Strategies for reducing printing costs

Yesterday, I discussed the challenge of reducing printing costs that faces every education IT department. There are various strategies for addressing these costs: Full cost recovery.
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

Yesterday, I discussed the challenge of reducing printing costs that faces every education IT department. There are various strategies for addressing these costs:

Full cost recovery. Some of those institutions which have begun to recognize the sheer magnitude of the problem have turned to draconian measures to try to contain the ever-rising costs of providing printing services. These range from reducing the availability of printing altogether (presumably because students owns their own printers) to expecting students to pay the institution some arbitrary amount for every page their instructors casually tell the student to print. One way or another, this approach shifts all of these education-related expenses from the institution to the student. Since the institution's buying power is so much greater than the students' this does a serious disservice to the student.

In a previous blog (Why lifecycle management is critical), I urged the secondary school IT administrator to avoid those 'low-cost' printers that vendors give away with every PC. The reason for that admonition is the same for the student as it is for the high school IT administrator. The cost of buying ink for those 'low-cost' printers can be as much as 20 cents per page. In contrast, the cost of paper and toner in a high-volume printing environment is less than two cents per page. (Factoring in the cost of high-volume laser printers, amortized over three to five years, the total cost can still be kept under four cents per page.) So what is the budget-strained student to do?

Duplex printing. Institutions without a sense of the scale of their printing volume often look to the volume of the paper they purchase for guidance. Their goal becomes to reduce their paper consumption, thinking that this must certainly reduce their printing costs as well. While paper consumption tells you about volume, it doesn't tell you much about costs. These institutions often turn to duplex printing (printing on both sides of a sheet of paper) in the hopes that their printing costs will be cut in half, along with their paper volume. This assumption is wrong.

The college or university often pays under half-a-cent per sheet of paper while the cost of other consumables (mainly toner and consumable printer parts) is as much as 1.5 cents per page. Factoring in the cost of printers, print servers, and support personnel, the cost goes up to abut 3.5 cents per page. Duplexing does not reduce any of these costs -- only the amount of paper purchased. So, at best, turning to duplex printing will only reduce your total printing costs by about 12.5%. Still, this is a sizable reduction ... right? Well, perhaps, but it doesn't tell the whole story ...

Aside from the fact that duplex printing negatively impacts printer speed and reliability, not all material is well-suited to duplex printing (spreadsheets, presentations, and tables and just a few examples). To add to the challenge, faculty will not always accept assignments printed in duplex. If 12.5% of your duplexed prints have to be re-printed in simplex (for whatever reason), all of your cost savings vanish. Does it seem like 12.5% is a high re-print rate? It isn't.

In the end, while mandating duplex as your default printing configuration may save paper, and make you popular among your environmentalist constituents, it will not effectively reduce your printing costs. That's not to suggest that duplex should be discouraged -- encourage its prudent use but don't attempt to mandate it.

More efficient / less expensive printers. Attacking the problem by looking for more efficient printers isn't easy either. All laser printers share the same underlying technology. While some manufacturers can quote you lower prices, they are often offset by more expensive toner cartridges. To complicate matters further, printer manufacturers often quote per-page toner costs based upon 5% coverage (ink coverage on a 'typical' business letter.) With the amount of web-based material being printed by college students, typical coverage is more like 13% to 18%. Some manufacturers put restrictions on the use of third-party toner cartridges (or forbid it outright) which can also affect your TCO. In the end, if you are coming close to the duty cycle of the printers you are using, the cost of the printers themselves will have little impact on your budget. Instead, buy printers based upon your performance needs and seek out independent toner vendors -- and be sure to test toner yields in your environment.

Print quotas. Other institutions have taken a more measured approach -- one which recognizes that printing remains a significant component of the educational process -- and will for some time to come. These institutions earmark a fixed percentage of their IT budget for printing expenses -- and they live by it. This approach provides the student with a printing quota when using institutional printing resources. Should they exceed that quota, they incur a per-page over-quota printing fee. It is straightforward to set this fee at a level which permits the institution to stay within its printing budget constraints without unduly punishing the student who pays the fee. As long as your over-quota printing fee does not exceed local commercial rates for laser printing and duplicating, it will remain well under the per-page costs for the student using their 'free' printer.

The size of this printing-quota is based upon the printing patterns of your students. Invariably, in a print-quota environment a small percentage of students print the great bulk of the volume. As much as 45% of your printing volume may come from as few as 15% of your students. This pattern permits the Education IT department to grant their students a reasonable level of printing out of its budget while holding those who print more than their fair share accountable for their excessive printing. This approach also provides your students with a reasonable way to manager their own printing habits.

Time for a paradigm shift
Regardless of the approach your IT department takes, these measures should be consider a stop-gap. Coupled with any of these strategies needs to be a concerted effort to educate students and faculty alike about strategies for avoiding printing altogether. For instance, it is rarely necessary, or even advisable, for most classroom materials to be printed out. Web-based materials can be kept up to date without the need for re-printing and those mobile devices students are carrying around (Should universites change teaching to accomodate a generation raised on mobile technology?) are particularly well-suited for accessing these materials, either on-line or via desktop synchronization.

And let's not forget that faculty could choose to accept assignments electronically -- via a variety of convenient and secure IT tools. Even lengthy materials, such as articles or books segments can be read on-line (from a wide variety of mobile devices), loaded onto a PDA, or simply printed in part instead of in their entirety. Even printing multiple page images on one side of a sheet of paper, can dramatically reduce the student's printing costs.

There will always be a need for printing on our campuses but the opportunities to reduce the need for casual printing are greater than they've ever been.

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