Mobile printers have found a clear place in field service, delivery, and other route applications because of the value they create by saving time, raising accuracy, and improving customer service. The proper place for the printer itself is not so clear. Some organizations prefer the mobile printer and computer to be separate components, while others favor a single integrated unit. For delivery and field service applications, two pieces are clearly better than one. Here are five reasons why.
1. A Better Fit
Ergonomics and ease of use are essential for mobile applications to improve productivity. Two-piece solutions provide several advantages over integrated computer-printer devices, which tend to be bulky and heavy if ruggedized for use in the field. First, workers use the mobile computer much more than the printer for each transaction and supporting operation. Therefore a printer built into a handheld computer represents dead weight most of the time. Separating the printer enables it to be worn on a belt clip or shoulder strap, which distributes the weight, improves ergonomics, and reduces fatigue. If a wireless interface to the computer is used, the printer usually can be left right in a vehicle cradle and doesn't need to be carried at all.
2. More Uptime
A wireless connection such as Bluetooth also eliminates the cables and connectors, which are a frequent source of failure on mobile computers and peripherals due to broken pins or failed connections. That improves reliability. Ironically, one-piece systems double the downtime risk for users, because if either the printer or computer component of the device needs service, the entire unit is unavailable. This risk may require an organization to keep more spares on hand, raising the total cost of ownership (TCO).
3. Longer Lifespan
It is highly unlikely the computer and printer in an integrated unit will each reach their end of life at exactly the same time. When one component needs to be replaced, the other must be replaced prematurely. Such replacements drive up TCO and replacement costs while limiting the return on assets. Separating the computer and printer enables organizations to get the full life and value from each component.
Printers will often outlast their computer counterparts in mobile applications. Compare several standalone products and note that printers are often rated to withstand drops better than computers. Computers have more components that can fail or need replacement, including the processor, integrated bar code reader, screen, or keypad. Organizations also frequently need to upgrade memory and may also want to upgrade operating systems and wireless capabilities. In fact, "technology obsolescence"--not damage or failure--is the leading reason organizations change their mobile computers, according to research firm Venture Development Corp. (VDC) . Mobile and wireless computing technology and applications change more rapidly than route printing needs, so mobile printers can easily have a longer effective lifespan.
4. Feature Flexibility
Independent mobile printers provide media, mounting, and other options that integrated units can't match. Mobile printers can be mounted in trucks, on material handling equipment, and on walls, or unfastened for easy carrying, depending on the user's preference; integrated printers must be carried wherever the computer is needed.
Standalone printers also accept a wider variety of supplies, for example roll and fanfold media. All-in-one units typically don't accept fanfold media because loading requirements are incompatible with the one-piece design.
5. Battery Life
Battery management is always an important concern in mobile applications, and using all-in-one units complicates the task. Integrated devices have a single power source for all computing and printing, plus any bar code scanning and wireless communications. Even quality batteries will be strained to support all these functions throughout a busy full shift. If the battery runs out, the worker loses all computing, printing, and wireless communication capabilities until the battery is recharged.
Two-piece solutions provide two batteries to maintain, but put a manageable workload on each. If the printer battery runs out, the worker can complete the route with continued automated data entry and communication. Printers can also run from a vehicle plug-in power source, so battery life won't be a concern.
Combination PCs/printers aren't used in the desktop world and make even less sense in mobile environments where support isn't readily available and reliability is paramount. Two pieces are better than one for meeting the needs of the mobile user.
Robert Danahy is director of global mobile and wireless technology for Zebra Technologies, a leading provider of on-demand specialty printing solutions for business and process improvement. Zebra makes a full range of mobile printers for use in a variety of enterprise environments. Visit www.zebra.com for more information.