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Managed Print Services and the Internet of Things

26 May, 2016

Downtime, in just about every scenario, is a disaster for all businesses. In particular, unplanned downtime—something Harel Kodesh, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at GE, refers to as the “bane of...each industry”— that hampers profits. “Unplanned downtime is when you sit on an airplane and the captain says, well, ‘this plane is not going to fly today.’ If, however, the plane needed service and it was planned, then you wouldn’t be on the plane as it would be in a hanger getting worked on. At the end of the day, we’re ultimately trying to optimize the operation of assets; we’re trying to give our operators some insights about what is it that they need to do.”

Coincidentally, Mr. Kodesh’s airplane anecdote shares a lot in common with Managed Print Services (MPS). In the same way cancelled flights hurt the airline industry’s bottom line (while simultaneously inconveniencing and angering customers), inactive MFPs hurt MPS providers.

Also similar is how, given the appropriate data, unplanned downtime is avoidable. The gauges and sensors on an airplane can detect a problem before one exists, and with the help of monitoring software, so can document imaging devices. Further, the data can be used, to borrow Kodesh’s words, to “optimize the operation of assets” for your customers. In the Internet of Things (IoT) era, unplanned downtime doesn’t have to be a disaster.  In fact, it doesn’t have to exist.

Looking around your office, it would be hard to find an electronic device that doesn’t have software or sensors, and network connectivity. The ubiquity of these embedded technologies range from the obvious such as your computer or mobile devices, to the less obvious like the coffee maker or refrigerator. This enables the communication between devices, as well as the monitoring and harvesting of data so that we can learn how much power the devices consume, usage rates, and much, much more. While this may not be important data when talking about coffee makers (unless you’re the folks at Folgers, I suppose), it can tell us a lot about the way we work, and more importantly, how we can make improvements.

The spread of IoT to MFPs perches MPS providers at a vantage point like no other before. The concept of IoT opens the door for MPS providers to learn everything about the devices they supply, and how users interact with them. The end result is optimized productivity and efficiency that would bring Henry Ford to tears.

The Basics

The IoT came about when thirsty researchers at Carnegie Mellon University got tired of walking down a flight of stairs from their offices to the Coca Cola vending machine, only to find that it was empty, or the sodas inside weren’t cold. As a result, they connected a sensor to the vending machine that communicated with a server. Researchers could access the server and check if the machine was stocked with cold soda before making the trip.

Similarly, the core functions of any MPS solution are usage tracking and device monitoring, and reporting that information to a remote location so a field technician does not have to be present at the printer or MFP to gather it. MPS is a more sophisticated iteration of the CMU researcher’s project, except instead of asking how much Coca Cola an office has, it asks what type of devices it has, and the basic information pertaining to that device such as its serial number, location, MIB data, IP address, and status, just to name a few. But the exchange of information doesn’t end there. MPS providers can poll these machines to see what they’ve been up to. For example, solutions from Print Audit, PrintFleet, AB Asset Management, BITS, and others collect dozens of different meter counts including number prints, copies, scans, faxes, which can be further broken down by color/monochrome, paper size, and manufacturer-specific data. This data is extremely valuable, as it can be used to determine better output policies and future budgeting that can save companies thousands (or for large enterprises, hundreds of thousands) of dollars.

The Minority Report of Office Systems

Perhaps the most common reason a device becomes unavailable is because it has run out of toner or another consumable. This isn’t a big deal, right? Surely your customers can walk over to the supply closet to retrieve and load the required consumable. But what if, when they get to the closet, they discover that the stock of cyan toner required for the 100-print run of PowerPoint brochures that they’ll need for that afternoon’s presentation has been depleted. This situation would have panned out differently had the MPS provider been using a system that can track the number of consumables on-hand at a customer’s location, predict when those consumables will be depleted based on past usage patterns, and automatically ship them to the customer site (even from a third-party supplier).

Running out of toner isn’t the only thing causing your customers to rip their hair out. There’s always the classic device failure. When a device goes down in the middle of your customer’s busiest season (because when else would it fail?), you won’t hear the end of it. Then again, you wouldn’t encounter this problem as often had you employed MPS tools capable of intelligent dispatching (Canon imageWARE Remote, for example) which can prevent failure thanks to its “Proactive Device Maintenance” feature.  According to Canon, this “allows [the] device to ‘call out for help’ whenever service is required to keep it up and running.” As a result, customers will know when and for how long a device will be offline for preventative care, allowing them to make adjustments for that time so as not to impede on productivity. Further, this route is far more cost-effective as it reduces the amount of money spent on labor and replacement parts. Dealers will benefit from the maximized uptime afforded by preventative maintenance in the form of more clicks. An offline device isn’t going to make MPS providers any richer, so the ability for a device to beacon for help before it fails can be viewed as a loss prevention mechanism.

Since our universe is ruled by entropy, we can’t prevent every failure with preventative maintenance. But thanks to the IoT, we can view a machine’s health from a macro and micro level. Mr. Kodesh explains the importance of perspective: “When you think about it, a locomotive is a big thing running on railways, but at the same time it’s one hundred and fifty thousand parts, traveling together. Sometimes you have to look at the locomotive as the big hunk of iron, and sometimes you have to look at one part and need to figure out where [is] the right depot, where are the spare parts, and where are the other locomotives that this part is installed in?”

When a device fails, it’s good to look at different components, individually. After all, it’s not like the entire machine is broken. It can be something as simple as an unreachable paper jam to something catastrophic like a gear that needs to be replaced. Many solutions monitor devices for failures in real time which enables dealers to set which error conditions trigger an alert to their personnel or to customer IT/help desk personnel. In many cases, the dealer may know about a device failure before the customer. Further, some tools offer integration with existing dealer billing and service-dispatch tools to help streamline dispatching and billing, as well as helping to keep track of which tech is doing what, and where.

Equipped with error codes that help zoom in on a device’s problem, dealers can dispatch their technicians with all of the relevant information and proper equipment. This will eliminate situations where techs have to drive between their shop and the jobsite because they didn’t know which equipment was needed until they arrived at the jobsite. With imageWARE Remote, technicians can utilize imageRUNNER ADVANCE devices’ built-in browser to access the NAVI encyclopedia to expedite the repair process. This feature is common among competing solutions, but usually comes with the caveat of being device or model-specific.

At the end of the day, MPS providers will be in possession of Terabytes upon Terabytes of information regarding all of their customers’ document imaging practices. This data reveals plenty about an organization, and should be leveraged to increase sales.


Lee Davis is a Research Editor with BLI (Buyers Lab). He maintains BLI’s coverage of solutions from companies such as Canon, HP, Konica Minolta, and DocuWare, as well as editorial content centered on news and trends in the document imaging industry.  Visit www.buyerslab.com

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