Printing means more than just ink on paper. Find out how careful analysis can save you thousands of dollars.
The promise of the paperless office is nowhere in sight. Despite our efforts to create, store and manage electronic versions of our documents, paper still manages to find its way into many situations. It’s not without cause, of course, given that paper is one of the most versatile, easy-to-read, and effective communication medium. Furthermore, modern businesses still haven’t figured out a more effective way of signing documents than the humble signature, meaning even the most technologically capable organisations will likely need some form of printing.
Unlike other components in the office, however, few businesses rarely give their printing situation the consideration it deserves. Not only can the purchase price be high, but a poor match for your office can lead to an even higher total cost ownership – it could literally dwarf the initial purchase price. In addition, as printers are a shared, centralised resource, printer downtime can affect the entire company, dragging productivity to a standpoint.
When thinking about printing, it’s easy to browse through a manufacturer’s products, look over the specifications, and find the one that just looks like good value. That’s an easy trap to fall into, but it’s a trap nonetheless – start with your business needs first, find the specifications best suited to it, then find the best deal you can. It’s a process often overlooked, but it can save thousands of dollars in the long run.
To get you started, first think about how paper fits into your business. Will you need regularly printed reports? Do you require pamphlets sent out every month? Do you still work with faxes? Will you put a mandatory business moratorium on unnecessary email printing? There are many specific questions you could ask here, but the end result should give you some idea about the role paper will play in your business.
Once you’ve wrapped your head around this, it’s time to get to the details. Business printing is fixated on volume and cost, which translates into the printer’s total cost of ownership (TCO). The first detail is simply volume – now that you know what to print, you can make predict how much. If you think that each employee will print at least one email per day and one 30-page report per month, you have an average of 60 per month, per employee. Extrapolate that out to 20 employees over a year, and you’ll be printing 14,440 pages. To give you some idea how much a poor decision can cost you, think about the simple addition of a duplex unit to a printer. By printing on both sides of a page, you halve your paper costs while taking on a minimal hit to speed.
Keeping TCO in mind, you can now consider what needs to printed. Here, look at the amount of colour prints needed, the amount of colour coverage per page, and whether you need high quality prints. Some printers, for example, are better at high volume, while others are better at high quality. Also consider whether you need to print predominantly text or pictures.
Finally, think how often the printer will be used, and what other paper-based services will be required. It might make sense to buy a multifunction printer and photocopier, but you might find that employees are fighting over each function. What could have been a great cost saver could actually turn out to be a cumbersome bottleneck compared to two dedicated devicesLasers, jets and dots
The technologies behind the two main forms of printers are not only fascinating, but indicate where each technology fits within the office. Good quality inkjets may play some kind of role, particularly for photographs, but it’s laser printers that make up the lion’s share of business printers.
The reason why laser printers are so suited to businesses comes down to how they handle text printing, and how they cope with quantity. In a nutshell, laser printers work by using a laser (or, more recently, LEDs) to magnetically ‘draw’ the image on a rotating, statically-charged printing drum. Toner is then applied to the magnetised parts on the drum, which subsequently prints the image on the page. The process is very fast, particularly for black and white documents, and more importantly, the process is more cost efficient than inkjets (more on that later).
Not only do laser printers handle high volumes, they also excel at producing text documents. This comes down to the toner being ‘fused’ to the page, rather than being absorbed by the paper. This latter method is used by inkjet printers, which can result in a slight ‘bleed’ around finely detailed elements like text. As inkjet printers continue to evolve, these discrepancies are becoming less distinct.
Despite the relative inferiority of inkjet printers when it comes to text and speed, the technology is well suited to high quality colour printing. Various paper types and ink ranges mean you can produce high-gloss, professional photos with comparatively cheap domestic grade printers. But where inkjets can play a role in the home or in niche business situations, it shouldn’t be used simply because your require colour in your documents – for that, a colour laser will likely suffice.
Common to all printers, however, are two (sometimes poorly explained) specifications: the printer’s resolution and its page-per-minute rating. The resolution, measured in dots-per-inch (DPI) is like the resolution on a monitor or TV, where the higher the resolution, the more detail can be squeezed onto the page – and similarly, a high resolution can be overkill where the detail is not needed. Some manufacturers use special resolution ‘enhancement’ techniques to increase the resolution beyond that of the image being printed. The other key specification is the pages-per-minute, which is a nominal, manufacturer-specified figure that’s usually quoted for colour and mono pages. The observed PPM rating can vary wildly from the quoted spec, so always look for independent tests like those found at PC Authority Business.
