Oct 31 2006

Can Laser Printing Really Impact Research (and Grant) Success?

The speed and quality of color laser printers contribute to the University of Montana's research–and grant–success.

Less than a century after Lewis and Clark stopped in Montana on their search for the Northwest Passage, the University of Montana was founded in the growing town of Missoula. The 200-acre campus, situated in western Montana at the base of Mount Sentinel and on the banks of the Clark Fork River, is home to more than dramatic sunsets and plentiful outdoor recreation.

Over the past 112 years, the institution has cultivated an accomplished academic environment built off the area's original spirit of exploration. Eighteen years ago, the Division of Biological Sciences was created when the university merged the botany, zoology, microbiology and biochemistry departments into a single entity.

Today, the division's around 730 faculty members, research staff and students continue on a scientific path of discovery, exploring areas of study such as plant ecology, wildlife biology, conservation biology, microbial ecology, and medical and environmental microbiology.

The biological sciences staff works with a wide range of commercial and research organizations, including local biotech companies, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. The group's researchers received a boost last year when the division received $10 million worth of National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other grants.

What's the division's secret weapon? A cadre of color laser printers has helped the department excel in the competitive world of grant funding. The ability to create lifelike color images is becoming essential for research. “When you apply for a research grant, you've got to show your preliminary data in a paper printout. Having high-quality color helps determine how much success you have in the grant process,” says Jesse Hay, associate professor of cellular physiology. “If they can't see what you say you're seeing, then they don't believe you.”

Although having sharp, full-color representations of cells, chromosomes and other research elements doesn't guarantee grant success, it's becoming an added factor in helping researchers communicate the importance of their work to authorities. “With today's demands for realistic graphics and visually oriented reports, we're seeing a huge demand for color laser products,” says Dan Whaley, network administrator for Montana's biological sciences division.

“With technical images, clarity and accurate reproduction is important for helping people understand the information when researchers send scientific samples out with their proposals to the NSF and other organizations. It's not just a matter of looks; there's real information value that's being communicated, too,” he continues.

In addition to the grant proposals, the faculty uses the dozen Xerox color printers–such as the Phaser 7750GX and 7300DN–to produce copies of PowerPoint presentations, student handouts, research reports and test materials. Students asked to analyze specimens reproduced in printed images on tests are benefiting from the greater detail and authenticity as well.

Catalyst for Change

“The catalyst for buying color laser printers was definitely the grant proposals,” says Whaley. The division made its first color printer purchases about five years ago, starting with the Phaser 760 and 840 models. Over the years, Whaley says he's seen a steady evolution in laser printing technology, with marked speed increases along with improvements in color, graphics and text reproduction.

“The speed difference is definitely the biggest change,” he says. Early models printed at an average rate of less than 10 color pages per minute, a speed rate that's now doubled or tripled by the newest units, even at high dots-per-inch (dpi) settings such as 1200 or 2400.

Professor Hay puts these capabilities to good use. He studies the internal structures of animal cells to document how various components move around inside a cell, a discipline known as intracellular trafficking. Results from studies like these are often applied to cancer research. Photographic images taken through a microscope can capture these cellular particles, which are often stained with fluorescent dyes to make their structural differences more distinct.

When a color printer reproduces these images, it must not only recreate the different hues, but it must also provide a high enough resolution to capture the subtle variations in intensity within each color, Hay says. “Even if something is all green, it's important to see how bright the green is in the various layers. And those intensity differentiations are difficult to reproduce on many printers,” he explains.

“It's hard to get that dynamic feeling you can see when you're looking through the microscope. Things I see with the microscope just don't show up when you print out an image with a lot of printers. Sometimes you're just frustrated,” he admits.

The Phaser 7750GX not only captures those delicate tonal variations, but does so with added efficiency. In the past, Hay had used a color inkjet printer, but found that a representative report with 14 color micrographs took 30 minutes to print. With the high-speed laser printer, he's able to produce the same report in 63 seconds.

“When I selected my laser printer I went for a combination of print quality and speed,” he recalls. “It just makes my life so much easier if I can print an article in about a minute and have it look great,” Hay says.

