It?s a sure sign of what we euphemistically call ?mature? technology when the specifications go into reverse. So it is with the dot-matrix printer. Four years ago the punters wanted letter-quality print: printheads were packed with 24 pins, even simulating 48 pins at one point. Fiendish consoles were invented to help users pick from 20 hard fonts. Strange clip-on paper hoppers appeared so that the boss?s PA could load the headed stationery.
Try to sell one of those printers in 1997 and customers will laugh at you. It?s like trying to sell them an Amstrad PCW on ease of use. The battle for supremacy in the page printer market has been won by the inkjet and its high-rent cohort the personal laser, so 24-pin printheads aren?t so important any more. What users want from a dot-matrix now looks curiously like the spec they required 15 years ago: doesn?t break, does the job fast as possible and doesn?t jam.
Just as the mainframe has proved to be more robust than anyone expected, so it is with the high-end dot-matrix printer. It?s not exactly a gold-mine, but unlike selling laser printers, at least it makes a profit.
That?s not just for the dealer either. For an office swamped with paper, no laser or inkjet can touch the per-page print cost of a dot-matrix printer.
?It?s still a cost issue,? says Catherine Cresswell, product manager at Citizen Europe. ?We worked out that it costs between 0.07 and 0.13 pence per sheet. That?s one twentieth of the cost of laser printing,? explains Richard Bright, product manager for impact printers at Tally. ?If you don?t want quality print, that?s a good deal.?
?Cost is the factor. If you?re printing 1,000 invoices a day on five-part stationery, then you are printing at 50 times the cost using a laser printer,? adds Robert Clark Epson group product manager for business products.
If that?s the common selling point for dot-matrix printers, there?s an equal amount of agreement over which products sell well.
Think dot-matrix printers and you think Epson, which invented them (actually, C Itoh did, but Epson invented the mass market, and that?s what counts ? ask Microsoft). At Epson, Clark still claims there?s a mass market for his printers. ?There will always be a requirement for them. For any application needing multipart stationery, the dot-matrix will be here ad infinitum. Some people even buy it as a multipurpose general printer.?
Which is, of course, selling the issue too hard. Only very poor or very silly people buy a dot-matrix as a general printer, surely? Not so, says Cresswell. ?We still support our older models, and in geographical areas that we cover ? for example, Eastern Europe and Africa ? there are still opportunities for them. But you can?t say inkjets and laser printers aren?t going into those markets too.?
Not surprisingly, Citizen is finding that its traditional core values ? pile ?em high, sell ?em cheap ? no longer apply to the dot-matrix business. ?It?s been the mainstay of our business for many years. We?re still committed to it, but we?re refocusing. Multipart stationery is always needed. Customers require higher speeds, but that low-end dot-matrix we saw in the 80s ? that?s going,? says Cresswell.
?There is an opportunity to extend the printing into areas where there are different types of media ? for example, our most recent launch is the Prodot 450L, which can print on media up to 2mm thick. You can use it for passbooks.?
Tally, as a company with a traditional high-end focus, has not had to undergo such radical adjustments. ?People who buy a laser printer and use it to print huge internal reports are costing themselves a fortune. There?s a large horizontal market for applications like this. We don?t expect to have one on every desk, but two or three per company instead,? says Bright.
Which, of course, begs the question, what?s so good about the modern dot-matrix printer? Look at the spec sheets, there?s no new page description language, software control panel or toner replacement design to differentiate the new generation of printers from last decade?s models, or your printer from the next manufacturer?s. Fair cop, says Bright.
?There have been a few improvements. The first is the print quality. The second is forms handling, where we can have front-feed forms handling, which is much less likely to misfeed. The last is noise level. This generation of printer is half as noisy as the last, which was half as noisy as the one before that.?
But if we look at the output as a measure of a printer?s worth, we?re wrong, he adds. ?People have to understand that it?s not just about print quality. There are a large number of awkward and small print jobs that are just beginning to emerge, and these jobs are ideally suited to impact printing.
