Managed print services (MPS) doesn’t have an inspirational origin story. There’s no “eureka” moment of discovery. Nobody set up shop in a garage to begin tracking print fleets. More evolution than invention, MPS solutions from OEMs and software providers go back prior to the turn of the (21st) century, and we can see print management happening in the 1990s. Companies have complained about the cost of print for decades. 

What managed print does have, however, is an inflection point. Research firm Photizo Group began to focus heavily on MPS shortly after its founding in 2006, and it was during a Photizo conference in 2009 that the Managed Print Services Association (MPSA) was founded — a distinct notch in the MPS timeline. Also in 2009, Recharger Magazine held the first Managed Print Summit, which became an annual event and one of the largest gatherings in the managed print industry. And in 2010, The Imaging Channel magazine was launched with the tagline “The Business and People of Managed Print.” While we’ve since dropped the tagline — much like Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Dunkin’ Donuts (Dunkin’) we’ve expanded beyond our original product — just like fried chicken and donuts, managed print still exists, and in fact may be having a resurgence.

What does the MPS landscape look like as we head into 2024? Has it significantly changed from where it was 10 years ago? We thought it would be a good time to look back, and forward, at the evolution of managed print, with the help of three long-time pros in the field.

From devices to documents

“It was really all about the device at one point, and the output from the device,” says David Brown, senior product manager at ACDI. Brown’s MPS background includes several years with the Photizo Group in its heyday, as well as roles at software companies PrintFleet and ECI. Brown observes the progression of MPS from the device to the solutions that enabled admins to view who was printing what, from where. “We could not only provide management of the device, we could help customers actually manage what their output looked like.”

Brown notes the significant impact of the hybrid office when discussing today’s MPS. “We’ve got a whole new type of work environment where not everyone is in an office five days a week and tethered to the same workstation all the time,” he says. “Document processes have changed; people are pushing things to the cloud and pulling them back down from the cloud — it’s a lot more collaborative.” The result is a shift from a device-centric process to document lifecycle management. 

Greg Walters, a consultant perhaps best known for his insights on MPS and other print-related topics in his blog, “The Death of the Copier,” is a founding member and past president of the MPSA. He has plenty of thoughts on the past, present and future of MPS.

“The philosophy and the concepts remain the same,” he says of the changes in MPS over the years. “We’re going to service your device under a contracted monthly payment deal — that means everything from service calls to supplies will be managed by your MPS provider.” What has changed, he said, is the location of the devices, again pointing to the effects of the hybrid office.

Walters also notes the change in document processes, citing not just the impact of digitalization itself, but the ease of access to digitalization products and processes. “It’s so much more available now,” he says. “The systems that are out there are a lot less expensive, and they’re easier to use. You don’t need a whole project team to come in and do a six-month implementation to digitalize your service desk.”

Current MPSA President Eric Crump also credits digitalization as a major piece of MPS’s evolution. Crump is director of strategic alliances for FollowMe Enterprise Print Management at Ringdale, and prior to that spent 18 years with Lexmark. He sees a recent revitalization in the concept of managed print services extending beyond traditional cost-reduction strategies. “There is now a renewed emphasis on security, digital transformation and hybrid working solutions to address uncertainties in the global economy,” he says, all of which mark new opportunities for MPS providers.

We can’t, of course, talk about these changes to the office environment without mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic, which may not be solely responsible for the changes but certainly played a role in the speed at which they took place. The shift to remote and hybrid work is the first thing that comes to mind when considering the pandemic’s impact, but it goes beyond that, says Walters, raising the example of IT departments needing to support remote workers connecting through a VPN. “Are they going to print at home? Are they going to print to the office? Yes, the answer is, they’re going to print both places,” he says. This required IT departments to take on more print support issues (and we know how much IT departments love dealing with print issues). But then, he explains, post-COVID, a lot of IT departments reduced staff, and “printers really fell off the list of things to be supported. They’ve got more important things to do than worry about whether Sally’s copier on the third floor has toner, or if Jim’s MFP out in the suburbs needs a part.” The pandemic, he says, made companies reexamine their processes, realizing, “I don’t need to pay my tech support guy 80 grand a year to manage toner cartridges.”

From documents to cloud

Printed output, however, isn’t the sole purpose of the copier or MFP anymore, and the term “document” doesn’t necessarily mean a printed page. “In the past, we would email a document, and everyone would make their changes, and however many users you have, you’d have that many versions,” says Brown. “Now things are in the cloud and you can be much more collaborative — a document can be edited hundreds of times and never be printed. That’s impacted how we can manage print pretty significantly.”

This doesn’t, of course, mean we’ve achieved the paperless office yet, even as we slowly inch forward in that regard. Brown reiterates the importance of print, particularly in verticals like legal and financial, but cautions that “the transformation is happening — just slowly, one document type, one process at a time. And that’s going to continue to impact what we consider to be the management of print output.”

