Printing in bulk

Despite the gains made by electronic communication over the past few years, there is little doubt that we are still a paper-based society. If anything, the printing needs of most organisations have increased, even as our dependence on the Internet has grown.

If your organisation has grown to the point where you produce more than a few thousand pages per month, you probably have several printers around the office. Some lasers, some inkjets, some colour, some monochrome. Some may even be shared between a few users, while others hang off a single machine. You've probably already realised the burden this creates in terms of maintenance, administration and lost productivity. How many employee hours are lost reloading small paper trays, or waiting in line at one printer while others sit idle?

The solution, in most cases, is a high-end workgroup printer. These massive workhorses can produce high-quality output at upwards of 40 pages per minute. They can be shared over the network, ending the hunt for a free printer around the building. Having one printer instead of many also has obvious advantages in terms of administration and maintenance.

What might be less obvious is the enormous range of options available both in terms of the technology solutions and the purchasing solutions. If you've been avoiding making the leap to centralised printing, you may be surprised to find how simple the entry has become.

However, it's important to stress that a single big workhorse may not necessarily be the solution to your company's needs. All of the vendors we spoke to emphasised the importance of customers sitting down with resellers and establishing exactly what their requirements are before making any purchase.

Andrew Glenn, Epson's business manager for business and professional products, said "There might be circumstances in which a workgroup printer might exacerbate the customer's problems by creating a printing bottleneck . . . it might be more productive for some companies to have two or three 20ppm machines instead of one 40ppm machine."

Likewise, Canon's David Gradwell, national marketing manager of the business imaging solutions group, said that company "sees a role for personal printers as well as workgroup printers" in companies of all sizes.

"A desktop printer is a better solution for low-volume output and for confidential print jobs. But the larger and more complex the print job, for cost-effectiveness and productivity reasons, workgroup printers are better." Most of the companies we surveyed have offerings both in the high-volume workgroup printer market and the desktop printer market, and were keen to point out the advantages of both solutions.

Gradwell said that the efficacy of one solution over the other depended greatly on exactly what the customer requires: "When you look at the total life of the product, which is about five years, and you calculate the capital cost and the consumable cost over the life of the product, there is a 'break point' that is reached where the capital cost of a higher-volume device makes up for the printing costs of lower-volume products."

What you get as a standard unit in the workgroup printer market varies widely. Aside from high speed and networkability, nothing can really be taken for granted. Most vendors offer large-capacity sheet feeders and paper trays (for the 40 pages per minute plus to land in), and double-sided printing is also common. Most of these units can also handle A3 paper, making it quite practical to produce A4 folded booklets from the desktop. Some vendors offer "mailboxes", secure paper trays into which individual user's print jobs can be sent rather than having them sit in a common paper tray. More exotic options include folding, binding, stapling and hole-punching facilities available from several vendors. But the base models are kept very basic to allow for the maximum amount of configurability after purchase.

The big trend in the past year or so, however, has been the growth of integrated "multifunction" devices, which incorporate printing, copying and faxing into a single unit. John Denton, Fuji-Xerox Australia's general manager of marketing, says that company is placing a lot of emphasis on that type of device. "The major advantage is cost control," he says. "The devices we talk about in this market tend to be the integrated devices performing printing, copying and faxing functions. The cost of running these integrated devices is significantly lower than running three stand-alone devices doing the same things."

Canon also pushes the integration angle, especially with copier/printers. Gradwell says: "In the range of total cost of ownership, you have inkjets at one end, traditional laser workgroup printers in the mid-range, and (if you have the volume to justify them) integrated multifunction devices at the very low end of that spectrum."

Lexmark, for its part, is focused on maintaining the maximum amount of flexibility for the printing needs of the organisation, even if it means not selling one of the higher-priced workgroup models. Tim Champion, marketing manager for business products and applications, says that the advantage of networked printing is not merely one of throughput, but also of distribution. Where other vendors see advantages in integrating colour printing, monochrome printing, copying and faxing into a single unit, Champion says some organisations gain more benefit from having some of these functions performed by separate devices.

Administration is the key, and Lexmark provides software to ensure that print jobs are automatically sent to the appropriate device. "Cost and productivity go together," says Champion. "By tightly integrating the technology approach with the customer's requirements, we can save them not only in capital expenditure but also in overall operating expenditure."

Volume is the key issue here. Workgroup printers don't come cheap, ranging from just below $10,000 at the entry level, and very quickly rising up into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The point at which that kind of capital expenditure becomes affordable is when the cost of printing per page, including the less-tangible cost of lost employee productivity, is significantly better than with desktop printing.

Gradwell says that IT managers "can pay, for instance, 1.8 cents per page.

"That can represent a dramatic saving. For a traditional laser printer that you buy outright, you pay more like five or six cents per page, plus service costs."

But, as Epson's Glenn points out, "customers produce 'page plans', where they anticipate printing so many pages per month, and they structure a payment plan around that. Then, if they don't actually print that many pages, the cost of printing per page goes through the roof."

