Like many other items of equipment in the IT world, the printer has become largely a commodity item, available off the shelf and relatively easy to install.
But choosing the right type of printer for the right type of job is much more of a strategic decision than would at first appear ? printers are big business.
IBM spun off its low-end printer division in the early 90s, at a time when the company was posting losses of $5 billion. The new company, Lexmark, in which IBM retained a 10 per cent stake, became a member of the Datamation Top 100 IT companies in 1993. IBM set up Pennant to handle high-end printers, hardware and software but it was later reabsorbed into the main company.
Hewlett Packard ? which prides itself as an open systems hardware supplier and systems integrator ? derives a large proportion of its revenues from the sale of its laser printers.
Although there are a number of different printer technologies, five predominate: dot-matrix, inkjet, thermal, laser and band printers.
Other more specialised technologies, such as ion deposition and dye sublimation, which offers near photographic quality colour, are also available. Deciding which printer to select can be a difficult process and companies like Lexmark have set up services divisions to assist customers and provide support and maintenance.
While the price of a printer is clearly an important factor, there are other features which the customer and reseller need to take into account, such as noise and running costs. Impact printers such as the dot-matrix printer are noisy and therefore less suitable for office environments. Band printers are extremely noisy and are usually locked away to suppress the noise and dust they create. The heavy-duty band printer is expensive to purchase but its running costs are relatively low. The running costs of the dot-matrix printer are also low, but so is the initial purchase price.
Of the non-impact printers, inkjets are cheapest, laser printer are mid-priced and thermal printers cost most. The thermal printer also carries with it the penalty of high running costs. All printers, with the exception of band printers, offer colour ranging from the low, but acceptable, quality of the dot-matrix printer to the high quality of the thermal printer.
The line between the high-end printer market and the low-end sector has become blurred over the years as more companies have decentralised to a departmental level for many tasks. Gas and electricity bills may still be centrally printed on band printers because of the number of copies that need to be produced, but many printing jobs have been delegated to departmental level. But according to some suppliers and observers, there is a trend to recentralising. Kyocera and Hewlett Packard are marketing high-end laser printers as a central resource.
Kyocera marketing manager Neville Rawlings argues that there is a requirement for high-quality, high-volume printing that cannot be met by desktop printers. ?What customers need is high-output printing, collating and stapling and the type of features you get on a photocopier,? he says.
The latest range of high-end printers are not desktop models ? they are mounted on their own pedestal. But in all but name they are a high-throughput laser printer. According to Rawlings, the medium range desktop laser printer has a duty cycle (the number of pages printed each month) of about 11,000 sheets. High-end printers can handle 100,000 sheets a month.
Kyocera argues that there is a short-term benefit in the cost of ownership of these machines because of a lower demand on consumable items such as toner and cartridges. Nor are they any harder to use than a desktop system, says Rawlings. ?Anybody who has a network usually has a network administrator. These are just larger laser printers. If there is a standard level of PC proficiency within a company then there will be no problem.?
The new range of stand-alone departmental printers can run at 24 pages per minute, a considerable improvement on the now standard 16 pages per minute.
According to Simon Brown, marketing manager at distributor Qudis, the new HP Mopier printer stands like a photocopier and looks like a photocopier, but is attached to a network. Photocopiers are notoriously unreliable and require manual intervention. The advantage of the standalone network printer is that where in the past someone would have to go to the photocopier, load the paper when necessary and wait for the job to be completed, the network printer allows them to print their job without having to leave their desk. But the machines are not a cheap item. The Mopier retails to end users at #6,700.
Although non-impact printers are the clear favourite in the office environment, there is still a market for impact printers, says Richard Bright, marketing manager for impact printers at Tally. ?The market has moved over to non-impact printers largely because of wordprocessing, but the problem is that they are 20 times more expensive to run than impact printers,? he says.
Although impact printers are noisy, for some environments, such as a factory floor, this is not a problem. Manufacturers like Tally have taken steps to lessen the noise factor and make the machines more ecologically friendly.
