The new breed of printers

Printing and scanning technologies have improved steadily over the years, resulting in faster outputs and higher quality prints and scans. But the new breed of peripherals also offer innovations such as combined "multifunction" printing, scanning and document management component miniaturisation green technologies and better integration with back-end software.

Printing and scanning technologies have improved steadily over the years, resulting in faster outputs and higher quality prints and scans. But the new breed of peripherals also offer innovations such as combined "multifunction" printing, scanning and document management component miniaturisation green technologies and better integration with back-end software.

Sharon McNee, principal research analyst at Gartner, has seen a number of new trends, the primary one being that suppliers are adding more features to their devices.

"There has been a big trend away from single functions. Gartner has been highlighting the fact that you can save a lot of money by combining your printer, copier, scanner and fax into a healthier consolidated device. Healthy, because you are moving away from single functions and saving on hardware, maintenance, costs and potentially consumables," says McNee.

"If you are sourcing from one or two suppliers, you are saving money too, and if you are printing more smartly you can also save money. It is worth looking at things like having default duplex printing and double-sided printing and copying, which saves on paper," she adds.

Gartner also notes a move to single multifunction A4 devices from larger A3 machines. "User habits have changed in terms of what we are printing and copying, and a lot of newspaper articles have gone down to the A4 size. It is a global trend in Japan and Asia Pacific as well as Europe and the US," says McNee.

One new printer technology worth noting, say analysts, is HP's Edgeline colour inkjet technology, which has been developed over the past four years. It offers a similar quality to laser printing, but uses ink, and this can bring down hardware costs and cost per page for printing, according to analysts.

Two of the main innovations that Edgeline brings to desktop printing are page-wide print heads and printers that move the paper rather than the print head, so that the printing processes can be carried out at speed.

The technology is now being used in several new HP peripherals, including the CM8060 and CM8050 colour multifunction printers. The CM8060 can print 60 pages per minute (ppm) in monochrome and 50ppm in colour, with the CM8050 having a slightly lower throughput.

Malcolm Hancock, Gartner principal research analyst, says, "These new technology products offer fast business-quality colour printing for A4 or letter-size output, but throughput is compromised when using larger paper sizes."

Hancock also warns that the technology is still relatively new. "Treat these Edgeline products as you would any first-generation product. Edgeline offers a viable alternative to established laser technologies, but it should be evaluated on a small scale alongside existing systems," he says.

Another innovative printer technology comes from OKI Printing Solutions, which has developed a light emitting diode (LED) print head which has enabled it to shrink down the size of the physical printing device.

Unlike laser and inkjet printing technologies, which use a rotating mirror to shine a light on the drum and discharge the colour, LED technology assigns 10,000 LEDs to each of the four main colours, cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

This means that colour printing can be carried out in a single pass, rather than having to rotate four colour drums four times to print a colour page, says Alan McLeish, product marketing manager at OKI.

Brother is another printer manufacturer that has been busy innovating the colour print heads of its inkjet printers. This has allowed it to modularise the heads so that they can be expanded to cover a wider print area.

The Piezo Inkjet Line Head "Cobra" technology effectively takes the inks off the print heads and connects them up to the heads via tubes. This means the ink containers are squatter and lighter and require less power to run. In addition, the noise level is reduced, print accuracy is increased and the consumables are easier to access, says Mike Dinsdale, Brother's director of communications and corporate social responsibility.

Brother announced the Cobra technology in 2005, but has been developing it in collaboration with Kyocera and is working on commercialisation for 2009 or early 2010.

Dinsdale says, "The technology is quite radical in that the head is divided into modules an inch long that can plug together to make an inkjet head as long as you want. The paper then passes under the head. The idea goes back to line heads in the 1970s. Energy consumption is incredibly low, and the speed becomes radical."

Brother has demonstrated printing 150 photos a minute for 600dpi photo-size prints, or 80 photos a minute in A4. The latter print run required just 13W of energy to achieve, which is significantly lower than the power requirement of many of today's printers.

"We are getting a massive increase in throughput with a massive reduction in energy. This is a technology we would probably stake our future on. Because the head can be plugged together in modular form, it can make an eight or nine-inch head, which can increase the resolution. You can do anything from business card printing to digital press functions," says Dinsdale.

However, he says that the main challenge of the technology is that there are many more nozzles in a small space than a conventional print head, and they could get blocked. Also, ink handling with larger print heads is an issue, as is feeding paper through the printer at speeds above 40ppm.

Brother is also developing sub-£600 laser printers that can print radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on to labels a technology that generally costs about £60,000, according to Dinsdale.

Brother intends to bring RFID printing to the desktop this year, using its own format of labels, chips and readers.

As well as hardware innovations, print management software has become more sophisticated.

At the basic level, it allows users to scan and then save or send the document, rather than print it out. But more advanced features can indicate how many printers are on the network, and help the IT department to charge back printing activities to individual business units.

One application used by the likes of HSBC, Orange, Yellow Pages and several universities is SafeCom, which can save 15%-45% on paper and toner costs, according to the firm.

Termed "intelligent print management", SafeCom's modular software can control users' access to printers and multifunction devices. It can track users' print and copy activity and set printer quotas for users.

Individuals can also prepay for printing and copying, personally topping up their credit so they can use the printers. The software also enables departmental charge backs, and can turn any public workgroup printer into a personal printer to control its usage.

Another additional piece of software that allows users to manage their document usage is eCopy's Sharescan OP. This works with a range of multifunction printers from the likes of Canon, Toshiba and Ricoh.

The software enables users of a departmental or enterprise network to distribute digital files generated by the multifunction printer, and route them over the corporate network or internet to the user's desktop, via the network fax, e-mail, back-end enterprise application or document management system.

McNee concludes that ironically, printer users are increasingly using the printer not to print at all. "A lot of end-users are conscious of how printing impacts the environment, and suppliers are having to make more and more environmental concessions. Most of the excitement is now around how the suppliers are helping users to improve their workflow," she says.

Read more on Data centre hardware