Innovation

Inside Shutterfly’s memory factory

As the ecommerce giant preps for the annual holiday rush of greeting cards and custom designs, the HP Indigo presses keep rolling.

By Charles Scudder — November 8, 2022

At the Shutterfly facility in Plano, Texas, just north of Dallas and one of eight around the country, every holiday card or custom photo book starts as a large-format sheet of B2 paper. 

Here are families on Christmas morning, there are beachside sunsets, visits to Grandma — all rapidly feeding through the massive presses. 

Stacked tall on wooden pallets, each sheet — about 20-by-28 inches — is fed through an HP Indigo 100K Digital Press that mixes cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink to build the image. On the other side, the press, which is about the size of a US Army tank, stacks the sheets onto another pallet, where they’re carried off to be trimmed. Every custom-ordered item includes a barcode that tracks it through the massive facility on its way toward the final steps: slotting into iconic orange packaging, and sorting to be shipped all over the southern United States. 

“We’re making memories,” says Chris Mooney, director of manufacturing operations for Shutterfly’s Plano facility.

To create these memories, Shutterfly has worked closely with HP, manufacturing and printing custom products and designs using its line of Indigo presses. The relationship has helped Shutterfly remain remain the nation’s leading e-commerce brand for personalized products and custom designs — especially during the holiday season, when the company ramps up to 24/7 production, producing 165 million holiday cards at a run rate of roughly six million cards per day at peak times. Half of all Americans, the company says, will receive a Shutterfly card this season.

The four BIDs with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink inside the HP's 100k Indigo Press, left; Fresh prints spin through rollers to dry, right.

Arturo Olmos

The four BIDs with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink inside the HP's 100k Indigo Press, left; Ink canisters in the HP Indigo 100K press; Fresh prints spin through rollers to dry, right.

“This is our Super Bowl. We know about it, and we prepare for it,” says Garrett Herber, a facilities manager at the Plano plant. During the year 300 employees work at the plant, most of them on the manufacturing floor, but every winter an additional 700 temporary employees are hired to get through the holidays. The HP Indigo presses are key to keeping the entire operation running smoothly as that workforce gets up to speed.

Shutterfly launched in 1999 as a pioneer in customized printing and grew as digital printing technology developed to allow for individual, ondemand print jobs. No longer would printers have to print thousands of copies of a single design to make the press run worthwhile. Since 2017, some 21 million customers have ordered small batches of everything from canvas prints and coffee mugs to calendars and coasters, which are delivered right to their door. 

“We introduced all these products with photos on them over the last 20 years, and that’s been a huge hit,” says Jim Nelson, Shutterfly’s vice president of manufacturing. “It’s not just about a photo anymore. It’s also about design and personalization.” 

Shutterfly’s director of manufacturing operations, Chris Mooney, on the facility floor in Plano, Texas.

Arturo Olmos

Shutterfly’s director of manufacturing operations, Chris Mooney, on the facility floor in Plano, Texas.

Shutterfly, which today has three divisions — Consumer, Lifetouch, and Shutterfly Business Solutions — is expanding into the creator marketplace and going beyond photo personalization with a new line of designer-produced products that let individual makers share their work with a larger consumer base. In 2021, the company purchased Spoonflower, which enables independent artists to create fabric-based home decor items like tablecloths and print-on-demand wallpaper that they can sell to a global market online. Shutterfly also makes customized cell phone cases using a printing technique called dye-sublimation that prints directly onto metal surfaces, or uses direct-to-product printing on curved surfaces like tumblers and wine glasses. Consumers can now custom design over 600 different products and choose from 4,000 artist-led designs on the Shutterfly platform. Altogether, the Shutterfly family of brands is the largest manufacturing and ecommerce platform for personalized printing, products, and custom designs. 

