Hardware trendsby Amy Weiss, The Imaging Channel

When it comes to the course of the office imaging market, there is a constant ebb and flow, with any number of trends to point to as the cause. Ancillary or adjacent markets such as production and label printing are taking hold with many dealers, digital convergence is affecting print volumes and creating shifts into the software and “everything-as-a-service” arena, and talk of the paperless office continues to inform almost every move. And yet, in the face of change and occasional decline, the hardware market itself continues to chug along. There are many factors affecting this; here we take a look at just three of the major trends affecting the hardware channel in 2017.

The A3/A4 Convergence

Recent announcements from several vendors underscore the growing importance of A4-size hardware in today’s overall product mix. In March 2017 alone we saw three of the more traditional copier-centric OEMs — Canon, Ricoh and Kyocera — release a slew of A4 devices, and they’re just the latest in a long line over the last few years. The deep penetration of managed print services uncovered underutilization of A3 devices, allowing the often-more-compelling value proposition of A4-sized workgroup devices to take hold. As pages have migrated from A3 to A4 devices, pressure has been placed on copier vendors to strategically alter their lineups to compete in a market where “balanced deployment” is a goal. 

This is not a one-sided assault, however, and the A3 market still represents a lucrative market, leading some traditional A4 vendors to make moves on the space — most notably, of course, HP, with its purchase of Samsung’s printer division and latest planned launch into the A3 market. In its announcement last September, HP stated it would “disrupt the $55 billion copier segment” with its acquisition and launch of A3 devices. While we had some questions as to the $55 billion figure, there is certainly no question that HP is underrepresented in the segment regardless of its total value. In a BPO Research study conducted shortly after the announcement, more than two-thirds of dealers surveyed said they had never carried previous iterations of HP A3/copier-type products, whether HP’s Edgeline products or its Sharp-based, HP-branded lasers. HP certainly has room to grow in this area; 37 percent of respondents were open to becoming a dealer for HP’s new products, and in an analyst update call recently, HP’s leadership said they had a number of dealers on board.

HP is not the only traditional print dealer making a move into the copier space; Lexmark did things a little differently last year with its CX860. An A4 color laser MFP targeted toward the traditional A3 space, the CX860 has A3-like features including finishing options, 60-ppm speed and an A3-like MSRP of $26,000. The device can do almost everything but print on A3-sized paper — which Lexmark claims is not important to most users, 98 percent of whom print or copy on A4 or letter-sized pages. 

Another competitor entering the A3 space is Epson — but its means of entry is a bit different, leading us to the next major trend.

Ink in the Office

Business ink, office inkjet, ink in the office — no matter what you call it, it is a topic that continues to pique the interest of the imaging and printing market. Ink-based technologies and product introductions from vendors such as Brother, Epson, HP, Memjet, Xerox and others have added fuel to an already lively discussion. Laser-based printers and MFPs continue to dominate in the office workgroup, but inkjet printing technologies are gaining significant ground and the landscape is changing. 

Businesses are embracing mobile workers, cloud, and digital workflow, and people are consuming information in new ways. At the same time, organizations are constantly seeking ways to reduce expenses and improve efficiencies, and paper-based business processes have become prime targets. The printing industry has reacted to these trends by moving away from hardware and pages. The combined effect of these trends is a market that is extremely diverse and primed for disruption. Enter office inkjet technology.

Evolution Of Office InkjetThis infographic (click to enlarge) presents a brief overview of office inkjet, but for all its history, 2017 looks to be a groundbreaking year in the market. HP’s previously mentioned A3 announcement included three new devices based on its PageWide technology; scalable technology currently on the market in A4-size products that can be leveraged by larger machines with multiple heads stitched together to produce even faster speeds and wider print widths. Designed to be serviceable, which is important for dealers who sell devices as part of a service contract, HP nevertheless touts the simple architecture of the HP PageWide Enterprise and Pro platforms. With only three components that may need replacing, the PageWide devices will offer lower service costs for channel partners. The devices will have print speeds ranging from 40 ppm up to 80 ppm in General Office mode.

By comparison, Epson’s recently announced WF-C20590 A3 MFP prints at speeds up to 100 ppm, which Epson says makes it the fastest device in its class. It uses Epson’s PrecisionCore line head technology — PrecisionCore allows the production of print head assemblies using modular print chips that can be combined in various ways, both in serial print heads or line-head (page-wide array) configurations; the WF-C20590 marks the first PrecisionCore line-head color MFP. It is expected to be available in summer 2017. 

The Smart and Secure MFP

Today’s MFPs are more than simply output devices — they are sophisticated network components. These “smart” MFPs come with features such as embedded web servers and the ability to connect directly to cloud-based applications and services. 

With each new hardware release and update we see an increasingly larger and, frankly, expected array of services that integrate with the hardware straight from its tablet-like control panel. Scan-to- Box, Google Drive, Evernote, Salesforce, OneDrive, Word, PDF, etc., etc. … the list is endless. However, there are some downsides to this enhanced connectivity. The data traveling to and from an improperly secured networked MFP can become vulnerable to hacks and data breaches, while the ability to print from any location can lead to orphaned print jobs and potentially insecure information left in printers’ out trays.

Fortunately, the smart MFP is also a secure one — at least, it has the ability to be secure and merely requires proper human intervention to enable its many security features. User authentication features such as passwords, cards or biometric authentication can be used to enable a pull printing policy, ensuring that print jobs are not output to unmonitored devices. Access controls can be implemented on various levels, blocking guests or employees with a lower security clearance from more sensitive material, higher-level functions or server-level access — again, an ability that is often built into the device and simply needs to be enacted by the vendor partner or customer’s IT department. Network ports can be protected, hard drives covered by virus protection programs and baked-in security policies enforced.

Smart MFPs, when used properly and secured correctly, can improve business processes, allowing changes to the print environment to occur naturally in support of larger objectives around digital transformation. Cost savings will increase, time will be saved and businesses will likely see dramatic improvements in worker productivity.

Print remains an important and viable business function, if not a standalone one, as evidenced by these and many other trends. As technology advances, hardware benefits and as a result, so do dealers and end users. Far from living in a paperless society, we live in one that embraces multiple outputs, and today’s hardware trends reflect that fact. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel.