The best multifunction products go beyond output efficiency to become key components for enhancing business processes and managing valuable enterprise information.
It’s no secret that multifunction products (MFPs) deliver efficiency in a box. The compact devices combine printer, scanner, copier and fax machine functionality in single networked units to serve a variety of workgroup and departmental needs. When one MFP does the work formerly done by four discrete devices, enterprises shrink hardware footprints and the costs and management overhead that come with running multiple machines.
The latest generation of “smart” MFPs (SMFPs) is taking efficiency a step further. These units use prebuilt connections to leading enterprise applications and give IT administrators options for easily adding advanced features over time. The result: SMFPs are becoming on ramps to larger information ecosystems that enable enterprises to replace paper with electronic documents and optimize business processes throughout their organizations.
In short, enterprise managers are raising their expectations about what sophisticated MFPs can deliver and improving their internal business operations.
Intelligence Meets Productivity
What makes SMFPs so smart? Industry research points to 10 core characteristics.
1. Integrated tools for productivity and business process efficiency. With embedded programming capabilities in SMFPs, managers can integrate the hardware with important enterprise applications such as Microsoft SharePoint or leading enterprise resource planning solutions. The payoff: A retail store manager, for example, can scan a paper invoice into an SMFP that uses preprogrammed rules to route it across the network to the retail headquarters’ accounts payable system. The store manager receives confirmation when the transaction is done. Gone are the inefficiencies of printing documents, physically routing them and ultimately scanning or rekeying the information into a back-end system.
2. Support for structured and unstructured information. Large volumes of information from printed documents, the Internet and elsewhere aren’t structured to flow into ERP systems and other enterprise applications. SMFPs’ intelligent information-capture software brings together the worlds of structured and unstructured data by converting hard-copy information into digital documents that enterprises can easily route through established business processes.
3. Programmable interfaces to third-party solutions. Prewritten application programming interfaces connect the SMFPs to leading enterprise solutions such as Microsoft SharePoint and applications from EMC Documentum, Oracle and SAP. In addition, the best SMFPs provide tools for creating connectors to proprietary, homegrown solutions. Integration with third-party and proprietary systems means enterprises can tailor SMFP output to their unique internal business processes. A significant capability in leading SMFPs is their ability to run select applications internally and access others via the corporate network or to use Web services to connect with cloud solutions, including those from third-party SaaS providers. Thus, organization leaders can choose the best deployment model for each application
4. Flexible touch screen displays. Managers can program each icon in the interface to launch a unique business process. For example, to route a loan application in a bank, the customer service agent just scans in the document, presses the dedicated icon and the form automatically flows to each person in the approval process for an electronic signature. Similarly, a hiring manager in the same bank can press an icon on that department’s SMFP display to route resumes to the proper destination.
5. Easy upgrades. With sophisticated SMFPs, enterprise administrators can update features and functions in existing models by downloading new firmware, rather than having to purchase new models. Enterprises can even license new features that weren’t part of the original configuration to address new business requirements. For added flexibility, managers can add new features on select devices, so workgroups have the tools they need without any additional cost or complexity for unnecessary functions.
6. Centralized management. Whether customizing touch screen icons or changing firmware, the best SMFPs let administrators tailor each device from a central management console to avoid the inefficiency of physically accessing each unit individually.
7. Flexible replenishment options. Innovative managed print services solutions associated with SMFPs give enterprises pay-as-you-go options. Instead of investing in an inventory of toner cartridges, managers prepay a set number of pages for each SMFP and reload the account only when that allotment nears its end.
8. Information integrity. To work as reliable components within the information-management ecosystem, the best SMFPs ensure data integrity and accuracy. For example, data compression helps reduce network bandwidth requirements by compacting files as they flow among the SMFP and other enterprise resources. Unfortunately, less than best-in-class algorithms may introduce troubling errors, such as changing or recombining numbers into different values as they’re decompressed at the end of the process. Advanced compression algorithms eliminate miscommunications between the SMFP and back-end applications. In addition, as color becomes essential for business communications and corporate branding, business should look for SMFPs that include embedded color-matching technology that enables users to accurately define colors using industry specifications. Advanced models offer red-green-blue color matching traditionally found only in high-end production systems. These tools ensure that any workgroup or division can avoid the expense of commercial print shops while still making sure that logos, brochures and other printed materials conform to enterprise standards, regardless of which SMFP produced the output.
9. Information and network security. Leading SMFPs authenticate users in multiple ways, including with passcodes, common access cards, the industry-standard lightweight directory access protocol and Microsoft’s Active Directory. A complete lineup of authorization methods ensures that the SMFP can meet information-protection rules across industries, including highly regulated sectors such as government, banking and healthcare. But authentication isn’t the only concern. Enterprise leaders also must secure data as it’s moving to and from SMFPs by using advanced encryption. This ensures that no one can intercept and read sensitive information. Similarly, SMFPs encrypt any data held in internal hard drives until it’s printed or routed elsewhere, and then erase the data once the job is complete. Print-release capabilities are another important safeguard. This feature holds print jobs until someone successfully authenticates him- or herself, using the SMFP’s touch screen. Sensitive documents are no longer vulnerable to security breaches as they sit in output trays waiting for the authorized user to retrieve them. Finally, the best SMFPs come with controls to block hackers trying to access the network or introduce malware via the hardware.
10. Support for a diverse workforce. Diversity reigns in modern enterprises, which means SMFPs must meet a wide range of usability needs. This starts with the fundamental designs of touch screens, which should be simple, intuitive and standardized across all models to keep users productive wherever they work. The interfaces should also conform to government standards such as the U.S. Section 508 accessibility requirements for IT. Finally, SMFPs make it easy for enterprise managers to augment these base requirements with advanced features such as speech recognition capabilities that let users enter voice commands and hear audio prompts.
Smart MPFs Go Beyond Efficiency
MFPs aren’t just useful for output efficiency any more. The best SMFPs act as key components in overarching strategies to reduce the pain of paper documents, enhance business processes and keep valuable information secure.