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Sharp And Konica Dealers - To Face Different Roads In 2001

18 Mar, 2001 By: Brian Bissett imageSource

Sharp And Konica Dealers - To Face Different Roads In 2001

January witnessed back-to-back dealer meetings from the two largest second-tier Office Imaging vendors. In the USA, Sharp held its meeting January 15-18 in Palm Desert, CA, while Konica was in Orlando during January 22-25.

Not only do these meetings typically serve as a backdrop for previewing products expected in the coming year, they often highlight the evolution of underlying strategies being pursued by the vendors. Likewise, these events highlight the prevailing mood in the channel with regard to vendors, their products and the general state of the market.

The Sharp and Konica meetings were instructive in all of these areas. At the same time, the focus and character of the two events were distinctly different. Whereas Sharp focused largely on workgroup machines and office color, Konica emphasized higher speed monochrome devices with a strong push for value-added print and scan applications. Similarly, while Sharp went to great lengths to show that it is completely devoted to the dealer channel, Konica made the necessary overtures to dealers while also acknowledging that more than half its US business is from direct branches.

SHARP: Making Connections

Eighteen months after first meeting in Dallas (The MFP Report, Aug 99) as the new Sharp Document and Network Systems of America (SDNA), Sharp assembled several hundred dealers in California to present a plethora of new and enhanced copiers, and to update them on what SDNA management says is a continuing strong business turnaround.

The theme of Sharp’s event was Connecting to Tomorrow. SDNA President, Joe Rickard, recapped the progress made since the ‘99 Dallas meeting, including Sharp recapturing the top spot in the US fax market and the number two spot in B&W digital copiers. Rickard also pointed to an 8% increase in revenue and a 48% connect rate. As for the goal of making Sharp easier for dealers to do business with, Rickard cited a new leasing partnership with GE Capital and $30 million spent on a new SAP computer system. Sharp also highlighted a new “Connections” print ad that debuted during the meeting in the Wall Street Journal and in USA Today, as well supporting “dealer-focused” TV and radio ads.

While Sharp’s mission is unchanged from 18 months ago, the focus is now foremost on growing Sharp’s dealer business and creating a profitable office equipment dealer business model. In return, Sharp asked several things of its dealers, namely, that they: transition from selling boxes to solutions; grow their color business; sell more networked products; put more salespeople on the street; and consider becoming single-line Sharp dealers. Sharp also quietly noted that it has abandoned the VAR program and associated “DM” series of Segment 1 machines it launched in late 1998.

The Sharp dealer community appeared to respond positively but not necessarily enthusiastically. It was also interesting to note that dealers in Sharp’s “post-IKON” era are noticeably smaller than those of many competing vendors and also younger. Sharp noted that many of these smaller, newer, younger dealers are some of its better performers, especially in the areas of copier connectivity and color.

New Machines

While pretty words and programs are an important part of any vendor dealer meeting, what many attendees are most interested in are the new products. Sharp certainly had several to show. While the majority were refreshed versions of existing platforms, the company also previewed two entirely new homegrown B&W platforms, as well as a long-sought higher-speed monochrome machine model from Toshiba.

Sharp hoped to assuage a key dealer concern with the launch of the AR-650. Due in March, the 65 ppm model is a rebadged version of Toshiba’s e-Studio 65 (The MFP Report, Dec 00), which is an upgraded version of Toshiba’s year-old DP6570. Currently, Sharp’s fastest digital copier is the 50 ppm AR-505, which shares the same engine as 25, 33 and 40 ppm Sharp machines. While Sharp also promised dealers that it is developing its own higher-speed digital copiers, such models are at least 18 months away from shipping. The price of the AR-605 was not announced.

As for color, Sharp announced it will in June replace the year-old 15 ppm AR-C150 with an upgraded model called the AR-C160 that copies and prints in color at 16 ppm and in B&W at 32 ppm. Sharp will offer for the AR-C160 a low-cost EFI Fiery X3e embedded controller that is accessed via the copier LCD. Pricing was not announced for the AR-C160.

