By Melissa Donovan
Part 1 of 4
In April Digital Output invited readers to nominate peers—as well as themselves—for the annual Application of the Year awards. These projects are always unique in both scope as well as materials used. Sometimes they are as large as a design for a high-budget movie set and others are more low key.
2020’s awards were somewhat different this year as we launched the contest in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few of the nominations involved work completed for hospitals and communities in need. These applications resonated with our voters, as participants voted for Tier One Communication Inc. of Tualatin, OR as the first place winner for its work manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) for various medical facilities.
Open for Business
Tier One has only been in business since February 1, 2020. With seven full-time employees, it offers a variety of digital print services out of a 26,000 square foot warehouse/work space. Clients come from a variety of backgrounds including schools, contractors, architects, artists, realtors, marketing groups, hospitals, restaurants, wineries, stadiums, event centers, zoos, retailers, and designers.
Digital print services include fleet graphics for vehicles, corporate decals, aviation, and trollies; branded environments including wall graphics, window films, floor graphics, retail graphics, and textiles; point of purchase displays like modules and trade show exhibits; and hospitality printing such as restaurant fixtures and graphics, pillows, curtains, and other customizable textile products.
This work is completed on a variety of equipment including an Epson aqueous printer, Gerber Technology MCT Cutter, HP Inc. latex printer, MS Printing Solutions Impres dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printer, and swissQprint hybrid UV flatbed.
When the shop opened its doors, less than two months later COVID-19 stopped business operations worldwide. “We had just acquired equipment to service clients in retail and trade show industry when they completely closed down their operations. We went home one night and came back the next morning with the decision to move our business model in another direction,” explains Fawnda Shahalami, president, Tier One.
The printer service provider (PSP) pivoted and addressed the increasing need for PPE and personal protective gear (PPG) throughout its community. This meant manufacturing masks, gowns, scrub caps, intubation boxes, face shields, and gaiters.
Between discussions with friends and colleagues, Tier One was invited to join a medical skunkworks team in OR. The group consisted of surgeons and other medical staff in the area tasked with identifying items that hospitals were having trouble sourcing through traditional supply chains.
Identifying its strengths and what it was capable of producing with current equipment in house, Shahalami and the rest of the team quickly began making gowns, masks, scrub caps, and face shields. For the initial request, Shahalami estimates Tier One manufactured several hundred pieces.
On top of traditional PPE and PPG, Tier One had the design and prototyping capabilities to work on an intubation box that would protect doctors and respiratory therapists when working in close contact with patients. Using its Gerber MCT Cutter, it built boxes out of acrylic and achieved a final, approved design on the second prototype. Tier One ended up constructing 25 boxes in total—commissioned for 15 and donating ten.
Succeeding During Difficult Times
While Tier One was fast-thinking and leveraged important connections quickly to keep its company in operation during a hard time for many businesses, Shahalami says it was not without its challenges.
In peak production times any print shop is of course thrilled, but management has to stop and focus on the best way to balance product availability, employee time, and customer expectation. Doing this in a crisis, with work one never planned on producing, in the first two months of business operations is a monumental task.
For example, sourcing materials to make PPG was as Shahalami says a “nightmare”—fabric and acrylic were difficult to procure even with Tier One’s connections. Add on top of this learning how to manage the number of hours each day new equipment should run. The Gerber MCT Cutter started out at eight hours a day but as orders increased, the PSP was presented with a difficult decision. Hire another employee to increase the machine’s usage time or reconfigure the operation schedule?
“We didn’t want to hire another person because we didn’t know how long these orders would continue so instead we spread out our operations as needed to get longer production hours,” explains Shahalami.
At press time the Gerber MCT Cutter was running 15 hours a day, but Shahalami adds that if demand for all of the PPE and PPG stopped, the company can easily adjust back to an eight hour shift without reducing employees.
Another unique challenge Tier One met head on was determining how to re-identify itself to the market just after launching as the business it intended to be. “We started our company just before this pandemic began and we never got to introduce ourselves to the marketplace. The clients we had established had to close down their businesses. We feverishly built our marketing tools to raise regional and national visibility,” notes Shahalami.
Pushing through these challenges allowed Tier One to continue paying employees as well as allowing them to perform their jobs safely, provide medical facilities with essential PPE and PPG, and add to its vast portfolio of product offerings.
According to Shahalami, “our story is driven by the profound disruption of these times and reflects how we adjusted to the hard right turn we had to make. We changed our normal workflow to a bulk production print and finishing workflow so we could get more work through the plant with the same amount of people. We can now create multiples of the same thing for a multitude of clients without slowing down production between jobs.”
While the need for PPE and PPG is not as urgent as it was in the Spring, Tier One continues to supply this product as requests arise. Not only does it continue to build and ship intubation boxes, it also creates custom masks and gaiters with company branding.
The MS Impres dye-sub printer is used for custom branded apparel, masks, scrub caps, gaiters, and gowns. The swissQprint hybrid UV flatbed printer outputs patient medical statistic boards and wayfinding signage. And the Gerber MCT Cutter finishes it all with laser, routing, and knife cutting capabilities. It cuts fabric for the branded apparel and routs acrylic for intubation boxes and safety shields.
Tier One’s experience has opened its eyes to the many possibilities of digital printing. “We see many opportunities to offer our services to everyone who needs safety products, reusable sustainable products, and printing. Due to the pandemic, we see ourselves helping every industry change their brand and environment to meet the new world business order,” admits Shahalami.
However, that doesn’t mean the PSP has abandoned its original intentions. It looks forward to working with its customers and partners in marketing and retail to change the landscape of visual branding and print corporate communications.
The company’s work is a testament to the power of print and even digital technology’s place in the manufacturing supply chain. Shahalami says it best, “our pivot to PPG—just after two months in business—is evidence of the resilience and innovation in our industry.”
Congratulations to Tier One for winning first place in the 2020 Application of the Year awards. View images of its winning application in the August print issue of Digital Output—also available in digital edition format at digitaloutput.net.
The next article in this series focuses on second place winner Kalamazoo, MI-based Agio Imaging and its work for Bell’s Brewery.
Read part two, Printing for a Better Beer Brewery
Aug2020, Digital Output