2006-02-14 at 9:45:00 am #14240
Kevin White asks how printer vendors are driving improvements in speed, quality, reliability, cost and manageability.
Echoing past trends in the newsprint, magazine, cinematography and television industries, the enterprise printer estate is slowly making the transition from mono printing to colour-capable machines. With parallel advances in quality, speed and cost of ownership, the broader printer market is getting a lot more colourful, too.
Hewlett-Packard, which already has a 54% market share of the UK’s printer business, is reporting strong demand. “Colour shipments increased by 47% in 2004 over 2003,” says Geoff Hogg, HP’s enterprise marketing manager, “and we fully expect that in the first half of 2006 we will ship twice the number of colour-capable printers than we did in the first half of 2005.” Market-watchers at IDC have pronounced that by 2010 the mono printer will have become redundant.
If the growth of colour in the office constitutes a major trend, it is not the only one that is changing the nature of enterprise printer assets. Graham Lowes, strategic planning director at OKI, says that we are entering a phase where the migration from desktop printer to corporate workgroup and departmental printing is accelerating. In parallel with that phased move, the combination of scan, fax and copy functions onto a single multi-purpose digital print device is gaining in popularity. “The MFP is seen as offering offices an optimum level of flexibility,” says Lowes.
But it is the emergence of intelligent print routing software that has enabled enterprises to start looking at ways of more closely mapping their overall print resources to actual print demands. Routing programs can select the right printer for the job, whether the needs are for simple text output, colour, duplex or high-volume printing using an impact line printer or a high-speed laser workhorse machine. Equally, software can distribute any one or all of the documents in a job to multiple queues for printing, faxing or on into a workflow and archiving suite.
Whatever the type of printers from whichever vendor, an overriding aim is for a balanced deployment, Lowes argues, so that colour-capable inkjets are positioned where they are most needed, the high-end laser printers placed where there are enough duty cycles to justify the investment, and multi-functional machines in areas where their purpose is best utilised. In recent years, OKI has pioneered single-pass colour printers, in which the machine’s print stations are aligned in such a fashion that they can print all four colours in a single pass, something that Lowes maintains makes its printers more flexible in paper handling than conventional print systems.
Whether a document is printed, copied, faxed or scanned, it needs to be produced fast. Head of HP’s $24bn printer division, Vyomesh Joshi, has adopted as his own a modified Moore’s Law, saying that HP aims to double inkjet print speeds every 18 months. The company is just coming out of a five-year, $1.4bn R&D initiative for scalable printing technology (SPT), the aim of which is to allow HP to put more ink nozzles on its print heads so that they can spray ink faster and at higher densities than ever before.
Much of the printer industry’s R&D effort is going into three aspects of print technology. Advances are being made in new ink systems, in the toner and the print head itself. “Toner and ink developments are fundamental to the improvements we see coming onto market,” says Paul Birkett, business manager at Xerox UK’s channel solutions group. “Xerox uses emulsion aggregation toners, which are chemically grown from the ground up to get perfectly spherical toner particles.”
The process is much more effective than alternatives based on mechanical processes, says Birkett. “The ink also contains fusing oil and the printer needs virtually no additional fuser, which we believe improves the overall print quality. It gives a very flat, natural look to a document.”
On the horizon he points to the potential of the solid ink technology acquired through the company’s takeover of Tektronix. Not only is it more environmentally friendly than current techniques, massively reducing the cost of waste cartridges and packaging, but is said to make for a low maintenance option promising a much-reduced cost of service.
HP has fashioned a system that separates the ink cartridge, which holds the ink, from the print heads that deliver the ink to the paper. That effectively fixes the ink supply, which allows a greater amount of ink to be stored in the ink cartridges. The objective is longer-life cartridges and less user intervention. “There are two other advantages,” says Howard Roberts, HP printer division. “We do think it leads to more effective use of each cartridge, but it also means that we are only moving the print head and that means we can move it faster. It’s like painting a wall with a roller instead of a brush.”
Latest generation HP print heads are said to have a life expectancy of 90,000 pages or three years. For its new SPT printers, HP’s designers have managed to squeeze up to 3,900 nozzles on a single print head. The greater the number of nozzles the faster the ink is fired onto the page, and the faster the print speeds attained. The high number of nozzles also means more dots of ink can be sprayed in a square inch, which provides a marked improvement in image quality.
But the improved print quality is as much to do with ink developments, as it is the print heads. “We have just launched Vivera, a new free-flowing ink that contains some very carefully managed drying and anti-clogging agents. Currently, the new inks are targeted at the home photo consumer markets, but will slowly percolate into HP’s enterprise printers,” says Roberts.
