Multifunction Junction

A home-office staple finds favor with Corporate America.
Esther SheinMay 1, 2007

Talk about a paper jam: two years ago, power producer Progress Energy was up to its smokestacks in office machinery. The Raleigh, North Carolina, company deployed nearly 2,700 printers, copiers, scanners, and fax machines in more than 200 sites in Florida and the Carolinas. That worked out to about one device for every four employees.

What’s more, two groups oversaw this vast armada of equipment. The company’s IT department managed scanners and printers while a corporate-services group handled fax and copy machines.

Don Bliss, manager of IT asset-management services at Progress, says company management was eager to do more with less. So Progress began replacing its fleet of dedicated document machines with devices that perform double duty — and then some. These machines, known as MFPs (multifunction print devices), not only print and copy, they also scan, fax, and in some cases, send E-mail.

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According to Bliss, these all-in-one wonders enabled Progress to consolidate its office-equipment maintenance under one roof. More important, the company was able to mothball or sell scores of older single-function machines. All in, Bliss reckons the company reduced its number of output devices by a whopping 58 percent.

Other companies are also discovering the joys of multifunctionality. According to research firm IDC, sales of MFPs will grow 24 percent by 2010. Much of that bump up stems from a corporate desire to save both money and space. The consolidation of four machines into one also lessens support hassles — and the chances of mechanical malfunctions.

Adding to the recent interest in MFPs: prices have fallen dramatically. Mass-market retailers like Best Buy are now selling high-end multifunction products for less than $1,000. Hewlett-Packard’s Color LaserJet 2840 and Canon’s ImageClass MF8170C, for example, can be had for around $800 each. IDC vice president Keith Kmetz says the sub-$1,000 sticker is an appealing price point for many corporate customers, particularly smaller businesses.

Do not weep for vendors, however. More-robust MFPs, such as the Ricoh Aficio MP C4500 or the Toshiba e-Studio 3510c, still cost around $17,000 to $21,000, with some machines running well over $100,000. And larger businesses will generally want to stick with the more expensive pieces of equipment. Entry-level MFPs may be versatile, but they are also relatively slow — typically taking around 30 seconds to scan a document — and often provide less-than-stellar print quality.

Consultants say managers keen on buying a powerful yet affordable MFP should consider purchasing devices that print only in black and white. Color models do have their advantages, though, not the least of which is the ability to fine-tune saturation levels on individual print jobs. Many color MFPs also come with enterprise software. Among other things, the programs provide support staffs with details about the tasks that are being handled by the machines. The logs make it easier for department heads or tech workers to clamp down on routine jobs that are being produced in color for no good reason.

We Know Where You Print

Indeed, experts say improved monitoring is a big selling point for MFPs. Pete Basiliere, a research director at Gartner, notes that chief information officers spend a lot of time trying to protect data on a network, but then forget about the information when it’s converted to physical form. Basiliere says centralized control not only helps businesses protect sensitive documents but also enables managers to better track the assets producing them.

Take the case of the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General. Until recently, that state agency had 1,000 printers scattered throughout the Commonwealth. Jim Ingalzo, assistant CIO for the AG, says the machines were not connected to the department’s computer network, making it difficult to monitor their operation. “There was no way to get asset and maintenance information” like serial numbers, or toner and paper levels.

So the AG turned to Oki Data. The vendor was able to integrate its proprietary software with the office’s existing asset-management application to track devices not connected to the network. In addition, Oki Data conducted a paper-usage and printing-and-copying audit. The survey led the AG’s office to consolidate some workgroup color printers while purchasing new monochrome and color MFPs for office locations in the state.

Ingalzo says the program has reduced the total cost of ownership by about one-third. The AG’s office is now in the process of creating a portal for the machines that will notify officials when consumables like toner need replacement. The site should lower the agency’s per-page outputting costs by more than 20 percent this year alone.

Toner Down

While the IT guys love the software, employees will be impressed by the new capabilities of MFPs. Oki Data, for example, offers “Send Me” technology, which allows users to manipulate documents directly from an MFP console. In a pilot program in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, staffers in the AG’s office can scan case documents on a multifunction machine, which then sends the files electronically to attorneys working on that case.

Industry heavyweight Xerox Corp. recently released its Extensible Interface Platform. Using a newly designed control panel, workers can enter a password and access a set of features and options designed for their individual needs. The customizable display panel is HTML-based, so it can be programmed as a Web page. The user interface can also be coded to add graphics, animated content, or Internet access.

At Progress Energy, Bliss says more-powerful MFP control panels have improved data security. To E-mail a document directly from a machine, he explains, employees must input a corporate ID code. Without the ID, the document doesn’t get transmitted.

Management appears pleased with the switch to multifunction products. As part of the consolidation plan, Progress has settled on 10 MFP models (from Canon and HP). To date, the company has saved $1.2 million a year in hardware costs. Much of that comes from being able to match the right machine to various tasks. The consolidation, along with the tracking software, has also helped Progress cut toner costs by $400,000. “We can optimize the utilization of these devices,” says Bliss. “And we can manage the fleet more effectively.”

Esther Shein writes frequently about business technology and office automation.

Outside Job

Machine-merger mania? Third-party vendors can help.

While many companies are turning to multifunction print devices (MFPs) to reduce support hassles, some are simply shipping their problems out of house. Auto-parts supplier Automotive Components Holdings (ACH), for example, recently handed the maintenance and management of its output devices to document specialist Pitney Bowes.

“We were looking for expertise we didn’t have,” explains Ron Munger, a facilities manager at ACH. Munger says the company was also keen “to free up those folks working on printer support and maintenance so they could do other things.” For many of ACH’s sites, the company wanted to combine departments like mail, printer support, and copy centers.

So far, the outsourced approach seems to be working. According to Munger, one of the company’s buildings went from 400 output devices (copy machines, printers, fax machines, and the like) to 44 MFPs. All told, ACH has recorded a 50 percent savings in maintenance costs, staffing, and parts. In addition, Munger says the company has shortened print times and, more important, the per-copy costs on its machines. — E.S.

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