Luke Marshall: Three Months at Slate Group
Three months ago, I was Slate Group’s newest hire. In that time I’ve learned a great deal about the people who work here and, consequentially, the company itself. This blog will talk a little bit about the time I spent learning about the different systems used here, the workings of the print process, and why I’m looking forward to being here moving forward.
In three months, I’ve spent time all around our facility. My first priority was to learn print, inside and out. Such a broad topic, of course, requires experience as much as it does memorization, and so my first month was spent exploring and shadowing team members in the shop. From there I worked backwards up the production chain, to preproduction and then to sales and design. In every section, I was shown the ropes by a team of dedicated professionals who were proud to show me their work.
I began at the offset press, where high-quantity jobs are printed on one of the two Komori presses. I watched the ink pour and the pressmen double- and triple- and quadruple-check the quality of every run. From there I watched the jobs as they were folded and cut by practiced hands, sometimes needing a trip through our bindery equipment to pull everything together. Then they were off to packaging or mailing or shipping, delivered one way or another to the customer. Offset printing is a very large operation, with more moving parts than I could count; a mistake in one area could ruin a job altogether. The coordination required between team members for the simplest job is impressive. Multiply that by hundreds of jobs with hundreds of variables all on dozens of different routes through the shop on different timetables, and you’ve got what amounts to the direction and maintenance of an extensive, organic machine. Such an operation is only possible with a team that relies on and supports one another.
Afterward I spent time in our digital printing shop, which is a small world unto itself. Our digital presses don’t handle the same volume that our offset presses do, but they have their own strengths: they’re well equipped for variable data, short-run jobs, and have a higher turnaround time than the offset presses. Digital consists of press, cutting, folding, and shipping services. There are some print jobs that have to be sent through the door to the larger offset system for specialty tweaks or additions, but for the most part a digital job is done in the digital shop from start to finish. The team in Digital, like the one in Offset, is tightknit. They’ve worked with each other on thousands of jobs, experts in their field and ready to cover other areas when necessary.
Across the hall is Wide Format. Their oversized presses and print machines, down to their appropriate names (such as the Titan), handle our large, thick, and otherwise unique products. In Wide Format we make posters and banners and stickers of all shapes and sizes, using materials equipped for both the outdoors and indoor spaces. They stand and stick, they illuminate and shade. Every job is unique and requires a different set of skills. The Wide Format team has to tackle each individual job in a way that’s particular to that job. Every day they showed me a new technique, and even now I see them using new approaches on new jobs when I go through the shop.
Before production begins, files go through our Prepress department, where they’re vetted and edited to make sure that the final product matches the customer’s vision. The technical wizardry of the prepress crew is something to admire. My very limited design background taught me just enough to be duly impressed with the multitude of programs and systems that the prepress team navigates so deftly. We receive files in a variety of forms and in different states of readiness. Their eye for detail must be keen and consistent—a file with a technical flaw might as well be dead on arrival.
That team is the bridge between the customer, design, and production. Their role is critical: to shepherd ideas across the chasm of technical limbo, enabling an idea to be crafted into a physical product. Here, too, is teamwork critical. In addition to their technical prowess, Prepress must be able to work with Design, Sales, and Production to coordinate the setup and transfer of product designs to the presses. They are the glue that holds our operation together.
Sales and Design
Finally, after I’d spent time in all of areas of production, I was ready to start learning and working with our sales team. I studied the system, watched others navigate it, and committed to memory how to document a customer’s ideas. But practice makes perfect, and I started work as part of a team covering local sales. An industry as large and varied as print can be intimidating to jump into, but the more experienced members of my team were patient and extraordinarily helpful, allowing me to learn the system quickly.
As a member of the sales team, I saw how to help bring out the best in a customer’s design, how to match their ideas with our materials to create the exact product they have in mind. Our priority is to realize our customer’s idea, to create a product that helps them accomplish their goals. Whether they know that they’re ordering ten thousand double-sided bi-fold brochures with a gloss finish or they just know that they need a product that will explain the rules to event attendees, we’ll turn their idea into a plan for a product.
To help with that process, our in-house Design department works tirelessly to create designs and conceptualize products that will accomplish the customer’s goals. They take into account audience, associated material, ideal results, the language of art, physical circumstance, and production capabilities, synthesizing every factor into a composition tailored for its unique situation and goal.
Together, our team at Slate turns ideas into print. To do that, we’ve fashioned systems that can handle mass orders and small-batch runs. Teams work together to focus on detail and ensure the best possible quality at every step of production, allowing the organization in whole to produce a wide array of print goods that meet the Slate Group standard of excellence.
In my time so far with Slate Group, I’ve been impressed at every turn by the quality—of the products, of the team members, of the equipment. I expected a company like any other, with conventional standards and operations. Instead, I’ve found a company whose identity is in its craft. Every team member I’ve met has been proud of the job that they do, from the production shop to the management. We don’t want to make products that are good enough to make a dollar. We want to make the best product every single time.
Starting a new job is always intimidating to some degree. There’s a new system to learn, a new social dynamic to adapt to, new expectations to embrace. Aligning with them can be a daunting task, but I was relieved to find that alongside the expectation of excellence comes a strong support network.
It was made clear to me from the beginning that the best way to learn was to ask questions. Easy to say, of course, and nice in theory, but often a hassle to the more experienced and busy folks with important jobs to do. And yet every one of them, from the sales team to the press operators, were gracious and patient, and they all seemed to want me to succeed as much as I did. It is a great credit toward a company when employee integration is as smooth and encouraging as it is at Slate Group.
That desire to help others succeed drives more than employee integration, though. I see team members get excited when they talk about projects they’re working on, and I see them put in the extra time and effort to make sure that their results are a cut above. Meeting our high standards requires knowledge, not just of print but also of the field that the client operates in. It requires dedication and hard work, and the office lights and whirring of machinery I hear early in the morning attests to that commitment.
Without a proper support network, though, an employee can achieve only so much. The uniting strength of Slate Group is the continuously expanding framework that undergirds the team. To create the best product, you must have the best equipment. To provide the best service, you must have the best resources. From investment in new press machines and facilities to adoption of new networking tools for Sales and Design, Slate’s priorities are apparent: expect the best results and equip employees to achieve great things.
My time with Slate has me excited about the future. Personally, I’m glad to be a part of a company who values initiative and encourages innovation. We aren’t a business that settles for what’s always worked and we aren’t satisfied with good-enough. We explore new avenues, we take risks, and we do everything we can to improve our service. Slate as a company is committed to the growth of their employees and their capabilities, and I fully expect that commitment to pay dividends for every member of the team.
Our aims are ambitious. But I’ve walked through the shop and seen the tools we have at our disposal. I’ve seen the pride in the eyes of the experts who operate those tools. And I’ve seen the dedication that every member of the Slate Group team has to quality and service. That combination is a potent one.
The world of print demands innovation and precision, and comes with numerous challenges. But Slate Group is ready to meet them head-on, and I’m excited to be a part of that effort.