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Multifunction printer

An MFP (Multi Function Printer/Product/Peripheral), multifunctional, all-in-one (AIO), or Multifunction Device (MFD), is an office machine which incorporates the functionality of multiple devices in one, so as to have a smaller footprint in a home or small business setting (the SOHO market segment), or to provide centralized document management/distribution/production in a large-office setting. A typical MFP may act as a combination of some or all of the following devices:

MFP manufacturers/brands include

Note that not all of these manufacturers produce all types of MFP - some may only focus on AIO products, whilst others may only focus on Production Printing, while yet more may cover a wider range.

Types of MFP

MFP manufacturers traditionally divided MFPs in to various segments. The segments roughly divide the MFPs according to their speed in pages per minute (ppm) and duty cycle/robustness. Despite this, many manufacturers are beginning to avoid the segment definition for their products, as speed and basic functionality alone are often not sufficient to differentiate the many features that the devices are capable of. Two color MFPs of a similar speed will be in the same segment, despite having potentially very different feature sets, and therefore very different prices. From a marketing perspective, the manufacturer of the more expensive MFP would want to differentiate their product as much as possible to justify the price difference, and therefore the segment definition is avoided.

Many MFP types, regardless of the category they fall in to, also come in a "printer only" variety, which is the same model without the scanner unit included. This is even the case with devices where the scanner unit physically appears to be highly integrated in to the product.

Today, Multifunction printers are available from just about all printer manfucatures. They are designed for home, small business, enterprise and commercial use. Naturally, the cost, usability, robustness, throughput, output quality, etc. all very with the various use cases. However, they all generally do the same functions; Print, Scan, Fax, and Photocopy. In the commercial/enterprise area, most MFP have used Laser Printer technology, while in the personal, SOHO environmens, Inkjet Printer technology has been used. Typically Inkjet printers have struggled with delivering the performance and color saturation demanded by enterprise/large business use. However, HP http://www.hp.com, has recently launched a business grade MFP using Inkjet technology.

In any case, instead of rigidly defined segments based on speed, more general definitions based on intended target audience and capabilities are now becoming much more common. While there is no formal definition, it is common agreed amongst MFP manufacturers that the products fall roughly in to the following categories:

AIO

An AIO is a small desktop unit, designed for home or home office use.

Generally the features an AIO has focus on scan and print functionality for home use, and may come with bundled software for organising photos, simple OCR and other uses of interest to a home user. An AIO will always include the basic functions of Print and Scan, with most also including Copy functionality and a lesser number with Fax capabilities.

AIO devices are usually not networked and are generally connected by USB or Parallel.

An interesting note about AIO devices is that they often have features lacking in the larger devices, due to their target towards home users. These functions include smart card readers, direct connection to digital cameras (e.g. PictBridge technology) and other similar uses.

The print engine of most AIOs is based on either a home desktop inkjet printer, or a home desktop laser printer. They may be black and white or colour capable.

SOHO MFP

A large desktop or small freestanding unit, designed for Small Office/Home Office use. Often, the form factor of the MFP (desktop or freestanding) depends on the options added, such as extra paper trays or so on.

Generally a SOHO MFP will have basic Print, Copy, Scan and Fax functionality only, but towards the larger end of the scale, may include simple document storage and retrieval, basic authentication functions and so on, making the higher end of the "SOHO" scale difficult to differentiate from the lower end of the "Office" MFP scale.

SOHO MFPs are usually networked, however may also be connected via USB or, less frequently, parallel. SOHO MFPs may have basic finishing functionality such as duplexing, stapling and holepunching, however this is rare. In general, document output offset, sorting and collation are standard capabilities.

By comparison to an AIO, a SOHO MFP is more likely to have an automatic document feeder, greater fax capabilities and faster output performance. Most SOHO MFPs have their history in low end black and white photocopiers, and the print engine is therefore based around this type of technology.

Office MFP

A mid-sized freestanding unit, designed as a central office system.

These units are usually the most fully featured type of MFP. They include the basic Print, Copy and Scan functions with optional fax functionality as well as networked document storage with security, authentication using common network user credentials, ability to run custom software (often a manufacturer will supply a Software Development Kit), advanced network scan destinations such as [], WebDAV, Email, SMB and NFS stores, encryption for data transmission and so on.

Office MFPs usually have moderately advanced finishing functions as options such as duplexing, stapling, holepunching, offset modes and booklet creation.

Office MFPs are almost always networked, however some have optional or standard (but infrequently used) USB and parallel connections. Most Office MFPs have their history in mid range photocopiers (both colour and black and white), and the print engine is therefore based around this type of technology, however, Hewlett-Packard recently introduced two Office MFPs based on fixed head Inkjet technology.

Production Printing MFP

A large sized freestanding unit, designed as a central printing device or reprographic department device.

These devices, while far larger and more expensive than Office MFPs, generally do not have all of the advanced network functionality of their smaller relations. They instead concentrate on high speed, high quality output, and highly advanced finishing functionality including book creation with cover insertion (including hot-glue binding) and so on. Production Printing itself is often further divided in to "light" production printing and "heavy" production printing, with the differentiating factor being the speed. A 100ppm device for example, falls in to the light Production Printing category by the standards of most manufacturers.

Because of the focus on printing, while most Production Printing MFPs have a scanner, it is infrequently used and often only has very basic functionality.

There are a variety of different print engines for Production Printing MFPs, however in the "light" end of the Production Printing market, most are based on the large Office MFPs, which themselves are based on photocopier technology as described above.

Production Printing MFPs may also be known as "Print on Demand" devices, or "Digital presses". This latter term can also be used to refer to the print controller controlling the MFP however.

Characteristics

It is useful to consider the features and functions of an MFP before integrating it in to a home or office environment. It is possible to have an MFP with almost all of the features and functions listed below, however a typical AIO or SOHO MFP is unlikely to incorporate many of these.

An (incomplete) list of features that an MFP may offer or will vary depending on the MFP under consideration (in any segment):

Print features/functions

  • Input
    • Printer drivers available for different operating systems
    • PDLs (PostScript, PCL, XPS etc) and direct interpreters (PDF, TIFF, etc) supported
    • Network, USB, Parallel or other connection types
    • Network print types available (Raw, LPR, IPP, [] printing, print via email etc)
  • Output
    • Printing speed (typically given in pages per minute or ppm)
    • Printer technology (e.g. InkJet/Laser/Color Laser)
    • Paper formats (what kind of paper sizes and stocks the MFP can output)
    • Direct CD/DVD Label Printing (usually only available on some InkJet AIO models)
    • Resolution DPI - this is an important metric for both printing and scanning quality. (note that print DPI is rarely greater than 600dpi actual. Some MFPs use a system similar to sub-pixel rendering on computer displays to give "enhanced" resolutions of 1200x600 or 1800x600, however it is important to note that this is not a true resolution)
    • Duplex printing capability - Whether the MFP can print on both sides of a sheet of paper without manual intervention by the user.
    • Ability to print directly to the MFPs internal storage function
    • Capability of using the MFPs finishing functions (see below under Copy features/functions)

Scan features/functions

  • Input
    • Automatic Document Feeder (ADF) - this allows multiple sheets of paper to be input without manually placing each piece of paper on the platen glass.
    • Duplex scanning capability (depends on the ADF) - Whether the MFP can scan both ides of a sheet of paper without manual intervention by the user.
    • Ability to retrieve a document from internal storage and send it as if it was a new "scan"
  • Output

Fax features/functions

  • Cordless telephone (generally only a consideration for AIO or smaller SOHO products)
  • Answering machine
  • Color Fax capability
  • TCP/IP Fax methods such as SIP Fax (Fax over IP), Network Fax (via SMTP), Internet Fax and so on
  • PC Fax send and receive capability

Copy features/functions

  • Document Finishing capabilities
    • Duplex output
    • Stapling
      • Single point
      • Two point
      • Staple positioning
    • Holepunching
      • US holepunch or international
      • Number of holes (2/3/4)
    • Folding
      • Half fold / crease
      • Fold and centre staple (for Booklet pagination)
      • Cover insertion for booklets
      • Cover binding (generally only available on production printing models) - differs from "cover insertion", in that a cover is physically bound to the book instead of simply placing it around the other pages. Cover binding often uses hot glue to bind the cover to the finished book.
      • Trimming for folded documents to avoid "creep"
      • Tri-fold / Envelope-folding
  • Document editing modes
    • n-in-one (2 in 1, 4 in 1 etc)
    • Booklet pagination / "perfect binding" booklet pagination
    • Page numbering / text & image stamping / watermarking
    • Image scaling / rotation
  • Plus, see items under "Print features/functions" output and "Scan features/functions" input

Document storage features/functions

  • Documents storage capability the MFP
  • Storage (HDD) capacity
  • User authentication for the stored document, and any relationship to the user authentication of the MFP (e.g. Network authentication with a server or custom software, internal only, etc)

Network features/functions

  • Wireless network capability
  • Active Directory or other authentication functionality
  • Data encryption
  • IPv6 support
  • SNMP support - both private and public MIB specifications

Other features/functions

  • Software - Many MFPs support advanced functionality through third party software such as optical character recognition. In some cases, these software components are not specific to the MFP being used, however it is important to determine this, as in other cases proprietary technologies are used that effectively tie the software to the platform.
  • SDK availability and licensing model
  • User interface - By their nature, MFPs are complex devices. Many MFPs now include LCD screens and other user interface aids. Generally, AIO and SOHO products contain simple LCD displays, while Office MFPs contain advanced LCD panels resembling a custom computer-like user interface (some MFPs also offer optional keyboard and mouse attachments).

Internal Architecture

Hardware

MFPs, like most external computer peripherals that are capable of functioning without the computer, are essentially a type of computer themselves. They contain memory, one or more processors, and often some kind of storage, such as a Hard Disk Drive or usb connectivity devices Flash memory.

As mentioned in the Types of MFP section, the physical print engine may be based on several technologies, however most larger MFPs are an evolution of a digital photocopier.

Software

MFPs also run a set of instructions, either in firmware or from their internal storage, which is comparable to a computer's Operating System.

Generally, as the size and complexity of an MFP increases, the more like a computer the device becomes. It is uncommon for a small AIO or even a SOHO MFP to use a general purpose computer Operating System, however many larger MFPs run GNU/Linux or VXWorks.

Additionally, many print controllers, separate, but integral to the MFP, also run computer Operating Systems, with GNU/Linux and Microsoft Windows (often Windows NT 4.0 Embedded, Windows XP Embedded) and even Mac OS X sometimes being used.

On top of the core Operating System or Firmware, the MFP will also provide several functions, equivalent to applications or in some cases daemons/services on a desktop computing platform.

These functions may include (amongst many others):

  • MFP Panel control for user input
  • Bytecode interpreters or Virtual Machines for internally hosted third party applications
  • Web server for remote management functions
  • Network service clients for sending of documents to different destinations
  • Network service servers for receiving documents for print or storage
  • Image conversion and processing functions
  • Raster image processing functions (although, often this task is handled by a separate print controller unit instead)

Software

Computer systems equipped with the proper software must be able to take advantage of the MFP's capabilities, an important requirement to research when considering integrating an MFP with an existing office. Some or all of the following functionality might be provided:

  • Device administration and configuration
  • Monitoring of print quotas, toner/ink levels etc.
  • Document type/paper input mode selection
  • Document imaging, such as ad hoc scanning
  • Document management such as remote scanning, document type conversion from text to PDF, OCR, etc.

Software developers for MFPs include Captaris ,Ecopy, Nuance, NSi, Paper River Consulting, Ringdale and Omtool.

Software Development Kits

In addition to specific software packages, many vendors also provide the ability for the user to develop software to communicate with the MFP through a Software Development Kit. Different vendors have different licensing models, from completely "closed" proprietary systems (often with large costs involved) to open strategies with no direct cost involved. An incomplete list of these technologies is:

In general, these technologies fall in to one of two technical models - Server based, or MFP internal software.

Server based technologies use a method to communicate information to and from the MFP (often SOAP/XML based), running the operating code on a suitably powered computer on the network. This method has the advantage of being very flexible, in that the software is free to do anything that the developer can make the computer do. The only limit from the MFP itself is the capability of the MFP to display a user interface to the workings of the application. As many of the applications are based around custom printing, scanning and authentication requirements, the MFP manufacturers that use this method gravitate towards these core technologies in the user interface.

MFP internal software, by comparison, has the advantage of not requiring anything outside of the MFP. The software runs within the MFP itself and so even a complete network outage will not disrupt the software from working (unless of course the software requires a network connection for other reasons). MFP internal software is often, but not always, Java based and runs in a Java Virtual Machine within the MFP. The negative side to this kind of software is usually that it is much more limited in capabilities than Server based systems.

See also

References

External links

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