All of Sharp’s other new copiers for 2001 are B&W models in the 15-45 ppm speed range, many of which are based on existing Sharp platforms and will ship in March 2001.

These start with a trio of updated 15 ppm letter-size models. The AR-151 ($1,950), AR-152 ($2,950) and AR-156 ($2,450) replace the comparably priced AR-150, AR-F151 and AR-155, which all began shipping in 1999. Sharp says the key difference is a 65% reduction in the cost per page for supplies. (Look for details in our February issue).

Coming Soon

Sharp will also ship in March several upgraded 16 and 20 ppm tabloid-size machines based on another existing platform. The 16 ppm AR-162 ($2,495) and AR-163 ($2,895) will replace the two-year old AR-160 and AR-161, while the new 20 ppm AR-201 ($3,495) and AR-207 ($5,595) will replace the similar vintage AR-200 and AR-205. The main difference in the new machines is a 25% lower supplies cost, as well as a higher duty cycle. The new models are mostly part priced $100 to $200 lower.

Sharp also previewed two clean-sheet platforms; the new “Leopard” platform will arrive in March with the 23 ppm AR-235 and 27 ppm AR-275. These will replace the existing 25 ppm AR-250 and 28 ppm AR-280, which derive from a platform launched in mid-1999. In addition, to being the first Sharp models in this segment with a fax option, the AR-235 and AR-275 will also offer optional network printing and improved network scanning via a Sharp Labs network controller card. Pricing was not disclosed.

Sharp positions its other new platform — called “Tiger” — as its first printer-based platform, although there is no decision yet on whether Sharp will actually sell print-only versions. Tiger too will arrive in March with the 35 ppm AR-M350 and 45 ppm AR-M450. These will replace the current 33 ppm AR-337 and 40 ppm AR-407.

Although Sharp offered few details, Tiger models will apparently have a modular, integrated MFP controller analogous to Canon’s Image Platform and Ricoh’s upcoming RA2K design. Another intriguing feature will be the first appearance in a digital copier (aside from the Mopier) of true duplex scanning. Mailbox and saddle-stitching finishers will also represent new additions to the Sharp line. No prices and few other details were disclosed regarding the Tiger models.

Sharp also discussed, but did not show, a pair of upcoming business laser fax machines based on the company’s existing 8 ppm platform. Neither, however, has an option for multifunction connectivity. Due in March, the FO-4650 is a 14.4 Kbps model, while the FO-4970 is a 33.6 Kbps machine. Also, Sharp will in May ship an Internet fax kit featuring scan to e-mail capability for the existing FO-6700 fax.

While applications and partners were not as prominently featured at the Sharp event as they were at the Konica meeting, they did have some presence. These included upcoming cluster printing solutions via EFI’s Velocity, Sharp Labs’ own software, a new vendor named Callisto, and possibly even T/R Systems. Also mentioned were secure printing and various hardcopy management and accounting solutions.

In short, for a company that was late to the digital table and suffered devastating channel disruption in the late 1990s, Sharp appears to have made a credible comeback.

KONICA: Promoting Applications

Konica told over 1,000 assembled dealer personnel that revenue last year was up 20% over 1999. Overall unit placements were up 23%, while digital sales rose 52%. Moreover, 2000 was the best year ever for Konica dealers. 44% sold at least one 7075, and Konica dealers today have the highest gross margin (33%) in the office imaging business.

Interestingly, Konica did not have on hand any new, homegrown digital platforms. Instead, the company focused on third-party applications, primarily enhanced printing solutions, under the theme of Join the Applications Revolution. Konica made clear that the company’s intention this year is to focus on new markets more than new products. Konica thus highlighted 14 applications from eight of its partners:

· Advanced Hi-Tech, demonstrated its Unify Konica cluster solution for print-on-demand applications. Based on AHT’s OneRIP server software, Unify will be formally announced at the On Demand Show in late February.

