They may seem straightforward, but constant demand for support makes printers the bane of many organisations' IT teams. For Bankstown City Council (BCC), a 170,000-resident council south-west of Sydney, a desire to regain control of its printing environment -- and to reduce its impact on the environment -- recently led to a complete reconsideration of its printing, scanning and faxing processes.
Those processes had evolved in a relatively uncontrolled manner over the five years since the council moved into new premises after its previous site burned down in 2001. More than 200 printers, faxes and scanners, spread across the council building, were of many brands and configurations ranging from basic single-use devices up to specialised high-end plotters used by council engineers.
The range and number of devices installed had created a support nightmare for the IT team, with the council's more than 700 employees consuming a disproportionate amount of the team's support resources to deal with paper jams, driver misconfigurations, and the other daily tribulations of printer ownership.
"It was clear that we were spending a significant amount of time supporting the printers," says Maria Cabrera, manager of the council's Corporate Information Technology Services group. "The perception of the devices, in terms of functionality, was not as good as it should be. And because we had a variety of [brands] we needed different skills to manage them, and we needed to address the very demanding requirements of particular employees. There was just too much pressure on the staff, so we needed to control the workload and be a little more effective and efficient."
From the beginning, the council recognised that a move towards multi-function devices (MFDs) combining printing, scanning and copying features would greatly simplify the management model. So, too, would shifting to a single supplier for all the council's devices. At the same time, the council recognised that a re-evaluation of its output strategy was an excellent time to improve its environmental practices and take some steps towards implementing a paperless office.
After evaluating several tender responses, the BCC team selected Lexmark as its supplier of choice. Lexmark staff spent 20 days on site evaluating the council's current workflow practices, identifying areas where device redundancy was creating extra work or resulting in poor utilisation of resources.
Using this information, a new device infrastructure was planned and implemented. In the new environment, scanning and output functions were consolidated to just 105 MFDs, with colour printing and specialised large-format printers provided to small clusters of employees where necessary. Lexmark device management software was also installed, allowing for remote diagnosis and configuration that reduced the overall management burden on technical staff.
As well as consolidating devices, the review also identified several ways in which BCC could progress towards its environmental objectives. Implementing double-sided printing by default, for example, eventually reduced the amount of paper the council consumed by 25 percent, while participation in the Planet Ark cartridge and toner recycling scheme has given the council a demonstrable improvement in its materials handling processes.
"Environmental compliance was seen as a goal during this process," says Cabrera. "We used to have a process where all the used cartridges would be sent to the supply area, and we would try to recycle them; now we don't have all these cartridges moving from section to section. It's so much easier now."
Other efforts to reduce paper consumption have also been introduced: for example, staff are now regularly scanning incoming documents for archiving in a document management system, from which those documents can be instantly retrieved and printed on demand.
Early next year, BCC will embrace online faxing, potentially breaking the cycle by which employees print, then fax, then discard or file their printed messages. In another initiative, the council plans to implement an on-demand printing service for the public so it doesn't have to print, then stockpile, a large number of information brochures that may eventually go unused.
Because the new devices have more built-in management intelligence than their predecessors, BCC is looking into new types of services to help it operate more efficiently. For example, a planned maintenance agreement with Lexmark and desktop supplier Dell will see the devices automatically raising the alarm when they're low on print ink or toner -- and initiating the reorder process. This will save the council from potential consumable outages and prevent it from sinking large amounts of capital into consumables that sit unused for long periods of time.
Refreshing and consolidating the council's output environment has provided much-needed consistency for its technical team, who have seen the burden of service calls drop by around 40 percent since the MFDs were introduced. Combined with the environmental benefits and the opportunities for the devices to facilitate paperless document management, the project has been deemed a success.
That's not to say that it has been without its challenges, however. As the new devices were progressively rolled out through the facility, complaints from some employees led to a full occupational health and safety audit that looked at issues such as the height of paper trays and output trays. Adjustments to the vendor-provided stands moved the trays to the right height.
A more pressing issue was engendering user acceptance for the new environment. While more operationally and environmentally efficient, the new devices required employees to change what were often long-entrenched working habits. Making this change wasn't always easy, although six days of Lexmark-provided training helped get many staff over the line.
In other cases, continual reinforcement and demonstration of the benefits is gradually winning converts. "Some of us have taken to it more than others," says Cabrera. "One thing we haven't conquered, for example, is the fact that with the MFDs you only need to make one print copy of something, then [electronically] send ten copies to people. It's true to say 50 percent of the workforce is still more comfortable with paper."
By involving staff in the process and maintaining the council's momentum towards a paperless office, Cabrera and her team are making progress towards the council's efficiency and environmental objectives. The process hasn't been easy, but the continual addition of new features such as online faxing will keep the initiative's momentum intact. With a clear strategy and improved management infrastructure, Cabrera is confident the print rationalisation will pave the way towards long-term improvement.
"We're constantly trying to work to make the most of the technology," she says. "Over time, we'll assess good devices; in the past we never did that. It's all part of the strategy we're using to make everything work better."