Multifunction printers (MFPs) used to have a poor reputation for compatibility and reliability. Like a true Jack of all trades, most were masters of none. But things have come a long way since the early '90s.
Today, the technology is considered a must-have by a growing number of organisations. Large-office MFPs can be integrated into document management systems that allow for storage distribution, indexing and printing of large volumes of paper documents to be managed electronically. Meanwhile, further down the food chain, MFPs are jazzed up with a range of imaging and printing features.
Oki Data managing director, Stead Denton, said his company was seeing strong growth in the MFP and colour markets.
"The growth in printing or imaging is certainly in colour and it's a result of volume and pricing," Denton said. The company recently merged its colour and MFP strategy, launching three models. While it has been in the colour game for eight years, Denton claimed its LED engine technology, together with its blend of colour and MFP devices, would increase Oki business by 35 per cent.
The colour MFP market is gaining ground and should be of particular interest to resellers, according to industry analysts. The SMB space is driving the majority of the all-in-one growth, HP colour product manager, Todd Birzer, said.
Oki's Denton said the challenge now was to educate resellers who are traditionally adept at selling standalone printing solutions on selling colour and MFP gear - or, even better, a combination of the two.
It's worth the effort. Current market trends are showing consumers moving from monochrome to colour lasers in large part because of the ongoing price reduction, according to IDC peripherals analyst, Rishi Ghai.
In the MFP space, Birzer said SMBs could now afford colour laser gear. HP has had colour inkjet MFPs in the market for a while, but the colour laser MFP market was new for the company. "Colour laser all-in-ones are an emerging technology for us and for the market. It has grown rapidly during the past year."
Other market trends are seeing smaller businesses shifting from inkjet printers to laser, Ghai said. Enterprises, meanwhile, are going after MFP solutions or managed print services as opposed to the traditional single-function printers, he added.
Another company with its sights set on the MFP space, and now the colour all-in-one market, is Fuji Xerox Printers (FXP). In July, the company announced its first monochrome MFP with the release of the WorkCentre line.
Taking things a step further, FXP is preparing to launch its first line of colour multifunction machines at the end of this month. FXP operations manager, Paul Harman, said the company wanted to merge the two most sought after parts of the market.
"Colour is the most expansive and fastest growing part of the market," he said.
"Five years ago it was seen as a luxury, but now it's a requirement. The market is also craving MFP consolidation, so it's a natural fit."
Beyond the hardware
The company is going after the mid-space and workgroup arena, which Harman categorised as needing fast A4 functionality and good scanning capabilities.
An all-in-one device presents resellers with a range of opportunities including installation, maintenance agreements and consumables, Panasonic's group manager for document solutions and printing systems, Andrew Glenn, said.
Other reseller services could include deploying print auditing software to analyse a client's print volumes. This type of software provides a complete view of printing volumes over a period of time. Many enterprises are going in for managed print services, bypassing direct capital investment in printing equipment, IDC's Ghai said.
At any rate, all companies are looking for greater efficiency.
"Companies are looking to boost productivity, expand network connectivity and secure greater ease of use," Glenn added. "Colour is now more affordable and ideal for the SME market, in particular."
Panasonic recently launched a host of colour MFP devices, dubbed Workio.
"We're entering this prosperous colour MFP market," Panasonic marketing executive, Alexandra Bohme, said.
To date, the colour segment represented 28 per cent of the total MFD market - so the time was right to jump in, she said.
Meanwhile, Lexmark product marketing manager, Stephen Bell, said colour was attracting most attention in the printer space.
The company is finding success with colour in finance and banking, government, health and retail sectors.
Given the hype with colour, companies need help deciphering the true costs - a service resellers can provide to customers thanks to tools like print permissions and colour care software, Bell said.
"When purchasing an MFP, there has to be some activity to manage the use of colour in business - and that's where resellers can help," Bell said.
"The tools show a company how they can have printing regulation in business, reduce toner density in documents and centrally designate which users can print in colour."
About 60-80 per cent of the printer spend is the running costs of the machine, he estimated, because businesses will often bust a gut getting the lowest price but then go wild on the running costs.
And while the purchasing price of colour MFPs has come down, the cost per page is still more expensive than its monochrome cousins - so companies need to plan carefully.
The Lexmark RightFit strategy is another useful tool to help resellers determine whether a customer needs an MFP in the first place, he said.
"The way in which we use devices is changing," Bell said. "The number of faxes and copies we make is declining because of email. It's considered 10-15 per cent of a total volume of an MFP. If 85 per cent is printing, do you need an MFP?"
In addition to the trickiness of navigating the right fit, other challenges faced by resellers included getting their hands on MFP product. "Many IT resellers can't get access to MFPs because many vendors don't have broad distribution models," Bell said.
The latest gaggle of gear is offering an array of features.
Kyocera Mita product marketing manager, Mark Vella, said the company's latest laser-based MFP, the FS1118, offers advanced print, copy, scan and fax features and is well suited to SOHO as well as small teams and departments in larger organisations.
"Laser-based MFPs are growing faster than inkjet models and also offer higher revenues," he said. "It opens up new opportunities for the channel."
Top features include network capability and advanced business features, he said. Additionally, there's a large capacity document processor, which increases efficiency and reduces waiting time.
Panasonic's Workio multifunction devices, for example, include ultra-fast warm-up time, Secure Digital (SD) Card and PCMCIA Card interface, high security, high compression PDF, intuitive operation and network integration, Bohme said.
"These features make them a smart colour solution for SME as well as for workgroups in large government departments, and other corporate environments," Bohme said.
On the security front, Bohme said confidential information could be protected using secure mailboxes.
"This requires users to enter a PIN to release documents for print; and at the highest level, hard-disk data can be overwritten with random numbers so it is no longer accessible," she said.
The hard-disk security feature, meanwhile, provided further document protection for any organisation dealing with confidential documents.
The ability to print directly from the SD card was another top feature, Bohme said, and the company was claiming to be first to market with the functionality on a multifunction device.
"Users have the convenience of inserting an SD card into the machine's slot and, for example, directly printing JPEG images they previously captured on their digital camera."
Printer powerhouse, HP, which captured top spot in IDC's recent Q2 printer market numbers, is touting the importance of digital sending on its MFP line, Birzer said. It was a feature typically associated with high-end gear, but had now reached cheaper machines.
Digital sending was a reliable way to capture paper-based documents in digital format so users could better manage information, Birzer said.
"Users can route incoming faxes to a network folder, email images directly from a photo memory card, and submit reports and other business materials by scanning them to a network folder or computer," he explained.
Many of the features being offered were additional add-ons on top of the machines used as key differentiators by vendors servicing the MFP space, according to IDC's Ghai.
Vendors need to keep up with end-user demand and were using the added software pitch as a way to get an edge.
"Vendors that have adequately diverse product offerings, and are able to track and manage the changing preferences of their customers proactively, will emerge as winners in the long run," Ghai said.