Broadened Scope for Lab Reports Envisioned at 2011 A3/A4 TAC: Vendors Push Solutions, Environmental and Vertical Market Suitability Assessments

By George">">George Mikolay, Senior Product Editor, A3/Copier MFPs, and Marlene Orr, Senior Printer Analyst, November 21, 2011

At BLI’s 2011 A3/A4 Testing Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting, representatives from nine printer and copier vendors gathered to weigh in on BLI’s current and upcoming test procedures and evaluation criteria. This year’s participants included Canon, Dell, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Lexmark, Muratec, Ricoh, Samsung and Xerox.

Established in 2006, TAC is intended to get input from key industry participants on BLI’s test methods and reports to ensure the reports evolve to meet the industry’s changing needs. Past meetings have resulted in numerous improvements, including an increased print-to-copy ratio, higher volumes of scan testing and the inclusion of optimum monthly volumes for each device based on vendor-supplied averages for each speed range.

In addition to discussing new tests planned by BLI, which include a range of additional   real-world productivity tests, image quality evaluations in scan mode and new BLI-designed print and copy image quality test targets, attendees shared a number of their own ideas. For example, they suggested evaluating devices’ MPS readiness. While there are a number of soft issues involved with evaluating a vendor’s MPS program, the engine piece of the equation, such as the range of information made available in the public MIB, the accuracy of the various meters, the reports presenting the information, and how far in advance warnings can be received, were deemed good indicators of MPS readiness.

Attendees also suggested integrating at least some environmental performance factors into A3/A4 lab test reports. Currently the lab reports include a list of environmentally friendly features, but environmental performance is covered in a separate, comprehensive environmental test report. TAC members identified energy consumption and duplex performance as key factors to include, along with features like secure print release, as it allows users to hold a job at the device until users are sure they want to print it.

In a similar vein, while BLI currently produces comprehensive standalone reports on solutions, attendees agreed that the inclusion of a brief evaluation of a vendor’s home-grown document management solution in the lab report would be valuable.

Regarding the importance of various test categories, attendees unanimously agreed with BLI—and its subscribers in a recent survey—that reliability is the most important and should carry the most weight in a product’s overall rating. There was also general agreement among attendees on the ranking in importance of other categories like image quality, ease of use and productivity.

Some attendees raised the point that different categories matter more or less to different kinds of customers—a factor that BLI already takes into consideration. For example, productivity is considered more important for high-end devices than for personal devices. But attendees suggested others, such as placing more weight on color image quality than on black image quality for color models. Taking this concept a step further, one attendee suggested adding an assessment of how well suited products are to different vertical markets. Interest in this idea was so great that BLI is currently gathering data on which performance attributes and features are key to each of the major vertical markets (legal, government, education, healthcare, financial).

Supplies Pricing a Sticking Point

While many good ideas came out of the meeting, one thing that BLI hoped to address—the challenges faced in evaluating value—remains a challenge. BLI currently rates value of A3-based devices on suggested retail price (SRP) and feature set compared to comparably configured competitive models in the speed range, as well as performance factors including higher or lower than average productivity. Supplies cost per page (cpp)—an important element of overall total cost of ownership—was dropped from the equation recently when several vendors stopped supplying toner pricing.

In hopes of at least providing a cost-per-page benchmark for end users in the reports, BLI asked manufacturers prior to the TAC meeting to anonymously provide the average mid-level cpp in cents for supplies and service for single-unit placements of monochrome and color devices at optimum monthly volumes in each speed range. All declined to provide it. When pressed at the TAC meeting, vendors noted that dealers set pricing, with some pointing out that they don’t even have published pricing; those that do publish the information guard it tightly. In a discussion of alternative methods of obtaining supplies pricing, attendees questioned the validity of publishing average pricing from multiple dealerships or online sources, pointing out that without a large enough sampling the average could be skewed. There was also disagreement among the vendors regarding SRP. One vendor said SRP “isn’t real,” while another thought it was a reasonable metric to use. Yet a third vendor said SRP is not determined solely on the merits of what a particular product offers, but also with marketing and positioning issues relative to the rest of the portfolio in mind.

There was no objection to BLI including results of a recent dealer survey on cpp for devices in various speed ranges in the reports as a data point for readers. For monochrome models, cost per page for supplies and service ranged from .5 cents for 96- to 135-ppm models to 1.6 cents for models up to 20 ppm. On the color side, cost per page ranged from 5.7 cents for models with rated speeds between 71 to 80 ppm to 8.1 cents for 20- to 30-ppm models. While some noted the numbers seemed high, generally the vendors felt the numbers were on target as ballpark figures.

The End Game

All in all, the meeting was a success, with BLI taking away many ideas to enhance its reports, and many of the participants offering high praise about BLI and the TAC meeting. Here’s a sampling of some of the vendors’ experiences.

Noting that he looked forward to attending again in the future, James Coons, competitive marketing analyst for Xerox, said, “It’s interesting to me to hear comments from many of the attendees on the direction that our industry is taking when it comes to testing products and solutions. I walked away with some ideas for testing hardware and software in my own lab.”

Scott Gray, product consultant for Dell’s software and peripherals, said, “The TAC provides an effective mechanism for receiving and responding to customer input, which results in more efficient testing and ultimately creates a much better suite of products and services for the printing and imaging community.”

In the coming months, BLI will continue to pursue ways of enhancing its value assessments and determine which of the many suggestions from this year’s TAC can be incorporated into future reports. Stay tuned. 

This article was originally posted on Buyer">">Buyer’s Laboratory.