ISU Printing's variety is unbound by paper


Nathan Thole, director of printing services, with some of the many items that can be made with the large flatbed printer and cutter behind him. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Founded in 1922, the university's in-house printing operation is approaching its 100th birthday, a century dominated by black print on white paper. While there's still a need for established products, what printing services offers its campus clients has evolved far beyond the page.

"We're not just your traditional printer any more. We do so much that you might not think of," said Nathan Thole, director of printing services.

One new center, two closing

Later this spring, printing services will close its two satellite copy centers and open a new location in the Student Innovation Center. Director Nathan Thole said the Student Innovation Center location will be larger and more visible than either of the existing copy centers in the Memorial Union and the Union Drive Community Center. The date of the transition isn't set yet. The Student Innovation Center will open in April.

Over the past year and a half, the self-funded unit -- which recently dropped "and Copy" from its name to emphasize copying is an increasingly limited part of its business -- has been more proactive in spreading the word about its capabilities.  

"We've always added new services and new things we can do. I think the thing we've lacked is letting people know," said assistant director Zach Covington.

The ramped-up communications effort has included tours of the main plant at 2333 Kooser Drive and lunch-and-learn meetings. The most recent improvement is a redesigned website, which launched last week with additional resources such as design tips, photos of product examples, links to copyright and branding information, and easy-to-grasp descriptions and illustrations of paper, print, binding and finishing options.

"It's a tool to refer customers to that helps explain what we do," Thole said.

Here are a few services you might not realize printing services offers:

Printing expanded

Printing services has produced wide-format products such as posters and banners for more than a decade, but a flatbed printer and accompanying cutter purchased in 2018 was a big versatility boost. The flatbed prints on rigid materials up to 4 feet by 8 feet that are less than 2 inches thick, and the programmable cutter can create any shape. That opens the door for custom metal signs and letters, acrylic award plaques, magnets, coasters, and wraps or graphics for vehicles, windows, floors, doors, walls or even an entire room

"Those machines really enhance our product offerings," Thole said.

They've also brought some efficiencies. For instance, the flatbed printer speeds up production of wayfinding and room signage with Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant Braille lettering. Printing services took on production of the signs, which have been handmade in the university's sign shop. The flatbed printer creates the Braille writing by building 12 layers of ink to about 1/32 of an inch. They are made in batches of at least 55 in about the same amount of time it takes to manually create a single sign.

Mail help

Using printing services for mailings potentially brings two benefits.

It can save money, dropping the per-item cost in some instances from 50 cents to 15.9 cents, said customer service supervisor Christy Hand. Postal discounts secured by printing services, in part by using a database to verify and correct addresses before they're mailed, saved the university nearly $900,000 in 2019.

Printing services also can help clients make individualized mail pieces. Variable data printing extracts information from address databases to customize mailings, a service Hand said the office of admissions often uses.

"I'm sure there's a need for that in other areas, too. It's one of those things people wouldn't think of in printing. We do a lot of it, and we're good at it," Covington said.


Iowa State policy requires printing services to supply all university printing, other than office copiers and individual printers used for convenience. But printing services staff aim to ensure campus customers wouldn't want to work with another shop. Ninety-three percent of the shop's 17,663 orders in fiscal year 2019 were delivered on time or earlier, for instance. Prices are competitive, delivery is free and orders don't compete with off-campus work for priority.

"Our mission is to save the university money. That's not going to exist anywhere else," Covington said.

The unit's prepress team can help campus clients with design, if needed.

"Our customers are all over the spectrum in terms of their design ability. Some are full-fledged graphic designers," Thole said. "Sometimes, we're more of a publisher designing something for the customer. We get everywhere in between, all levels of skills."

Printing services also arranges for printing work they are unable to do, as required by the printing policy. Having an on-campus buyer brokering those transactions is an advantage for clients with little experience in printing, Covington said.

"If it's a language you don't speak every day, we can speak it for you," he said.