The printer is perhaps the most mechanical — as opposed to motionless and electronic — device in any organisation’s computer system. Yet it is vital. Often, however, printers aren’t maintained well. Stephen Bell examines the importance of printer reliability and what organisations should be doing to keep them in top shape.
To many customers, printed invoices, statements, receipts and the like are the standard communication from their supplier — the supplier’s public face. A Wellington builder, until recently, ran his entire business on an Intel 386-based machine and MS-DOS, but whipped out documents on a top-class laser printer because “that’s what the customer sees”.
Moving parts, though, mean a possible threat to reliability — in the sense of the printer breaking down, and in its producing inconsistent-quality results. Also, most printers, particularly the more complex laser printers, are networked, and a failure will affect a number of users, while a PC failure will usually only affect one. Technological advances, in some ways, make the potential reliability problems worse.
“Users are moving to colour,” says Bruce Armstrong of reseller Laserplus in Wellington. “A rotary colour laser printer has 12 consumables and about 2000 moving parts.” A monochrome printer, by comparison, has one cartridge and about 500 moving parts.
The single-pass solid-ink laser is now an affordable alternative to the four-pass rotary models, he suggests, and has fewer moving parts. Additionally, the single-pass models are capable of higher speeds because of the shorter paper path.
The quality of the moving parts is improving, says Brian Saul of Datacom — both a heavy user of printers and a reseller of Hewl-ett-Packard printers.
“With the older printers — certainly in the HP range — the gears in the fuser area would get brittle and break.” Now the manufacturers have raised the quality of the plastic for the gears so this happens far less often, he says. “Finger pickers” were devised to prevent the paper curling round the drum; but they could scratch the drum’s surface, degrading quality and eventually rendering it useless. Redesign of the paper delivery mechanism has removed the need for the pickers.
The biggest problem with printer reliability, according to Armstrong, is users have too much faith in them.
“They’re usually so reliable that people ignore them. They don’t do preventative maintenance; they don’t service the printer as they should, until it stops working.”
Small but vital components like rubber rollers “can be replaced quite cheaply” and should be, long before they get hard and shiny and fail to grip the paper properly.
In a 1999 survey by industry monitor IDC in the US, reliability does not figure in the top 12 user criteria for printer purchase. These are headed by print quality, total cost of ownership and ease of use — though “service/support” comes in fourth, indicating some expectation of reliability problems.
IDC, however, does note that users rate reliability of network laser printers higher than that of networked copiers.
Any printer more than a few years old, says Saul, is prone to paper jamming from wear of various parts. When that becomes severe, the best answer is often to buy a new printer. It could be cheaper and work better than if a user technician tries to refurbish the original one — and user needs will probably have changed anyway.
Some makers accommodate user refurbishment, however; “Kyocera gives you a ‘maintenance kit’ that has a change of just about every component.”
Saul cautions against refilling toner cartridges, particularly if the seals are not renewed. Toner can leak out and collect in clumps in the gears.
Both Saul and Armstrong identify poor-quality paper as another source of reliability problems. “It wears out the rollers, and paper dust can collect in the moving parts,” Armstrong says. The difference between poor-quality and acceptable paper is the difference between $5 a ream and $7 a ream. The potential problems are not worth the saving, he says.
Sometimes a single printer will have unique problems, says one source from a Government department, who did not want to be identified.
“We had one that was jamming all the time and printing strange things — half of one document and half of another. [The vendor’s support person] tried to tell us [the latter] sometimes happened when two people were trying to use the printer at the same time. I said, ‘that’s not how printers work.’ I don’t think he knew much.
“They swapped out what they called ‘the master board,’ and as it went on giving problems. They swapped one part after another and it was still failing. Then they suddenly got it right. I reckon it had been dropped or banged when it was delivered from the manufacturer and something was slightly out of alignment that they couldn’t see. Their sequence of replacements must have eventually [by chance] hit on the part that was bent.”
Sometimes, he acknowledges, the problem lies with the user trying to do their own servicing without sufficient knowledge. “Someone will say ‘I know how to change a cartridge on this machine,’ and it will be clear afterwards that they didn’t.”
Even apparently normal printers will show worrying inconsistencies, like slightly different-sized margins on the same setting for two printers. “It makes the document look ugly.”
The drivers are often inadequate for handling what ought to be fairly simple tasks, such as duplexing (printing on both sides) several copies of a document with an odd number of pages. “I’ve not seen a driver yet that will let you specify that it should start with a new front page for every copy. It’ll print the first page on the reverse side of the last page of the previous copy.”