Low-Cost Printers Create Red Ink

By Adam Stone | Posted October 22, 2003

This just in from the Department of Irony ... Want to know why the cost of printing has gotten so high? It's because of the cost of printers has gotten so low.

"What has happened in the marketplace is that low-cost devices became available, and as they got cheaper and cheaper there became this huge proliferation of these devices," explained Michele Morris, IBM Worldwide General Office Segment Executive. So you go out and buy a half-dozen low-cost printers. Now everybody has one. But are you saving money?

Quite possibly not. In fact, some research has shown that the upfront costs of buying and installing a printer represents only 30 percent of the total cost of that device. Supplies may cost another 30 percent, while the rest are "hidden" costs. Call the IT help desk for a network problem ... That's in the IT budget. Toner goes into the site-services budget. Add some labor from the departmental budget. All these dollars are rolling out, just below the radar.

That's not to say that inexpensive printers are a bad thing. "But it's only good if you look at the total cost of ownership," said Morris. "If you try to print a page but it doesn't print, you don't necessarily know why it didn't print. There is the connection to the firewall, the possibility of a broken printer, or maybe an application problem. There are so many pieces to the networked printer environment."

How to keep the costs in check? First up: Change working patterns, says Todd Hatfield, a product marketing manager for shared color laserjet printers at Hewlett-Packard.

"Too many times, the same document is being printed over and over again," he said. "They will print it out, interact with it, and then throw it in the bin. Then if they need that information again the next day, they will print it out, interact with it — and throw it in the bin again."

A first step toward cost containment is "to make people aware of their own work behaviors," he said.

On the supply side, go after the chief culprit: Toner cartridges.

"You can go into one of these stores and buy a decent printer for $50 or $100, and then people are shocked when the ink runs out and the new cartridge costs as much as the printer itself," said Burt Yarkin, CEO of Cartridge World North America. "The biggest cost is in the consumables, the cartridges. That's where the manufacturers are making all their money."

Yarkin urges small-business owners too seek out cheaper supplies. His franchisees can remanufacture a $140 laser cartridge for $70 — a substantial savings, particularly for businesses that reply heavily on their print resources. At the same time, he says, reliable low-cost technical support is a must.

"In the old days people would go out to Kinkos, but now because of the cheaper price of printers, companies are doing more printing in house. Because they are doing more in house, though, those machines are going to break down more often," he said. "Before we had an in-house IT person, our machines were constantly breaking, and it is frustrating trying to run a small business without having that expertise available."

Whether in-house or on contract, he said, an affordable and reliable IT person is vital.

IBM for its part offers a number of tips that it says should help to keep down the costs of owning and operating a printer:

  • Save toner: Use darkness-control settings to optimize the use of toner without noticeably diminishing quality.

  • InkJet vs. Laser: It costs four to five times more to run an inkjet printer than to run a laser machine, yet inkjets proliferate. Round'em up and swap'em out for laser machines.
  • Digital Imaging: Ditch the paper and move to digital images.

  • Multifunction Options: Consolidate printers and faxes into multifunction devices to reduce capital expenditure, save office space and manage consumables better.

In all these efforts, small businesses may have a slight advantage over their larger counterparts. "They can make one or two simple decisions and save money doing that, without a lot of political complexity," she said.

That ability to set policy quickly and easily is especially relevant here, since the greatest printer savings likely will be realized through big-picture policy changes. Printers are best utilized as part of a system, and costs are maintained most easily when users ask systemic questions: What are we printing? How often? How many? And, why?

"To minimize costs, you really need to think about the goals you are trying to achieve," Morris.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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