Mono was once the master of the office, but new colour printers at competitive prices means that there is a surge in colour usage in the business world.

The past two years have seen a massive surge in the availability of low cost entry-level colour laser printers and prices across the entire spectrum of colour lasers have dropped significantly. As a result an increasing number of business have invested in the machines. Low-end devices can now be purchased for as little as £200, while more powerful models provide the kind of capabilities that in the past would only be available at professional print shops.

As ever, the acquisition cost of the devices paints only half of the picture. Ironically, one of the key issues affecting colour devices in the past was their monochrome performance. For many people one of the key problems was the high mono-printing cost per page which meant that users had to bear higher costs for their day to day printing, or run a monochrome printer in addition to the colour device. Most modern colour lasers are now able to black and white print at similar cost per page levels to standard monochrome laser printers. Since there is little difference in the purchase and running costs of the devices, some manufacturers are even pitching their colour machines as outright replacements for monochrome printers.

Nigel Allen, senior product manager at printer manufacturer Kyocera, said: “There has been a much greater awareness of the need for colour in the office from the customers. What is happening now is that whereas people were worried about having colour in the office because the cost per page was so high, not just in colour but on the mono as well, the running costs of these new colour capable machines is reasonably low and the mono costs are comparable to that of a standard mono laser printer.”

In some respects colour inkjets have played a part in driving demand for colour lasers. Because of their negligible purchase price inkjets have become popular with home users and this has raised people’s expectations of workplace printers. Seeking to bring the benefits of colour printing into the office many workers have bought inkjet printers on expenses and unwittingly exposed their employers to the high cost per page associated with these devices. This has helped create a demand for low cost colour printing and the laser manufacturers have been quick to deliver. Increased demand has allowed manufacturers to take advantage of the economies of scale and reduce prices further still, resulting in yet higher demand.

Helen Berentzen, senior product manager of Ricoh said: “Just by the fact that we are producing so many of them we have been able to bring the costs down because of the economies of scale. In a lot of ways we have developed the same technology so our factory prices are just a lot less than they were in 2001 when we started in this market.”

While the ability to ramp up production runs is undoubtedly a key driver in the falling cost of colour lasers, there are other factors at play. Jason Harcourt is an analyst at the imaging division of research firm Context “They are almost intertwined, the price coming down has driven growth and it was the need to drive growth I think that drove the price down. The technology has developed to a stage where it has become viable to push the price down,” said Harcourt. “One key could be the entry of some new players, especially at the low end. This year we have had the entry of Samsung into the market and in the printer market Samsung has always very much been a price-driven organisation. You will often find them as the price leaders.”

New technology has allowed manufacturers to produce devices that print faster both in colour and monochrome, creating a clear differentiation between high and low end models and making it easier to sell low-end printers without detracting from sales of more expensive models. Cheaper devices are based on the old ‘four pass’ technology that requires a page to be fed through the printer once for each of the toner colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black. This slows the printing process down and requires more complex paper handling hardware, which in turn means a greater chance of paper-jams. Single pass technology, found in more modern machines, applies all four toner colours in just one pass that allows for faster printing speeds and less maintenance. Although some low-end printers are single pass models, many of the cheapest devices are based on the older four-pass technology.

Harcourt said: “It has been a logical progression, the technology has not changed that much. The technology now at the entry level is pretty much what has been used at the colour laser level since its inception but it has now been pushed down a notch by the emergence of single pass technology.

“A new niche has been created for the four pass technology at an entry level price point. Four pass has actually seen a bit of a renaissance in the last eighteen months as this new entry level segment has been created where you can get colour lasers for as little as £200. How much longer four pass will still be there as the pricing and and the capabilities of single pass come down and invades that space remains to be seen. Certainly four pass is still very significant in colour lasers.”

As far as meaningful specifications are concerned the key difference between high and low-end colour laser printers is their colour printing speed. Since monochrome printing requires only a single pass on all machines, the speed of black and white prints is generally consistent across the board but colour speeds vary from anything as low as 4ppm (LANCE TO CHECK) to 35ppm and higher. Aside from print speed there are several other less obvious differentiators that are particularly relevant when considering an entry to mid-level colour laser.

