Sharp Steps into Color Light Production, Establishes Cloud Presence at 2012 National Dealer Meeting

 By Jessica Schiffenhaus, Research Editor, August 1, 2012

Celebrating its 100th year in business and 40th year in the document business, Sharp held its 2012 national dealer meeting on July 15-18 at the Gaylord Texan Hotel in Dallas, Texas. This year’s highlights included the announcement of two new high-volume color models, three light-production monochrome units and the big player: Sharp’s first device in the color production space.

The company also announced its first cloud platform: The Sharp B2B Cloud Portal, from which dealers can access and purchase cloud solutions from Sharp and Partner Program members and manage them via a unified license management console. Along with the portal, Sharp introduced two Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings of its own: Collaboration and Document Management Service and Sharp Remote Device Manager as a service.

The audience seemed curious as Doug Albregts, Sharp Imaging and Information Company of America (SIICA)’s new president took the stage at Monday’s general session. Having been president for only eight months, and hired from outside the industry, Albregts broke the ice with a video labeling him “the most interesting non-copier guy in the world” – a humorous play on the Dos Equis advertising campaign, which was well-received.

Albregts went on to discuss what makes Sharp an Irresistible Force (this year’s theme). He discussed driving new business without dealers’ investing their own capital, having an IT-centric strategy to drive market revenue to dealers, improving cash flow by stopping inventory buying at the end of quarter, and improving operational efficiencies and delivery times.

In its drive to leverage copier sales by providing IT services, Sharp has partnered with SHI International Corp., a multi-billion dollar global provider of IT products and services. Based in New Jersey, SHI is the largest minority- and woman-owned business enterprise in the U.S. and, through this partnership, Sharp hopes to access major global accounts, including Fortune 500 and minority-owned companies that are presently clients of SHI. “We see a huge opportunity with SHI to help us to penetrate that market,” said Mike Marusic, senior vice president of SIICA’s Marketing and Business Solutions Group.

New A3 MFP Series: Not Just a Refresh

The lead attraction at the event was the Polaris Pro, Sharp’s first color light-production series, set to launch in 2013. The product was developed from dealer demand, explained Cliff Quiroga, associate vice president of Sharp’s Product Management Group. After meeting with more than 100 dealers and end users, Sharp determined that customers want to do jobs in-house, and the most critical factors are color consistency, media support and reliability. The Polaris Pro utilizes all of the enhancements made in the other two new A3 lines, plus several advanced features.

Similarly engineered, all three of the new high-volume A3 series offer several key enhancements that Sharp touted at the show. First, they use a new 1.8-GHz multi-processor design, which improves performance by sharing the processing load among tasks like document processing, user interface response, and internal tasks such as checking toner and paper supply status. Secondly, they all support 5,000-sheet trays with Sharp’s new (roller-free) triple air-feed paper-handling system, which shoots air from both sides for paper separation and from the top to push the paper down, ensuring it goes straight into the paper path. “It offers superior reliability in terms of paper jams and paper skewing,” said George Grafanakis, senior manager, product planning and marketing. The machines come standard with PCL 6 and Adobe PostScript and support Sharp’s OSA development platform.

In addition to the air-feed trays, the machines share the same in-line options including a curl-correction unit, multi-sheet inserter, 5,000-sheet stacker, multi-folding unit and four finishing options (staple and saddle-stitch finishers each available in 50- or 100-sheet stapling capacity versions).

The 65-ppm and 75-ppm Polaris Pro series features an optional in-line spectrophotometer powered by Pantone/X-Rite that performs automatic color calibration while the machine is running, without slowing it down. “That’s a big time-saver, and it will maintain color consistency more efficiently,” said Grafanakis. The device supports an optional external Fiery controller that can be managed right from the machine’s control panel. It also supports full-bleed printing. For easy use, the control panel is a large color touch-screen display mounted on a movable arm, complete with a full-size keyboard and mouse.

