Oct 31 2006

The Paper Chase

Printing costs out of control? Here's how some innovative institutions took steps to reduce costs, save paper and better manage their print operations.

With printing costs spiraling out of control, institutions are trying to reduce expenditures, save paper and better manage printing operations.

The electronic age doesn’t mean a paperless one for colleges and universities. On the contrary, campuses churn out massive quantities of documents, memos, promotional literature, student papers and other materials. And with the proliferation of desktop and mobile computers used to create information, printing costs can easily spiral out of control.

Technology managers at a number of institutions are taking steps to better manage the growing printing services on their campuses, and to keep down the costs of paper, toner, maintenance, service and support calls, and other printing-related functions. Initiatives include both technology solutions and policies such as chargebacks to users.

Three years ago, printing was “out of control” at the University of Cincinnati (UC), says Don Rainwater, technology manager at the university. “We were printing several million pages of paper every year,” Rainwater says. “Students would print dozens of pages and often leave them at the printer. At the end of the day, we’d have trash barrels full of wasted printouts.”

The university launched a program to bring its printing under control and slash costs. The UC Office of Information Technologies, University Libraries, Medical Center Academic Information Technology & Libraries, University College and College of Pharmacy installed printer management software on all computers in public areas and labs.

The software acts as a queue manager for each printer within the system. When a user prints to the managed printer, the system puts the print job into a queue. The user then goes to a release station attached to the printer, slides a university ID card through a card reader, selects the job from a list of jobs waiting to be printed and clicks on a button to print the job.

UC also began charging students for printing. Each student is given $7 in “free printing” per school quarter, which is enough for 100 black-and-white pages. For all printing beyond that, Rainwater says, students must pay 7 cents per black-and-white page and about 50 cents per color page.

As a result of these efforts, wasted printing was almost completely eliminated from the campus. In addition, print volume was reduced by more than 60 percent in the first year, Rainwater says, and the university saved about $80,000 in consumables costs.

“One of the most important parts of our implementation process was communication,” Rainwater says. “We met with the student government to explain why we were doing this. We put up posters in the computer labs to suggest alternatives, such as viewing documents online and printing double-sided. Other posters described the environmental impact, stating, ‘1,130 trees could be saved in one year if users of UC public printers reduced their printing by 40 percent.’”

Reducing Waste and Abuse

In 1991, Columbia University in New York launched an internally developed network printing system to authenticate and authorize print jobs and help manage the printing environment of computing facilities on campus. In 2001, the university began work on an updated, more comprehensive and scalable printing system called NINJa (which loosely stands for “NINJa Is Not Jake” — “Jake” being the nickname of the previous print management system). The goals of NINJa were to regulate the expense of printing; provide accurate statistics on printer usage; deliver a reliable monitoring system for effective system administration; and reduce overall waste, abuse and the environmental impact of printed pages.

The NINJa system includes release station kiosks that sit on top of each printer, function as print servers, and are linked to a central accounting server and a database that stores print usage statistics. Most users start with a certain quota of free print jobs and can purchase additional quotas or “printing dollars” on the Web using a credit card. Accounts are charged 10 cents per black-and-white page and $1 per color page.

A user sends a job to a printer, which appears on the kiosk display. In order to print, the user selects the job from the queue and authenticates it using network identification that’s also used for other IT services, such as e-mail and Internet access. If the user is authorized to print, the job is printed and the user's printing quota is deducted from his or her account on a page control server.

NINJa, which has been deployed in central IT computer facilities and five other campus departments (totaling 115 printers), has helped Columbia reduce printing costs. By deploying NINJa in its libraries, for example, the university cut the total number of printed pages from 10.5 million in the 2002-2003 academic year to 8 million in 2003-2004, says Barak Zahavy, senior systems analyst, Columbia University Information Technology.

At an estimated 2 cents per page, that represented savings of $50,000. The university also generated revenue of $58,000 in page sales and account upgrades in 2003-2004, bringing the total benefit to $108,000.

