Circle Graphics: Opportunities in Automation
Most printers would agree that the last year and a half has been difficult. From pandemic-related shutdowns to the current labor and supply chain shortages, the word “challenging” is part of everyday conversation.
But for some, like Circle Graphics (headquartered in Longmont, Colorado, with locations in North Carolina, California, Ohio, Virginia, and Missouri), there’s another word that keeps popping up: automation. You might have been expecting “pivot” or “growth” to have been more prevalent, and while those words are key definers of how Circle Graphics — a producer of digital graphics for consumers, professionals, and businesses through two divisions: Online Wall Décor and Out-of-Home (OOH) — has survived the trials of recent times, it’s the focus on automation that has truly defined the company as an innovator.
Staffing and Supply Chain Challenges
Fortunately, when the pandemic hit, the team was prepared to an extent for a catastrophic event. “For all of us that lived through the 2008-2009 recession, [taking a proactive approach was] somewhat familiar,” says Rod Rackley, OOH division president. “The big difference was timing — we acted quickly.” The company was able to swiftly change tactics to produce face masks, wayfinding signage, and protective gear to meet pandemic-related needs. The team in the California location even took advantage of downtime and relocated into a new facility.
But unfortunately, the problems caused by COVID-19 just keep coming, and Circle Graphics hasn’t been completely immune. “I think most printers would agree it’s been a very difficult six months as far as getting material and finding enough labor to help get product printed and out the door,” Rackley states. “And, of course, the cost for both has risen dramatically to complete this painful trifecta.”
Luckily, the company’s focus on automation has helped tamper those problems. “Automation gives us a fundamental advantage in terms of cost and turnaround times and reduces our reliance on direct labor,” Rackley explains. “We have been an earlier adopter of technology and it has paid dividends through the pandemic.” He adds that they will continue to invest in automation to reduce cost and improve velocity and quality.
That’s not to say staffing shortages aren’t affecting them. “We rely on both staffing agencies and direct hire programs to meet our needs. And still, like other companies, we’ve had trouble on-boarding and retaining associates in this environment,” Rackley states. And it’s not from lack of trying.
“We have increased our hourly rates around 20%, which means existing associates are also impacted,” continues Rackley. “This summer we provided food trucks for lunch and afternoon treats, which employees appreciate.”
These issues trickle down to Circle Graphics’ customers. Like so many printing businesses across the industry, customer service is the name of the game, and when supply is short, shipping times are slower, and labor is hard to come by, it is even more important.
“We work hard on our relationships, the backbone of our business,” Rackley says. “Ideal partnerships create trust and improve efficiency by allowing each party to move straight to problem solving versus wondering where you might be at risk in a relationship.” Simply communicating upfront with its customers has kept things relatively smooth for the company.
Circle Graphics has also taken another strategy to addressing current supply chain and staffing issues: acquisition. Just a few months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it acquired Metromedia Technologies (MMT), a company that specializes in outdoor advertising. “This iconic printing company … has given us expanded options in walls, acrylic paint, and five-year products, as well as better access to East Coast markets,” notes Rackley. Circle Graphics has also added Anthem Displays, a digital billboard manufacturing company in North Carolina, to its portfolio.
Other Key Differentiators
You might think the buck stops there. After all, key factors like acquisition and customer service seem to be keeping business flowing at a steady pace for Circle Graphics. But it doesn’t.
“We’ve built our OOH Division for high volume, one-off designs,” says Rackley. With multiple factories strategically located across the U.S., the company can execute a large, nationwide billboard campaign quickly, he adds. “Our capacity, systems, and velocity are key differentiators for us. Automation is a big part of this as well as our software systems (both internal and customer facing).”
The company also continuously works on its sustainability efforts. “As a leader in the large-format digital printing industry, we understand that production facilities are often associated with large carbon footprints and natural resource consumption,” Rackley says. At Circle Graphics, developing sustainable breakthroughs is yet another pillar of innovation.
Rackley lists increasing eco-friendly and eco-solution product offerings and upgrading its facilities to use natural resources more efficiently as just a few sustainable initiatives the company has implemented. “We continuously work to meet or exceed local, state, and federal regulations regarding the health and safety of our employees, the public, and the environment,” he adds. “In 2021, our Colorado locations are moving toward becoming Zero Waste Offices, and we are working diligently to increase the landfill diversion rates of all sites.”
Eyes on the Future
And yet, the team still has its eyes on more areas of growth. That’s not to say they haven’t completely ignored the current challenges plaguing labor and the supply chain. “Our overall volume is back to 2019 levels. … However, shorter lead times are requiring a more strategic and concerted effort between our three facilities. We are seeing increased demand for our capacity in more concentrated time periods,” Rackley states.
That being said, he sees real opportunity in vehicle wraps. “Companies like Wrapify, Boxi, AdWheels, and Wrapmate are exciting and hard-charging companies doing well in this space, who we proudly support,” Rackley notes.
“In many ways the OOH (billboard) industry is ‘pre-digital,’ which creates a great deal of opportunity for those that can bring a fresh set of eyes to some of our inefficient workflows,” he continues. “For Circle, that means a near-term focus on API integrations and industry-wide production spec databases.”
He’s excited for what the division, and the company, can achieve. “It’s an exciting time to be in OOH with an opportunity to increase our share of the ad pie to a much bigger number than our current 4%. The Circle team wants to play a role in this growth for both print production and in selling our digital billboard displays.”