Current trends have made A4 more relevant than ever.
When A4 first burst onto the scene, dealers didn’t exactly welcome it with open arms. Fewer features, reduced print volumes, and lower speeds and selling prices compared to A3 were just a few obstacles. Thanks to MPS, many of those concerns were negated and growing numbers of the dealer community begrudgingly added A4 to their repertoires. Skip ahead to 2021, and most of those earlier obstacles have abated. Dealers now face a whole new set of issues, including declining office print volumes, the hybrid workforce, and an emerging trend of large companies discovering they don’t need as much office space as in the past, and subsequently as many A3 devices. Those changes have placed A4 in the spotlight.
Current trends indicate that A4 placements are poised to increase exponentially as the technology has become a credible solution for increasing numbers of businesses.
“The pandemic has definitely brought a renewed sense of awareness of the printing environment and focus on how print is deployed throughout the organization,” said Joe Contreras, commercial marketing executive, office solutions, Epson America. “Companies, now more than ever, are considering the distribution of the workforce and are appropriating resources to keep productivity at its peak. A4 printer/MFPs have benefitted from this shift in market dynamics and needs. Epson, in turn, has benefitted from having a robust A4 portfolio that has attracted both existing and new dealers and helped to created revenue-generating opportunities for our partners.”
During the pandemic, many remote workers discovered that they didn’t need to print as much as when they were working on site. The same was true in traditional offices, although office print was on the decline pre-pandemic. Toshiba America Business Solutions (TABS) introduced its first internally developed A4 products last summer, which have exceeded its most optimistic expectations in terms of sales. Although these are robust machines not designed for home offices, they fit the bill for the downsized office environment.
“I would like to say that a lot of it was due to our brilliant planning and foresight and wonderful design of the product,” said Bill Melo, chief marketing executive at TABS/Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions. “Hopefully, all those are true, but the changes in the workplace are moving people to consider A4.”
The channel seems to be more accepting of A4. At one time, the concern was replacing a more expensive product with a less expensive product. Now, it’s something that Melo says more customers are demanding, and if the legacy A3 dealer doesn’t meet those customer’s needs with an A4, someone else will.
Toshiba just closed one deal at the end of March for 500 of these products. “That’s a big deal in any way, shape, or form,” said Melo. “We think we’re going to see more of that.”
As customers shift from A3 to A4, the A3 features they’ve grown accustomed to are finding their way into A4 devices from the high end to the low end. Lexmark is taking a lot of its experience designing higher-end A4 devices, and redesigning, redeveloping, and expanding its entire A4 line. Fundamental to the line are robustness, reliability, and security, according to Lexmark’s Clark Bugg, director, North America channel sales. As a result of the pandemic, dealers have been asking for more desktop remote environment applications on these devices. “These are the perfect products that fit into that, from a dealer perspective and overall core market,” said Bugg.
Sharp has also built out its A4 line.
“If you were to go to a Sharp dealer meeting one or two meetings ago, you might’ve only seen a couple of A4 products. Now we have 25 A4s in our product line,” said Shane Coffey, vice president, product management, Sharp Electronics Corporation. “We have everything from small desktop black and white products to robust console products running 60 to 70 pages per minute and everything in between.”
Going forward, Coffey sees A4 taking two paths. For some traditional office workers where an A4 or an A3 is their workgroup product, things might not change much. They may still need a variety of robust A3 products for that environment and some complementary A4s. The big shift is with employees working from home.
“Flashback pre-pandemic to now, there are close to twice the number of workspaces,” said Coffey about the hybrid workforce. “That represents opportunity for smaller devices. What people want is the same functionality, the same capabilities, regardless of whether they are at home or in a traditional office. Maybe they don’t need full finishing or robust features from a workflow perspective.”
He explained that this has resulted in the growth of robust A4 devices with smaller footprints for the home environment. This shift represents new business for resellers if they can navigate around the online and office superstore options. Dealers who sell these products can have potentially new discussions with customers whose employees may have had a small inkjet printer at home. Even if they don’t print a lot, those prints still cost much more than they would on a more robust A4. The question then arises as to who pays for those prints, the employee or the employer?
“If people start expensing inkjet cartridges to their company, that’s a lot of money,” said Coffey.
Macro trends such as global sustainability issues and environmental and sustainability initiatives impact the print space and subsequently A4 development.
“You will see those play much more of a role continually going forward,” said Chris White, executive director, global product strategy and portfolio management, Lexmark. “Historically, that’s been led out of places like Europe, but we expect the U.S. to follow suit faster than in the past, especially given some of the news out of the [Biden] administration. We see that as a good spot for ourselves.”
Lexmark has focused on post-consumer recycled content in its products, and White emphasized how keeping those devices installed and running longer is a key element of sustainability. “It will be more and more of our talk track and discussion as we go forward, making sure that people understand when they are making a purchase decision what is a sustainable purchase,” he said.
