Add paper to the list of things in short supply
Shortage caused cancelation of mail-in voting brochure
BEFORE BOSTON’S preliminary mayoral election, the city sent information about mail-in voting to every voter. For a time, the city considered doing a second mailing, but Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin, whose office coordinated the mailings, said a second mailing simply wasn’t possible.
“When we went shopping for cardstock, they didn’t have enough,” Galvin said.
With all the documented shortages in the country today – from lumber to semi-conductors – now add paper to the list. Supply chain problems throughout the paper industry are having a ripple effect on businesses and government. The problem is not acute for all officials. Massachusetts state government’s Operational Services Division, for example, reported no issues getting paper for their central print services and said the agency has not had problems with paper shortages for customers. But the shortage is cropping up in some cases, particularly when large mailings are involved.
The shortage stems from trends nationally and overseas, including paper mills operating at capacity and labor shortages in manufacturing and transportation. “The supply chain is broken in a lot of ways,” said Michael Ruo, vice president of sales for Adam Graphic in North Attleboro, which provides printing services to government and private clients, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Galvin said his biggest challenge so far has been finding paper for the secondary supplies related to mail-in voting – not the ballots themselves, but envelopes and cardstock. He delayed joining a national voter information database, which the Legislature required Massachusetts to join, because the company requires a mailing that would involve sending millions of pieces of mail out at one time. “You need enough stock, you can’t do it in a segmented way,” Galvin said.
After the state Lottery was warned by a supplier that it could face delays in getting bet slips, executive director Michael Sweeney said the Lottery took steps to ensure it maintained adequate stock. “This has included managing the distribution of existing stock, testing other forms of paper for viability, and consistently monitoring the situation with our vendor, with whom we recently were able to place an order using our usual paper stock,” Sweeney said.
Ruo said the city of Boston recently wanted to mail out a 12-page information booklet about the upcoming city election. Printers told city officials it was impossible to do in a tight time frame, so the city scaled back to a one-page oversized postcard.
Experts say there are multiple factors contributing to the shortage. “It’s not one single thing,” said Carson Meredith, executive director of the Renewable Bioproducts Institute at Georgia Tech. “It’s numerous stresses on the supply chain networks, and on the labor market as well.”
With a decrease in printing needs in the pre-COVID era (think about the demise of home shopping catalogs), paper mills have been taking mills offline, and many are now operating at peak capacity. Mills may have stopped production in the early days of the pandemic, and as commerce resumed, they have not ramped up enough to meet the heavy demand. The pandemic has created a skyrocketing need for packing and shipping products – due to a reliance on online shopping – and for essential paper products, like tissues, wipes, and paper towels. So material that might otherwise have gone to print products is instead going to packing material and paper towels.
The US typically imports paper from overseas, but shipping problems, like a lack of freight containers, have affected imports generally. A nationwide shortage of truck drivers is taking a toll, since it is harder to get materials and supplies transported, either around the country or from ports.
Prices for pulp – a key ingredient in paper – are skyrocketing, and wood pulp and chemicals are harder to get due to delays in shipping and transportation.
“The pandemic has really affected not only the supply chain of materials but also people,” Meredith said.
Ruo said Adam Graphic previously could have turned around almost any job in two or three weeks. Now the paper mills are giving manufacturers an allocation of paper each month. So if a large job comes in, Ruo might have to go to multiple manufacturers to find paper, and it sometimes is not possible to provide the customer with what they want in their requested time frame. “It definitely requires a lot of managing,” Ruo said. Ruo said he has not had to turn away business, but he has had to work with clients to modify their order or their time frame based on the available paper supply.
Ruo said this is a major shift in an environment where Amazon has turned the US into “an instant gratification society,” where it is easy to get things delivered to your door within days. “These disruptions and longer lead times are a reminder that not everything is a number two pencil sitting on a shelf that can just go out the door,” Run said.Wells said many of his customers are having to change the type of paper they use, based on availability, which can have a real impact. A heavier paper might cost more to mail; a change in the paper’s brightness can affect how artwork appears. Some customers have been pre-purchasing paper months in advance, then having it warehoused. Occasionally, there is no way to do the work a customer requests.
Wells said for the last 20 years, printing has been a “just-in-time, on-demand” business, with jobs generally being ordered and finished within three weeks. Now, conversations about prospective jobs are happening months in advance. “The first discussion we have with [clients] is let’s check the paper availability,” Wells said.