“NINJa gave us a level of control we didn’t have previously,” Zahavy says. “Before that, people would go to the libraries and print out whatever they needed, even if it was not academically related. Everyone knew there was free printing in the libraries, and people were abusing that to print course materials or whatever they wanted.”

A Pay-for-Print Program

To contain its printing costs, the University of Akron has encouraged all departments on campus to use centralized printing and copying services for larger print jobs. The services use high-volume devices that are more economical than standard office printers, says Cheryl Purefoy, director of printing services at the Akron, Ohio, institution.

The university is also expanding its use of networked multifunction devices that combine printers, copiers and fax machines. The campus now has 130 of these devices, which serve as “mini hubs” that are shared by multiple departments, Purefoy says. The idea is to move away from desktop printers, which she says are more difficult to control in terms of usage and are therefore more costly.

In addition, the University of Akron has implemented a pay-for-print program in most of its general-purpose print labs. As a result, printing costs in these facilities have dropped by about 50 percent, according to Holly Mothes, manager of technology learning support services.

Students get access to printing through print stations, where they must log in using a valid identification number and password. Under the program, students are entitled to 100 pages of free printing per semester, and then must pay 7 cents per page for black-and-white printing. (Color printing is not available in the print labs.)

“Most of the students don’t use nearly that many pages,” says Mothes, because they’re aware of the costs and are therefore more accountable. In the past, students would be more lax about making multiple copies of something if it didn’t print just right.

“We started with three labs on pay-for-print, and we’re up to 26 and have significantly reduced our use of paper and toner,” Mothes says. In a typical month the print lab costs run between $15,000 and $18,000, compared with $30,000 to $36,000 before the pay-for-print program. Net annual savings are between $29,000 and $35,000.

Analysts say print management has become a more complex task for institutions because of the rise in wireless access to printers on campus.

“If you go back about five years, before wireless became prevalent, it was a more controlled environment via desktop printing,” says Jake Wang, senior analyst, digital imaging and printing at the consulting firm Current Analysis in San Diego. “Now there’s a whole level of complexity that didn’t exist previously. The problem of managing print costs is not limited to educational institutions; it’s a problem in all types of businesses and in government.”

Current Analysis sees a lot of underutilization or overutilization of printers, says Wang, who developed a software tool that measures the total cost of ownership. “Part of the issue is managing the flow of print volume to various devices, and measuring things such as print behavior,” he says.

For example, institutions can use tools — available on many printers — that allow administrators to analyze how individual printers are being used, Wang says. They can measure the average page coverage of prints going through certain devices or track the use of color printing.

In the future, it’s likely such tools will be used more frequently as institutions try to stay in control of their printing costs.

IT Money-Saving Strategies

The total cost of computer printing goes beyond the obvious, such as printer hardware, maintenance, paper and toner. University IT departments must consider the expense of providing support to end users, configuring print drivers, installing network software and performing other functions.

IT administrators are finding ways to keep some of these costs down. Columbia University in New York provides online documentation with detailed instructions on how to configure desktop and notebook computers to send print jobs to its distributed print management system.

The online instructions cut down on calls to the IT department’s help desk for printing-related support, says Barak Zahavy, senior systems analyst, Columbia University Information Technology. Columbia also provides a downloadable software tool that automates the printing configuration process for Windows-based systems, Zahavy says.

The College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J., deployed an application that helps manage the rising cost of print services. The application, which tracks printer usage and issues reports that managers can employ to monitor how printers are being used, contributed to a 42 percent reduction in print volume at the college from the fall semester of 2004 to the fall semester of 2005, says Frank Nardozza, associate director, access technology. That resulted in savings of about $14,000. The college will also recover more than $5,000 in overage charges during a four-month period as part of a fee system it implemented for printing.

An added benefit is that the College of New Jersey is now more proactive in maintaining printers. For example, toner cartridges and paper can be replaced precisely when they need to be. That has led to fewer support and troubleshooting calls from users, Nardozza says. The system also helps the college be more efficient with printer deployment, moving seldom-used printers to new locations.


The combined benefit realized by Columbia University from both paper reduction and printing revenue.

Bob Violino is a writer based in Massapequa Park, N. Y.