By Ed Crowley January 5, 2004 -- Last month we discussed the evolving market for large workgroup and departmental multifunction products (MFP's). The departmental MFP is an outgrowth of the convergence of digital copiers and network printers. Most products are developed and sold based on market demand, so let's take a look at the three key requirements for departmental MFPs. To understand the user requirements, we first must understand how these products are typically used. In most general office environments, the departmental MFP is the ‘catch all' printer for the general office printing. In the typical department there are usually multiple small workgroup printers (and even individual desktop devices) and one departmental MFP. The vast majority of print jobs are less than three pages long and easily handled by these smaller machines. So the end-user will usually print their job at the small printer that's most convenient to their desk. Conversely, the departmental printer will receive jobs too large for the small workgroup printer, or that need some unique capability such as stapling, hole-punching, or even color printing. In a small or medium size business, the environment and usage is much the same as a department of a large corporation with multiple smaller printers and one larger MFP. Three Key Requirements The fact that there is typically only one departmental MFP with unique capabilities available to users drives the first (and perhaps most important) requirement, reliability. If the departmental MFP is down, there is usually not a back-up printer with the same capabilities, and users do not have a way to produce their job. Copier and printer companies each take a different approach to this requirement. Historically, copier companies have focused less on the reliability of the device itself. Instead, they have provided very reliable service organizations with 4-hour on-site service (or similar contractual arrangements). Conversely, printer companies have focused on providing extremely reliable printers that have easy to replace consumables and supplies and seldom if ever require service. Additionally, printer companies have focused on making many components user-replaceable as opposed to being replaced by an authorized service technician. The second major requirement is flexibility. Since the departmental MFP is a catch-all device, users expect them to be able to meet any need they have, whether it be to staple, copy, collate, print in color, or hole-punch a document. In this area copier companies have an edge. Copiers have traditionally offered a wide array of finishing options and copier vendors are bringing these same options to the MFP arena. While printer companies are beginning to offer many of the same options, they are just beginning to offer the ranges of options copier companies have. The third major requirement is financial flexibility. For this class of product customer often expect to pay a "click charge", or pay on a per-page basis for the volume of usage as opposed to purchasing the printer. This is a familiar model in the copier industry, but is a new one for workgroup and departmental devices which have long been sold on a straightforward ‘sales' model with the customer taking full ownership of the printer as an asset. It requires customers to adjust their thinking. Customers are increasingly expecting the departmental MFP to represent the best of both worlds: the financial flexibility represented by copier devices, the finishing capabilities of copiers, and the reliability of workgroup printers. So which companies have the best chance of success in this space? We will attempt to answer this question next month.