Most vendors offer highly flexible finance plans, ranging from buying the machines outright, to leasing or even renting. Fuji-Xerox and Lexmark also offer complete managed printing solutions, in which the customer has no capital expenditure up front, but pays the vendor to maintain and administer the company's entire printing network. Denton of Xerox says "if you're a typical IT manager in a reasonable-sized company, document management isn't something you really want to worry about - you're more worried about IT. Xerox will take over your network printing, copying, faxing, and run it with our own people. All you do is pay us a charge per page, with no capital outlay at all." Lexmark says its managed printing solutions can also cover "fleets" of printers not necessarily manufactured by Lexmark.

Champion points out that there are "perhaps a handful" of organisations in Australia big enough to fully benefit from this kind of solution. However, "there are many more that require some component of a managed solution - just the hardware, or a help desk". Canon's Gradwell points out that this type of service contract is "common in the copier market", but just now making its way into printers.

The future

In the near term, there are a number of innovations to look forward to for buyers of workgroup printers. Perhaps the most significant is colour. Already, Epson is heavily promoting printers that can produce upwards of 25ppm in monochrome as well as 6ppm in colour. Glenn believes those speeds will improve dramatically in the next 12 months. Gradwell, of Canon, says "dramatic improvements in the cost and in the quality of colour production are going to reduce the premium in cost between colour and black and white printing at higher volumes".

The other big trend stems from the growth of printer/scanner devices, as Xerox's Denton points out "these can not only produce hard copy at high volume, they can also take it back in". What he's referring to is taking a company's filing cabinets full of paper and scanning them, 40 pages per minute, into electronic form. Once there, they can be analysed, annotated and catalogued for easy retrieval using a search engine.

Gradwell agrees, saying "the most exciting trend is closer integration of paper and electronic documents.

The ability to integrate network scanning, e-mail, and retrieval from the Internet". Both companies produce software to facilitate this.

So, while the growth in paper output may seem incongruous with the growth of electronic communication, high-end printer manufacturers are ready to ride the trend, whichever way it goes.

TAFE college opts for valet-printing serviceBox Hill TAFE, in Victoria, has its own print unit that manages all its high-volume print needs, but the institution also relies on up to 40 Xerox printer/copiers situated in departmental corridors around the campus.

Martin Booth, general manager of the print unit, wanted to gain control of the corridor print volume. He was after a solution that would create a revenue stream for the print unit, without it turning into a labour-intensive situation.

Booth turned to the Fuji Xerox document services group (DSG) for assistance. Fuji Xerox Australia's traditional business sells the technology and equipment to the customer, while DSG adds value by also providing well-trained people to operate and support the technology.

Already using Xerox print technology in his print unit (running a DocuTech black and white 135 production printer, a Xerox 5090 black and white high-volume copier, a Xerox A935 colour printer/copier and a Xerox Able digital black and white printer/copier), Booth recognised the advantage of choosing Fuji Xerox.

"The head of each department is no longer responsible for the copiers, so has no need to worry about placing it on an asset register," explained Booth. "By implementing the Fuji Xerox scenario, the print unit has relieved them of a noncore activity."

Making use of DSG's valet service, it means the print unit is not even responsible for day-to-day maintenance. "Someone comes in who 'feeds and waters' the Xerox technology every day. They check the toner and paper, and ensure everything is running smoothly. The tasks may not seem huge but if you save one staff member 10 minutes - and there are 150 administration staff who ended up checking toner and paper before - that's a lot of time saved."

BOC dumps desktop printers for a high-end fleetLeading manufacturer and supplier of gas products, BOC Gases, anticipates savings of more than $100,000 a year as a result of replacing desktop printers with a fleet of networked Canon digital monochrome copier/printers.

When it relocated its corporate headquarters and centralised its national customer service in February this year, the company replaced desktop printers with seven Canon GP405 copier/printers, spread throughout the building.

"The main advantages for us of switching to the Canon GP405 copier/printer is the reduced cost in maintaining individual desktop printers, as well as the improved productivity they offer," said Chris Peters, manager of national security and facilities at BOC Gases.

"Together with Canon, we completed a workflow analysis where we closely examined our printing requirements. We analysed the costs of desktop printers versus the Canon copier/printer and realised we could save more than $100,000 a year, with rental and consumables taken into consideration.

"We realised we needed more photocopiers per floor in the new building, so the high-speed, multipurpose machines supplement our existing Canon NP8530 and NP6050 photocopiers," he said.

To date the seven Canon GP405s support 550 users. The machines are also used extensively for photocopying but not for scanning or facsimile as yet. There are plans to provide users with facsimile to the desktop in the near future.

The Canon GP405s deliver stackless automatic duplexing as standard and state-of-the-art duplex scanning at 60 x 600dpi. In addition, composition options and finishing capabilities are accessible from the desktop.

All seven machines have high-volume requirements, averaging between 12-15,000 copies a month. The GP405s handle these volumes easily, with a 5400 A4 sheet paper capacity.

Equipped with the standard Canon Netspot software, the GP405 delivers centralised printer administration over the network. The same software enables individual users to select printers and functions.

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