Today, printers. Tomorrow, 'integrated peripherals'?

With less office printing going on, printers are struggling to redefine themselves.

Out went 42 aging black and white copiers with interface boxes that let them serve as printers. In went 42 new networked multi-function printers (MFPs) that could do color printing and copying and scan directly to e-mail, fax or files. And the owner, the Park Hill School District in Kansas City, MO, saves $19,000 yearly.

"Scanning has been huge, as we progress into the digital age and move accumulated paper resources on-line," notes the district's director of technology, Brad Sandt.

His experience appears to be part of a global trend, which has been happening for quite some time: As more documents are being read on screen rather than on paper, printer vendors are scrambling to offer their mid- and high-end users MFPs that scan, fax and copy as well as print. (Sandt's Konica Minolta units also staple, punch holes and do saddle stitching.) They can be integrated into business software to, for instance, automate document workflow. And they can still print, of course.

Printing's ebb

The search for a new role for mid- to high-end office printers apparently stems from a realization that the paperless office, which pundits have been predicting for decades, may finally be happening. Based on feedback from its clients in North America, market research firm Gartner Inc. has concluded that the number of pages printed in offices per month per employee has fallen from about 1,000 in 2005 to half that in 2012, says Gartner analyst Federico de Silva.

"When was the last time you created a document in hardcopy?" asks De Silva. "Instead of printed handouts in meetings, managers supply electronic material."

Printer manufacturer Hewlett Packard has seen less dramatic reductions, says David Laing, an HP product marketing director. "In emerging markets we are seeing a dramatic growth in the volume of pages being printed, but in mature markets we are seeing very small declines year over year," he says.

As for printers themselves, market research firm IDC reports that the global demand for hardcopy peripherals grew less than 1% in 2011, and actually declined 3.4% during the last quarter of the year. But within that sagging market, MFPs ruled, showing annual sales growth of 17%.

Meanwhile, making printers that cost less while printing more pages per minute with higher resolution appears to have reached the point of diminishing returns. "Cheaper, faster and better has all been taken care of," notes Larry Jamieson, analyst at the Photizo Group, a market research firm in Midway, KY.

Vendors are instead relying on new features (as with MFPs) and marketing initiatives to differentiate their products. These include processing power and native apps suitable for integration into workflows, remote printing, security features, contractual purchasing with more favorable terms and managed print services, where the vendors set out to optimize a customer's printer "fleet."

New apps

MFPs have been around for years but the new generation includes processors and memory that support user-accessible applications, touch screens for local control, published APIs to help link up with computer applications and workflows and network interfaces so they can be shared by multiple end-users.

Many MFPs can perform ad-hoc scanning to a file or a certain application, but the latest MFPs can perform a more sophisticated task called transaction capture, says Harvey Spencer, head of New York-based Harvey Spencer Associates, specialists in data capture.

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