Office NewPosted on Thursday, May 1st, 2003 by Bob Violino
Are you ready for the office of the future? You can free up space, save money and bolster productivity with the new multifunction devices. We explore the options that might be right for you.
Many small businesses are using the same office equipment they bought five or 10 years ago: analog fax machines, outmoded copiers and aging black-and-white printers. Business owners have been reluctant to move to state-of-the-art digital technology because of cost barriers, lack of desire to learn new technology or other reasons.
That’s changing. Multifunction devices (MFDs), which combine the capabilities of a fax machine, scanner, printer and copier in a single piece of equipment, are giving small companies an opportunity for a quick, economical upgrade to a more efficient office.
Even other administrative services—such as mailing and shipping—have moved into the all-in-one market to deliver added convenience to customers. “What you used to have to do at the post office, you can now do from your desktop,” says President of U.S. Mailing Systems Operations for Pitney Bowes Inc. Kevin Weiss. “People might not immediately identify the DM200TM as an MFD, but it certainly is a multifunction device.” The digital mailing system—which combines standard mail- processing functions with the newest technology—can process certified mail electronically from your office, tap into USPS signature and delivery confirmation services and deliver a low-postage warning so your meter never runs short unexpectedly.
A drop in the price of digital equipment is making upgrades more attractive. But business owners need to do their homework before investing in MFDs and other digital gear—or risk spending more time and money on the upgrade than they envisioned.
Other considerations when investing in digital equipment, according to business owners and consultants:
Digital office technology is becoming more accessible to small companies, says Amy Wohl, president of Wohl Associates in Narberth, Pa., which provides consulting in office automation and computing. “It’s getting less expensive all the time, so whatever it is you’re trying to automate or facilitate costs less this year than it did a few years ago,” she says.
Still, prices of MFDs and other digital office products vary. For example, Canon (www.canon.com) offers a low-end multifunction color inkjet printer—which also scans, copies and faxes—starting at $299; a low-end multifunction copier with fax capabilities at $599; and a high-end multifunction black-and-white laser printer/copier/scanner/fax at $4,619. Canon offers a standalone color inkjet printer for $699.
In addition, Wohl says, digital office technology has become more mature and easier to install and manage. This means that a small company without in-house experts can afford to buy and use more modern equipment.
Business owners who have upgraded say the savings and efficiencies of using products such as MFDs or high-speed document-management systems can be substantial, allowing them to get more work done more quickly. But upgrading is not just a matter of going to an office superstore and picking out a device that looks nice, says Gene Fairbrother, lead consultant for the National Association for the Self-Employed(www.nase.org) and owner of a consulting business in Dallas.
“You have to do your homework. Discover what’s out there and what meets the needs of your business,” says Fairbrother, who upgraded his office to an MFD last year after using older printers and fax machines for years. The device he bought also does copying and scanning, “but someone else who doesn’t have to make a lot of copies or need to do scanning is better off spending $150 less for a machine [without one of those functions],” he says.
A good place to start researching and shopping is on the Internet. All vendors provide detailed information about their products online. Business owners also can read reviews of office equipment and get other feedback at various sites, among them Epinions.com (type “office supplies”).
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After researching on the Web, “you should go out and touch the equipment,” Fairbrother says. “Go into the stores and see how the devices work. Even if you end up buying online, you need to look at the equipment to see if it will fit in your office and whether it’s compatible with other equipment you have.”
As for buying online, use caution, he advises. “Make sure you know whom you’re buying from and understand their services and return policies. The company may not be around in a few years.” Fairbrother recalls the time he ordered a software upgrade over the Web that turned out to be incompatible with his PC. “The company’s response was ‘That’s tough.’” The same thing can happen with office equipment, he says. But “as long as you buy from a name-brand supplier, you shouldn’t have problems.”
Small-business owners should take a hard look at MFDs before investing, Wohl says. Multifunction devices can handle a variety of tasks. By linking an MFD to a PC, for example, a user can scan and print a document or scan a letter and email it to a customer. A wide range of MFDs are designed for small businesses, varying from low-end machines at less than $600 to top-of-the-line devices with digital copiers at $4,000.
The devices have become popular because they are typically less costly than buying separate pieces of equipment for copying, faxing, scanning and printing.
You guessed it—there are potential drawbacks. MFDs don’t always perform various functions as well as standalone devices, Wohl says. Print quality and versatility—such as the ability to print labels, for example—may not be as good with an MFD printer as with a standalone printer. And MFD copiers may lack some of the sorting capabilities of standalone copiers.
In addition, individual functions can’t always be upgraded. So if you need a better printer, you’ll likely need to buy a better standalone printer or upgrade to a higher-end MFD. Wohl says MFDs are rarely designed for high-volume work, so owners should be sure to check on volume thresholds before buying.
Perhaps most important, if the machine breaks, you lose all the functions at one time. “When you buy one of these, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket,” Wohl says. Find out beforehand how quickly you can expect to get the machine fixed if something goes wrong with it.
Keith Beaucamp, president of Carolina International Sales Co., a distributor of chemicals for industrial and manufacturing applications, recommends buying a service contract from the equipment manufacturer when upgrading to new equipment. His company upgraded its two offices in Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., with MFDs after using analog printers, copiers and fax machines, and he’s pleased with the results.
“It’s a huge benefit having one piece of equipment instead of all the other stuff,” Beaucamp says. “We’ve saved office space and have easier access to the different functions because they’re all in one place. We’ve been able to get more done because we can do more than one function at a time from the same device.