Office Machines Evolve To Multifunction

August 15, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Where would the world be without the Swiss Army knife? The all-in-one tool for every job has no doubt saved plenty of lives (or at least opened plenty of bottles of wine). It also has tweezed, screwed, punched, magnified, rasped and scissored its way into the pockets of millions around the globe. The Swiss Army knife is a great little tool that can do lots of things passably, but one thing very well: cutting. All of the add-on fish-scalers and awls in the world wouldn’t help the Swiss Army knife if it didn’t do its main job well.

The same logic applies to a new category of home- and office-technology products that are changing the way businesses think about their printing and imaging technology: multifunction printers (MFPs). The all-in-wonders usually combine the abilities of a printer, a copier, a fax machine and a scanner in one handy unit that is generally smaller and cheaper than its component devices.

Mashing four pieces of equipment into one housing raises two main questions: Does it work? And, is it worth the money? The Business Journal asked some local experts to weigh in on these questions.

Most companies have at least one dishwasher-sized copy machine in their office. They also have a laser printer and at least one fax machine. Depending on their needs, they might have a small flatbed scanner or an industrial-sized drum unit. Although these machines tend to be reliable and produce the highest quality output, they are also larger and more expensive than many small businesses would prefer. But before jumping onto the MFP bandwagon, businesses should consider their needs.

“MFPs are not meant for everywhere. There are locations and applications where we put in just printers,” said Tom Senecal of office technology firm Laser’s Resource. “It has to do with device utilization. Many organizations today, you walk into a central services room. They’ve got a copier sitting there that gets used 10 percent of the time, a laser printer that gets used 20 percent of the time, and faxing is getting used less and less. So you have all these expensive devices that are depreciating, that have maintenance and expenses associated with them. So (for) people that are underutilizing them, they have a lot of different technology in their organization today and they don’t realize it’s costing them a lot of money.”

Printing and imaging costs are “one of the last bastions of un-audited corporate cost,” according to Senecal.

“Organizations today have driven cost out of their company anywhere they can. They’ve looked in every nook and cranny and under every rock for cost savings,” he said.

Reducing printing and imaging costs, he believes, is the rock left unturned.

Through technology consolidation, Senecal said, companies can lower those costs. For starters, the acquisition cost of an MFP is much lower than buying or leasing all of the separate components. But holding on to older equipment has its costs, as well.

“Maybe their copier is 12 years old and they’ve got a printer that’s 4 or 5 years old and a fax machine. We can typically take a look at just the operating cost alone and bring in a new device that, even with the lease and the maintenance, it would be less money than just what they’re spending to maintain their old devices,” he said.

He said he is currently working with a company that is spending $4,500 each month to maintain its equipment. His company has proposed a new MFP package that would save the firm 15 percent each month.

A study by Boston-based IDC research group found that the average savings for businesses using MFPs was 23 percent. The study cited the reduced operating costs, as well as “various employee productivity benefits due to improved device uptime and workflow improvements.”

Such was the case for Grand Rapids Community College. Doug Miller, GRCC’s director of media solutions, said the college has seen significant savings since phasing in MFPs over the past five years. He said that weaning people away from their personal desktop laser printers was a challenge, but that the faculty and staff have learned to grasp the “workgroup concept,” sharing the technology resources with their colleagues.

By removing over 100 desktop laser printers and familiarizing employees with the MFPs, the college has seen pre-page print costs drop from 6.5 cents to 2.5 cents.

“So the savings are definitely there,” Miller said. “Every time someone prints to a multi-function device instead of a desktop printer, we’re saving 4 cents. And that adds up in a hurry.”

Clearly MFPs offer some advantages, but does buying a less expensive unit with lower operating costs mean sacrificing quality? Conventional wisdom suggests that when manufacturers combine several products into one multi-use device, quality suffers. Owners of older combination TV/VCRs will likely attest that one of their unit’s two functions gave out after a few years. Is the same true of MFPs? Will buyers be stuck with a great scanner that won’t print or copy anymore?

“Now that the prices are coming down, (companies can buy) a machine that can do all of those things well,” said Kevin Andrea, sales manager for Precision Data Products, the leading office equipment dealer in the area. “As opposed to in the past, you’d buy some of these lower-end multifunction machines and they didn’t do anything real good, but they did it all. It might be an OK printer, but it’s a cruddy fax machine and it’s a cruddy copier — that sort of thing.”

Senecal said that reliability shouldn’t really come into question, as the technologies that make up MFPs are long since proven effective, but simply have been combined in a new way.

“Copiers have had scanners on top of them since the beginning of time, as well as print engines underneath them, so the durability and the technology has been proven in offices for 30 or 40 years,” he said. “At the end of the day people want to know, ‘If I keep separate devices, how much extra is that going to cost me?’”

Andrea echoed Senecal’s estimate that MFPs typically save companies around 20 percent to 30 percent in operating costs. He also said that many of his small-business clients are choosing the all-in-one units and have not complained of reliability problems or reductions in print or image quality.

As always, quality and reliability come with a price. Andrea said that, despite falling prices, a “decent” quality MFP will run a business between $3,000 and $4,000. Both Andrea and Senecal warn against businesses using low-end, consumer-grade MFPs in a business setting.

But for businesses with limited volume needs, a home-office grade MFP might be an acceptable choice. With prices ranging from around $150 to $700, the cost is certainly more attractive. According to a recent ranking by PC World magazine, “today’s multifunction printers rival single-purpose printers in price and performance, but their scanning and photocopying abilities lag behind those of their freestanding counterparts.” The magazine found that the Lexmark X5150 provided the best combination of performance and value, setting buyers back less than $200.         

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