The 90-ppm MX-M904, 105-ppm MX-M1054 and 120-ppm MX-M1204 are monochrome MFPs designed for high-volume environments. They replace the MX-850, MX-950 and MX-1100 - “But this is not a just a refresh,” said Grafanakis. “This is basically a completely reinvented product.” In short, these machines are faster, have larger memories, higher paper capacities, new organic toner and more options. In the base configuration, the models in this series have a 3,000-sheet paper capacity, and a 250-sheet duplexing single-pass feeder that scans at up to 200 ipm. When fully configured, they have a 13,500-sheet paper capacity (including two air-feed units and a 500-sheet bypass), and can support up to two 5,000-sheet stackers for unattended operation up to 10,000 sheets. They also have a 10.1" web-enabled color touchscreen display.

Launched at the show, the 62-ppm MX-6240N and 70-ppm MX-7040N—also called the Polaris Office series— are designed for high-volume office environments, small CRDs and copy rooms, according to Sharp. They replace the MX-6201/7001. Like the monochrome units, this series is completely reengineered with faster color speeds, more memory, and better paper handling. Most significantly, these units use a color consistency system. Contributing to color consistency is Sharp’s micro-fine toner technology; a developer auto-refresh process (there’s a small amount of developer in the toner cartridge); and real-time process control that constantly monitors color output and checks density while the machine is running, without slowing it down. Additionally, the maintenance cycle is doubled at 400,000 impressions. Equipped with a 3,000-sheet paper capacity, these devices support up to 8,500 sheets (including one air-feed unit and a 500-sheet bypass). It has a 150-sheet DSPF and scans at up to 150 ipm. These models support most of the same options as the others, with the exception of the 5,000-sheet stacker.

Two color workgroup MFP series were also on display at the showcase, including replacements for the MX-3111U and the next generation of the MX-2610N/3110N/3610N series. Still under development, these products are expected to launch by the end of the year.

In the small- to mid-size office range were two models that will replace the MX-3111U at the end of the year: the 26-ppm MX-2615N and 31-ppm MX-3115N. Similarly equipped, these devices will be updated with standard PCL 6, full-color network scanning, and support for a 2,500-sheet tandem tray, which brings the maximum paper capacity up to 3,600 sheets.

The 26-ppm MX-2640N, 31-ppm MX-3140N and 36-ppm 3640N are built for mid- to large-size offices, and offer several enhancements over their predecessors (the MX-2610N/3110N/3610N). Most notably, these devices will feature Sharp’s second-generation user interface, which offers flick-and-tap navigation, smartphone-like multi-touch controls and tab navigation, and the display’s default layout has four large user-customizable icons (instead of eight). This series will also offer the 2,500-sheet tandem tray, increasing the maximum paper capacity by 1,000 sheets.

Though A4 products were conspicuously missing from the event, Sharp informed analysts that there would be an A4 refresh in the fall.

To The Cloud

Joining its competitors in the cloud space, Sharp announced its new B2B Cloud Portal and two Software as a Service offerings. The B2B Cloud Portal is a unified purchase, management and access portal for a suite of Sharp and third-party partner services, said Vince Jannelli, director of product management applications and partners for SIICA. The B2B Portal is scheduled to launch at the beginning of next year.

A key part of the portal is the License Management Console. This console lets authorized Sharp dealers manage all SaaS licenses in one place and enables virtually instantaneous license delivery. Administrators can use the console to view licenses, assign users and devices, reset passwords, lock accounts and more.

“All in all, the Sharp B2B Cloud Portal is unique in the marketplace,” said Jannelli, “with its comprehensiveness, channel-friendliness, support for Sharp and non-Sharp services, and, most importantly, the control it offers the customer’s IT administrator.”

Sharp’s first two Software as a Service offerings include Collaboration and Document Management Service and Sharp Remote Device Manager as a service, which is a cloud-based version of SRDM that supports mobile access from iOS and Android devices. The Collaboration and Document Management Service is designed for the small to medium-size business (SMB) marketplace, providing on-the-go access and document sharing across multiple platforms, including PC or Mac computers, Sharp MFPs, mobile devices, and Sharp’s AQUOS BOARD. It consists of several elements: the core storage service, Sharp OSA connector, AQUOS Board connector, PenSoftware integration, and the iOS and Android applications, explained Jannelli. Live demonstrations showed the service’s widespread capabilities, including the meeting room feature, which uses the AQOUS BOARD to enable users to access, edit, print and share documents in a matter of seconds.