Some cheaper machines use a technology called GDI (graphical device interface) which, to be concise, means that they lack much in the way of onboard processing power and rely on the PC to do much of the work involved in preparing a document for printing. The advantage of GDI printers is that they are often quite inexpensive since they do not require a built-in processor or much memory. However, while this makes them ideal for the personal printing segment they are not well suited to the workgroup environment and are particularly unsuitable for users who regularly print anything more complicated than simple office documents. It is also worth noting that GDI printers are generally only compatible with the Windows operating system and users of other systems such as Mac OS or Linux may well encounter insurmountable incompatibility issues with such machines.

Memory capacity is important on all networked printers, but especially so on colour lasers. Cheaper models may come equipped with a similar amount of memory to more expensive devices, but often they will not offer the same maximum capacity. This is important for situations where printer usage is likely to grow over time and extra memory may be required to maintain reasonable levels of performance. Mid range and high end printers will offer more advanced paper handling and finishing features, either as standard or optional extras, such as duplex printing and automatic stapling.

Harcourt said: “Things like RAM have an impact, the smaller models do not have so much memory capacity as the higher end. Other things often impact on the price such as duplex capability, networking and so on. Speed is definitely the overriding factor, particularly colour speed. Monochrome print speeds are much of a muchness really between the entry level and mid to high end colour lasers but the essential issue of the colour speed is one of the overriding factors.”

It is the increasing affordability of high volume printers with sophisticated finishing capabilities that is driving the take up of mid-range colour devices. The kind of jobs that would usually be outsourced to a professional printing company is increasingly being brought in-house. For short runs of booklets, leaflets and other such items it is cheaper and easier to use a colour laser than an external printing company. Advanced finishing features such as saddle-stitch stapling allow professional looking booklets to be produced inexpensively and with very little technical expertise. All of the trial and error that often accompanies the production of such material can be worked through much more rapidly if full colour samples can be printed at any point during the production process – particularly since the samples can be printed on the same hardware that will be used for the final run.

Berentzen said: “There is a huge cost benefit, very quickly the hardware is paid for by the cost benefit per page. So instead of paying upwards of 40 pence per page you can pay 8 to 10 pence per page and produce documents in house. You also have the flexibility to use trial and error to get documents right, you can do that when you are printing quickly on site – you can see what works and what does not. You have a lot more control over what you are doing. You can also keep documents more up to date, if you have prices in product brochures produced externally they can become out of date quite quickly.”

Bringing the process in-house also allows organisations to produce as many or few copies as they need whenever they need them, which means that the material can be amended and updated as soon as changes are required. The return on investment comes not only in the form of reduced printing costs, but in the number of man-hours saved in the production process. In short, there are many advantages to printing your own marketing and promotional material.

Harcourt commented: “A lot of vendors are promoting the idea of using colour to bring a lot of previously outsourced functions in-house like the design of promotional material for example, and marketing collateral that once would have been outsourced to a local printing company at great cost can now be bought in-house. I know two vendors in particular, OKI and HP, which have both pointed to the high cost of  outsourcing presentation materials. Bringing that in not only saves money but also saves you time and energy”.

Even if you do not plan anything quite so grand as producing your own promotional material there are plenty of good reasons to bring colour printing into your office. Studies have shown that using colour in documents offers a wide range of benefits such as increasing the document’s chance of getting read in the first place and improving people’s ability to absorb the information it contains. Xerox has even suggested that invoices that include colour highlights are more likely to be paid earlier than plain monochrome bills. Regardless of the accuracy of such studies, there are many more straightforward benefits to using colour in the office. Documents such as PowerPoint slides or Excel charts and graphs can lose all meaning when printed in monochrome – they are created on screen in colour and it makes perfect sense to print them in colour.

Berentzen said: “One thing people start doing is adding colour to letters, where they would have sent a plain black and white letter they can now put product pictures in and use the branding they have got in their printed material and replicate it so they are getting a much more consistent branding message across to their customers.”

If one thing is likely to convince organisations of the value of colour, it will be their competitors – once their rivals start using colour to make their printed communications more effective it will only be a matter of time before most businesses feel they have no choice but to follow suit.

The good news is that you do not have to rush headlong into the market – ‘colour capable’ devices allow you to dip your toe into colour printing without having to make a massive investment or take any difficult decisions. A device described as colour capable is simply a machine that is designed primarily to function as a standard office monochrome printer, but with the ability to produce occasional colour prints as necessary. Such machines are usually based on four-pass technology and offer similar black and white printing speeds and cost per page as conventional monochrome lasers. It would be rash to predict the death of the monochrome laser printer any time soon, but it seems likely that colour capable machines will become the norm over the following year.