 

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Key to that expansion and Shutterfly’s work as an industry leader is its collaborative relationship with HP. In 2020, after Shutterfly was an initial beta tester of the HP Indigo 100K presses, the company purchased 60 of the Indigo 100K and 12000 presses, moving their entire fleet to HP’s electrically-charged ink products. It was a landmark deal, catapulting the company to a position as HP’s biggest customer for large-format presses and helping Shutterfly improve consistency and quality in all its prints, usher in a new era of personalized printing, and become more sustainable. 

“We’re absolutely innovating together,” says Oran Sokol, HP’s Global Head of Strategic Accounts for industrial printing. “The partnership with Shutterfly is one of the most collaborative engagements we have.” 

The work in Plano is powered by a fleet of 20 HP Indigo digital presses. In the past year, those presses have printed 21 million sheets alone. The flagship of the fleet is the Indigo 100K Digital Press. While it’s running, three drums whir around, lit from inside like Back to the Future’s flux capacitor. In the blink of an eye, a tiny laser moves across the surface of the first drum, adding a positive charge where the ink should go. Four BIDs (binary ink developers) — one for each color — add negatively-charged ink from each canister that electrically bonds with the charge on the drum. That ink is transferred to the ceramic blanket on the second drum, which then spins onto the paper being carried around the third and final drum.

“Shutterfly has been pushing the boundaries, together with us, of what can be done in this space.”

— Oran Sokol, HP’s Global Head of Strategic Accounts for Industrial Printing

On the other side of the press, each sheet is ejected onto a tray — just like your printer at home — where press operators can inspect it for flaws. HP has a built-in quality standard, but Shutterfly says they’re looking for minute details as part of their nationwide quality-control system. It could be a problem if something printed in Plano looks slightly different than something printed in Tempe, Arizona, for example, so consistency is critical. 

Plus, Shutterfly’s Mooney explains, these printed products will likely become important mementos for their customers, as they have for him, commemorating his kids’ graduations, their weddings, the birth of grandchildren, and even sadder occasions, like the death of a loved one.

Some of the 20 HP Indigo presses at Shutterfly’s 240,000-square-foot facility in Plano.

Arturo Olmos

Some of the 20 HP Indigo presses at Shutterfly’s 240,000-square-foot facility in Plano.

“We’re creating products that, in all likelihood, may outlive me, or whoever’s buying them,” he says. As the massive HP presses roll on one side of the 240,000-square-foot warehouse in Plano, other workstations prepare the dozens of products that started as sheets fed through the Indigo presses. Once the prints are made, they’re sorted by barcode to their next step. The cards go to one assembly line and are paired with envelopes. Yearbooks from an elementary school in Baltimore are bound and covered, while images of a newborn from a photo shoot are trimmed and stacked. 

“Whether it’s how people express themselves through what they wear, what they’re posting online, or how they’re defining themselves, everyone wants to be unique and different these days,” Nelson says. “We see that demand in all our categories, and that’s why we’re looking to scale when needed.” 

Working with HP has been critical to gaining that scale, with in-depth training services and problem-solving that give operators of the Indigo presses the expertise and solutions they need. “They really offer us the biggest bang for our buck in terms of quality, and efficiency, and partnership, and cohesiveness with the two brands working together,” says Herber. 

It’s a collaborative relationship that’s deeper than just client and service provider, Sokol says. When he meets with colleagues at Shutterfly, they are able to work together to create innovative solutions to improve their products. Even when there are conflicts, that unique partnership leads to better solutions. 

“There’s such a strong base of trust and partnership,” Sokol says. “There’s a real intent to get things fixed together.”

JP Martinez prepares a roll of paper before loading it into a press, left; Employee Shabnam Adnan readies Shutterfly’s iconic orange boxes for shipping; Facilities manager Garrett Herber taking books off the saddle stitcher, right..

Arturo Olmos

JP Martinez prepares a roll of paper before loading it into a press, left; Employee Shabnam Adnan readies Shutterfly’s iconic orange boxes for shipping; Facilities manager Garrett Herber taking books off the saddle stitcher, right.

For example, with the hundreds of temporary employees coming to the plant each holiday season, Shutterfly needed a way to more efficiently identify printing errors. Its new workforce may not be able to identify a perfect print from a flawed one right off the bat, so the company reached out to HP for a solution.