Not only does the ubiquitousness of the cloud not mean the end of document output, it doesn’t eliminate the need for the MPS provider. “Digital transformation, especially with the ascent of cloud computing and mobile technology, remains a puzzle for many enterprise customers,” says Crump. “MPS providers have an opportunity to guide these customers in integrating print into their business processes securely and cost-effectively, leveraging enterprise infrastructure and the cloud.” In turn, he says, MPS providers need to lean in on their solution providers to be competitive and win new business.

“We’re seeing more and more solution sales for things that are not specifically output driven, especially on the scanning and document capture side,” agrees Brown. “A lot of dealers now are helping customers manage the document workflow — automate this, automate that.”

From manual processes to automation

Automation, particularly when powered by AI, will continue to be important for both managed print providers and their customers, as it has the potential to revolutionize various aspects of the industry. “We’ve been talking about the Internet of Things for a long time, and I think we’re seeing that start to mature. Everything’s connected; there are electronic handshakes between systems and solutions,” says Brown. “Automation is becoming more of a factor, eliminating human error or being able to replicate manual processes so granular raw data entry is becoming less necessary.”

This shift toward more efficient, accurate operations has the potential to streamline MPS operations immensely. Advanced analytics are also key — a “game-changer,” says Crump. When armed with insights gained from data analysis, “MPS providers can foresee potential issues such as device downtime or supply shortages and take preemptive actions to mitigate these problems,” he says, explaining how this proactive approach can not only aid efficiency, it can minimize supply chain disruptions and even help MPS providers grow their business. “These insights are available for the entire fleet, managed and unmanaged,” he points out, which leads to opportunities for savvy providers.

Walters, who is something of an AI prognosticator, sees a future powered by artificial intelligence. “A few years ago, predictive analytics was such a big deal, and it’s no longer a mystery,” he says. “Imagine purchasing agents replaced by an AI that will manage all the internal corporate resources and know when something needs to be acquired, how to put it out for bid, choose the correct alternative and execute on that.” Assessments, he says, could be as simple as a specialized GPT that looks around a network, collects information and provides a solution. It will enable salespeople to work with more clients than in the past, he says. “Where you once did three assessments a week, you’re going to do six because you’re not sitting at a desk plugging in spreadsheets. You’re just running these numbers into the GPT, and the outcome is a nice, customized proposal.”

From tomorrow’s goals to today’s challenges

This automated, AI-powered future is something to look forward to, but today’s MPS providers still need to cope with current challenges — of which there are plenty. It will come as no surprise to anyone in the industry that talent acquisition and retention is a common theme. Brown points out a particular shortfall in the service area. “If you’re in your 20s, do you sign on with a dealership and say, ‘yeah, I’m going to start down a path of being a break-fix technician’ when print hasn’t even been a big part of your life?” he asks. Crump, who leads the MPS Insiders Group, a networking group of the MPSA’s Managed Print Certified companies, hears similar concerns. “Talking with MPS providers, the top challenges have been around the uncertainty of the supply chain, hiring new talent and finding better ways to engage prospects,” he says, noting that “organizations need to invest in the next generation of MPS leaders from the top to the bottom. The industry has lost significant historical knowledge of customers and technologies through the Great Resignation and retirements.” He strongly recommends leaders look outside their organizations for support, turning to networking groups like the MPSA or the Business Technology Association (BTA) for new opportunities.

Cybersecurity, a major challenge for the IT industry, is also on the radar, although there’s no consensus on how big of a role it plays. “Cybersecurity is the top priority for enterprise customers,” says Crump, and therefore “all MPS providers need to do their due diligence to have a holistic security strategy [that includes] hardware, software and MPS operational processes.” The MPSA is enhancing its focus on cybersecurity by adding a new security criteria to its Managed Print Certified assessment for MPS providers, which will allow companies to be tested and certified for their secure MPS capabilities.

Brown agrees that cybersecurity should be on the MPS provider’s radar. While some aspects of MPS will probably be fairly well insulated from true cybersecurity nightmares, he says, “as we move more toward connected devices and see more vulnerabilities exposed within solutions, whether hardware or software, it becomes more real. … there has to be a level of diligence and awareness.”

If cybersecurity concerns are the price of connected, networked devices, there are rewards that come with this high-tech approach to MPS as well. Walters lauds MPS as a great way to get into the IT department. “All the asset management and workflow and software — it’s the keys to the kingdom,” he says.

From the past to the future

MPS providers have long had access to those keys, and the continued success of the industry demonstrates their willingness to use them. Diversification is crucial for success, say all of our MPS pros, who paint a picture of an industry at a crossroads shaped by technological innovation and changing workplace dynamics. The future of MPS is not just about managing print, and success means keeping pace with technological trends and refining service delivery in an increasingly digital world. By doing so, MPS as an industry can and will continue to succeed. As Walters says, “MPS is back, it’s alive, and it still represents an opportunity.”

amy weiss

is editorial director of BPO Media’s publications Workflow and The Imaging Channel, and senior analyst for BPO Research. As a professional writer and editor, she has specialized in the office technology industry for the last 20 years. Prior to that she worked in public relations and has a master's degree in communication arts.