“From Epson’s perspective, we see sustainability becoming a more predominant factor in the end-user decision-making process,” added Contreras. “Given the distinct advantages of Epson’s PrecisionCore heat-free inkjet technology, we are able to provide printing solutions that offer a compelling TCO [total cost of ownership] while consuming less energy and reducing waste through high-yield ink systems.”
With the emergence of the hybrid office, Kyocera is well-positioned in the A4 space. Chuck Clarke, product marketing manager, Kyocera Document Solutions America, specifically references the 5521cdw and 5526cdw, the 22 and 27 ppm models. “They really fit into the home office and [offer] the A3 functionality that people are used to and not only want but need.”
“With that transition to the SOHO market we’re finding more enterprises or smaller and mid-size companies that dealers service are looking for ways to provide better experiences for their employees at home,” added Jason Dizzine, senior director, product marketing and planning, Kyocera Document Solutions America. ”That’s where I’m seeing more acceptance from the dealer channel.”
As the latest generation of A4 has become more robust, let’s dig deeper into the enhanced capabilities found on these devices. A good starting point is connectivity to the cloud, which adds to the remote-service capability of these devices. That’s something that Lexmark is educating its dealers about.
“If you look at these A4 trends, especially the investment that we’ve made with more remote capability through our cloud-services platform, it gives our partners a good chance to understand how they are deploying their resources,” said Lexmark’s White. “If there’s less intervention on an A4 device, they may have to make less service calls. We had a lot of foresight to build the sensors and build the data and the algorithms within our machines to give our partners a lot of knowledge about what’s going on with their fleet and the chance to do that remotely. We see that as a game-changer and certainly makes for fun conversations within our partner community. Any enterprise or any bigger business wants the exact same control, capability, manageability, serviceability, and visibility into those devices, no matter if they’re in an individual’s home or a corporate office location.”
Security is another trend impacting A4 development. With a remote workforce, the concern extends beyond the boundaries of the traditional office to people’s home networks. Older devices that might already be in the home may not have the same built-in security protection as an A4 device designed for a traditional office.
“A company’s network is only as secure as its least secure,” noted Sharp’s Coffey. “For IT people, that is certainly an area of great concern.”
Today, A4 manufacturers are placing enhanced emphasis on the security of their devices, which opens the door for the dealer selling A4 devices that possess that capability. That’s a trend that manufacturers like Toshiba, whose A4 line offers similar security features to its A3 products and Lexmark are adapting to. For example, up and down Lexmark’s A4 product portfolio, you’ll find the same enterprise-level security as on its high-end products. “We don’t feel like those are things that you should have to make choices about,” said White.
On Kyocera’s higher-end A4 products, a data security kit is standard, while on others, it’s an option. This provides data encryption and allows for overriding of sensitive data. “If companies are going to provide machines for employees, and it’s on their VPN, they want to make sure that they’re secure,” said Kyocera’s Clark.
More robust software than traditionally available on A4 devices of the past, as well as print-management solutions, including print release, and digital fax solutions from third-party providers, are boosting the capabilities of the latest wave of A4s. “We provide a format and a structure that enable people with a software-developer kit to come in and engage,” said Lexmark’s White. “Some of them are big enough to develop direct reseller arrangements and agreements where we participate. Others we bring on board, enabling them to develop their own solution. The bulk of these come down to scan, transmission, sending type of groups and/or security management such as print release and batch release.”
Starting in July, Toshiba’s A4s will have native Microsoft Print support, as well as improved integration with third-party cloud applications. “Security, sustainability, and connectivity to the cloud are the main components of our software strategy, and those will be as robust in our A4s as they are in any product that we have,” said Melo.
Some of Kyocera’s A4 products offer standard wireless as well as duplexing and dual scanning. Another feature is integration with internal and external solutions such as Kyocera’s HyPAS apps or the MyQ managed print services app.
It’s Now or Never
Going forward, A4 OEMs will continue to scrutinize their portfolios, monitor market trends, and adjust as needed. As that happens, the lines between A4 and A3 will continue to blur. As Kyocera’s Dizzine noted, “We’ll continue to look at how we can have certain products in our A4 lineup look, feel, smell and act like an A3 so that they have that same productivity and user experience.”
With the trends leaning towards more A4, there is no longer an excuse for dealers not to embrace the technology.
“If A4 is not in your portfolio, you are leaving yourself exposed to the competition that offers a more complete offering,” said Epson’s Contreras. “If the concern is lower revenue dollars and margins, look to bolster that with solutions and extended service-plan add-ons. Stay ahead of the curve and demonstrate to your customer that you understand the changes in the market and have solutions that reflect the future direction of the market.”
“You either need to go on the offensive to push out your competition, or you need to be on the defensive to protect yourself should your competition come in and attack you,” concluded Sharp’s Coffey. “That’s a great motivator for dealers to adopt.”
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