?We realised in the late 80s that the printer would be coming out of the computer room and into the office and set about making our machines quieter,? Bright says.
Like all hardware the cost of printers has consistently fallen during the past decade as technology has advanced. In 1987 a colour printer would have cost about #10,000. Today, a similar system with better resolution costs about #200 and although slow works out at a cost of about 16p a page. And although colour is becoming more popular in the office environment, is it is the black and white laser printer that is the true workhorse of commerce.
Phil Goodman, marketing manager at distributor Metrologie, says the low cost of colour inkjet printers make them the preferred choice of individual users. ?The colour inkjet is almost a personal printer, but if you want serious colour you have to look at dye sublimation and that will cost #5,000 to #10,000. In the main, the black and white laser or page printer is what most people need as a departmental or network printer.?
It has been estimated that users change their PC every three years or so, but printers have a lifetime of four or five years, according to Goodman. But he is cautious about recommending a colour printer as a departmental solution because of the amount of time it takes to print and because most departmental output is black and white text.
One of the problems identified by many manufacturers is that some dealers see printers as a non-strategic item and will offer them at knockdown prices to gain a sale. ?Retailers tend to marginalise the product to make a sale,? says Rawlings.
Bright argues that the purchase of the right type of printer is every bit as important as buying the right type of software or PC. ?You only have to think of the university student whose parents buy him an inkjet printer. When the cartridge runs out the student is faced with paying out #25 for a new one and that is not easy if you are living on a grant,? he says.
Some dealers do take the sale of printers seriously. ?A lot of good dealers are going out as printing consultants, but there are fewer of them than there were because users are more experienced now,? Bright says.
This view is endorsed by Kevin Spinks, marketing director of Lexmark, who believes dealers can differentiate themselves by offering advice and guidance to users. ?The wise dealer says to his customer I can give you some added value by offering you advice. In that way the dealer enhances his reputation,? Spinks says.
One of the major problems, according to Spinks, is that customers do not fully appreciate the cost of printing to their organisation. ?They know how much they spend on PCs and mainframes but they don?t know how much their printing costs them,? he says.
Lexmark estimates that 10 per cent of support costs are related to printing and 60 per cent of helpdesk calls relate to printers. The company also estimates that there are a number of hidden costs which users do not recognise. It estimates that five per cent of support costs are hardware related, 45 per cent are running costs, and 50 per cent are hidden costs like management, storage of paper toner and other consumables.
Spinks says: ?Kyocera puts the price of toner high on the agenda, but we believe that companies should be concentrating on reducing their paper costs.? He does not believe that there is a single technological solution to customers? requirements. Certainly a centralised printing resource has some advantages, particularly for heavy-duty jobs. But in other areas many users will want to use the printer as a personal tool for security or other reasons.
Clearly, not enough attention has been paid to the cost of printing, but Lexmark believes companies are now examining their overall costs more regularly and critically. There will never be a return to the mainframe days of centralised printing, but it is once again being looked at as one of a number of options.
The centralisation versus decentralisation argument has been looming large in the IT industry for the past couple of years. It can be argued, and is by consultancies like Bloor Research, that a return to centralisation means greater cost control over IT spending. Bloor Research discovered in 1994 that one major installation with 500 PC users had an average of one laser printer for every 3.5 staff ? surely a case of printer overkill.
There is no doubt, in the light of revelations that the long-term costs of PC networks are much higher than was at first appreciated, that companies will be reviewing their IT operations. Printers, the unglamorous end of the business, will be a subject of scrutiny as companies reconsider their IT strategy.
For dealers, printers carry the burden of being relatively low-margin products. But, according to Spinks, by adopting a strategic role in the purchase and running of printers there are phenomenal savings to be made. He cites the case of the US company Chevron which moved to 32-page printing for some of its material and saved $14 million.
Resellers with an eye to the future will, if they have any sense, be taking printers much more seriously than they have in the past.
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