the word “claim,” but it seems like that’s all that was on the rep’s mind.

That’s my printer’s perspective on the situation. I guess that’s Against the Grain.

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