At Epson, Clark sounds like he?s been in some odd design meetings. ?It?s really at the stage where we ask, where do we go? What features do we add? The features we need are reliability, dependability, durability. A dot-matrix printer has to be suitable for mission-critical applications. It?s the product that you would use to print invoices, for example.?
But they?ve always been reliable. Ah yes, Clark says, but they are trying to make them even more reliable, with a mean time between failure of 6,000 power-on hours.
Oki?s experience is similar. Lowes says: ?Low-end nine-pin is dead. Very much so. Everyone?s gone to inkjet and colour printing, so we built our printers like a tank so they can take any sort of knock. What?s important is paper handling ? a lot of our dot-matrix printers have the capability to have many sets of stationery loaded simultaneously. Intelligent printheads minimise maintenance, too.?
If the consumer market has disappeared, there are two other options: look for horizontal business applications or vertical markets. At Tally, Bright is pushing dealers towards those markets, but because the dot-matrix printer has slipped so far from people?s minds, there?s a sales job to be done first. ?You don?t have a manufacturer like HP with a stranglehold on the market, and if you?re a customer there isn?t a magazine article comparing the top 30 dot-matrix printers.?
The result, Bright says, is that customers rely on the advice of dealers, and if they are going to take that advice, they need a good working relationship with that dealer. So Tally sees the main market as non-industry specific. ?It?s for invoicing, reports, schedules, registration documents ? where resilience counts,? Bright explains.
At Oki, Lowes has a slightly different opinion ? there?s a great deal of business, not from established customers, but in emerging vertical markets, he says. To sell a dot-matrix in an emerging market seems like a contradiction, but he contends that there are some environments where only a dot-matrix will do. ?There are still a lot of new business that are using a printer for the first time. Lorries, for example, and boats, where there are environmental issues that mean you could not use a laser or an inkjet.?
Not every manufacturer is equally adept at serving these markets, and there certainly isn?t the volume of business around to support the multitude of smaller, mass-production dot-matrix manufacturers that flourished at the turn of the decade.
?As the product goes into vertical markets, it becomes less price sensitive. Two or three years ago there was still a low-cost market and Citizen and Star were fighting it out at the low end. Now the entry-level inkjet is just too cheap. That?s not viable,? says Clark.
?At Cebit you saw that companies like Citizen and Star haven?t really upgraded their ranges for the new markets. I?d expect to see them drop out of the dot-matrix business.?
For those that are left, there?s a higher unit price and a better margin. ?People can make money on dot-matrix printers now that the market has shifted. Our product lifecycles are now at least two years, which is a lot longer than the six or nine months for an inkjet. Further up the range, the lifecycle gets longer. One of our printers, the DFX8000, has been going for eight years,? he boasts.
If it?s odd to hear a high-tech manufacturer boasting that it makes eight-year-old product; it?s even odder to hear them competing on this basis. ?Pricing isn?t a factor, so prices are stable and so are margins,? says Lowes. ?We see products that have been in the field for 10 years. We manufacture a product for as long as there is demand for it. We?ve had one or two of our models in production for a decade.?
This doesn?t sound like the right game for Citizen. Creswell is cautious. ?It?s a big adjustment, but we have the advantage of a strong manufacturing capability in the UK. It?s a time of change for us, though, and we have to focus on a new channel. This year it will be important to establish ourselves.?
There?s a time for adjustment, and a time to get the hell out. Cresswell hints that this might be on the agenda for Citizen. ?Non-impact type product will be more important in the future for us,? she says.
Bright returns to the advantage that dot-matrix can offer that other printers can?t ? margin. ?Two per cent of #1,500 isn?t bad, but typically it?s a much higher margin. People should be able to make 12 per cent and above. That?s very attainable,? he says.
Dot-matrix is now a strategic part of the company?s business, following its buyout from Mannesmann by the Legal and General Group in January. Not only does it make the company easy to spell, it means that there will be a stronger sales push. Its German owner had other priorities. Selling dot-matrix was, ?a bit awkward because a lot of our profits were financing steel production?, says Bright.
Not every manufacturer has had Bright?s problems. All of them have had to trim their expectations for the dot-matrix sector. Nevertheless, reports of its death are exaggerated.
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