WASHINGTON (07/24/2000) - The term "multifunction printer," or MFP for short, conjures up confusing images. People tend to think of a hard-to-use, thermal paper fax machine they once saw that could also spew out curled-up facsimiles of paper documents (calling them "copies" seemed a stretch).
Although that early device would technically qualify as an MFP, it's hardly representative of the range or quality of products currently available. Therein lies the trouble. "It is a definitional problem," said Andrew Johnson, vice president at Dataquest, a division of Gartner Group Inc. "[The category] spans from a $300 item on a retail store shelf to a $40,000 copier that also prints and scans and faxes."
In spite of the sketchy definitions, MFPs are catching on across government.
Agency IT departments are discovering the productivity and administrative benefits of combining a printer, copier and fax machine in one device. In fact, this year is the first that sales of digital copiers, which includes all MFPs, will surpass sales of the traditional analog copy machines found in most offices.
Agencies find that there are many ways that MFPs can save them money. The most common savings comes from reduced administrative costs because there are fewer devices to maintain and workers don't waste time walking between devices to produce documents.
So who wouldn't want the Swiss Army knife of printers? "The stand-alone devices are a better choice when a machine is dedicated to one function," said Harry Otto, general manager of Samsung's office automation division. For example, some copiers are busy constantly churning through reproduction jobs. "Due to the volume, there isn't any opportunity to take advantage of multiple functions," he said.
"If you are a high-end user, then an all-in-one is probably not what you want," concurred Daniel Oey, Epson America Inc.'s product manager for all-in-one products.
Still, MFPs are a good fit for most agencies. Even users with demanding requirements can enjoy the convenience of having an MFP on the desktop for much of their work.
"I think there is a strong case for decentralized document management, and the $300 MFPs could suit that architecture very well," Johnson said.
Desktop MFPs are convenient, and they are getting more attractive as vendors add capabilities and lower prices, particularly to attract the generally more price-sensitive consumers. Of course, federal customers, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs (see Case Study, left), can benefit when they use the consumer-oriented products.
"The MFP market is definitely becoming more consumer-oriented," said Janet Kauffman, research analyst at InfoTrends Research Group, Boston. "The professional side of the market is still the MFP core, but MFP prices are coming down, and part of that is spurred by the consumer segment."
Although the low price is certainly a hook, professional customers are more concerned about saving precious desktop real estate, Kauffman said.
Meanwhile, traditional barriers to wider use of MFPs are falling. The early versions of MFPs were plagued with low scanning resolution and poor print quality compared with the results of dedicated devices. But the current crop of MFPs is nearly as up-to-date in specification as the stand-alone machines. "A year ago, 300 [dots per inch] was the highest resolution out there, but now we are seeing scanning resolution really jumping up," Kauffman said. "Six-hundred dpi is becoming standard, and Brother [Industries Ltd.] has a 1,200 dpi model."
"The trend is to incorporate the latest technology that is in printers and scanners, so the resolution has gone up, as well as the color depth," Oey said.
"They have almost the same picture quality as a stand-alone printer."
At the high end, large digital copiers that attach to the network as printers are becoming popular replacements for traditional analog copiers. Because those MFPs are usually more numerous than office copy machines, employees don't spend as much time walking to get copies. It also means that they can make additional copies with paper-finishing features such as three-hole punches or stapling.
"If you look at the number of pages that are printed and then walked to a copier, it is fairly staggering," said David Laing, product line manager in North America for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s InkJet products. "This moves the copiers to the end users, instead of them having to walk around."
But there is a good reason why users don't use the network printers they have now to print 50 copies of the document they just created on their word processor: They want to proofread a copy before they make mass duplicates. No one wants to have to throw away a ream of paper because the document contained an error. Although spell-checkers may catch misspelled words, they do not catch the accidental use of the wrong word.
Vendors have come up with a simple solution. "We have a "proof and hold' button that lets you print the first copy, and if you like the way it looks, you print the others," Laing said.
Another reason why customers have relied on copiers to print large batch jobs is that the cost per page is lower on devices with refillable toner, such as copiers, than it is for devices with replaceable toner cartridges, such as laser printers. And laser printers haven't always offered paper-finishing capabilities provided by copiers.
"People perceive that the copier has a lower cost per page, is faster and has better paper handling, but now the [MFPs] have the same functions," Laing said.
"They've already made the investment in networked printers. It is much cheaper to add copier modules to printers they already own than to buy or lease copiers."
Such devices can also help agencies convert paper documents into digital form as they are being reproduced in hard copy. The Air Force Legal Information System, for example, is digitizing its documents using Xerox Corp.'s Document Center. The information is made available as searchable data on the Internet, according to an officer familiar with the system.
One issue that has limited the use of MFPs in the government is that different departments within agencies tend to be responsible for copiers and printers.
"Bids are often structured as copier bids," said Bill Loughlin, Xerox's North American operations marketing manager. "Procurement functions have not gotten to the point that they can comprehend the difference between multifunction and single-function devices."
That means that when a multifunction device costs more than a comparable stand-alone device, it doesn't win such bids even though it can do much more.
"If they continue to look at each product as a single product, you run into problems," Loughlin said.
But agencies are starting to come around. "Originally, we had an issue with that," said Charles DeSanno, chief information officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs' medical centers in New York and New Jersey. "Most of the office equipment is now under MIS."