Making printers pay: Ways to lower costs, improve security

At most agencies, printers waste money and open security holes. Managed services can help solve the problem.

Printers are the Rodney Dangerfield of information technology. They get no respect — at least when it comes to establishing IT investment priorities.

While the big bucks go to building green data centers and fiber-optic networks, many agencies have left their fleets of printers, scanners and copiers largely unnetworked and unmanaged. Agencies continue to do so even though, according to independent analysts, they could save at least 25 percent of their printing expenses by moving to managed print services. In some cases, the savings can be even greater.

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In addition to direct savings, some analysts estimate that organizations with managed print services can improve efficiency by 10 percent to 30 percent, through reduced tech support and help-desk calls, reduced paper flows, and other factors. You also can improve security by gaining greater control over printer access.

As agencies look to cut costs, improve efficiency, go green and improve security — and who isn’t these days? — better management of printers is a tangible, low-hanging fruit that has largely gone ignored.

In a broad sense, the term "managed print services" simply means having a strategy to monitor and control the flow of documents and their output. That could, of course, be accomplished in-house with the right software and policy directives. But generally, adopting a managed print solution, or MPS, means turning to one of a handful of vendors that offer software designed for the job. Not surprisingly, the big players are also hardware vendors — Xerox, Lexmark, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Ricoh and Toshiba — although their MPS offerings are largely hardware independent.

The potential benefits of an MPS are many.

For starters, after you network and monitor printers, you can easily track which individuals across an organization are printing. “You can get detailed statistics by user or by department, the amount of print volume, the amount of cost, [and] you can break it down by color and black-and-white,” said Craig Le Clair, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, a consulting group. In addition to being an asset to any security effort, this capability can help administrators spot unusual usage patterns in an effort to control costs or environmental impact.

After analyzing usage patterns, administrators can deploy printers more effectively. For example, one recent study based on an informal survey of 30 companies found that there was one printer for every two or three workers rather than one for every eight to 10 workers, which MPS vendors cite as the ideal range. As a result, equipment has low utilization — on average about 15 minutes per day — even though the devices are consuming energy and budget dollars all day long.

And better deployment of printers could eliminate some printing altogether. Jim Joyce, senior vice president of Xerox, noted that many printed documents have a lifespan of only five minutes in many organizations. “If I do have to get up and walk eight, 12, 15 feet [to reach a printer], it’s more likely I’m going to change my own process, and I’m going to be willing to look at the PDF on the screen and never print it,” he said. “That saves a lot of money.”

Administrators often can remotely manage centrally managed devices. Because the monitoring software can report the configuration and status of printers and multifunctional devices, technical support staff members don't need to embark on time-consuming trips to check devices.

John Whittaker, computer operations manager at the New York City Housing Authority, said that capability has been a major plus for his staff.

“For example, someone calls in and says they need more toner because their printer is printing too light,” Whittaker said. “I can log in and take a look at the printer and see the toner level is still at 50 percent. I can tell them just to take it out, shake it up and put it back in again. I don’t have to send somebody to go out and take a look at it physically.”

One recent study found that technical support for printers without MPS accounts for nearly 30 percent of help-desk costs.

Support of devices also is more efficient when the fleet is more homogeneous, which happens naturally. Although MPS systems are designed to handle equipment from other vendors, organizations often choose replacement equipment from the MPS provider.

Vendors and analysts say centralized purchasing of devices and supplies across an organization also tends to work in an organization’s favor.

Whittaker agreed. “During the last three-year contract, we saved about $1.2 million just on toner, just by virtue of eliminating people stocking up on toner that they may never use,” he said.

He said that before adopting an MPS, the housing authority didn’t know how many printers it had. “We didn’t know where they were located, we didn’t know the volume of printing being done on a monthly basis, we didn’t know how many cartridges were in users’ possession,” he said. After implementing an MPS, the organization went from having about 1,300 printers to about 650 printers.

Hidden Obstacles

With such obvious benefits and increasingly tight budgets, one might think managed print solutions would be all the rage at federal agencies. But analysts and vendors say fewer than 10 percent of agencies have implemented an MPS.

“The majority are in an unmanaged state where they have distributed purchasing, and there’s no real governance around use of the devices,” Le Clair said.

So what’s holding back adoption?

Experts cite four main factors: invisibility of the problem, distributed budgets and purchasing responsibilities, turf battles, and complex pricing schemes.

“Factor No. 1 is the [lack of] visibility of the problem," said Brian Henderson, director of federal consulting at Lexmark International. "The costs associated with printing are scattered around a bit. So when the agency looks at what it is spending on printing, it doesn’t get a good feel for what the total expense is, including the devices, the toner, the maintenance, the IT support.”

In short, with scattered costs, an organization might not know the magnitude of the problem or make fixing it a priority. Scattered costs also mean scattered responsibility.

“Problem No. 2 is the way budgets are allocated in federal agencies,” Henderson said.

One department, such as the IT department, usually buys printers, but other departments or individual offices can purchase consumables. Yet another department could be responsible for buying copiers and fax machines.

“With budgets being distributed like that, if someone wanted to really employ print managed services, they would need to consolidate all those buckets together,” Henderson said. "That is a very difficult step for the federal government to take.”

The distributed nature of purchasing also means each department is making decisions based on limited information. When one department buys a printer, it might not be aware of the cost of maintenance, supplies and other hidden consumables, such as energy. “What they report as their cost of printer or copier device ownership is at least 30 to 40 percent understated, relative to the overall cost,” Joyce said.

Joyce is blunt in his assessment of Problem No. 3 — federal resistance to an MPS. “It’s factions inside the company that try to prevent these programs,” he said. “It’s…turf battles.”

Pricing Problems

Le Clair said another major hurdle to implementing an MPS — Problem No. 4 — is the complexity and unfamiliarity of pricing models. A typical MPS contract includes a fixed charge for hardware and a per-click charge for services, including consumables and maintenance. And most contracts have different rates for different volumes of printing or scanning. But many agreements also factor in page coverage, or the amount pages that are covered with ink. In short, it can get complicated.

“At a lot of organizations, the people who get involved in these projects are used to doing pretty straightforward hardware purchases,” Le Clair said. But MPS agreements can be anything but straightforward.

“The pricing can be challenging because if you build one of these agreements, you’re going to be using some kind of price-per-image model based on a volume commitment,” he said. “It’s tricky to get the advantage of the volume you’re committing to but not overreach and trigger a higher price.”

Many organizations might not even have staff with the necessary experience to make such an agreement. “There’s a lack of expertise,” he said. “There is a whole level of complexity that is just being understood about how to devise these agreements.”

Finally, Le Clair said, after an organization successfully moves to an MPS, it also needs to consider how that will affect the way people work. “It changes people's jobs,” he said. “You have people who are responsible for some of these things, and now you’re going to turn it over to an outside entity. So change management is an issue, and you have to get everyone on board. You need to have senior sponsorship, and you need to communicate broadly the goals.”

In addition, the change depends on budget administration. “You’re going to be including more discipline, which means pain,” Le Clair said. “You’re going to make somebody walk around the corner [to get to a printer] instead of having one on their desk. So you’re making their life a little bit less comfortable. So you need to communicate that it’s about more than just saving a few dollars.”

Turning Point

Despite the obstacles to implementing an MPS, recent trends seem to favor a move in that direction.

First, technology has made an MPS easier to implement and more effective.

“In the last year, these devices have gotten so smart,” Henderson said. “For example, you can program the device itself to scan a piece of paper to be able to read certain parts of that piece of paper to make decisions about where to route it. Or if it can’t read the paper, maybe it’s programmed in a way to know what to ask the user so that it knows what to do with the document. It’s the intelligence of the device and the ability to move information quickly and easily.”

Some vendors also point to the growing pressure on agencies to trim budgets and reduce environmental impacts. And with an MPS, Joyce said, “people have awakened to the fact that they don’t have to give something up in order to achieve these benefits.”

“It’s a groundswell,” he said. While noting that the federal sector is generally slower to move, he said his company is seeing growing adoption among state and local governments and school systems.

“We’ve got school systems that are out of money and are laying off teachers,” Joyce said. “And we can tell them, ‘You know what? If you just print a little better, you can save $8 million a year.’” And they are responding. “If you can refresh the client environment and bring in new technology that is environmentally sustainable and you still save money….what is the downside?”

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