Harcourt said: “Looking at some of the lower end machines, some of the vendors have been very conscious to really promote their machine as a monochrome replacement model for people who have a small need for colour but would not use it all the time. Epson has been one vendor in particular that has promoted their entry level colour laser as having a cheaper mono cost per page than comparable mono laser printers, and that is borne out, we have seen that to be quite true. Which of course then means that you are buying this machine that has colour capacity but prints monochrome cheaper than your regular monochrome printer, so there are definite returns there.”

As with most business equipment, the total cost of ownership is a big issue for colour laser printers. Monochrome cost per page may well be in line with conventional lasers, but the typical cost of printing a colour page can be three times or more than that of a monochrome page depending on the amount of colour used. While colour page costs are considerably cheaper than ink-jets they still need to be controlled more tightly than monochrome printers.

Most manufacturers help you do this by providing drivers that give the network administrator control over who can use the printer’s colour capability. Some manufacturers do this simply by providing two different drivers for colour and monochrome that can be installed onto users’ computers accordingly, but the big name manufacturers tend to offer more sophisticated solutions which allow administrators to tightly control the printing privileges of individuals and groups of users. This can be used to prevent staff abuse of the hardware, since people are quite likely to be tempted to use colour printers for personal printing.

For example, a more advanced system would allow the administrator to allow the marketing department to print in colour, but only during working hours in order to reduce the chance of people printing off 100 copies of their full colour party invites once the manager has left the office.

Colour laser printers use more consumables than both monochrome lasers and colour inkjets. In addition to four separate toner cartridges there are several other components that need regular maintenance or replacement such as the print drum, fuser and waste bottle. Laser printers tend to use a lot of rollers to move paper around and these get clogged up with excess toner and general gunk, requiring regular maintenance, particularly in high volume applications. While the overall cost per page is still considerably lower than a colour inkjet, it is worth remembering that there is far more to keeping a colour laser printer running than simply replacing toner cartridges when necessary. Some manufacturers focus on low running costs as their key selling points. Kyocera in particular uses a system that reduces the number of consumables that need to be regularly serviced, so that users only have to worry about toner costs. This gives Kyocera impressively low running costs, but this is of course reflected in the somewhat higher initial purchase cost of the machines

Berentzen said: “TCO was one of the big barriers that stopped people from getting into colour earlier, so I think it is important that people know what they are going to be paying, what the consumables are going to cost. Sometimes you can see the toner prices but you do not know what the other consumables are going to cost you. You really need to know what they are going to cost you and whether you can replace them yourself or whether you are going to have to pay somebody to come and replace them for you. ”

Businesses that want to keep running costs strictly controlled may consider leasing agreements where they are charged a fixed cost per page and responsibility for the replacement of consumables falls to the service provider. Most business printer manufacturers offer such deals either directly or through resellers.

If, on the other hand, the cost of acquisition is more of an issue than ongoing running costs it may be worth considering one of the ‘free printer’ deals that have begun to emerge from manufacturers such as Tally Genicom. These offers mirror the kind of sales model that has been used in the inkjet market for years – users agree to buy a certain amount of consumables from the manufacturer every year and the printer comes free.

When considering the purchase of a colour laser it is important to accurately assess your requirements, since making a poor choice can leave you stuck with a machine that is entirely unsuitable for your purposes. The low cost entry level colour lasers might seem like too big a bargain to miss, but by skimping on the acquisition costs you could end up shooting yourself in the foot. Machines based on the older four pass printing engines are only really suitable for occasional colour printing and if you are planning to make the most of your printer’s colour capability then it is really worth looking at a more modern device.

Harcourt said: “You first need to ask if printing in colour is really necessary, and how much colour printing will be done? Because if you are printing a lot of colour then an entry level colour laser is not a good investment because compared with maybe taking a step up and getting a single pass machine which is really built for colour laser printing.”

A good way to build an idea of what you might need from a colour laser printer is to examine current printing trends in your organisation and try to spot obvious areas for improvement – this can simply involve measuring all of your company’s printer output over the course of a month or two if time permits.

Berentzen said: “It is very useful to have a look at what you are printing now so do some audits on the sort of documents you are producing before you introduce colour as well as thinking about how you are going to use it in the future. So you can look at which sort of machines you are printing on and you can very easily work out cost savings by looking at what you are printing on any local inkjets and if you have got several of those around the office the cost savings could come from having one centralised resource.”

 

 

 

 

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