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The Cost of Ownership: Commercial vs. Consumer Copiers & Printers

Businessman calculating total cost of ownership of a commercial copier

average cost of printer device ownership

Whether you've been tasked with copier shopping for a new company or your organization's ancient printer would be of better service as a boat anchor, there are several items to consider when on the hunt for company printer equipment. Much like shopping for an automobile, it would behoove you to not only consider initial benefits but also what to expect over the lifespan of your copier and printer devices. All of these factors add up to what is known as the total cost of ownership (TCO). 

The Upside-Down Sticker Shock of Copier & Printer Ownership

"Cost of ownership? Doesn't that just mean the price tag on the model on the showroom floor?"  Far front it.  As you begin your research quest into the world of printer and copier options, you may notice a fairly massive price disparity between commercial-grade and consumer-grade devices. This is especially odd because it's not likely shared among other products. A commercial van, for example, may not cost any more than a vehicle designed to haul your daughter's soccer team. A commercial printer, however, will likely have a much steeper upfront cost than its consumer-grade equivalent—and for what seem like all of the same features. It copies. It prints. It scans. It likely even faxes, collates, and may even staple. What gives, right? Why is the commercial model so much more expensive than the consumer-grade model?  Here's the thing: it's not. Walk with me for a minute. 

Cost of Ownership Based on Intended Use

It wouldn't be a proper analogy to compare a soccermobile with a commercial van if we're looking at consumer-grade printers, copiers, or multi-function devices (MFDs) with their commercial-grade counterparts. A more apt analogy would be comparing the family wagon with a cross-country bus. While both are designed to get the family from A-to-B, each one is built and designed with a specific purpose. The family cruiser may clock 20,000 miles a year. The cross-country bus may put double or triple that amount on its odometer between Christmases. Because of this, it's understood that each model is going to be built differently. Those designs and build differences will also impact the overall cost of owning and maintaining these machines overtime—copiers or vehicles.  For vehicles, some models are built for trips across a continent while others are built for trips to the grocery store. For copiers and printers, some models are built for reams' worth of company policy packets while others are built for household budget spreadsheets and college essays.

Upfront vs. Overtime Costs

"Why would I pay $XXXX for that MFD when I can pay $XXX for this one? Don't they do the same thing?"  When comparing copier and printer models, the stark contrast in the models for what seems like identical functionality can feel offputting. That sticker price, however, only tells one side of the story. The side being left out is the projected cost-per-image over the life of the machine. Oddly enough, rough estimates place the cost-per-image of the commercial model machine much lower than its consumer-grade counterpart. The factors contributing to this price vary. 

Ongoing Cost of Consumables

Most equipment that runs on a form of energy have secondary costs involved with owning said device. Some cell phones seem to hardly need power while others drain batteries. Certain cars sip gas like scotch while others guzzle it like middle schoolers after summer football practice. So, too, do copiers use power as well as ink or toner. Though there isn't a huge disparity in their ink and toner efficiencies, there is such in the cost of said replacement cartridges.  If you're wondering how consumer-grade printers can be so affordable, you may only need look to the cost of their replacement ink and toner cartridges. Realizing that most consumers aren't taking the total cost of ownership of these products into account before deciding to buy, the manufacturers of consumer-grade printers and MFDs shift most of the cost of ownership into the price of their ink and toner. They maintain control of these prices with proprietary replacement cartridge designs. Though commercial-grade devices usually also require proprietary cartridge replacements, they're not only typically much more affordable but are also higher capacity. Higher capacity cartridges mean not only less time needed by office staff members replacing such consumables, but also fewer cartridges winding up in landfills or oceans. 

Differences in Serviceability 

"I'm taking my desktop printer in for service."  "The printer repair technician will be in later to fix your scanner."  These are not phrases you've likely heard. Why? Because consumer-grade devices are not designed to be repaired. Even if they were, their artificially low upfront costs make it more affordable to simply replace a faulty machine with a new one. Such is the case with most consumer-grade electronics. Commercial-grade models, on the other hand, were designed with serviceability in mind. The speed and ease in which a technician can remedy a device issue are crucial to the ongoing popularity of a copier or printer model. For this reason, many commercial print device manufacturers strive to keep parts affordable and certified technicians thoroughly trained to perform timely repairs. The less downtime a particular manufacturer model averages, the more popular that model will be among customer organizations going forward. 

The Semi-Soft Costs of Network Maintenance

Every company printer device requires access to its organization's computer network. Unlike a home computer network where connecting may be a few simple steps, robust network security protocols may make connecting to the former network more involved. Abiding by these protocols is not the job of a regular office worker. Instead, it likely requires printer service technicians to work in tandem with IT department specialists. Due to the serviceability of commercial-grade models, new machine setup is very rarely needed. Repeatedly installing new replacement consumer-grade models, however, will likely require the costly coordination of both departments. 

Cost of Network Security

Not only intended for limited imaging volumes, consumer-grade copiers and printers are also designed for limited accessibility. The number of devices that would need to access a single copier or MFD differs significantly from an office versus a residential household, and so too do security features. One of the reasons for this disparity is the level of impact of a compromised security situation. Whereas it would be unfortunate for a household to have personal data compromised from its print devices, one compromised commercial-grade device can result in the leaking of tens of thousands of the sensitive records of workers, clients, or patients. These high stakes have cause commercial device manufacturers to provide exceptionally robust security features for their copier, printer, and MFD models. 

Calculating the Total Cost of Ownership

Before you pull the trigger on purchasing a printer, copier, or MFD for your office, there are some questions you should ask to help you determine the cost of ownership.  "What is the average lifespan of this machine?"  "How much are ink or toner cartridge replacements for this machine on average?"  "How much does the average service call cost for this device?"  "Are replacement parts for this model expensive in comparison to other models?"  The more information you have about the ongoing cost of operating the machine, the better a decision you will be able to make about selecting the right printer device for your organization.

When Consumer-Grade Models Make Sense

It may seem that commercial-grade printer or copier devices are always the best bet. This isn't necessarily the case. For smaller organizations that rarely produce 500 copies or printed pages a month, a consumer-grade printer may suffice. There are, however, many other factors to consider before making this decision.

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