Of the first lines to incorporate the new STP technology, the HP Photosmart 3310 All-in-One and the HP Photosmart 8250 printer will output a four inch by six inch photograph in just four seconds, cutting speeds to almost half that of current models.
The Office Jet Pro K550 is the first in what is to set to become a long line of HP business printers that incorporates STP and Vivera. In draft mode, it is claimed that the system will output colour prints at a cost that is comparable with mono laser printers, assuming a rate of 15% ink coverage. That works out at roughly 1 pence a page, which looks very appealing against the six-fold price premium that businesses should currently expect to pay for a colour page over a mono print.
HP says the K550 will print professional standard colour documents at speeds of up to 10 pages a minute and black text documents at speeds of up to 12 pages per minute. It claims the unit cost is up to 30% lower in colour cost per page than achieved in laser prints.
IDC suggests that a balanced deployment of printers can produce savings of up to 23% in typical enterprise deployments, based on industry averages, which suggest a poorly managed printing regime can cost around £400 ($710) a year a head in some organisations.
However, Lowes notes that it is not unusual to encounter some push-back from users over print rationalisation programmes, not only in terms of accessibility but in the context of privacy and print job security as well, especially where low-volume printers are consolidated and replaced by departmental machines, taking the job away from easy reach of the desktop.
Concern over information security is one issue the printer vendors say they have covered. Some make use of encryption and IPSec tunnels to secure the data flows of print jobs between a client machine and a remote printer. And most vendors have now added the necessary access controls and data protection features to their enterprise lines. Ricoh’s printers can be set up to use the existing Windows network login infrastructure to restrict unauthorised access and to limit the use of specific devices such as colour-capable printers.
As Eddie Hall, product manager at Ricoh UK, says, “One of the problems businesses see straight away before they install colour is that people could start to misuse the facilities and print out all sorts of documents unnecessarily in colour, or use the assets excessively for personal use. Uncontrolled access to colour is always going to be an issue. That’s why we use a system that allows the administrator to set up a series of rules to manage print security and control costs.
“If a colour print job is authorised, but exceeds the volume limit set by the administrator for that specified colour-capable printer, then the system can be configured to advise a user to use another specified networked printer that would be more cost efficient for that job.”
Ricoh’s latest 3260C can produce output up to 45 pages per minute in full colour and 60 a minute in black and white. Its role is one that is intended to allow businesses with ‘print on demand’ requirements for presentations, sales and marketing collateral and bespoke stationery to reduce their dependence on outsourced print shops. To further support this, the range comes with various finishing options such as a sheet stapler and a booklet maker.
There has been a lot of focus on manageability across all the key IT segments of desktops, servers and the storage infrastructure, and the enterprise print asset base is no different. As with most emerging technologies, each vendor has its own approach.
But according to Harry Lewis, an IBM technician and chairman of the IEEE-ISTO Printer Working Group, there is much being done to promote vendor collaboration on open standards related to printer fleet management: “This includes defining and standardising the semantics of objects, attributes and elements to be managed and defining a protocol for managing imaging systems as a web service,” he says.
“An open standard to establish common industry semantics will lead to more uniform reporting and control, which ultimately translates into improved ability for the IT department to manage costs.”
These standards are not being developed in a vacuum, but reach across standards organisations for ongoing collaboration with the DMTF, Free Software Group, CIP4-JDF and others.
As for IBM itself, Lewis points to advances in the use of its BladeCenter technology to boost the performance and flexibility of data-stream transforms. Notably, IBM recently announced the IBM Infoprint Transform Manager, which helps speed print jobs where time sensitive output is essential.
Most document composition tools today create postscript or pdf files as the de facto standard for electronic document exchange and presentation, resulting in more complex print jobs that are loaded with variable data and images. Infoprint Transform Manager runs on a dedicated server, and seeks to counter this trend and help relieve bottlenecks when transforming datastreams such as postscript, pdf, gif, tiff and jpeg into advanced function presentation (AFP) print datastreams. AFP is the industry-standard print architecture for printing and managing sensitive documents.
Meanwhile, HP’s WebJet Admin or the CentreWare Web client from Xerox are typical of the latest systems management utilities available to administrators, who can now use a standard web browser to set up and configure devices, check system status, troubleshoot problems, or determine supply requirements without having to touch a machine.
Email alerts on printer status and job queues can be triggered to the help desk, and by querying an Active Directory register of printers and user groups the administrator can call on the system to set appropriate polling intervals so that jobs are run according to priority.
For chargeback or lease-costing purposes, most print systems will also spit out reports to track the use of any networked SNMP compliant printer or multifunction device. Additional metering programmes will automatically submit usage readings to the vendor, eliminating manual collection and reporting and increasing billing accuracy.