Magazine Article | February 22, 2013

Mobile Printing Technology Evolves To Keep Up With User Demands

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

Today’s mobile printers must support multiple operating systems and new applications.

Research firm IDC estimates that by 2015, the worldwide mobile worker population will reach 1.3 billion, representing 37% of the total workforce. While this growth is primarily being driven by the rapid adoption of smartphones in white- or gray-collar applications, expansion continues in line-of-business operations like field service, route accounting, public safety, and transportation. Vertical markets like healthcare, insurance, and utilities are also increasing their use of mobile technologies. This, in turn, has increased demand for mobile printing solutions.

“This trend creates a continued need for efficient mobile solutions, including having the ability to print on the go,” says Marty Johnson, product marketing manager at Zebra Technologies. “Additionally, there is a new wave of mobile technology adoption, including mobile point of sale and printing, where end users are looking to create a better customer experience through more responsive ‘just in time’ service and to increase efficiencies in their operations.”

Many companies are using the same printer for multiple applications. In retail, for example, a single printer may be called upon to print receipts, labels, and shelf tags. The increased speed of wireless networks (both WLANs and new 4G wide-area networks) has changed user expectations when it comes to how fast a mobile printer should work. All of these factors have put additional pressure on mobile printer manufacturers to make their devices more responsive and flexible.

The Impact Of Android, iOS On Mobile Printing
“The rapid adoption of Android, iOS, and Windows Mobile on handhelds and tablets is putting the onus on mobile printer manufacturers to develop new software tools, SDKs, demonstration apps, and custom support solutions to provide end users the seamless integration they’ve come to expect,” says Ravi Panjwani, vice president of marketing and product management at Brother Mobile Solutions. “But in the field, the earliest adopters have discovered that integrating their new devices with mobile printers can take a bit more planning than their legacy Windows devices required.”

While there has been continued demand for mobile printing solutions in traditional applications like direct store delivery and field service, the vendors interviewed for this story have seen an increase in interest in some specific verticals. In the healthcare market, for instance, more hospitals are implementing patient identification, medication administration, and specimen tracking. Often, these solutions require not only point-of-care bar code scanning, but also point-of-care label printing. “Through bedside labeling, doctors and nurses can ensure the correct specimen is connected to the right patient, ultimately increasing patient safety and reducing medical errors,” Johnson says. “In transportation, logistics, and field service, on-demand receipt and invoice printing helps reduce errors from handwritten items and process billing faster on the back end.”

Public safety organizations are also increasing their use of mobile printers via e-citation and accident report solutions. “In the face of significant budget cuts, police forces and the public safety industry are beginning to see how mobility solutions can dramatically improve efficiencies, speed processes, increase safety, and actually help generate revenues,” Panjwani says.

In field service, interest in mobile payment technology has led more companies to deploy printers with integrated credit card readers. Likewise, retailers are using mobile printers for line-busting applications and mobile point of sale solutions.

Is Paper Printing Going Away?
Not every mobile application requires a printed receipt or label. In fact, the push for paperless transactions has led to an increase in field organizations using e-mail to provide receipts, invoices, and shipping documents. Printed documentation, however, is still required for most transactions.

“In business-to-business applications there is still a need for the printed copy, as companies often serve a variety of customers, some of whom will want the printed copy to process the invoice,” says Paul Weslake, senior product manager at Datamax-O’Neil. “In some verticals there are still legal requirements for the documents to be printed and signatures to be gathered. The more sophisticated end users are looking at how to use e-mail, but it is their customers who are driving them to provide a level of service which could involve a receipt.”

There will always be industries that require a “leave behind.” For instance, law enforcement personnel still need to provide paper citations and will likely never e-mail or digitally send the documentation (at least not exclusively).

“We’ve seen the trend and are learning that customers like the flexibility of receiving an e-mail receipt, but they still prefer to have a printed record to review at the point of transaction or to retain for record keeping,” Panjwani adds. “Some customers who do not use e-mail or use it on a limited basis prefer printed documents. In certain vertical markets, printed documents are required by law, and e-mail just isn’t a replacement option. We believe that electronic documents will exist as a valueadd competitive differentiator, but also co-exist with the printed documents.”

New Mobile Printing Integration Challenges
According to Weslake, customers are still focused on critical printer measurements like print speed and throughput but are paying more attention to efficiency issues such as paper usage and battery life. “Users are looking at ways to save money and are looking at the cost of power consumption and the cost of batteries,” Weslake says. “Smarter battery technologies and higher capacity batteries have allowed this to happen, which in some cases help to maximize the efficiency of the battery and reduce the amount of power used in charging it. Users are also evaluating what they print and how to maximize the usage of their media, which also reduces their costs.”

Then there are the integration challenges. In the past, the types of purpose-built rugged devices deployed for field service applications could easily be integrated with mobile printers using widely available drivers. More companies are deploying consumer devices like iPads and iPhones, and manufacturers have struggled to keep up with demand for multi-platform support.

“Customers now want the flexibility to print to a mobile printer from the device they choose,” Panjwani says. “They expect that mobile printer manufacturers will provide the integration tools they need to print from any device. Today’s mobile printer manufacturers are challenged to understand the emerging technologies, develop the necessary apps or SDKs, and then continuously improve these tools to provide seamless integrations and the best possible end user experience.”

End users expect a desktop printer experience when deploying mobile printers, but due to the limitation of mobile operating systems on handhelds, tablets, and smartphones, that integration does not always work the same way as it does with legacy devices. It is imperative to utilize a well-developed app, SDK, or other tool to help close those gaps and speed deployment.

“The challenges now are cross platform development and easy communication to the printer,” Weslake adds. “With many applications moving to the cloud, multiple browsers are being used to control the application, and that creates difficulty in standardizing communication with the printer. Developers need to consider the printer upfront when implementing the systems and utilize the tools that the printer manufacturers provide.”

Although digital receipts, invoices, and documentation are increasingly part of the field service toolbox, mobile printers will continue to play an important role in providing needed documentation as well as serving a point of sale function where mobile payments are required.