By Tony Milford, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Asolvi & Nicola De Blasi, CEO, MPS Monitor
The Internet of Things (IoT) is barely out of the tech news headlines—and with good reason; it’s estimated that by 2025, there will be more than 21 billion IoT devices operating around the world. 
But with all the hype surrounding the term, it’s easy to lose sight of what an IoT “thing” is. According to Gartner, IoT devices are, “physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.” 
At a basic level, this means that a device—let’s say a moisture or temperature sensor - has been embedded with a chip and an IP address. This combination allows it to send data over the Internet to designated apps or software that either alert end-users to take action or automate tasks on their behalf.
An IoT-enabled water sprinkler system can take the temperature in your garden and get a moisture reading from your soil. It can then decide if your lawn and flowers need watering. The gamechanger is that it’s smart—it’s far more than a sprinkler on a timed switch. It knows not to waste water or drown your plants if the ground is damp. It can also add an extra round of watering if the soil is parched again later in the afternoon. And it makes all these decisions automatically without bothering you or without you even needing to be at home. Life, in theory at least, is more straightforward as a result. You can focus your attention on other areas of your day—safe in the knowledge that you’ll return home from work every evening to a beautiful garden.
Are Today’s Printers IoT Devices?
A shift towards this kind of intelligence-driven automation makes IoT-based technology extremely appealing to the Managed Print Services (MPS) sector. Printers, like gardens, require plenty of labour-intensive support, frequent site visits and a constant supply of consumables to keep them in good health. Today, however, the majority of printers are not IoT devices in the truest sense. They may be labelled “smart” printers, but that’s not the same thing.
Let’s explain why: Most office printers—even the smart multi-function ones—do not have the logic or intelligence to interact with cloud-based applications over the web. To our mind, this disqualifies them from being true IoT devices. But IoT office printers will begin to become available in the not-too-distant future. Indeed several vendors are working to bring them to market in the next 12-18 months. Further down the line, cloud-connected printers will interact directly with the Internet both for management tasks and for getting print jobs from the cloud.
DCAs and Third-Party Device Management Software—Vital Today and for Tomorrow
Yet even in a world of IoT office printers, there is still going to be a need for third-party Data Collection Agents (DCAs) and vendor-neutral device management software. They will be essential for gathering fleet-wide information on device status, meter readings and monitoring consumable levels. DCAs act as a bridge between the printers and remote printer monitoring and management software. They work in place of embedded IoT technology to enable automation of critical processes such as reordering consumables and components, obtaining accurate billing information and even diarising pre-planned service and maintenance visits. This streamlines MPS offerings, improves profitability, allows for scalable operations and boosts customer satisfaction levels.
But DCAs and vendor-neutral device management software won’t lose their relevance even after IoT office printers have arrived. In fact, their importance will increase. Not every company will buy an IoT office printer as soon as they’re launched. Printers have a relatively long lifespan in comparison to other networked hardware such as PCs and servers. This means new models will take time to enter the fleet and to fall under the remit of MPS contracts.
Third-party, vendor-neutral device management software will also remain key in an IoT-driven future because of the continued proliferation of closed proprietary operating and management systems championed by each printer vendor. DCAs and vendor-agnostic MPS solutions will still be required to centralise, interpret, and action data gathered across a fleet of printers. This is important as the majority of fleets consist of different brands and machines of different ages.
Remember that, at the end of the day, the goal of device management software is to streamline operations, cut administration, provide a clear view of fleet requirements and improve responsiveness to customer demands. It's going to be difficult for companies with MPS contracts to achieve these objectives if they’re running four or five different vendor-specific device management solutions across multiple fleets without any software or application integration.
MPS Software Benefits—A Closer Look At Tight Integration
Current managed print software can integrate directly into supplier systems to reorder and ship toner and other consumables direct to clients and to collect and process printed page volumes with no manual intervention whatsoever. Toner supplies, drums and paper can be drop-shipped (dispatched directly from suppliers to customers) without ever needing to be stored in a dealer or reseller warehouse. Once a shipment is received, the dealer is invoiced automatically, while the customer is billed accordingly at the end of the month.
Improving the efficiency of critical processes like this frees up capital and resources for MPS providers to grow their business while retaining customers. It enables them to manage more accounts with leaner teams without compromising customer service. In particular, it can help MPS companies hit first-time fix rate targets and other KPIs.
The high degree of automation offered by fully integrated device management software also cuts the amount of manual data entry and the associated risk of human error. This shifts the focus from transactional conversations about billing and consumable restocks to interactions that can strengthen customer relationships and add more value to client interactions. MPS providers could, for example, use the analysed data to start client discussions about reducing toner and other consumable wastage or to help them move toward pre-planned and proactive maintenance scheduling.
The extent and success of IoT office printer adoption and longer-term evolution of device management software will depend on individual vendor enthusiasm to enable open API integrations. It will also depend on their willingness to create more open and cloud-enabled hardware and software components. Without this greater interconnectivity, it is going to be more challenging (although by no means impossible) to create IoT office printers that can directly utilise the kind of joined-up big data analysis needed to take automation and management of many of key MPS processes to the next level.