Think before you ink

Printer buyers are spoilt for choice: you can get catalogue quality at a commodity price. But check for hidden costs. Eric Doyle...

Printer buyers are spoilt for choice: you can get catalogue quality at a commodity price. But check for hidden costs. Eric Doyle reports.

Printers are expected to last longer than a PC. Where a PC may be replaced every three or four years, Hewlett-Packard believes that a printer will keep going for about seven years. Even so, when the old workhorse is retired, a newer, faster machine takes its place.

The economics of the market mean that the newer model will not only be faster but will cost no more, often a lot less, than the machine it replaces. A five-pages-per-minute laser printer that cost £700 seven years ago can be outpaced by a modern equivalent from Brother or Samsung for just over £100. Even more striking is the reduction in the cost of colour laser printers. They only appeared about 10 years ago, typically costing £10,000, but now they start at about £450 - less than the seven-year-old monochrome printer.

As the replacement cycle comes around, it could be worth looking at a change in policy by moving to colour or even stepping up the functionality. In the last few years, manufacturers have been developing all-in-one printers or multifunction devices which combine a printer and scanner in a single unit to produce a photocopier, printer, fax machine/e-mail hybrid. These devices are now grabbing the attention of the corporate buyers.

Peter Urey, HP's UK business director for imaging and printing systems, says growth in the multifunction device market is in double digits. "The stellar growth we are seeing is in favour of the inkjet-based sub-£400 desktop models. It reflects the current emphasis on corporate governance and cost control because along with the convergence of functionality comes savings through software."

Urey is referring to the pending release of HP's Electronic Marketing Tool which allows catalogues to be produced from a database and customised to a customer's specific needs. With the print quality of desktop printers approaching that of photography, costs are immediately reduced by cutting out the need to use professional print services. "Rather than send a catalogue of all the company's products and highlighting the two or three relevant pages, only these pages are sent. This paper saving can mean a lot to corporations who are finding times are tough," he says.

Lexmark is another printer maker that is using software to enhance the total cost of ownership figures. Its Document Portal software provides print-on-demand capabilities that allow catalogues and documents stored in its multifunction printer's memory as Postscript (PDF) files to be printed at will.

A US government department has been using Document Portal to good effect. Before implementation, it had to store 850 pre-printed forms in two large warehouses. When requirements changed, the outdated forms had to be thrown away. Introduction of the software has ended this wastage and the warehouses have been repurposed, Lexmark says.

Malcolm Hancock, principal analyst at Gartner, accepts that the growth in multifunction printers is strong but advocates a more holistic view of a company's printer requirements. "Printers are an integral part of the system and should be considered in this light: is the best solution a fleet of small one-per-desk printers or a degree of rationalisation around more expensive, shared devices?"

He bases his argument on the cost of maintaining and provisioning numerous printers rather than just a few departmental units. Hancock also points out that the use of software to produce customised catalogues means accepting a loss in presentation quality.

"The catalogues are good and can be more personalised and customised but the production process is not just printing. It is the processing afterwards to turn it into a book or pamphlet. However, the system is excellent for data sheets or simple applications," he says.

Pricing is a misleading indicator of printer cost because there is a constant need to replenish ink, toner and other parts. At the low end of the market this fact is used to artificially reduce the cost of the printer and recoup the loss from consumable sales. The true cost of ownership then becomes many times the actual purchase cost. Last year, the Office of Fair Trading criticised the printer industry, "The average cost of ink cartridges over the lifetime of a printer is about £210, or around twice the average purchase price of a printer."

The report concluded by recommending the establishment of industry standards for measuring the total cost of ownership.

Will ink beat laser for the colour printer prize?

The technical battle in colour printing is between laser and ink. While ink has the better prognosis, laser holds the popular vote. But the victor is likely to be a mixture of the two technologies. 

Laser printing relies on placing a fine-grained toner on an electrostatically-charged sheet of paper which holds this powder in the shape of the lettering or graphics to be printed. The toner is then heated and fuses onto the paper.  

This gives a result which is subtle enough for most purposes, reasonably permanent but limited by its technology. To reach higher resolution levels, the toner would have to be extremely fine-grained which, if contained in a sealed cartridge, presents no health hazard but could pose a danger if a cartridge was broken open.  

Ink causes less of a problem because it is a wet process. There are two camps in the inkjet world, bubble-jet and piezo. Of the two, bubble appears to offer the longer roadmap to improved resolutions. It relies on a heating effect, which creates a bubble that ejects ink from a printer nozzle onto the paper. Piezo uses a membrane to create the same effect and the engineering problems increase as the size decreases. In both cases, microscopic droplets of ink are fired at the paper in a ultra-fine mist to form the image. 

Hewlett-Packard acquired a high-end printer technology when it took over Dutch commercial printing press manufacturer Indigo. The process, known as liquid electrophotography, is a combination of ink and laser technologies. A laser maps out where the ink should go by electrostatically charging the paper which then picks up oppositely charged ink.  

For the past 18 months, HP has been trying to see how the technology could be modified and reduced in price for the general printer market. A typical printer currently costs upwards of £150,000, is 6ft long and weighs over a tonne.

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