A complete package
It’s now time to look at the printer as a unified whole. It could consist of page feeders, an interface panel, an Ethernet port, memory card readers, print drivers, and maybe even a scanner, copier and fax. In other words, printers can be much than printers.
Starting with how a printer connects, you’ll have three options. The first is Ethernet, which means it can hang directly off your network, rather than being first connected to a PC. This has the primary advantage of being a dedicated, centralised printer which can be administered via the network – perfect for any networked business.
The second main type of connectivity is USB or USB 2, which must typically be connected to a PC or server. This can work in a small office, but it depends on the PC or server it’s connected to be firstly switched on, and secondly to be capable of handling the printing queue. Finally, some printers still support the older parallel ports. Parallel ports are slower than USB, which may create a bottleneck for bigger print jobs. Finally, some printers will also accept USB drives, allowing you to print directly from the drive.
Next up, think about the printer as you would think about a PC. Every printer does some fairly heavy duty computing, and consequently needs a CPU, memory and user interface that suits its purpose. An underpowered printer with low internal memory will have trouble processing large print jobs, so look for a printer that runs at around 300MHz and includes at least 64MB of RAM (the latter can typically be upgraded). Rounding off the similarity to PCs, you’ll discover that hard drives have found their way into printers recently. These can cut down on network bandwidth by storing large graphics for reuse.
The interface should typically reflect the amount of services the printer (or multi-function device) offers. MFDs that offer copying should have a large LCD display, and straight up laser printers may simply have a two-line display, or none at all. Businesses not wanting sensitive documents falling in the wrong hands can also configure a PIN code for an extra layer of security.
Aside from the printer’s user interface, higher-end models may sport their own built-in admin servers. These work by providing a browser-based Web interface, which can be accessed by opening up Internet Explorer or Firefox and putting the printer’s IP into the address bar. This will take you to a custom web page, letting you update drivers, and check the status on paper and ink.
Finally, there’s paper handling. The input and output trays can heavily impact a printers usefulness, requiring unnecessary paper changes and tray clearing, particularly for big jobs. Extra documents feeders, duplex printing (printing on both sides), staplers and other additions can all be used to save paper and time, making them important considerations.
Total cost of ownership
Now that you have some idea about the types of technology and what your business needs, it’s time to talk about running costs. It’s a prime concern for any hardware or service, but it’s in the controversial world of ink, paper, and consumables that where TCO makes the biggest impact.
Calculating TCO is simple if you factor in every component. Typically, this involves the initial cost of the printer, installation, paper and ink. However, such a simple equation won’t yield an accurate TCO for every situation, so you’ll need to probe deeper.
Starting with laser printers, such a simple TCO calculation would be particularly disastrous, due to its variety of consumable components.
All laser printers consume toner and paper, however, depending on the specific printer, you may need to factor in image drums, fuser units, waste toner containers and transfer belts – all of which may last for different lengths of time before needing a replacement. Fortunately, most manufacturers will supply these details (if not, insist on it or look elsewhere), though they may be buried among a cloud of specifications. You’ll mostly find the relevant information under ‘yield’ or ‘duty cycle’, and most will be quoted at a total page coverage of five percent.
Now you can start painting a picture of how much of your printer might cost the business. After creating a list of how many pages each component can print before being replaced (as well as the price of each component), you can factor in your ballpark page count discussed earlier. Then, add in the cost of the printer and the paper, and you’ll have your magic estimated TCO per year.
Inkjets might not be used as much as laser printers in the office, but TCO is just as important. Unlike laser printers, inkjets are often sold at low prices, with high margins on the ink cartridges. Further complicating the issue is the way different ink cartridges work – if you have a four-colour cartridge and one colour runs out, the entire ink cartridge may need to be replaced. Add in the vendor ‘lock-in’, where the printer will often work best with its official inks and paper, and you may find yourself sitting on a money sink. Note, however, that third-party inks and paper are available, but they vary in fade resistance and quality.
The key element in working out TCO is that it’s far more complex than it may first seem -- two businesses running the same printer may have vastly different annual costs depending on how much they print. For example, a cheap laser printer may have relatively cheap toner, but its other components may be expensive to replace and have shorter life spans. On the other hand, that printer may be perfect for a business printing 4000 pages a year, compared to one printing 20,000.
Put simply, the impact of TCO on printing can’t be overstated. Laser printers require a complicated analysis due to their range of consumables, however the inkjet business model of charging high margins on replacement inks and third-party alternatives makes it an equally thorny affair. Fortunately, much of the information you need to make an estimate is available, and publications like PC Authority regularly run independent printer tests to verify manufacturer claims and give the lowdown on TCO.
Business Startup Guide continues: Networking