The idea of a paperless office has been bandied about for decades, yet many companies today still find it hard to wean themselves off paper.
According to technology analyst company IDC, the number of printed pages in the Asia-Pacific region, excluding Japan, grew by 10 per cent in 2012.
Mr Melvyn Ho, Canon Singapore's senior vice-president of its domestic operations group, said: "While many companies are on track in embracing digital documents in some processes, we find that companies still find high value in print as an effective communication medium."
But managing the growing use of paper can be a challenge for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with limited IT resources.
Take Pigeon Singapore, a maker of mother and baby-care products. Until recently, its sole IT executive, Mr Kevin Chye, had to manage 12 different printers from a variety of vendors, replacing toner cartridges when the ink ran low and dealing with printer problems.
That placed a huge administrative and support burden on Mr Chye, who also looks after the IT needs of 78 employees at Pigeon Singapore.
In June, the company signed up for a managed print service with Fuji Xerox, from which it leased three multifunction printers. As part of the service, Fuji Xerox maintains the printers and supplies toner cartridges based on a cost-per-page rate.
The switch helped Pigeon Singapore, which prints 33,000 pages a month, to slash its monthly printing costs by more than half, from $2,500 to $1,100.
In most organisations, typical cost savings from a managed print service range between 10 and 30 per cent, according to Ms Lam Lai-ling, senior research analyst at Gartner, a technology research firm.
Mr Chye attributed the huge cost savings to a Fuji Xerox pricing option that lets organisations print a small amount of colour pages at a rate of one cent per page.
"An invoice with a letterhead in colour cost us eight cents to print previously, because we had to use an external printing company to print the letterheads in advance," he said.
In addition, Pigeon Singapore can now track its print volumes using a software dashboard. Said Mr Chye: "We couldn't do that previously, so we didn't know how much each staff member was printing," he said.
Keeping track of costs
This lack of insight, according to Quocirca, a Britain-based analyst firm, can lead to spiralling printing costs that often go unchecked.
Unplanned printer downtime can also affect any organisation which relies on printing for business activities.
When the software dashboard indicates that a printer is faulty or when supplies run low, Mr Chye picks up the phone to call for support. Fuji Xerox then responds within four hours, he said.
That has freed him to focus on other areas to help grow the business, including spearheading business intelligence projects and deriving business insights from corporate data.
Most managed print services also include security safeguards to ensure that confidential printouts do not end up in the wrong hands.
Canon's managed print service, for example, lets employees and students at Lasalle College of the Arts send sensitive documents to any network printer and print them out only when the sender is at the printer to collect them.
"This could be a printer on a different floor or room, meaning that our users can choose when and where they print, safe in the knowledge that their documents remain secure," a Lasalle spokesman told Digital Life, adding that uncollected printouts, including confidential ones, had led to unnecessary clutter and wastage.
In evaluating a managed print service, Canon Singapore's Mr Ho said companies can consider basic services such as replacement of print supplies and tracking of print activities.
But as their business grows, they will require more comprehensive services that will let them track service response time, integrate printing services with business software and protect confidential documents, he said.
"More important are reliable consultation services that will help companies keep tabs and analyse the data behind print activities," he added.
Tailored pricing models
Managed print services are often tailored to the needs of individual companies. They may include leased hardware, maintenance, supplies and monitoring services, available through two common pricing models: cost-per-page or a fixed price per month.
According to analyst firm Quocirca, cost-per-page pricing lets you pay for what you print, but this also means that your monthly printing costs are less predictable.
Cost-per-page works if you have less predictable print loads - particularly when certain months may go by with very little printing.
For those with highly predictable print loads, a fixed-price contract with a specified print volume is generally better. Any pages printed over and above the limit specified is charged at a flat rate per page.
While this approach allows predictable budgeting, it is critical that SMEs determine their typical monthly print volumes in advance to avoid hefty charges when the limits are exceeded.
Questions to ask your print service provider
HP Singapore's director of printing category, Mr Sang Hoon Park, lists some vital questions you should ask before choosing a managed print service
Can the vendor help you track your company's current print usage and uncover hidden costs as you develop a business case for using a managed print service?
Financial and procurement services
Can the vendor assist you with options as you plan, acquire, retire and replace your assets to help you achieve a low total cost of ownership?
Transition and implementation services
Can the vendor help to ensure that the right equipment is installed in the appropriate location and that users know how to make the most of these capabilities?
Management and support services
Can the vendor deliver proactive support to ensure an ongoing return on investment through printer fleet optimisation, maintenance, supplies management, and greater visibility into usage trends, capacity and expenditure?
Document and workflow services
Can the vendor automate paper-intensive workflow and help to manage the underlying infrastructure which supports your processes?
This article was first published on Dec 31, 2014. Get a copy of Digital Life, The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.