With the network printer and digital copier markets continuing to converge at a giddying rate, businesses looking to buy workgroup or departmental printers are being spoilt for choice.
According to the International Research Bureau (IRB) - the only Australian company to track every copier, fax and printer device in the country - there are about 190 products from 15 vendors all competing aggressively in this market space.
Indeed, the market is now so competitive that making that choice is becoming more complex by the day, demanding users grasp issues such as quality, ease of use, and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) before developing their printer acquisition strategies.
But IRB managing director Peter Hall says the huge range of options is also giving end users an unprecedented buying opportunity, making it possible to move away from commodity purchasing towards TCO purchasing or solution buying.
Before buying any high-end printer, it's important to understand that when it comes to TCO, traditional printer vendors and newcomers from the copier market talk an entirely different language. When the printer industry talks cost of ownership it means the cost of toner. Printer companies never include the capital value of the hardware in their TCO calculations. When the copier vendor talks TCO he includes the capital value, the maintenance kits and the toner.
That means before deciding whether to buy a network printer or a digital printer or digital multifunction device (MFD) you should perform exact calculations of your volume printing needs then model those against TCO costs vendors offer. IRB runs simulations for its customers that give them an exact comparison of TCO across different offerings.
Workgroup lasers: $1000 to $3000
Generally speaking the monochrome workgroup laser, with engine speeds ranging between 6 and 62ppm, comes in four configurations. You can buy a base system without network card, but the entry point should probably be a machine with network card, at least two paper bins, and if the business does a lot of drafting, a duplexer for printing on both sides of a page automatically.
Naturally there are also colour workgroup lasers, but while these are ideal for presentations and the insertion of graphs into largely monochrome documents, they won't cope well with high print production jobs such as volume reports or on-demand brochures.
Laser printers in this bracket are ideal for workgroups that are mainly printing short runs and low volumes, probably less than 1000 pages per month because of their relatively high running costs.
There are 54 models within the segment, available from about 15 vendors. The more expensive machines offer greater commitment to PostScript, better resolution and more bin handling options. Then again, Hall points out that this class of machine generally doesn't need high resolution. In fact he says for typical jobs most workgroups are better off switching the machine down to 300 or 600dpi to save on toner. That's because most people can't actually see 600dpi, let alone 1200 greyscale.
Workgroup MFDs: $1200 to $5000
Workgroups that want to combine low-volume utility copying and faxing with their printing can look at the new range of MFDs now on the market. There are now 170 MFD devices available for the workgroup, split between inkjet and laser technology.
The lasers are particularly good value as long as you're not planning on doing much copying, where you will consume huge volumes of toner at a very high cost.
All the same, TCO cost of a typical workgroup printer runs to around 3.5 to 4 cents a page just on toner alone, with the true running cost, including the capital cost, working out at between seven to 12 cents. That's reasonably high considering digital high-end machines come in at around two cents including capital costs.
The implication is that while it's good to have workgroup printers that save staff having to leave their seats and walk halfway across the building to pick up their print jobs, really big jobs should be directed to the departmental printer. A good rule of thumb for well-managed printing is to have a workgroup printer for every six to eight people, then a departmental printer for every 30 or so members of staff.
Departmental devices: from $3400
Engine speeds for departmental laser printers run from about 20ppm at the bottom end to about 40ppm at the top. This is the most competitive sector of the market.
Departmental machines support higher paper capacity input bins - letting you put up to 3000 pages online. They also offer multiple paper bins so you can keep letter stock, A3 and A4 pages all online at once, and offer a range of finishing systems, from bin sorters to offset stackers.
While you'll see these devices priced as low as $3400, the average cost of a fully configured machine is about $15,000. Until recently there were two main configurations - network duplexer with a high-capacity feed or network duplexer with high-capacity feed and a finisher (which stacks and aligns printed copies).
Now a third configuration is emerging from vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark and QMS: a network duplexer with high-capacity feed, finisher and copier capability.
There are about 39 printers within this segment, offering an average cost per page of about two cents. Kyocera says it has achieved 1.1 cents while some run as high as 3.1 cents.
At the top end are high-end devices that come complete with copier. There are 11 of these devices on offer, with an average build price of $23,000. Hitachi, HP and Lexmark are all targeting this space and delivering TCO of around 2.6 to 3 cents toner cost per page.
Then there is the new range of digital MFDs.
Both the laser printer vendors and the traditional copier vendors offer digital connectivity, high-quality finishing systems and excellent paper-bin capabilities.
Copier vendors are now offering complete booklet finishing, with machines that will centre punch, centre staple, fold, and z-fold while the machine is running.
Laser printer vendors have hit back by offering printers with clustered print controllers that let you split a single job across multiple machines.
Here there are 98 machines on offer within the MFD monochrome market alone, and players that can aggressively market these devices include Canon, Hitachi, Infotech, Konica, Minolta, Mita, Panasonic, Ricoh, Sharp, Toshiba and Xerox.
How to track TCO
Before trying to work out TCO for any printer Hall says companies should consider who does what printing, whether the organisation is tracking charge-back, and how much printing work is going through individual machines.
While all high-end printers have counters to tally year-to-date prints, and some vendors separately sell software applications that can track who's printing what for charge-back purposes, Hall says any organisation with a decent procurement plan should have an audit trail of who ordered what consumables for what cost centre.
"What I am finding now is most organisations are controlling it at a cost-centre level where they're more manage-wise in collecting their billing information," Hall says.
TCO should play an important consideration in any buying choice.