Printers of Tomorrow
As the cloud and mobility have transformed workplaces, printers have been reinvented to keep pace with the evolution
- by Melissa Delaney
- Freelance journalist who specializes in business technology |
Every office has that person — the one who knows how to clear paper jams and collate and staple stacks of documents. Those printer gurus, however, are going the way of the dinosaur.
Modern multifunction printers are not like the copiers of old that were so complex that offices trained a few people to operate them. Today’s MFPs are intuitive, they support mobility, and they’re customizable for different devices, work styles and industries.
“They’re designed around how people use the devices they carry around in their pockets,” explains Matthew Raab, manager of global offering marketing at Xerox.
Xerox’s ConnectKey technology, for instance, places apps on the front panel of the printer, just as they would appear on a smartphone. The MFP authenticates users, then presents them with their customized selection of applications so, for instance, they can access Dropbox documents directly from an icon on the printer.
“Technology is changing the workspace, changing how we communicate, how we manage documents and how we manage information,” says Allison Correia, research manager of imaging, printing and document solutions at IDC. “As all of that is happening, the print market is adjusting to this evolving workplace.”
Document Workflows Meld Digital and Physical
Printers are used for so much more than printing. They can be integrated into digital workflows and enable users to print from wherever they are with whatever device they’re using.
“Everything is migrating to the smart MFP,” says Robert Palmer, research vice president for imaging, printing and document solutions at IDC. “It’s no longer just a dumb peripheral that sits on the network. This is actually a very intelligent machine that most vendors are now positioning as a workplace hub — basically an on- and off-ramp for information into the internet.”
Many MFPs have high-powered processors as well as built-in BIOS, web servers, cloud integration and lots of storage, Palmer adds. Those features are often supplemented by cloud-enabled solution platforms that wrap around the hardware.
Today’s MFPs are designed to be information-processing devices, says Bob Burnett, director of business-to-business solutions, deployment and planning at Brother. They can convert hard copies of documents into electronic formats and merge documents into a workflow. They include applications that translate documents and automate the signing of contracts.
Brother’s WebConnect feature enables users to access cloud-based document repositories, such as Google Drive or Dropbox directly from the front panel of the MFP. Documents can be converted to different formats, including searchable PDFs, as well as signed or secured with a digital signature or PIN, says Dan Waldinger, senior director of business-to-business marketing at Brother.
And features such as ConnectKey are designed to be scalable so that users can get new functionality without upgrading the devices themselves. “That’s the value proposition — making workers as productive as they can be, especially at that intersection of physical and digital,” says Raab.
Printers Customized for Corporate Users
The mobile revolution has extended beyond smartphone and tablets. Today’s multifunction printers utilize cloud-based apps directly from the printer panel. This has given organizations the ability to customize printers to their industry’s needs.
For instance, with Xerox’s ConnectKey technology, a multinational corporation can install a translation app directly on the MFP to convert documents from one language to another.
Employees can load MFPs with apps such as Salesforce, QuickBooks and Dropbox. Companies can customize buttons on a printer to ship items to specific warehouses, or they can use an app to scan receipts, then submit them to an expense-tracking system.
Security Takes Front Seat
Print security is a hidden risk for many organizations. A 2019 report from Quocirca found that 59 percent of organizations have suffered at least one print-related data loss. And yet, print security has historically lagged behind IT security. Many organizations assume printers are protected behind the firewall, but the network perimeter is no longer clearly defined, as printers and other devices reach into the cloud and other places on the web. “As these devices become more capable, they’re no longer just simple devices. They actually are very complex devices that are very powerful endpoints themselves,” says Palmer.
Further, while most organizations are vigilant about keeping their systems patched, printers typically run on different operating systems than other devices in the network, adding further complexity to the task.
Vendors have responded to these issues by providing an array of security solutions in printers. “I think what’s led that charge over the last several years has been this shift to pull-print technology,” Palmer says. “It’s basically the idea of sending a print job to a server, where it’s held until you’re ready to release it from the device. So you can go to the device, authenticate yourself and then you pull the print job to you. This provides a secure closed loop.”
Many vendors have also hardened the devices themselves through BIOS protection, document encryption and whitelisting. For instance, Xerox’s AltaLink MFPs include whitelisting through a partnership with McAfee, which protects the device and enables it to recognize when threats are on the network and communicate that to other systems, Raab says.
Organizations also utilize malware protection, firmware updates and password management to strengthen security on printers. Most companies are in some stage of implementing other forms of authentication beyond card readers, such as biometrics, Correia says.
Data Analytics Drive Printer Efficiency
Not only can MFPs improve worker efficiency, but they’re also designed to make the devices themselves more efficient. “I can see how often I’m scanning to the cloud, how many faxes I’m sending, how many prints I’ve made,” says Raab. “So I can make better decisions about how many devices I place and what types of devices I need.”
Such analytics can make a big difference when utilized as part of a managed print services contract. About 70 percent of enterprises use managed print services (MPS), in which a third-party assumes control of the devices and supplies, according to Palmer. MPS providers work to reduce costs and waste and to manage printing policies and usage-based procedures to ensure that security policies and corporate governance are met.
Emerging MFP Technologies
As digital assistant applications such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri have become ubiquitous, printer manufacturers have begun to incorporate voice-recognition software in their products as well. For instance, in June 2018, Xerox added Gabi Voice to its AltaLink MFPs. The solution enables users to speak commands to copy, scan, print, fax or make service requests.
“As the workforce starts to skew a bit younger, employees are much more comfortable interfacing with voice,” says Raab. “So we’re starting to build solutions to meet that need.”
Another emerging technology in the printer market is equipping devices with Internet of Things capabilities. For instance, this summer, Brother plans to launch RemotePanel, a cloud-based tool that collects data about devices and reports error conditions to administrators, enabling help desks to access machines and troubleshoot issues remotely, Burnett says.
All these advanced technologies are designed around the modern workplace, says Waldinger. “The workforce has changed, the needs of the workers have changed, but it’s about making sure that they all have the right tools and the right processes in place to be effective and efficient,” he says.