The True Cost of Printing

Of all of the things that are handled by your technology support department, printing is likely the one that you think about the least.  Printing isn’t fancy or exciting or a competitive advantage.  It is a lingering item from an age without portable reading devices, from an era before monitors.  Printers are going to be around for a long time to come, I do not wish to imply that they are not, but there is a lot to be considered when it comes to printers and much of that consideration can be easily overlooked.

When considering the cost of printing we often calculate the cost of the printer itself along with the consumables: paper and ink.  These things alone rack up a pretty serious per-page cost for an average business.  Planning for an appropriate lifespan and duty cycle of a printer are critical to making printing remain cost effective.  And do not forget the cost of parts replacement as well as stock-piled ink and paper.  These may seem minor, but printers often cause an investment in inventory that is never recovered.  When the printer dies, supplies for that printer are often useless.

The big, hidden cost of printing is none of these things. The big cost is in supporting the printers, both upfront with the initial deployment but even moreso in continuing support.  This is especially true in a smaller shop where the trend is to use many small printers rather than fewer large ones.  Deploying and supporting a five thousand dollar central office printer is no more than, and possibly lower than, the cost of deploying a two hundred dollar desktop inkjet.  The bigger the printer the better the support in drivers and support from the vendor that can usually be expected making normal support tasks easier and more reliable.

At a minimum, rolling out a new desktop printer is going to take half an hour.  Realistically it is far more likely to take closer to an hour.  Go ahead, count up the time: time to deliver printer to station, time to unpack printer, time to physically set up printer, time to plug in printer, time to install printer drivers and software, time to set up printer and time to print a test page.  If it was a one time race, you could probably do these steps pretty quickly.  But printer support is not a production line and rarely, if ever, do you have someone with these exact steps being performed in a rapidly repeatable manner.  Likely installing a printer is a “one off” activity that requires learning the new printer, tracking down the current driver and troubleshooting potential issues.

An hour to deploy a two hundred dollar printer could add fifty percent to the cost of the printer quite easily.  There are a lot of factors that can cause this number to skyrocket from a long travel distance between receiving location and the desk to missing cables to incompatible drivers.  Any given printer could take the better part of a day to deploy when things go wrong.  We are not even considering “disruption time” – that time in which the person receiving the printer is unable to work since someone is setting up a printer at their workstation.

Now that the printer has been set up and is, presumably, working just fine we need to consider the ongoing cost of printer support.  It is not uncommon for a printer to sit, undisturbed, for years chugging along just fine.  But printers have a surprisingly high breakage rate caused by the nature of ink, the nature of paper, a propensity for printers to be reassigned to different physical locations or for the machine to which they are attached to be changed or updated introducing driver breakage.  Add these things together and the ongoing support cost of a printer can be surprisingly high.

I recently witnessed the support of a company with a handful of high profile printers.  In a run of documentation, physical cabling and driver issues the printers were averaging between four and eight hours of technician time, per printer, to set up correctly.  Calculate out the per hour cost for that support and those printers, likely already costly, just became outrageously expensive.

I regularly hear of shops that decide to re-purpose printers and spend many times the cost of the printers in labor hours as older printers are massaged into working with newer computer setups or vice versa. Driver incompatibility or unavailability is far more common than people realize.

Printers have the additional complication of being used in many different modes such as directly attached to a workstation, directly attach and shared, directly attached to a print server, directly attached to the network or attached to a print server over the network.  While this complexity hardly creates roadblocks it does significantly slow work done on printers in a majority of businesses.

Printers, by their nature, are very difficult to support remotely.  Getting a print driver installed remotely is easy.  Knowing that something has printed successfully is something completely different.  Considering that printer support should be one of the lower cost support tasks this need for physical on-site presence for nearly every printer support task dramatically increases the cost of support if only because it increases the time to perform a task and receive appropriate feedback.

When we take these costs and combine them with the volume of printing normally performed by a printer we can start to acquire a picture of what printing is really costing.  The value to centralized printing suddenly takes on a new level of significance when seen through the eyes of support rather than through the eyes of purchasing.  Even beyond centralizing printing when possible it is important to eliminate unnecessary printing.

Good planning, strategic purchasing and a holistic approach can mitigate the potential for surprise costs in printing.


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