This Week in Imaging: Brother Moving Upmarket; Epson Ramping Up; Decision Time for Sharp?’

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Photo credit: Kathy Wirth

This week’s op-eds discuss the new Brother/Amazon ink service, the doings of Brother International, Epson and Sharp Corporation, Cost per Page and Total Cost of Ownership:

This week we had some interesting news from both Brother and Epson. While both of these vendors were previously focused primarily on the consumer-printing market segment, as that market has contracted, both have sought to expand into the office-printing segment. For Epson, this has been with ink-jet-based devices, culminating with its introduction last year of its A3 WorkForce Pro WF-R8590 MFP with replaceable ink packs, and which it’s distributing through the BTA channel (see story here).  Virtually all of Epson’s inkjet devices – from consumer to office to commercial wide-format – are based on Epson’s PrecisionCore ink-jet print head technology, and this week the firm announced that it was investing some 20 billion yen in order to triple PrecisionCore print-head production.

For its part, this week Brother announced a slew of new monochrome lasers that it says are expressly designed for office use – including a 48-ppm device that scans at up 100 images per minute and which it says is a “multi-function copier” – a term we’ve never seen Brother use before – and which are eligible for the Amazon Dash program (see below). On the one hand, it’s hard to see a newcomer like Brother succeeding into the already-saturated copier/MFP market, but if it’s offerings are priced very competitively, and if customers are receptive to Brother’s de-centralized marketing strategy (it emphasizes that centralized “big” A3 copier/MFPs are time-wasters requiring employees to spend lots of time trekking back-and-forth to use them), it just may gain some traction.

Brother also this week officially became the first office-imaging vendor to sign up with Amazon’s Dash, a service where you can order supply items at the push of a buttonized gadget. However, in conjunction with Brother U.S.A., the Dash service has been transformed into an automatic service, sans buttonized gadget, so that your ink or toner is delivered automatically when the supply gets low. Some 45 Brother printers and All-in-Ones, both inkjet and laser, are now eligible for the service. Brothers’ INKvestment line of printers with their very low Cost per Page are included in the plan.

The service does sounds a lot like HP Inc.’s Instant Ink ink-cartridge automatic-replacement service. A key differentiator to us though is that HP made its ink cartridges much less expensive under the program – for instance, users can sign up to print up to 300 pages per month for $9.99. To our knowledge, Brother hasn’t discounted its supplies, although, as noted, Brothers’ INKvestment inkjet line does offer a very low Cost per Page.

Speaking of Cost per Page, stay tuned for an exposé of sorts next week when we’ll study the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of: a Brother INKvestment printer versus a comparable Brother non-INKvestment printer; a comparable Epson CISS printer versus a comparable non-CISS Epson printer; and a comparable HP Officejet printer with Instant Ink versus a comparable HP Officejet printer without Instant Ink.

The study will reveal the crossover point (pages per month) at which the TCO of the more expensive INKvestment and CISS-equipped printers become economically advantageous, as well as the crossover point where it becomes less economically advantageous to take advantage of the HP Instant Ink Program. It hasn’t been decided yet, but we may also throw a few low-cost laser printers into the mix for a reference. Stay tuned.

Decision time for Sharp? In the last two weeks, a number of reports have come in regarding Sharp Corporation of Japan. As Sharp continues to struggle with a huge debt load of 791.8 billion yen (according to Bloomberg News), it faces several options: accept an offer reportedly made by Foxconn (Hon-Hai) this week, or perhaps go for a structuring plan also reportedly in the works, and underwhich the Japan government’s Innovation Network Corporation of Japan would invest more than 200 billion yen into Sharp, and two Japan banks would convert about 150 billion of Sharp debt into Sharp. We are probably likely to see a resolution sometime by the end of January. And, as we’ve noted – having religiously poured over various Sharp financial reports over the last several years – Sharp’s office-imaging group continues to perform in a healthy fashion – it’s been its display business where it’s encountered the most competition – that has caused the most trouble.

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