By Pedro Pereira, Field Technologies magazine
Mobile printing technology finds new markets looking for portability and productivity.
Mobile printers are ubiquitous in the direct store delivery (DSD) business where drivers and couriers who make lots of quick stops use them for receipts and proof of delivery. But that’s only one of a fast-multiplying number of uses for printing on the fly.
The mobile printer market is growing at a 13% per year clip, according to VDC Research. Global shipments last year totaled 394 million units, up from 341 million in 2010, according to VDC. The research firm predicts shipments will reach about 432 million this year and top 520 million come 2014.
So, while not as sexy as some popular smartphones or tablets, mobile printers are very popular, and in an increasing number of applications, replacing paper forms filled out by hand. A growing fleet of printers across the globe is spitting out traffic tickets, receipts from stadium hotdog vendors, raffle tickets at charity events, restaurant checks, and inspection labels. With Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections enabling communication with stationary systems, mobile printers are showing up everywhere — and users are demanding more functionality and smarts.
“Customers are becoming savvier and want products that have multiple purposes,” says Paul Weslake, senior product manager at printer vendor Datamax- O’Neil. “Bottom line, customers want to get more for their money out of a printer. Instead of a printer being used for a single application, they are looking at how they can repurpose these devices.”
Avery Tabron, national sales manager at printer manufacturer Printek, says mobile printers are getting smarter. “These printers can attach to a laser scanner, biometric scanner, or signature capture pad. You can scan a bar code, and if you wanted to print it out, the printer would have the smarts to interpret the input data and print it,” he says.
Various Markets Seek More Mobile Printing
Delivery drivers are mobile printer pioneers. With impact printers mounted on truck dashboards or, increasingly, handheld devices, the mobile printer has become as essential to them as the delivery vehicle. These days, the more portability the better, and that means moving away from in-vehicle machines, which are more expensive and harder to use than handhelds, says Tom Brahm, director of product management at printer vendor Source Technologies. “Mounting the printer in the delivery truck takes up space and is not always feasible. Impact receipt printers tend to be heavy and more cumbersome, so a smaller, lighter-weight printer would be preferable,” he says. “Easy-to-use, durable printers with Bluetooth capabilities, so the printer and mobile terminal can communicate, tend to be the most common new direction.”
The DSD industry, as a pioneer, continues to refine its mobile printing processes. Other industries, such as healthcare, government, and POS (point of sale), where portability and productivity are top priorities, are catching up. “We are seeing a resurgence in mobile POS,” says Weslake. “Although many people have been talking about mobile transactions for 10-plus years, we are really starting to see customers with a serious interest in procuring these types of solutions.”
Adam Ortlieb, associate director of marketing at Seiko Instruments, explains that in healthcare, mobile printing is in greater demand as doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals deploy electronic medical record (EMR) systems. “Bar code systems are an ideal fit in healthcare applications, based on their ability to streamline processes, reduce costs, avoid errors, and improve patient safety,” he adds.
Looking elsewhere, Ortlieb says mobile printing is gaining favor in government functions, including traffic enforcement. “Electronic citation systems provide a substantial return on investment, delivering better productivity, reduced costs, and even increased revenue by helping eliminate unpaid fines.”
Tabron says some law enforcement and court systems make records available online, allowing drivers to pay tickets quickly. “When you go to e-citations, an officer can not only electronically print the ticket in the cruiser, but also electronically send it to the courts,” he says. “When you arrive at home, you can go back, go online, and pay your ticket. Some courts are even offering discounts if you pay online.”
Restaurants, meanwhile, are starting to use tableside payment processing and receipt printing, which saves time, improves customer service, and alleviates credit card theft and fraud, says Brahm. “Many European countries use a process where patrons’ credit cards don’t have to leave their sight or even their hand in order to pay for a meal,” he says.
Another growing use of mobile printers is for inspection stickers — those labels attached to apparel, electronics, and even perishable goods — to assure consumers a product has been checked for quality, calibration, or freshness. In this context, says Brahm, ease of use, clean printing, and even multifunctionality are important. Machines inside buildings typically have Wi-Fi capability, he says, while those used outside often use Bluetooth to communicate with mobile terminals.
Top Mobile Printing Features
A survey of Field Technologies magazine readers in December found the top features users want in mobile printers are — in order — size/portability, ruggedness/durability, and battery life. Manufacturers say the survey results match the feedback they get.
“Portability makes life easier for mobile workers, so we work hard at engineering smaller, lighter, printers,” says Ortlieb. “Carrying a spare battery is certainly less than ideal.”
As for durability, Brahm says weight and size matter when you have to carry the device all day, typically on your hip. But ruggedness and durability run counter to weight and size. “So there is a balance customers are starting to understand — as every inch or foot of drop spec increases, so does the weight and size of the device.”
Tabron says portability, durability, and battery life are important priorities, but he added that often, just as important is price. “At the end of the day, people want to know how much it costs. The cost factor can override any of those other three.”
Avoid Mobile Printing Missteps
To avoid missteps when rolling out mobile printers to field workers, Weslake recommends due diligence in evaluating where the devices will be used. “We often see deployments not go on schedule even with the best laid plans. Critical shortfalls are often the result of not allowing for enough test time.”
Ortlieb advises checking references to avoid vendors that offer low prices but fall short on things like durability. It’s also important, he says, to understand the complexities of tying into back-office systems to avoid integration problems. Tabron cautions against underestimating the importance of durability, and advises buying product from authorized dealers, as opposed to online retailers without adequate support. And, says Brahm, don’t forget user input. “The most common deployment missteps are caused by not getting actual user input from the very beginning. Engaging with the end user increases the success rate of the implementation.”