10 Top Printer Industry Trends To Watch In 2021

While this year is likely to see an increase in office printing, opportunities around serving work-from-home print needs are expected to continue.

Fit To Print

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to shift to work-from-home last year, things didn’t look good for the already-struggling print industry. But while traditional office printing predictably sank, just the opposite happened in countless home offices. In fact, demand for at-home printers and supplies has surged during the pandemic—even while many print solution providers have found greater interest in their support and services offerings for remote users. Ultimately, some parts of the print industry have seen an increase in demand that would’ve been considered “unusual” in the modern working environment, said Keith Kmetz, program vice president for imaging, printing and document solutions at research firm IDC. Without a doubt, Kmetz said, access to printing is “still something that both the office user and the home user wants to have.”

That’s led to a wide range of implications for solution providers—from a continued opportunity around work-from-home printers to an expansion of the managed print services contract to include the home environment. For the print industry as a whole, the developments are also accelerating existing trends such as the growth of ink delivery services, interest in print security and the shift to A4 and multifunction devices. Meanwhile, there are also signs that the outlook for in-office printing is seeing an improvement in 2021 as businesses return to greater office usage this year.

As part of CRN’s Printer Week 2021, we’ve rounded up 10 of the top printer industry trends to watch this year.

Continued Focus On WFH Print

While the pandemic led to a widespread shift of work into the home, a recent IDC survey shows there will still be plenty of work-from-home even after some sense of normalcy is resumed, Kmetz said. “We’re going to return to the office, because we still like the social component, but there will still be a lot of work-from-home,” he said. The survey data shows that at-home working was roughly 10 percent of the market pre-pandemic--but that will approach about 30 percent of the mix post-pandemic, Kmetz said. “That’s an exponential change—and that’s going to have implications for the print marketplace,” he said.

While bringing major changes for office printing, the arrival of the “hybrid” workforce also means a continued reliance—and opportunity—around work-from-home printing, Kmetz said. “There’s a notable difference between what we’ve been equipped with in our homes versus what the in-office work experience has been,” he said. “And if we want our employees to be at a maximum productivity level, there’s a need to address several IT- and print-related challenges associated with that.”

Of course, one of those challenges is getting at-home users the level of support and services that they’re accustomed to in the office—which is what solution providers such as St. Louis Park, Minnesota-based MARCO has been focused on since the start of the pandemic, said Dan Larkin, director of managed print services at MARCO. The solution provider has been offering services ranging from remote support to repairs as “part of the baked-in deliverable” for its managed print services customers, Larkin said. And the strategy of serving both remote and in-office users will continue at MARCO, with the hybrid workforce here to stay, he said. Overall, “it will force companies and service providers to have that remote strategy and deliverable as part of their offering,” Larkin said.

WFH Hardware Opportunity

A number of solution providers say they’ve found new opportunities from providing customers with printers that are suitable for use in the home environment. For instance, at Gainesville, Va.-based NCS Technologies, requests for smaller printers that can be used by workers at home have been coming in “fast and furious” during the pandemic, said Matthew Cooke, a sales director at NCS. “Almost every day, I will be getting a request for a printer quote for at-home printing,” Cooke said. “I have a sense that it’s going to continue for some time.”

Some print vendors, in fact, have begun to target the demand for work-from-home business printing by releasing new models that cater to the unique needs in that environment. The new printer devices aim to meet business objectives, such as providing security and manageability, while offering a smaller footprint and lower pricing than standard commercial printers. That’s crucial because for many businesses, inexpensive consumer printers are more difficult to support and more vulnerable to security issues, Kmetz said.

Office Printing Returns—But With Changes

The return to a greater level of office usage in 2021 is expected to lead to a modest increase in printing in 2021 compared to last year, Kmetz said. “We’re slated to actually see an uptick,” he said. “But it’s not going to be huge. And there will be a lower dependency on devices and pages [than before the pandemic]. It’s just going to change. I think companies are going to look at printing with more scrutiny.”

Thus, solution providers should be considering “where the market is now and what new opportunities are there—and how do I resume my business as best I can to cater to the changes that are taking place in the market?” Kmetz said. “We know that the office is going to look different.”

On the plus side, at least in the short term, there is likely to be some pent-up demand for print hardware in offices, he said. “There were purchases and acquisitions that were planned for in 2020, and companies said, we’re not looking to refresh our MFP fleet right now—nobody’s at the office,” Kmetz said. “So they’re going to take care of that [this year].”

Managed Print Services Outlook Improves

The return to the office—and continuance of at-home printing under managed print services contracts—is leading to an improved outlook for MPS in 2021, solution providers said. Joshua Justice (pictured), president of La Plata, Md.-based JustTech, said that print volumes at customers in March began to recover to a greater degree than he was expecting. “March was really the turning point,” he said.

The managed print services provider now expects revenue to rise 20 percent this year after being flat in 2020, Justice said. “As print volumes return, we should be stronger than ever,” he said.

Likewise, at MARCO, Larkin said that the forecast for managed print services in 2021 “is very, very strong – from a volume perspective, from a unit perspective, from an overall needs perspective … I’m very optimistic for MPS.”

