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Multifunctional Devices Speed Workflow, Save Money For Agents

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Multifunctional devices (MFDs)–all-in-one machines that can print, copy, fax, and often scan–may play a key role in helping agents to speed office workflow, increase efficiency, cut costs, and aid productivity, experts say.

According to John E. Salsman III, industry director, financial services, for Lexmark International Inc., based in Lexington, Ky., using MFDs to handle documents electronically, rather than using several devices and moving paper by hand, creates a more efficient business process that can reduce costs. Lexmark is a maker of computer printers, as well as MFDs.

“There are two types of agencies–those that are averse to technology and those that are on the leading edge,” says Salsman. He estimates that “70% of policies are written by agents with tech savvy.”

Agencies that take advantage of MFDs that enable users to “print, manage and move” documents more efficiently, while saving on equipment by consolidating several devices into one, he notes. Instead of printing out, copying and express mailing a document, he recommends that an agent send it out electronically.

The key to evaluating what to purchase in office devices is maintaining a balance that considers both the costs for maintenance and consumables (inkjet cartridges, toner, etc.) and the price of the equipment, says Jim Contino, manager of worldwide product marketing for Xerox WorkCenter products at Xerox Corporation, Rochester, N.Y. Anticipated productivity, convenience and security are also important issues.

“Do I want three or four separate units that have fax when that means I would need three or four fax connections?” he asks. In small offices especially, agents need to balance such practicalities against their operational needs.

An MFDs basic fax function may be inexpensive, Contino notes, but the machines often have high-end features that can aid in productivity and save money.

“How easy is it to use [the equipment] and how much time does it save me?” says Contino. “Simple things like a delayed send feature can allow you to fax between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., and that can save a lot of toll costs.”

Contino maintains that when it comes to productivity in MFDs, little things can mean a lot. “Even having multiple paper trays could be a key feature. Changing and refilling paper trays can cause people to have to wait.” That, he adds, could decrease productivity.

When it comes to costs, Contino notes, “in todays market, [MFD] equipment cost is readily available and most vendors are within 5% of each other. But what about the cost per page?”

In lower-priced MFDs ($600-$1,200), consumables may be more expensive, he observes. “Cost per page is always higher in the low-end unit that is slower [in output speed],” he explains. “They sell at or below the equipment cost, because they can make it up on consumables. Its $35 each time you buy an inkjet cartridge. The cost gets hidden.”

Laser-based machines with somewhat faster print speeds (12-28 pages per minute) will cost more for equipment, “but their features are higher and their costs to run are lower,” states Contino. “These products deliver really good value for the small office.”

He adds that the laser-based MFDs are usually “true multifunctional units,” in that they can send a fax while someone else in the office is printing from a PC. Many low-end units, he notes, feature several functions, but can perform only one function at a time.

According to Lou Slawetsky, president of Industry Analysts, a research and testing organization based in Rochester, N.Y., MFDs have both advantages and disadvantages, “but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

“Think of it as an image processor or a document processor,” Slawetsky recommends. “I want a device that will manage this information no matter how I want to get I and now matter how I distribute it.” With a number of possible combinations of input and output, an MFD “is truly more than the combination of copying, printing and faxing. It is truly an image processor.”

Depending on the manufacturer, he notes, an MFD may perform one of its functions particularly well, which could be either an advantage or disadvantage. “If the unit is from a copier company, youll get a real strong copy product, but there are probably better printers,” he explains.

“When [Hewlett-Packard] launches its LaserJet MFDs, as you would expect, theyre great printers, and theyre better at printing than at copying,” says Slawetsky. “Ricoh, on the other hand, is a copier company that is moving into printing. You would expect that their copier features would be stronger than H-Ps, because thats the business theyre in.”

He adds that “theres not a lot of difference on fax for the features that most people would use.”

Asked about disadvantages of multifunctional units, Slawetsky says that users fear that one function going down means all of the machines functions will go down. He notes, however, that “unless the engine itself goes down, the other functions will continue to work. In actual use, this is less of a concern than people think, but it is still a fear.”

Yet another possible disadvantage, says Slawetsky, is that “a lot of these devices have become overly complex from an operational standpoint. If I have a fax machine, everyone knows how to use it, but now you tell me I can use that same device to send an e-mail attachment. Im not sure I understand how to do that, or why I would want to.”

The bottom line, says Slawetsky, is that “the user should not have to be a technician in order to use [an MFD].”

Contino agrees that “as offices move from stand-alone to multifunctional devices, operability is a key consideration.” He notes that equipment manufacturers have spent much time researching the user interaction and designing their products for easier use. “I think the American companies are better at this interface than the Japanese companies,” he adds.

Still, MFDs offer substantial advantages to users, notes Slawetsky. Having a single device that performs the functions of three or four other devices means only one service contract to worry about, instead of multiple contracts, he notes. “It also takes up less space and theres no more [buying] multiple supply items for multiple devices.”

Lexmarks Salsman points out that agents must be careful when buying an MFD to choose a unit that will interface well with existing systems and software. Agencies with local area networks or links to mainframe applications must make certain that the MFD will support these uses.

Making sure the MFD will play nicely with an agencys systems “can be a challenging task,” says Salsman. “In fact, it can be most daunting.”

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 23, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.