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Multifunction printers, or MFPs, have become a staple in many businesses, schools and government offices. They have incredible utility and can print, scan, fax and copy from one central location. Some may scarcely remember a time when they didn’t have these incredible, versatile machines in the office but the truth is that MFPs are relatively new machines.
It wasn’t too long ago that you required separate machines to print and photocopy taking up significantly more office space and resulting increased overheads. Before the year 2000, most copiers were analogue and could only copy one item at a time. They lacked the ability to digitally store or send information like today’s MFPs. In this article, we look even further back, to a time before printers and copiers merged into one device.
Once upon a time, if you wanted to create and share a document, you could either have a scribe handwrite the entire document or have it block printed. The first process was lengthy and expensive, limiting the dissemination of knowledge to those who could afford it. The second method involved carving the text or illustrations into a block of wood that was covered in ink and pressed into the page.
Given that each page required its own block that quickly wore out this was also a far from ideal solution. In the 1440s, Johannes Gutenberg paved the way for printing as we know it with his invention of letterpress printing. His approach was simple but revolutionary; put each letter of the alphabet on its own block. This allowed printers to arrange letter blocks into sentences. Prior to the letterpress technique, around 30,000 books existed in Europe. Less than 50 years later the number of books increased to 12,000,000.
Several centuries later and across the Atlantic Ocean, the next big leap in technology leading to MFPs occurred in New York in 1938. Chester Carlson was an arthritic patent attorney. His vocation as a patent attorney required high volume copying of important document. Naturally, his ailment made this a difficult and painful task.
Being a part-time researcher and inventor, Carlson set out to develop a method to copy documents directly. Tinkering in his kitchen, Carlson formulated a method of copying by preparing a zinc plate with a sulphur coating and running cotton over the surface to create a static charge. The first copied words with this process known as electrophotography and later on as xerography were “10-22-38 Astoria”.
Once the likes of IBM and the DOS operating system came along, computers were overtaking typewriter use almost entirely in businesses. The business world was opening to the possibilities spread sheets and word processing offered, and needed a way to capitalise on these technologies. With the advent of dot matrix printers, the management and production of data changed dramatically. The market for printers was exploding, so much so that manufacturers no longer had to rely on computers to sell printers.
In the 1980’s, laser printing quickly became the standard method for high volume printing. This new technology leveraged the advances in local area networking and laid the foundation for the inevitably fusion between copying and digital printing. However, MFP’s were still some time away and it was a long process for manufacturers to turn the idea of an MFP into reality. Some of the issues facing development of MFP’s were:
Additionally, when MFPs eventually did enter the market they were sold through copier dealerships. While this may have seemed an obvious choice, suddenly these retailers now needed to provide sales and support for products hosting technology they were unfamiliar with. Remember that these devices were not cheap and without adequate support growth of the multifunction printer market suffered heavily.
While they met a rocky start to the market, today MFP's have managed to become a mainstay in office equipment. Software has improved dramatically as well as wireless networking technologies, allowing offices to all seamlessly use the one device for an array of copying and printing needs. With the transition from analogue to digital all but complete, it seems the future of MFPs will be in taking advantage of technological advancements in document digitizing and cloud storage as more businesses head towards the Paperless Office.