Smart MFPs: An ecosystem of efficiency

As traditional MFPs become commodities, smart MFPs star in enterprise technology ecosystems that reduce costs, boost efficiency and enable future growth.

Technologists and futurists have been talking about the paperless office since the mid-1970s, but we’re still not very close to it. Paper continues to have a place in the way we work and interact.

However, information is increasingly being processed in electronic format, and multifunction product (MFP) technology is advancing to embrace this trend.

Beyond its easy-to-use touch-screen interface, a new class of smart MFPs can actually be programmed to perform business operations such as integrating scanned images into workflow or document-sharing applications such as SharePoint or Perceptive Process. The additional advantage to the smart MFP is that each icon can be programmed to prompt the user for needed information. This helps ensure that the right information is collected about a document at the time it is scanned. It also aids in the training of users–They no longer need to remember all the steps of every process; the smart MFP can remember it for them.

From cost to productivity tool

Most businesses have traditionally treated printers, copiers and MFPs as cost items. They’re often thought of as commodities by leadership, where one is considered just as good as another. So while executives focus on objectives like maximizing employee productivity and achieving business growth, they don’t always view their printer and copier purchases as part of the solution.

However, the way companies buy printers, copiers and MFPs is changing. Buyers used to define a list of specifications and sought out the lowest-priced offer that met those specs. Of course, companies still need an appropriate level of specifications and performance, but now it’s really about evaluating how the capabilities of the smart MFP and its ecosystem help accomplish the buyer’s business objectives.
Smart MFPs aren’t just copiers, or printers, but devices that enable businesses by automating functions, capturing information from paper documents and using that information electronically–ultimately driving workflow efficiency and productivity improvements.

The process imperative

MFPs that consolidate the functions of printers, copiers, scanners and fax machines have been available for years, but the real advantage of a smart MFP comes in using it as part of a business process.

In a typical business environment, users scan a document from a scanner to their workstation, then–using some kind of imaging software–check the image on their workstation, perhaps annotate some information about the scanned document, save that locally, enter the application they need to use to accomplish their task, then copy and paste the image or parts of the content into that application.
With the smart MFP, the user only needs to select the right icon that drives the relevant process, scan the document and let the device do the rest. The MFP is integrated to network applications that use scanned images or the data within those images–helping the user to eliminate steps, be more productive and reduce errors.

So the smart MFP does perform the functions of traditional printers, scanners, copiers, and fax machines, but it also handles these value-added tasks that traditional devices can’t. This creates incredible potential for cost savings that can be used to reduce operating costs or help fund related process improvements.

Vendors as partners

Gartner, a widely consulted information technology research and advisory company, says: “SMFPs can play an indispensable role with an organization’s content management strategy. In this way, end-user customers will no longer see their printer or MFP provider as just another vendor, but a value-adding partner.” (Lam, L. (2014, July 16). Market Definitions and Methodology: Imaging and Printing Services, Worldwide (Gartner ID: G00263554))

Before throwing out a long list of what a smart MFP vendor should deliver, I would say the first step is knowing what your own business objectives are–what you’re trying to accomplish. A quality smart MFP vendor will work with you to define and clarify such goals, and educate you about technical capabilities you might not be aware exist—all to help achieve your objectives, not just sell you some hardware.

Second, you want an ecosystem that is simple for IT to implement, configure and manage, with flexibility to grow or change in the future as the business’s requirements and needs change.
Third, the ecosystem needs to be smart enough to guide the business units and their users to accomplish the right tasks and processes with little training. All the components of the ecosystem, especially the smart MFP itself, need to be programmable to support specific processes and applications that each organization works with.

From a more technical standpoint, the smart MFP ecosystem should support universal drivers, apps that run on the device itself, a server and serverless printing environment, mobile users, cloud infrastructure, existing API-based connectors to network applications and its own software that can enable the content and process management of the overall workflow.

The other critical capability is an ecosystem that is self-contained without needing to use third-party software or middleware. Many providers on the market require this added software for their devices to operate and perform the integration. But because of the nature of these generic integrations and connections, this introduces unnecessary complexity and security risk to a company’s network, which is never a good thing.

When IT buyers start seeing the potential efficiencies and savings offered by a smart MFP ecosystem, I think the traditional spec-driven, device-centric mindset will change. After all, smart MFPs are not just expenses, but tools that can help drive process improvement initiatives and aid their employees in being more productive.

Learn why smart MFPs represent such a fundamental shift in product capability, buyer expectations and everyday business workflows in InContext’s complete interview with Brian Henderson.