Good-bye, copy man

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.

Selling Points

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."

Digital Copiers

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."

— Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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