Epsonby Larry Trevarthen, Epson America

As the office market has evolved from desktops to mobile, the multifunction printer (MFP) has evolved as well. Not only is the MFP the critical printer for high impact color documents in the office, it is also a fundamental element of the digital ecosystem with its scan and mobile integration. In this sense, the MFP bridges the gap between the paper and digital environment. Today, in addition to print, copy, scan and fax, MFPs offer connectivity and fully integrated solutions on both laser and business inkjet platforms.    

Enabling Mobile Print

“People want to print from mobile devices.” That statement was frequently met with skepticism in the early days of mobile, but it has become a requirement in today’s office environment as technology has progressed. Phones, tablets and other mobile devices are common features of the workplace, and the desire and need to print from those devices is increasing as well. Solutions have improved dramatically from the early days, and it is common for MFPs to support numerous different printing methods including  Apple AirPrint, Bluetooth, Google Cloud Print and wireless printing over the network.

Looking back at the history of mobile print, the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend in the office environment was seen as a leading force behind the push for mobile printing — and indeed, BYOD has been a factor behind the change in work habits over the past few years. But now mobile devices in the workplace are often company sanctioned and issued, making mobile technologies an expected part of the workplace. Gartner found that total mobile sales into the enterprise globally are greater than 200,000 units per year, while PCs are half that, with the PC installed base on a steady decline since 2014 and the mobile installed base on the rise.

Tablet usage has become increasingly commonplace in the business sector, and today’s tablets are equipped and designed for business applications. Hybrid tablet PCs can easily switch back and forth from tablet to laptop mode, many Android devices come with integrated keyboards and additional USB ports, the iPad Pro’s smart keyboard is essential to maximizing its capabilities, the Windows 10 platform was designed to work on the Microsoft Surface tablet, and the recently released Apple iOS 11 has file management capabilities and a MacBook-like dock geared specifically toward making the iPad a laptop replacement. Mobile devices have taken aggressive steps to penetrate the office.

Beyond device penetration is the issue of the mobile worker — who is no longer strictly someone who works remotely, travels as part of the job or does not have a traditional corporate office. In reality, nearly everyone in corporations today is a mobile worker because they use mobile technology to access email and other work-related content when not at the office. Studies have shown that more than 75 percent of the U.S. workforce today has some form of mobility associated with their job.

Yet it has admittedly taken a while for business users to seamlessly print from their mobile devices. This is partially because print wasn’t always simple, like many of the other mobile functions. As noted earlier, printer and MFP manufacturers have recently made great strides in integrating simple and streamlined mobile print solutions. In the early days, printing from a mobile device was often a convoluted process without any real ability to print directly from a specific application. The changes in this landscape, with user-friendly mobile print solutions providing secure printing and automatic device discovery, have gone a long way toward mobile print’s adoption in the workplace.

The growing desire for mobile printing is also demonstrated in research. While at one point many studies showed business users were happy enough without the capability, lately these trends are changing. A recent IDC study found that 75 percent of users consider the business value of mobile printing to be similar to PC printing with another 15 percent saying it is even greater.  

One thing that does seem clear, however, is that mobile devices are at best a mitigating influence on office print volumes. Overall volumes are already declining, and technological advancements will only fuel the transition from print to display. As mobile device penetration is inevitable, the number of individuals utilizing that technology for business purposes is growing exponentially. Many business functions can be performed electronically with no need for printed output. What’s the impact on printing in the future? Even if mobile printing does not bridge the print volume gap, it is not the end of the MFP, which still has a valuable role to play.

The MFP as Digital Gateway

From a document perspective, everything from capture to scan, creation, collaboration, archive and distribution can be done electronically. The print and imaging industry should be leading the charge in the transition from paper to digital format and from paper-based workflow to mobile workflow. And it is, in the somewhat unlikely form of a device with the word “printer” in its name — the “smart” multifunction printer, or SMFP.

Gartner defines the SMFP in the following way: “A regular MFP can print, fax, copy and scan paper documents. An SMFP can also be programmed by a third party, the user or the technology provider to perform custom functions; easily integrates with office and enterprise applications; is management-friendly, with consistent architecture and user interface; works well on the network; and is based largely on open industry standards. SMFPs can perform usage tracking and other functions that help organizations actively manage their office printer/MFP fleet.”

Today’s smart MFPs integrate with enterprise systems, allowing businesses to move beyond paper and optimize digitization efforts. Organizations that are making the most of their MFPs, using them for more than traditional printing, are the ones most likely to be effectively implementing digitization and workflow integration. 

Automating workflow is a significant opportunity for businesses to reduce document costs and drive efficiencies into the document environment. While more traditional print-centric methods such as managed print solutions can optimize costs and manage the use of paper, document capture has become a necessary feature for wrangling out-of-control, extraneous printing. 

Scanners are essential to document capture. In today’s workplace, scanning has gone from a back-office requirement or department-specific need to something used by nearly every employee. Scanning and capturing documents has gone beyond its traditional function of storage and archiving. No longer are dedicated, standalone scanners the only entry point for data. Today’s workers expect to be able to use the MFP at their desk or in their workgroup as the entry point for digitization. This networked MFP, connected to cloud services and network locations, combined with an intelligent capture and workflow solution, provides the ability to convert paper to digital format at the simplest and most opportune point in the workflow. 

Scan and capture capability is as important as the print functionality on an MFP. Therefore, the MFP is a critical tool used to create efficiencies in existing business processes. Workflow, enterprise management software and intelligent scanning are key components of any digital transformation strategy. Solutions that can scan directly into office applications and back-end systems, in the format that is needed, are essential to this process. The most effective scanning solutions include dual-head scanners, allowing for the automatic scanning of both sides of a single sheet of paper at once. These super-efficient solutions then get better with software, using OCR capabilities to convert paper-based documents into editable, searchable text files. The ability to convert paper documents in half the time into standard office file formats such as PDF, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and others is crucial to streamlining workflows by reducing the amount of time spent rekeying or searching for information. 

Will the paperless office become a reality? No doubt you will find as many opinions on that subject as you will people to ask. But one thing most people will agree on is that there is a definite trend toward digitization and workflow optimization, an increasing reliance on mobile devices, and the need to create efficient, cost-effective workplaces that take all of that into account. What this means is that whether it is used for printing from a desktop computer (it still happens!), printing from a mobile device or as an entry point for documents being digitized and integrated into a company’s electronic workflow, the laser or business inkjet MFP is a key piece of technology in the office, and one with a long life ahead of it. 

Larry Trevarthen
Epson America
Epson.com

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel