RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Saving printer paper doesn't save much money

August 20, 2007

At one company I know, the head of information technology took note of rising printing costs and took decisive action. He immediately asked everyone to start printing on both the front and back of each printed sheet. Every time I saw people in meetings flipping pages up and down trying to read front-and-back, I wondered if he'd done the math, because it's highly probable he didn't save much at all.

The big cost in copiers and printers isn't paper, but toner. Maintenance comes in a close second. The same is true of small inkjet and bubblejet printers that a lot of microbusinesses own. You can save money on printing, but it won't be with paper.

Take a simple example. A major online office supplier lists the Sharp AL-110TD black toner cartridge for $138.99. The specifications say it can print about 4,000 copies (the "yield"). This is, of course, influenced by a lot of factors, such as how much black toner you put on each page. A standard in the industry seems to assume 5-percent coverage. That makes each hypothetical sheet cost almost 3.5 cents in toner alone.

The same online supplier has several grades of paper, starting with the cheap gray stuff that looks like badly laundered underwear for about $33 for 5,000 sheets. That would put its per-sheet cost at 67 cents. The most expensive paper they stock runs about $63 per box, or 1.3 cents per sheet.

Now add in the cost of having an employee spend several minutes replacing a toner cartridge and cleaning up the mess, versus just shoving a ream of paper into a drawer, and you can see how much more toner is costing you than paper. If the IT manager's toner cartridges will handle 5,000 sheets at a cost of $130, and he buys the cheap paper, he'll save $16. On the other hand, if he can reduce his total printing just 25 percent, he'll save $40.

The cost of ink cartridges is significantly bigger per volume. Typical yield for a cartridge is 500 sheets, and with even an inexpensive black cartridge going for about $20, the cost per page is around 4 cents, not including paper. Color is much higher.

The Web is full of tips for reducing printing costs. First and foremost is to stick to black instead of living color. Both ink and toner are far more expensive in color than in monotone. Few things actually require color. If a chart or graph is so complicated that it requires color, redesign it. Another way to reduce costs is to reduce breakdowns. Take the time to compare reliability ratings when you're buying copiers, printers or multifunction machines. Squint hard at the lease contract and buy only what you really need. By all means, print on both sides of the paper, but not if it only encourages people to print even more sheets, thinking they're still saving money.

Something else to check up front is the yield. Get the highest figure you can, if nothing else suffers from the tradeoff. Some cartridges promise yields into five figures for only a little higher price. Other advice seems less useful, like using smaller fonts and reducing margin sizes. A more practical suggestion is to print slides from Microsoft PowerPoint, as "handouts," which will print up to six slides per page. In black and white, of course.

One particularly effective strategy seems to be attaching a key counter of some kind to the machine, so each person or department is informed of how much corporate cash he's sinking into toner and paper. Just the idea that it's being tracked can drastically cut usage. And it's never a bad thing to make employees conscious of expenses.

You can also start storing and sharing documents online instead of printing them. There are open-source (meaning "free") applications that can share documents internally, but you'll probably need some help installing and using them. "Free" does not mean "no cost"; they require some support expertise. These include various "Wikis" (www.wiki.org), Subversion (subversion.tigris.org), and KnowledgeTree (www.knowledgetree.com). Similarly, you can pass around Web page addresses (URLs) instead of printing the pages.

You can even store your documents on the Web, using online document-management services like Netdocuments (www.netdocuments.com), HyperOffice (www.hyperoffice.com) or Aconex (www.aconex.com). Storing on the Web gives you access to them wherever there's an Internet connection, but it also keeps you from seeing them unless there's an Internet connection. It's even possible now to produce documents and spreadsheets entirely online and share them. Google Apps will do that.

Maybe I should mention Google Apps to that IT manager when I see him again. It's free, so the price should appeal to him.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net
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