· Atlas Software, provides variable data printing for one-to-one marketing with its PrintShop Mail software.

· Barr Systems, develops hardware and software to connect printers to enterprise computing systems.

· Create!Form, offers electronic forms and document management solutions, especially for legacy systems.

· i-Data sells, a variety of advanced network print connectivity solutions for legacy computing environments.

· IMR, with its Alchemy product, provides comprehensive document imaging and document management.

· Netaphor, has developed for Konica interfaces to leading network console management applications.

· Xenos, provides software to translate legacy print data streams into PCL, PostScript and PDF for printing.

Unlike with some copier vendor partner programs, Konica dealers will in each of the above cases be able to order the software products directly from Konica, coordinate leasing through Konica, and receive support from Konica.

Coming Soon

Despite the heavy focus on applications, Konica did offer interesting news on several upcoming models for 2001 and 2002. Available later this quarter will be two lower speed machines, the 25 ppm 7025 and 35 ppm 7035, which are based and will be sold alongside the existing 7020 and 7030 that were launched last year. The 7025, which was created initially to satisfy a requirement in Europe, differs only in speed from the current models. In contrast, the 7035 will be Konica’s first copier to use its new polymer toner. This new toner, for which Minolta has helped fund a joint manufacturing venture with Konica, is touted as offering better image quality and reliability, and possibly lower cost.

By year-end, Konica will introduce a long-awaited replacement for its 5-year old Segment 4 platform. The new engine, code-named “Terra,” will emerge first as a 65ppm model in September, to be followed by a 55 ppm version in November. Terra too will use Konica’s polymer toner. It will also feature an integrated, embedded MFP controller developed by Konica that costs 40% less than today’s IP-303.

Other features of the Terra platform include a larger touch screen control panel, efficient slit scanning, a 100-sheet ADF, 12” x 18” paper support (something only Xerox has today), 600 dpi scanning, an 80-page booklet-maker with a wide variety of finishing options, and new “push” network scanning. The Terra machines will have a drum rated at 500,000 pages and developer that yields 250,000 pages. Konica added that these models will also be priced aggressively to compete with the likes of Ricoh’s Aficio 550 and 700.
Expected in January 2002 is a new 85 ppm (or possibly 80 ppm) model that will be loosely based on the existing 7075. It also will use polymer toner, and it likely will feature a new embedded controller similar to Terra. Apparently, the 80 or 85 ppm machine will replace the 7075. Beyond that, Konica also spoke of a completely new 100 ppm B&W platform with a targeted Xplor 2002 launch date.

As for color, Konica has relabelled versions of three Minolta machines. Konica’s 7832 and 7920 correspond to Minolta’s 8 ppm CF9001 and 20 ppm CF2001. They are scheduled for February. The 7915, which matches Minolta’s 15 ppm CF1501, will ship in May. Prices on all three Konica models are expected to be identical to Minolta’s machines.

Konica also spoke in general terms of an internally developed 40 ppm single-pass color copier that is expected to ship at the end of 2002. The unnamed model will require no fuser oil and have a lower fusing temperature, making it a good candidate for a broad array of papers and substrates. Konica bullishly says that this product will do for Konica in color what the 7050 did for Konica in monochrome in 1996.

Konica is also enhancing its own network printing and scanning software. A new version of the Connexion network print management utility is expected in Q2. It will feature new real-time status feedback on Konica machines, and have a more up-to-date graphically oriented display. Also in the works, is a new version of ScanTrip, Konica’s desktop imaging application. The upcoming ScanTrip Pro will support scanning from multiple Konica machines and will also include more “push-like” network scanning features.

While all vendors talk of solutions these days, Konica did an extremely credible job of demonstrating the business of selling solutions in Orlando, while also proving that it is aggressively updating its hardware portfolio.

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