Multifunction Junction

A home-office staple finds favor with Corporate America.

Talk about a paper jam: two years ago, power producer Progress Energy was up to its smokestacks in office machinery. The Raleigh, North Carolina, company deployed nearly 2,700 printers, copiers, scanners, and fax machines in more than 200 sites in Florida and the Carolinas. That worked out to about one device for every four employees.

What’s more, two groups oversaw this vast armada of equipment. The company’s IT department managed scanners and printers while a corporate-services group handled fax and copy machines.

Don Bliss, manager of IT asset-management services at Progress, says company management was eager to do more with less. So Progress began replacing its fleet of dedicated document machines with devices that perform double duty — and then some. These machines, known as MFPs (multifunction print devices), not only print and copy, they also scan, fax, and in some cases, send E-mail.

According to Bliss, these all-in-one wonders enabled Progress to consolidate its office-equipment maintenance under one roof. More important, the company was able to mothball or sell scores of older single-function machines. All in, Bliss reckons the company reduced its number of output devices by a whopping 58 percent.

Other companies are also discovering the joys of multifunctionality. According to research firm IDC, sales of MFPs will grow 24 percent by 2010. Much of that bump up stems from a corporate desire to save both money and space. The consolidation of four machines into one also lessens support hassles — and the chances of mechanical malfunctions.

Adding to the recent interest in MFPs: prices have fallen dramatically. Mass-market retailers like Best Buy are now selling high-end multifunction products for less than $1,000. Hewlett-Packard’s Color LaserJet 2840 and Canon’s ImageClass MF8170C, for example, can be had for around $800 each. IDC vice president Keith Kmetz says the sub-$1,000 sticker is an appealing price point for many corporate customers, particularly smaller businesses.

Do not weep for vendors, however. More-robust MFPs, such as the Ricoh Aficio MP C4500 or the Toshiba e-Studio 3510c, still cost around $17,000 to $21,000, with some machines running well over $100,000. And larger businesses will generally want to stick with the more expensive pieces of equipment. Entry-level MFPs may be versatile, but they are also relatively slow — typically taking around 30 seconds to scan a document — and often provide less-than-stellar print quality.

Consultants say managers keen on buying a powerful yet affordable MFP should consider purchasing devices that print only in black and white. Color models do have their advantages, though, not the least of which is the ability to fine-tune saturation levels on individual print jobs. Many color MFPs also come with enterprise software. Among other things, the programs provide support staffs with details about the tasks that are being handled by the machines. The logs make it easier for department heads or tech workers to clamp down on routine jobs that are being produced in color for no good reason.

We Know Where You Print

Indeed, experts say improved monitoring is a big selling point for MFPs. Pete Basiliere, a research director at Gartner, notes that chief information officers spend a lot of time trying to protect data on a network, but then forget about the information when it’s converted to physical form. Basiliere says centralized control not only helps businesses protect sensitive documents but also enables managers to better track the assets producing them.

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