M.I.C.A.S. Machine Intelligence Call Avoidance System

Still under development, M.I.C.A.S. is a cloud-based tool, hosted by Sharp, to help dealers reduce their call volume and time spent in the field for repairs. Currently, when there’s an error with a machine, technicians have to seek out information in several different locations before they can even begin fixing the issue. For example, they may have to access the job log, look in the service manual, find the service code, look up the service code, search the parts guide, etc. What M.I.C.A.S. does is aggregate all of that information into one centralized system.

Through M.I.C.A.S., scheduled to launch in October, dealers can monitor all of their customers’ devices, including usage and maintenance counts. They can even see what machines need firmware updates and download them automatically. When an error occurs, a step-by-step process ensues. A floor plan of the user’s fleet (that the dealer already uploaded to the system) indicates which device is experiencing issues, the part of the device with the error lights up, then it displays the error code(s), what each error code means, a video that simulates where the error occurred, and how to troubleshoot the problem (with mechanical, electronic and electrical fixes). If the problem requires a new part, the system will display the parts associated with that specific error. This will allow technicians to arrive at the customer’s location prepared for the service call, reducing repair time and increasing the likelihood that the issue will be fixed in one trip.

Members of the M.I.C.A.S. team expect dealers to be on board with the new system. “They’re excited about it,” said Dave J. Wilkens, senior project manager cloud applications, Sharp’s Media Systems Group. “Now it’s a question of ‘How soon?’”

Partner Program Solutions Abound

Over 65 third-party exhibitors lined the outskirts of the showroom; five of them offered MPS programs, 19 vendors, including Buyers Laboratory, provided channel marketing services, and the rest were Sharp Partner Program members offering integrated solutions for Sharp products.

Among the Partner Program members were some of BLI’s Summer 2012 Pick Award winners. Notable Solutions, Inc. (NSi) was showcasing AutoStore, its document capture and routing solution, which won a Summer 2012 Pick for “Outstanding Document Routing & Workflow Solution.” MaxxVault LLC, which won a Pick for “Outstanding Document Management Solution” for MaxxVault Enterprise 5, was there to tout its scalable electronic document management solutions. Also exhibiting was PaperCut Software, whose PaperCut MF 12 was named BLI’s “Pick” in the print management category; and EFI, whose FIERY VUE received an “Outstanding Achievement Award,” Early partner program members for the Software as a Service portal exhibiting included Printnet, which demonstrated its CopyNet print job submission solution, and Webiplex, which demonstrated its DocuPeak document management services.

Other partners included DocuWare (Document Management Software that automatically processes any type of document); Square 9 Softworks (SmartSearch Enterprise Content Management suite); Nuance Communications, Inc., (Equitrac Office print management software); and Prism Software (ScanPath, DocRecord, DocForm, DocSystem, DocQueue and GroupPoint).

Dealer Response

BLI had the chance to speak to a few dealers, and on the whole, the reaction seemed to be positive. Some dealers were thrilled about Sharp’s emergence into the color light production space with the Polaris Pro. In fact, by the end of the event, 221 orders had been placed for the Polaris Pro; topping the 200-unit goal set by Rich Boomsma, SIICA’s senior vice president of sales, at Monday’s general session. Others were very happy about the B2B Cloud Portal and Sharp’s new applications—including the Collaboration and DM Service’s Meeting Room integration with the AQUOS BOARD. The AQUOS BOARD Interactive Display Systems generated a lot of excitement, as they provide dealers with an additional source of revenue growth. A few dealers even mentioned that they ended up selling the boards after using them during presentations. By the end of the week, of the dealers we interviewed, none expressed any misgivings about the meeting’s messages. And overall, they appeared confident that the new president, Doug Albregts, was leading the company in the right direction.

This article was originally posted on Buyer's Laboratory.

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