Four Practical Steps to Buying Copiers

Buying a copier isn’t always the simplest of purchases, thanks to the myriad options that often confuse administrators striving to stay within reasonable budgets. Your first decision involves the type of machine: a digital duplicator or an analog photocopier.

An analog photocopier transfers an image to paper through the action of light on an electrically charged drum. Wherever light hits the drum, it cancels electrical charges. Since no light rays reflect from lettering or graphic images, charges remain on drum areas that correspond to image areas on the original. These charges attract the toner. The image then transfers from drum to paper, where high heat and pressure seal it permanently. Excess toner is swept from the drum, and the process repeats for each copy. Typically photocopiers handle only standard-weight paper.

A digital duplicator scans the original image into a memory bank, and outputs the copy via a digital signal. This allows the user to expect higher resolution output (600 dots per inch) and perform nifty tricks like incorporating watermarks, feeding through card stock and even producing t-shirts. Nor does that original image need to be a tangible item -- users can send straight from a computer to the duplicator.

Trouble is, experts agree, you can’t swap one machine for the other. Digital duplicators work best for high copy volumes (think student handouts, campuswide newsletters, financial reports to alumni), since burning that master costs between five and 10 cents. They’re also a good choice for specialty printing jobs you don’t want to send to an offset press. Photocopiers usually work well for the typical office routines.

Next, follow these steps to prevent overbuying with either choice.

Step One: Evaluate the Status Quo

Determine the volume this machine likely will handle -- and, rather than average that use over a year, plot it on a monthly graph. After all, the accounting department may output 100,000 copies a year, but 80 percent churns out in March and April, says Jeff Mann, owner of EBT The Digital Resource Center in San Diego. As an independent consultant, his best advice is to determine these volumes without a salesperson’s helpful input.

“I say that in jest,” says Mann, “but the turnover in our industry is tremendous. If your sale rep isn’t a seasoned veteran, he could be quoting the manufacturer’s output specifications verbatim. Those numbers are totally bogus.” That’s because Xerox and Kodak set the standards, he explains, so companies (and colleges) use these manufacturers’ numbers when accepting bids. Others need to keep up to play the game. Mann suggests clients halve manufacturers’ output claims if they hope to stay within the national average of three years of use per copier. “Any product the manufacturer raves can produce 100,000 copies at its maximum is equivalent to driving your automobile at 120 mph because the speedometer says it can do it,” he says. “Run it at that speed every day, and you won’t have a car.”

OFFTEC, an international office supply consultant company, recommends these volume and speed combinations:

Per month Speed

Up to 3,000 12 to 14 copies per minute

Up to 10,000 15 to 20 copies per minute

Up to 20,000 21 to 30 copies per minute

Up to 40,000 31 to 49 copies per minute

Up to 60,000 50 to 59 copies per minute

Up to 100,000 60 to 70 copies per minute

Over 100,000 80 to 95 copies per minute

Digital duplicators, notes Anne Barrett, manager of marketing services at Riso, Inc., in Danvers, Mass., spit out 130 copies per minute even in color. In both cases, allow wiggle room for increased demand during the next three years.

Step 2: Eliminate Bells and Whistles

Today’s copiers typically include reduction, enlargement, automatic paper select and automatic selection as standard features. Options run the gamut from document feeders, two-sided copying, sorters and staplers -- again, you need to evaluate your current habits to determine how useful each is in your situation. According to OFFTEC officials, if your copying applications require a sorter and feeder, check out a machine that produces 18 or more copies per minute. If your requirements call for duplex copying, consider 21 or more copies per minute.

The most oversold feature in Mann’s experience is paper capacity. “The staff only wants to change paper once a month, so administrators purchase a huge paper capacity regardless of monthly use numbers. That paper sits in those trays, exposed to humidity in the air and collecting moisture. Then people wonder why their copier jams,” he says.

Step Three: Examine the Dealer

Who sells you the machine makes or breaks your satisfaction during the contract. At the least, ask for a reference list of the dealer’s customer base, and investigate the presence of a complete service department, spare parts availability, consumables availability, response time to your service call and replacement machines while yours are serviced. Remember, parts and supplies generally are available up to 15 years after a machine is manufactured, but prices rise as inventories decrease near the end of that life cycle.

Most photocopiers’ drums, fuser rollers, cleaning blades, lamps, clutches and paper feed parts typically wear out during the machine’s lifetime. Discuss whether your replacements in these areas will be the more costly original equipment manufacture or the value-priced aftermarket options. Then stay alert that you don’t pay OEM prices for your aftermarket parts down the road. The average cost for a one-hour service call is $85.

Duplicators’ lack of moving parts means fewer maintenance dollars here. “A lot of photocopier salespeople don’t push digital duplicators because of their lower service requirements,” says Duplo USA’s advertising and promotions manager, Nancy Yip. However, these owners haven’t escaped altogether. Because duplicators can connect to computers, you must bring your IT and MIS staff to the table to assure your choice is compatible with the current school network. Be aware, too, there is no standard platform to ensure that future technology jives with your digital duplicator.

Step Four: Wait Until the Price Is Right

Consumables play a huge role in your budget: Photocopiers require toner, developer, fuser oil and cleaning rollers on a continual basis. To calculate your total copier monetary commitment, follow this formula.

A = Unit price of toner divided by the number of copies that unit makes.

B = Unit price of developer divided by number of copies that unit makes.

C = Unit price of drum divided by number of copies that unit makes.

D = Unit price of drum cleaning blade divided by number of copies that unit makes.

E = Unit price of fuser units divided by number of copies those units make.

A + B + C + D + E = Machine copy cost.

The typical cost per photocopier hovers between five and eight cents for each sheet that rolls off the drum -- a digital duplicator can go as low as one-third of a cent per copy in mass quantities, Yip says. However, duplicator users tend to eat up more ink and paper supplies than most administrators anticipate, thanks to their ability to produce complicated color pages and snazzy graphics.

In either case, don’t get sucked into popular “cost per copy” payment programs in your contract, Mann warns. True, its one-invoice policy saves administrative hassles. On the con side, it marries you to a manufacturer -- and divorce is costly. For example, if you want to switch to another vendor, that new player must buy out your contract to roll over toward the new purchase. If you signed a five-year lease, that buy-out likely won’t contain the service and supply costs. The original manufacturer can stick to its contract, demanding those missing profits from you as well.

Instead, Mann urges administrators to approach price negotiations by asking the vendor to separate all prices (equipment, service and supplies) in the bid, then work through each item independently.

Think of it as payback for the research time you’ve just completed to uphold your end of the bargain.

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