Putting printers in their place

After several years of experimenting with pay-per-use printing, Pitt Ohio Express LLC grew tired of sending its maintenance man around to each of 80 printers to read the page meter and calculate the bill each month.

So the company brought in three multifunction printers from Hewlett-Packard Co.(HP) on a trial basis, says George Romesburg, help desk and PC support supervisor at the Pittsburgh transportation services company.

Unlike the meters on the Minolta multifunction printers that measured the number of pages printed during a given period, HP’s system tracked the amount of toner used during a month and charged Pitt Ohio for the amount used. Under a leasing arrangement, Pitt Ohio estimated how many cartridges it would need, and at the end of the year if it used less, HP would credit the company’s account, Romesburg says.

“The soft-cost savings just with IT costs was dramatic,” Romesburg says. The performance of those printers also allowed Pitt Ohio to cut about 20 printers out of its network without a drop in service, he says.

Willingness to surrender

IT departments have been hooking up printers to LANs for several years. What’s changing is the willingness of companies to surrender their networked printers to remote technicians at printer vendors and services companies, rather than try to stay on top of their printing needs with a far-flung staff of internal personnel.

“A lot of companies fail to manage their printer fleets,” says Peter Grant, an analyst with Gartner Inc. “They just deploy them and let department-level budgets buy supplies.”

Servers and PCs used to be deployed in the same haphazard way. But now that many IT departments have a handle on their servers and PCs, they are starting to take a critical look at their printing resources and apply the same principles of consolidation and centralized management to a new generation of multifunction printers.

These days, more than the printer is networked. Multifunction printers from such companies as HP, Lexmark International Inc., Canon Inc. and Xerox Corp. can print, scan, fax, copy and e-mail documents to other printers or computers on a company’s network. The speed and versatility of these devices allows companies to reduce the total number of printers on their network, says Tom Codd, director of marketing for multifunction printers at HP.

But even smaller printer fleets need to be managed, an increasingly vital task as they grow more intelligent. For some IT departments at larger companies, the task can be daunting, says Eric Crump, worldwide software marketing manager at Lexmark International.

“The biggest thing is that people don’t have hundreds of printers; they have thousands. We’re working with customers to find out if this is something that’s strategic to your company or whether somebody who knows it better can do it for you,” Crump says.

Lexmark offers services similar to HP’s for managing the toner consumption of a company’s printers and also can monitor a company’s printing activity over a network, Crump says.

Polling individual printers

Xerox has a system where it can poll individual printers on a network to determine how much toner those printers have left, and automatically order new supplies as needed, says Richard Peebles, CTO for the Xerox Office Group.

“If you’re thinking about deploying print services, you have to be cognizant of the fact that this is not a peripheral device, not a second-class citizen,” Peebles says. “You have to recognize the multifunction machine and to some degree the printer as a full network citizen.”

As soon as a printer becomes another networked device, IT managers must recognize the security concerns that accompany that status, HP’s Codd says.

“Security is one of the next big areas of emphasis besides management tools. You have to secure the control and management of these printers; there’s also a need to actually encrypt information documents. And just as you don’t want people walking up and sending stuff across your network without authentication, you don’t want somebody e-mailing stuff out of your site at a multifunction printer,” Codd says.

One easy way to secure a networked printer is to use entry codes on keypads that now come with many multifunction printers. When a user sends a sensitive job to a printer, he must get up, walk over to the printer and enter a code to see his document on paper.

Some of Xerox’s printers store print-job information locally on a hard drive, so Xerox has a feature where the printer deletes the image of that print job after it is completed, Peebles says.

HP’s R&D labs are looking into building on printers connected to a network biometric security devices, such as fingerprint readers, Codd says. This could allow network administrators to have one level of access to the printer, while allowing other employees to print or fax only, he says.

Ideas include adding support directly to the printer for the employee-access badge that most office workers have to wear, says Rick Robinson, worldwide product marketing manager for Lexmark. The company has had this capability on its printers for about a year, he says.

As printers grow more complex, more companies will consider eliminating their printer security and maintenance headaches through services agreements, Gartner’s Grant says.

“For some, they can change their printing from a capital expense to an operational expense, and they like that,” Grant says.

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