Purchasing Process

Technology purchases for the division fall under the purview of Whaley, Matt Bestram, network administrator assistant, and Mark Ruguleiski, a Web and database developer.

The three have participated in deploying the color laser printers and easing the transition from black-and-white printing. The key struggle when moving from black and white to full color is finding printers that can retain the clarity that existed in the grayscale images.

Whaley's team works with faculty members to help choose the right model for their particular needs. They typically collect a range of sample images from an instructor's research project and arrange to run the images through various printers to make comparisons about color saturation, color-scale accuracy, sharpness of lines and edges, density of blacks and readability of text.

“We go through numerous samples and let the faculty person decide which model meets his or her expectations for color quality and grayscale reproduction,” Whaley explains.

As part of the purchase process, Whaley and his team also complete return on investment (ROI), total cost of ownership and cost-per-page calculations for the models under consideration. (See sidebar for more on TCO .)

Whaley and his team use a print management application called Print Manager Plus to control who has access to and how much each person prints to certain machines in the department. The faculty and staff have free printing privileges, while the students have small start-up accounts and are required to pay per print after they have used up their quota.

Whaley pulled data from Print Manager Plus to estimate use per day (number of pages) for both black-and-white and color printing, which helped him determine anticipated supply and maintenance costs, as well as potential revenue. The cost-per-page analysis enabled Whaley to let upper management know about long-term supply costs ahead of time.

While the numbers were an important factor, “the final output quality also played an extremely important role. We weighed the ROI and the TCO along with the specific purpose the printer was to be used for in making our [final] decision,” he says.

Models and Maintenance

The result of all of this homework includes the division's newest color laser printer, the Xerox Phaser 7300DN. This model can produce full-color output at a rate of 30 pages per minute and black-and-white pages at 37 pages per minute.

Montana's collection of color printers has continued to grow since the division's initial investment, too. Whaley has purchased two or three printers each year, and last year's influx of grant money from the NIH, NSF and the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust will not only allow the division to expand efforts in molecular biology and biogeochemistry, but a portion will also go toward new equipment.

The number of printers hasn't been the only thing growing at the Division of Biological Sciences. Since the department's consolidation in 1988, grants and contract funding have soared and now represent about four times the value of state allocations. Maybe a clear picture is worth even more than a thousand words.

Purchasing Power

Because faculty and staff don't have “one-size-fits-all” printing requirements, it's important to consider a range of models before making a particular printing choice. Dan Whaley, network administrator for the University of Montana's Division of Biological Sciences, offers these tips:

1. Determine business needs: Whaley believes color laser printer shoppers need a clear idea of what their printing requirements are. He advises departments to determine their business needs and to use that evaluation to select the right printer.

After you've established the user's needs, Whaley advises taking the time to thoroughly research printers. Take into account all necessary features, such as double- or single-sided printing, resolution quality, color accuracy and ease of network hook-up.

2. Test sample pages: Before the purchase, ask sales reps for demo prints along with print times from start to finish. Whaley had PDF files from the division reproduced on different Xerox laser printers at a variety of resolution levels and speeds so they could get a better idea of what each model could deliver. This gives faculty and staff the chance to see the full gamut of print possibilities for their work before making a decision.

3. Compare prices: After evaluating printouts and selecting models that fit business needs, Whaley suggests getting quotes from a variety of vendors before making the purchase.


Total shipments of monochrome page printers

3,158,394 units

2,981,000 units

Total shipments of color page printers

585,395 units

888,850 units

Source: Gartner

Taking Account of TCO

The actual purchase price of a color laser printer is just one portion of the total cost of ownership (TCO). Evaluating prospective models based on calculations of total cost of printing is a useful exercise that may help drive a purchasing decision.

To calculate TCO for printers, there are three main cost categories to consider:

1. Equipment costs: Includes the price of the printer itself and any other necessary hardware to get it up and running.

2. Operational costs: Includes ongoing costs for the machines including supplies (think toner and paper), power and service. Software programs are available to help users manage and estimate these numbers.

3. Hidden costs: These can range from installation and shipping costs to lost productivity when a printer is down. While these costs are often hard to track and calculate, they can often constitute a large chunk of total expenses.

Alan Joch is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer.