This morning I was greeted by a stack of bills waiting to be paid. They weren’t sitting on my desk like they might have just a few years ago, there was just an email letting me know that they had arrived as part of a document workflow. I spent the next few minutes at my computer reviewing each image, signing them digitally, adding electronic sticky notes when needed and approving them to be paid. Once I finished, the images were gone and I was off to my next project; reviewing Reseller contracts for approval. Once again all of this was done with digital images as part of a pre-defined workflow process that was completely paperless yet started at the Multifunctional Printer (MFP).
This got me thinking about how much the printing industry has changed over the last 10-15 years. More importantly, it got me thinking about how the role of the multifunctional printer (MFP) has changed, starting with its name from copier to MFP.
In the early 2000’s an office equipment dealer was lucky to see a 2% connectivity rate across the customers they supported. This meant that the copier really was just that; a copier. It wasn't until people started connecting them to their networks that they became MFPs with users relying on them for printing as well. It was then just a matter of time before people figured out that if you could push printing to the MFP, you could also scan from it. Suddenly scanned PDF files were everywhere.
The evolution of the MFP is really what drove the business community towards document management. With scanning so readily available business owners saw that they could begin digitally filing their paper based records without the added cost of a dedicated scanner. These early adopters typically tried to emulate their file systems in Windows Explorer by carefully structuring a file system and naming the scanned PDF files. This was great for getting rid of the paper, but as volumes increased, it became quickly apparent that finding these scanned records was not as easy as first thought.
So a document management solution became the next logical step with many users simply looking for a way to scan, store and retrieve their documents. Nothing fancy, just help me get rid of the paper while giving me a way to put my hands on important information when the time comes. But like most things, technology changes and with it changed the expectations of the business market. More and more office equipment dealers were evolving into solutions providers as the MFP became less about printing and more about the flow of business information.
Quickly document workflow became the driving force and the multifunctional printer not only became the place for documents to be captured, it became the catalyst for triggering a workflow process. In just a few years, paper documents were now being routed to their recipients with notifications of their arrival being sent and rules defining the paths they would take.
All this brings us to today. It’s only been about 10-12 years since my MFP was just a copier and today it’s sending me my payables for sign off and routing contracts to me for approval. The landscape of my office has changed as well since I no longer have file cabinets cluttering up my space. If I need a document I just run a quick search and it’s at my fingertips in seconds. All thanks to images that were scanned off my MFP.
I’ll admit I still love my paper and there are many times I want to print that image and flip through the pages as I digest the information. That’s OK though since the cost of printing on my MFP is about 10% of what it used to be on my HP printer ten years ago. If the truth were told, I probably print just as much as I always have since information is so readily available and printing is just plain cheap. The difference is that I just don’t file it any longer, I scan it.
So where does the role of the MFP go from here you might ask? With image quality better than ever and the cost of sophisticated Optical Character Recognition becoming less and less, I see the MFP having strong potential for data mining and sharing. Already we are seeing a rapid expansion in the use of OCR in conjunction with the MFP. Data can now be reliably pulled from images and used to feed financial and CRM systems. With all of the talk around “Big Data” I would not be at all surprised to see the MFP become ground zero for the extraction of high value data from information being shared on paper.
I also see strong potential for more advanced business process automation involving workflows that step outside of the traditional structures they enjoy today. Traditionally document workflows have been designed for transactional document activities. It primarily involved streamlining static, high volume processes with enforced rules occurring within the confines of an organization. I have a strong sense that a more social approach is evolving with participants employing less structured activities while interacting with their customer, vendors and peers.
The possibilities surrounding a changing business world are exciting and it’s not clear to many exactly where they’ll lead us. What is sure is that where document information is being communicated, it will likely continue to flow through the MFP.