Magazine Article | July 1, 2003

Peripheral Vision: Monitor All Your Printers

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Remote printer monitoring enables IT managers to keep tabs on every enterprise printer and reduce company downtime.

Integrated Solutions, July 2003

Nothing creates frustration like a blinking light on a printer. What does it mean? Is the printer broken or is it thinking? I've already waited three minutes; should I wait longer? Should I shut it off? Remote printer monitoring is designed not only to eliminate the mystery surrounding the blinking light, but to allow the IT department to anticipate problems before they occur.

Remote printer monitoring has become standard on most new bar code printers, but many users have not taken advantage of this feature. Even one manufacturer of printers that feature remote printer monitoring says, "I haven't heard of that many applications using it yet."

Remote Monitoring: "Necessary" To The Enterprise
Web-based remote printer monitoring enables network managers to monitor and adjust printer settings using Web browsers. The software continually searches for printer and networking status messages (i.e. "blinking lights") and produces a real-time report of its current state. The software can provide immediate detection of printer problems and can send the network manager an alert message via e-mail, PDA (personal digital assistant), cell phone, or pager. Network managers can proactively monitor consumables levels (such as ribbons, labels, and printheads) and adjust any printer setting including printhead temperature, print darkness, and print speed. Print quality can be monitored, too. The vision system on the printer checks every bar code printed and guarantees the label is good. The system overstrikes unsuitable bar codes - caused by ribbon wrinkles and printhead dust, for example - and reprints a new label.

Remote printer monitoring became standard on bar code printers about two years ago. And even though end users haven't fully utilized its functionality, many of them won't purchase a bar code printer without it. "If a printer didn't have those features, there would be doubts raised in the buyer's mind about its future functionality," says Jeff Kaufman, product director for connectivity and networking solutions at Zebra Technologies (Vernon Hills, IL), a manufacturer of bar code printers and data collection systems. "It's specifically important for enterprise users. Even at the non-enterprise level, many customers require that feature." Andy Chapman, senior VP, engineering, and CTO at printer manufacturer Printronix (Irvine, CA), agrees with Kaufman. "In a small environment, remote printer monitoring is great," he says. "In an enterprise environment, it's necessary."

The two major benefits of remote printer monitoring are reduced downtime and centralized monitoring of all printers. Instead of replacing consumables after the printer (and the production line) shuts down, network managers can monitor printer status from their workstation. A colored chart (appearing as a "gas gauge") tells them when consumables are low. "If you're going to start a shift, and only 10% of a consumable is available, you can change it before the job starts," says Chapman. "The network manager is keeping the job on track before the operator even knows there's a problem."

That's a big difference from having printer problems diagnosed by line workers, says Bob Karr, VP of marketing for SATO America (Charlotte, NC), a bar code printer manufacturer. "In some manufacturing or distribution situations, if you don't make labels, the process stops," he says. "If you see the problem right away, you can keep things going. Instead of leaving it to people on the floor to solve, you can give it to a higher level IT person."

Two additional benefits of remote printer monitoring are inventory management and increased ease of use. Because the network manager is able to view every printer consumable level, he can quickly and accurately determine the amount of supplies to order. The ease of use comes from user familiarity with Web browsers instead of blinking lights on a printer. "Bar code printers have been mysterious," Karr says. "They have their own programming languages, ribbons, and labels. The monitoring software makes these printers easier to deal with."

Success In Distribution And Transportation
Remote printer monitoring is a horizontal application, but Printronix' Chapman says it has impacted the verticals of retail, distribution, automotive, manufacturing, and transportation. One example he cited was a retailer with hundreds of distribution centers around the world but just one centralized IT facility that monitors all network printers. "As they expand, they try to replicate existing DCs," Chapman said. "Using the software, they pull the configuration (logos, forms, symbologies) out of the printers in the current DC and download it into new printers in the new DC. They upload the configuration with one mouse click and can download it to 15 new printers with another click."

Another example is a transportation company with hundreds of printers throughout the U.S. Before installing remote printer monitoring, fixing each printer typically required 30 minutes of labor from two employees (and lots of head scratching). Now, from one central location, a trained IT staff member performs all diagnostic tests on the printer.

Wireless Bar Code Printing
Also on the horizon for bar code printing is a continued shift towards wireless printers. Mobile printing allows end users to place a bar code printer onto a cart and move it closer to the receiving dock or picking/packing process. In addition to that efficiency, the number of total printers can be reduced. For example, one mobile unit shared between departments can replace two fixed printers that are used only occasionally.

Wireless bar code printers can reduce infrastructure costs, too, by eliminating the installation and rerouting of cable. Many new manufacturing and distribution facilities are wireless from day one, eliminating thousands of dollars that would be spent on new cables.