It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of printing a photo-quality image at home was a complete revelation.
Today, however, any vendor can produce an astounding image and typically for an astoundingly low price, too. Printing is a commodity game – unless you look beyond the box.
By delving into the business processes which stand behind the printer itself, vendors can add more value.
However, this throws the game open to entrepreneurs able to spot gaps in the document management environment.
George Kharoufeh, Kyocera product marketing manager, points to the attention shift from device speeds and feeds to the bigger picture.
“In getting the most out of devices, the focus falls on productivity and how one can improve workflow.
"Cost always remains a top-three factor, too, so a lot of work is done on how printing and document management can integrate with business processes to deliver greater convenience with minimal waste.”
He agrees that the maturity of the market drives innovation “to the benefit of all, especially end users”; however, Kharoufeh still believes there is room for differentiation on the hardware.
Paul Francois, Product manager at OKI distributor Comworth, counters, saying most clients aren't bothered by what device is behind their printed material.
“What most businesses are looking for is a professional level of quality at a fair price but above all being able to rely on the printer to do the job without constant servicing or attention. If you can do that, the client will be happy, regardless of what brand the machines are.”
Francois says this places pressure where it matters most. “That means print providers are compelled to innovate, to ensure higher performance is delivered by machines that are simple to use and reliable."
Paper is perhaps ingrained into our evolution as a constant companion of civilisation since antiquity.
However, says Greg Twiname, solutions product manager, Konica Minolta, evolution has run into a brick wall as far as efficiency is concerned.
“The handling of paper is poor, especially where collaboration is required. Too many business processes today revolve around the exchange of paper – which gets lost, ignored in piles on desks.
"It is physically difficult to drive paper through a process, yet from schools to insurance companies, we still push it.”
That’s perhaps because, continues Twiname, everyone understands it. “Paper is the weak point. It causes hang-ups and inefficiencies and while we all understand paper, most of us also know that it is the problem.”
But why would the manufacturers of the machines that produce the stuff (in its printed form) want to reduce its prevalence?
“That’s a competitive reality. Sure we would make money if we continued to help customers print and mail invoices and statements, but for how long?
"The world is going digital and for printer manufacturers, it is about the software that lies behind the machines; unless we focus on how to help companies do what they want to do – which is reduce the number of machines they need – then someone else will,” Twiname explains.
Dealing with the document
It is, however, still about documents. “Scanned, copied or printed – the difference is that vendors are looking at providing solutions to manage documents as a whole, rather than from the simple perspective of a physical device,” he says.
“The document won’t ever go away, even if the paper recedes somewhat.”
That’s something HP is also well aware of. Grant Sweeney, HP’s printer product manager says workflow and the environment feature highly in its approach.
“The devices which input or output documents are really the on-or off-ramps of broader business processes. The challenge for device manufacturers is to help companies to optimise the integration of the devices into the processes – and also to reduce waste.”
Waste comes up in discussions with almost all vendor representatives. It remains a problem; there is something in human nature which results in baskets overflowing with unused print jobs and information which, critical moments ago, is left on the machine.
“Introducing something as simple as only printing a job when the user physically collects it can reduce paper useage by as much as 20%,” confirms Sweeney.
Just about any vendor servicing the business market has a managed print offering: get the machines free, pay for the output.
Peter Chambers, general manager, Canon Business, says traditional engagements revolved around price and technology.
“However, today managed print services focus on business outcomes and overall organisational objectives rather than price, product specifications and functionality.”
Vendor approach and how they engage is where differentiation can be found. “Look for solutions that align to the overall business objectives and help the customer put together an effective business case to implement a managed print solution,” he says.
A different perspective
But given their vested interests in producing paper with marks on it, are printer manufacturers the best option for document management solutions?
Certainly, they should have the knowledge and insight to move in this direction – but there remain opportunities for innovation and specialisation. Auckland- based Prodoc has done just that around Export Documentation.Principal Steve Cox explains:
“Export Documentation covers many forms, from printed pages through emailed PDF’s, through websites that either accept data, or accept and return information.
"All of this information needs to be modified to suit the requirements of both the vendor and purchaser, while respecting the laws and government requirements of the exporting and importing countries, any banking requirements and other affected parties.”
Cox doesn’t make or sell printers, he deals in software. “Most of the major ERP systems ignore export documentation.
"In New Zealand, we have some of the hardest export documentation requirements in the world and our exporters like to export to the majority of countries in the world.”
Good export document systems, explains Cox, provide users with the ability to take information from other systems, add to it automatically, but also allow data modification to meet all requirements.
“Mainstream ERP systems focus on ordering, fulfilling, billing and tracking money; very few extend that to tracing what happens with the goods once they have left the warehouse: information such as vessels, voyages, ports, payments via letter of credit, extended payment details, tariff codes and the like is largely ignored.”
That’s a gap into which Prodoc has stepped. “This information tends to be repetitive; through a linking process, much of it is filled in by the document management system, leaving the user to concentrate on adding the information that changes every time,” says Cox.
More than that, he adds information relating to the export process is stored in a searchable database, rather than in Word, Excel or PDF documents.
This not only provides for the ability to quickly respond to any agency (law enforcement, customs, etc) requirement, but also facilitates the automatic completion of web forms.
It is, Cox agrees, all about documents – but requires looking at them in a different way. “Document management systems act as the portal to the data, allowing it data to be changed to match requirements, then feeding that information to wherever it needs to go, in whatever format it needs to go in.”