HP came back with an “automatic alert agent,” or Triple-A, a software that automatically scans the completed print and compares that image to the original print file. If there’s any discrepancy, the Indigo press stops the print run and alerts the operator. Now, with a new update this year, the program won’t even stop the press run, but gets rid of the flawed print and reproduces it without the operator having to make an adjustment. 

“It’s not just about the photo anymore. It’s also about design and personalization.”

— Jim Nelson, Shutterfly’s VP of manufacturing

“HP just released that this year,” Nelson says. “So that, to me, is working together in that partnership. They’re really listening to us and not just telling us how to run their equipment better. And so in the end, we both win.” 

As a company that made its name selling physical prints in a digital world, Shutterfly is increasing its focus on sustainability in all its operations. Since opening in January 2020, the Plano plant has donated 27,000 pounds of usable materials like extra paper to local and national nonprofit organizations and diverted (by recycling or donating) more than 70% of the waste produced at the site. The company as a whole has reduced landfill waste by 12% in 2022.

“Let’s face it, we’re a very large producer of paper products, so we want to make sure that we’re doing our part to be sustainable,” Nelson says. 

Used ink cartridges are cleaned and refilled through HP’s recycling program.

Arturo Olmos

Used ink cartridges are cleaned and refilled through HP’s recycling program.

While damaged or excess paper material produced at the plant is recycled, customer prints that are damaged or rejected can’t go to a landfill. To reduce privacy concerns, Mooney says those products must be completely destroyed. Shutterfly contracts with an incinerator company in nearby Oklahoma that shreds and recycles these materials to protect customers’ privacy. Material that can’t be recycled is then transformed into energy that supplies power to southern Oklahoma and northern Texas.

“It’s not just a complete waste,” Mooney says. “We’re generating electricity while securely disposing of our customer’s image.” 

The Indigo presses print faster than ever before, and release far fewer volatile organic compounds that harm the environment. After going through several disposable rubber blankets—a cylindrical part that helps the ink transfer onto the paper—the presses were refitted by HP with a ceramic blanket that can be used much longer without replacement. The Indigo machines recycle their own oil, cleaning it for reuse on other machines or elsewhere in the facility, saving on cost and waste. 

Another new effort launched in Plano is allowing both Shutterfly and HP to eliminate waste from the Indigos’ bulky ink cartridges. When running at full speed, the Indigo machines need to replace cartridges every couple of hours and can go through as many as 20 cans a day. During the holiday season, when the whole fleet of printers is running 24 hours a day, that’s a lot of cartridges being used and replaced. 

Stacks of folded sheets ready to be bound into books, left; Shutterfly boxes in the factory, right .

Arturo Olmos

Stacks of folded sheets ready to be bound into books, left; Shutterfly boxes in the factory, right.

Shutterfly had the idea in 2020 to recycle the ink canisters by sending them back to HP for cleaning and refill. The large plastic canisters can be reused, but still have residual ink that needs to be cleaned and processed. After some trial and error, HP restructured the recycling program, which started in Plano this past June. In just a few months, it had diverted over 3,500 pounds of material from the landfill. And that’s during the plant’s slow season. 

“Shutterfly has been pushing the boundaries, together with us, of what can be done in this space,” Sokol says. 

Meanwhile, the lobby in Plano is full of Shutterfly products on display, many featuring family photos provided by employees, and a rack of sample cards for all occasions from test runs of the presses. Any employee can pick up a card on their way out the door to use for their next special event. It’s another way Shutterfly works to eliminate as much waste as possible. 

As one of the huge presses continues to roll, prints begin shooting out, shiny and a little bit warm. They’re the pages from a family’s photo book, a custom keepsake. There’s a trip to New York City and days at the beach, visits to grandparents and family dinners. A wedding invitation. Dance recitals. 

With a soft whoosh, each memory lands on the printer’s tray, ready to be trimmed, bound, shipped, and cherished.

 

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