A4, MFP Shift Accelerates In Offices

Already underway for years, two major transitions in the office print market—toward A4 and multifunction devices—are set to accelerate as office usage returns this year, Kmetz said. That means a faster shift away from single-function printers and away from A3 copiers. “The A3 to A4 transition, I think that gets accelerated” as businesses seek “lower-cost, smaller devices,” Kmetz said. “But you’re still going to have some of the robust capabilities you’d expect from an A3 device—the duty cycle, the finishing and so forth. That’s a trend that we’re watching for coming out of this.”

Likewise, businesses will be even more likely to choose multifunction devices—which bring together functionality including printing, copying, scanning and faxing—over single-function printers going forward, Kmetz said. Multifunction devices generally offer greater management efficiencies and reduced costs by combining so many capabilities into a single device.

Software Even More Crucial

Based on recent IDC surveys, Kmetz said it’s clear that the software component associated with print “becomes even more crucial going forward. It’s what the customer looks for.” A multifunction device may be able to print and copy, but customers are now saying, “‘I want to be able to take that information and put it in a repository. I want to connect to the cloud and be able to utilize cloud print management. I want to be able to print from my phone. I want capabilities like capture, document management and so forth to be part of the solution that I use. I want to be able to do these things because this is the way I work now,’” Kmetz said. “And there’s obviously been a heightened activity around collaborative technologies—so the MFP, the printer, has to be part of that as well.”

Focus On Security

For companies that are seeking to enable a “true business environment” for workers in the home, business-level printer capabilities are a must-have—including around security, Kmetz said. “The home is not a bastion of security,” he said. “If you want to hack somebody’s work environment, it became a lot easier now with people working from home.”

And print is one of the often-overlooked areas of security—though that’s starting to change, Larkin said. At MARCO, “probably our fastest-growing category today is security. And we have a chief information security officer with a security team—and part of that team is dedicated exclusively to our print side,” Larkin said. “People don’t really think about printers as a security risk, but it’s one of the easiest backdoors for hackers.”

The solution provider has been performing security assessments for customers in part as a way to re-engage with existing customers--including by identifying older printers that present security risks and offering recommendations to address the issues, he said. “It’s an endpoint on their network that needs to be treated as such,” Larkin said. And that has only become more crucial with so many people working from home, he said. “It’s about, how do we provide the same level of service to them that we’re providing within our own walls?”

Ink Services Growth

With the shift to work-from-home, print giant HP saw a breakout year in 2020 for its Instant Ink home ink delivery service. The subscription service monitors printer usage and automatically provides ink deliveries to the home, so that users can avoid running out of ink. HP reported having 9 million subscribers to Instant Ink as of the end of January 2021, up from 5 million prior to the pandemic.

Tuan Tran (pictured), president of Imaging, Printing and Solutions at HP, said in an interview with CRN that HP “always had two value propositions for Instant Ink--one was cost, and the other one was convenience.” But in 2020, “the convenience value proposition went way up, because people didn’t want to come back to the store, even if they could,” Tran said. “They wanted their ink to just be self-monitoring. And that helped our channel partners to attach Instant Ink 2X to 3X what we saw pre-pandemic. There was a spike in printer shipments, but there was a much bigger spike in Instant Ink subscriptions.”

Kmetz said he expects ink delivery services to become a broader trend in the print market beyond just HP. Canon, for instance, now offers its Easy Ink Delivery service that aims to simplify ink re-orders (though the deliveries don’t happen automatically as with Instant Ink).

For at-home workers, “productivity can come to a screeching halt” if ink runs out in the midst of a project, Kmetz said. “Having a mechanism like what HP has, to proactively send out a cartridge, can help to avoid a disastrous situation. I think you’ll see this more from other manufacturers as well.”

Evolution Of The Print Solution Provider

Print solution providers that want to succeed in 2021 and beyond will need to adapt to the changes that have been initiated under the pandemic conditions, Kmetz said. That means meeting the evolving needs of both the office as well as the home user, he said.

“It gives providers and channel partners the opportunity to respond to that and have the vision to say, ‘OK, I’m not going to do it the old way. The pandemic has introduced new ways to work and the future of work has materially changed. So with that, we’re going to move forward with these types of products and services and solutions that cater to that future vision,’” Kmetz said. “As opposed to, ‘Let’s go right back to 2019.’ Because if that’s what you try to do, you’re going to miss the boat. That market doesn’t exist anymore. It’s materially changed and adjustments are needed.”

In particular, if solution providers “have a customer base where their workforce is increasingly decentralized, having the tools to be able to manage or at least diagnose issues remotely is something that’s going to be important,” he said.

Larkin said that serving work-from-home users ought to become a part of the strategy and offering for print solution providers in 2021--if it hasn’t been already. “I would say if they didn’t consider [WFH print strategies] last year, that they would be foolish not to consider them this year,” he said.

Print Remains Essential

Even with the growing emphasis on digital, there’s still a strong value proposition around using paper for many purposes versus relying on digital content, Kmetz said. That’s been proven out by the demand for at-home printing during the pandemic, he said. Often, “the recipient responds better to a piece of paper than they do with a digital format of a document,” Kmetz said. “There’s something to the physical presence of that information that makes people respond to it better than to an email.”

For many companies, Larkin said, print is “still very much integral in the workflow of the business. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I remember when I first got in the industry in 2003, companies were talking about this paperless office environment. That was almost 20 years ago--and we’re still not close to that.”