Good-bye, copy man
- By Dan Carney
- Jul 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
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."
— Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.