Hardware Technology Innovation Will Enable Intelligence in the Dynamically Changing Workplace Of the Future

Productivity in the office has absolutely exploded over the past three decades. This increase has been largely – rightfully – attributed to remarkably fast and vast technological improvements. And the reason these technological improvements have done so much for workers and businesses is they have greatly enhanced our ability to work together. Collaboration supercharged by technology drives businesses across markets – finance, healthcare, construction, restaurants, retail and more – to new heights every day. Digitization, data management, information distribution, these are all capabilities that streamline the ways we share information and work together. Though these capabilities are impressive and effective, they have not, as was predicted for years, “killed paper.” In fact, paper-based communications still have widespread support among many companies and consumers. Clearly, the answer to continued productivity growth should include ways to better utilize and integrate paper-based communications, as well as electronic communications. That means the future of collaboration, the future of productivity growth, lies at the intersection of paper and digital communication: the multifunction printer (MFP).

MFP technology is already moving forward to rise to meet this challenge. The MFP has become an edge device for businesses. Capturing and distributing information can happen any place and at any time. Capturing information where the business is taking place is key. Cloud connectors, robust metadata-enhanced scanning solutions, print anywhere technologies, and faster more robust capture capabilities are laying the groundwork for quicker, more efficient and more effective collaboration. These advancements, and others like them, are allowing more diverse workstyles to flourish and bringing unprecedented accessibility to work environments. They’re allowing workers to access information where, when and how they need it, no matter where their work takes them. They’re letting teams scattered across continents work together and develop solutions in real time. However, at a time when technology advances so quickly, hardware, with traditionally long product lifecycles, can seem to lag behind rapidly evolving market needs. But that, too, is changing.

While customers often enjoy the consistency of owning or leasing the same hardware for multiple years at a time, they frequently find their needs evolve over the course of an MFP’s lifecycle for any number of reasons. Perhaps a doctor’s office added a new capture process that requires handling more paper, swiftly, reliably and securely. Maybe an architectural firm decided to enhance on-the-go collaboration by making it easier to view, alter, print and share high-quality blueprints from mobile devices. Whatever the reason, as the business changes, to get the most out of new and improved ways of doing things, its central collaboration hub – its MFPs – must evolve, too.

With this in mind, some OEMs are rolling out instantly upgradeable, reconfigurable MFPs. With intuitive, powerful onboard interfaces, these devices’ users can select from a variety of updates, upgrades and options, as soon as they hit the market, for implementation as fast as they can be downloaded – often in seconds. From free firmware updates to purchasable premium upgrades, such as natural-speech voice control, the MFP bought a year ago can be consistently upgraded so as to be nearly indistinguishable from a brand-new model fresh out of the box. Forward-thinking OEMs work in conjunction with dealer partners who have “an ear to the ground” for changing business needs to guide which features to focus on. By taking these cues, then designing and developing solutions around achieving the real-world results customers are asking for, and making the resulting offerings immediately available, these new MFPs are creating feedback loops that are quicker and more effective than anyone could have dreamed of previously. For businesses – like dealers – who are entirely focused on understanding and delivering on customer needs, this is huge. This helps combat depreciation and obsolescence, protecting businesses’ hardware investments. Perhaps most excitingly, though, it allows for ongoing, ever-improving fine-tuning, so the technology in a customer’s work environment can always be exactly what their business needs to succeed.

With paper here to stay, and the capabilities of the MFP continuing to enhance, production-grade MFPs are on the rise. Whether printing handouts for a board meeting or tri-fold brochures for an open house, print quality can make a huge difference in how a message is received. With many people used to hitting delete when they receive “spam” electronic communications, when print is done right, it really stands out. As a result, demand for production-quality output – and production-level throughput – is increasing, even in businesses and markets that have historically settled for less ambitious, more typical office-print applications. It certainly helps that technological improvements are driving prices down, lowering the barrier to entry for production devices’ impressive capabilities.

Information management, in the form of variable data printing (VDP), has unquestionably been at the heart of digital printing’s success on the production scene in recent decades. VDP allows for targeting, customization and personalization that drives increased engagement and improved communication effectiveness – both of which are vital metrics for any communicator. What this means for the purposes of this discussion, though, is that digital printers have long been something adjacent to the collaboration hub that is the modern MFP. The trick in bridging the gap is attaching an intuitive interface and robust, diverse capabilities directly to the production device that allow it to be integrated in broader collaborative workflows. Many production platforms already have scanning and copying capabilities, so the real secret is in making the production device “smarter.”

Part of making production platforms smarter is making the user experience more intuitive. One aspect that can aid this intuitiveness is familiarity. If the production MFP’s user interface is similar to – or even the same as – the walk-up MFPs employees use every day, utilization will go up (because workers won’t be intimidated by confusing, alien controls), the need for training will go down, and the process of integrating workflows across the organization is significantly streamlined. Some OEMs are embracing the rise of production MFPs in nontraditional production environments by building the same operation panel onto walk-up office MFPs and light production devices, with highly configurable, continually updateable features and interfaces. The MFP doesn’t have to stop at 60 ppm.

This development could not have come at a better time for businesses. In-house production print has become increasingly affordable and powerful at the same time that demand for more eye-catching output has been on the rise. Presenting information clearly in an engaging way is the bedrock of any collaborative effort, which means it is foundational to the future of work. A well-designed, well-produced leave-behind can make the difference between “just another meeting” and a conversation clearly remembered for weeks and months to come.

With similar interfaces and interconnected workflows for both walk up and production MFPs, businesses can set up rules to intelligently route print and/or information to the best device for the job, selected from a truly diverse array of capabilities. Furthermore, it allows centralized monitoring and management, from which useful business intelligence can be gleaned. Does one particular walk-up MFP seem to always have at least five jobs in the queue, while another on the same floor frequently sits dormant? Maybe it’s time to relocate the second walk-up – or move both, and install a centrally located production device that can handle the workload faster, so workers don’t have to waste time waiting at the print tray. With modern MFPs’ infinite configurability and updateability, this switch can be seamless, porting over the exact same user experience to the new device. Or, if it’s what’s best for the company, the switch can be avoided altogether, and prints deep enough in the queue can be intelligently rerouted to the alternate MFP nearby. Or, if neither solution fits exactly right, the customer can bring it up with their dealer partner, who can put the wheels in motion to develop a solution for their specific problem, downloadable soon, no hardware installation or reinstallation necessary. 

As dealers, you know that customers’ needs are constantly evolving. Now, their hardware can be, too.

Steven Burger is Vice President, Technology Innovation & New Business Development, Ricoh USA, Inc.