While some small businesses today have managed to ween themselves from the world of paper, the vast majority of small and medium businesses are still tied, to some degree, to their printers and faxes no matter how hard we all try to move away from them. Everyone recognizes the cost of acquiring printers, maintaining them, networking them, stocking ink and toner, etc. and yet we just cannot quite manage to do away with them completely. Given that printers remain a business necessity we should treat them as such and devise a well-planned printing strategy for our business whether it is for an office with two users and a single printer or several offices with dozens of printers or more. Every business will benefit from planning before purchasing their printers.
One of the biggest mistakes that I have seen happen time and time again is with small businesses deciding that they need a printer and runing out to buy one at the local shop without any planning whatsoever including failing to determine if the printer being purchased will even meet the immediate need let alone fit into an ongoing printing strategy. Printers are so common, lack significantly visible new features between generations, are low enough in cost and are so readily available in the consumer market that it is misleading to businesses making them think that buying any printer off of the shelf will meet their printing needs, but this simply is not the case.
Our first concern in printer purchasing is in appropriately sizing our printers. Before buying a printer we need to decide what type of printing load it will need to handle over its lifetime. Many small businesses today, as paper begins to phase out, will find that even a very small printer will provide more than enough capacity for an entire office. If users can share a single printer then printing costs can be saved through centralized printing. It is far cheaper to maintain a single printer and to stay stocked with supplies for one printer than for one printer on everyone’s individual desks.
If reliability is of concern you could place two printers in the office to be shared and have half of the staff print to one printer and the other half to the other but permission everyone to both printers so that, if one should fail, everyone would remain able to print. You could take the opportunity to place the printers in different areas of the office to reduce time walking to the printer to pick up printed pages.
Most small offices have no problem sharing a single printer for most printing needs with a single, separate printer on the desk of whoever is doing personnel management to allow for “private” printing for times when the data coming out of the printer cannot be seen by just anyone in the office. Although this type of printing is one of the areas where the company can go paperless the most easily and so this may not be a factor in your office.
Now that we are considering shared printers we must concern ourselves with making sure that the printer(s) that we are selecting has a duty cycle capable of handling the printing needs of the entire office. In many cases any printer will be up to this task but for offices who print customer invoices throughout the day, for example, may want to step up to a slightly more heavy-duty model designed for the extra wear and tear. Larger duty-cycle printers often use lower cost ink or toner supplies that reduce the per-page printing cost that is highest with smaller, lower-cost printers. For an office with very heavy printing needs the cost savings of big printers can be significant just in the cost savings from the supplies before even considering other factors. Larger printers will generally also hold more paper reducing time spent restocking the printer and will often have other cost saving features such as dual-sided printing and automatic collation.
Many business also need additional functions in addition to pure printing such as faxing, scanning and copying. These functions are natural extensions of the printer and are available in office all-in-one multi-function printer models. Often, though, low end all-in-one models are marketed heavily towards small businesses in the hopes that these businesses will buy on a whim without researching duty cycles and supply costs as these models often include a cheap-to-acquire, expensive-to-maintain printing element bundled with the unit. In general, printer manufactures make their big money on printer supplies and almost nothing on the printers themselves so we must be acutely aware of the specifications of the printer portion of the all-in-one unit before making a purchase. Often a single all-in-one multi-function printer will suffice for even a relatively large office and any additional printing needs could be met with high-volume printers that do not have additional functions included in them saving additional costs through careful planning.
We must also consider how our new printer or multifunction device will connect to our network. Most low cost printers use USB connections to allow them to connect to a single workstation or server for printing. This is fine for most home users and very small offices but larger offices (and many advanced home users) find this unsuitable as it means that all printing must go through someone’s workstation and that the computer must be in close proximity to the printer. The computer must also be on at any time that the printer is being used and maintenance on the computer will impact the printer as well. I know many small offices that only use this model and for them it works fine, but it does cause additional management overhead that is not necessary.
Networked printers have long been the norm in the office environment and they provide many advantages over direct-attached print devices. Networked printers can be located anywhere on the network whether or not there is a computer close-at-hand. Networked printers can be monitored and managed on the network just like any other network device making their management costs lower from an IT perspective. Network printers can print even if no other computer is turned on. Some network printers have wireless networking built in giving them additional flexibility. Non-network enabled printers can be made into virtual network printers through the use of a print server such as HP’s DirectJet or the NetGear PS121. Print servers are often built in to multi-function network appliances such as small business firewalls like the Apple AirPort Extreme. These types of devices will allow you to attach any USB printer to the network if you did not buy this functionality built in to your printing device.
Often overlooked by small businesses is the differences between laser and other printer technologies such as ink jet. Generally, laser printers cost more to purchase but have lower lifetime operational costs both from a hardware perspective as well as from a printing supply perspective. Laser printers are more likely to be able to be fixed when parts wear out and their toner costs are almost always significantly lower than the cost of ink for ink jets and need to be changed out far less frequently making printers less of a manual burden as well.
The output of a laser printer is almost always more pleasing as well and looks more professional. It is difficult to hide the use of an ink jet printer and even if the reader does not directly notice the quality of the printing subconsciously they will often register that the printing process was less than professional. This may not matter for most of your office printing, but considering that laser printing is generally cheaper in the long run there is little reason to not also get the best looking prints possible.
Ink jet, bubble jet and other non-laser technologies generally come into serious consideration only when photo printing is required which is very rare in a business environment. High quality colour printing requires additional printer management and very expensive paper and ink supplies. For most businesses, if this type of printing is needed, it would be needed in addition to, not in place of, traditional monochromatic laser printing. Colour laser is another consideration for presentation graphics but is generally not suitable for photographic printing. Colour laser adds additional cost that is seldom warranted for the type of printing that most businesses need to do.
So, in conclusion, when making a printer buying decision for small business we must carefully consider our printer strategy. We must size our environment, take into consideration our network design, scale our printer(s) appropriately, consider the cost not only of the printer but also of the printer supplies and consider the manner in which the final prints will be used. A simple spreadsheet can be used to do some very useful and telling calculations about print volume, printer cost and the cost of supplies. All of the information necessary to do these calculations should be available from printer vendor web sites. Consider your printer to be an investment and research accordingly and, as always, use your IT department, whether internal or outsourced, as a resource in any IT purchasing decision – it is their job to understand the technical differences in these products and to provide you with the necessary information to discern between different models, vendors and technologies.