Duty cycle is a part of every printer specification, and it’s often discussed as one of the main criteria you should use when deciding which printer to buy. Many buyer’s guides will tell you quite plainly that duty cycle reports the workload a printer is designed to handle. However, when you read that the mid-range printer you’ve been considering has a duty cycle of 200,000 pages per month, you might wonder what’s going on. Either you’ve been shopping for more printer power than you really need or that number is fishy.
There are two shopping rules relating to duty cycle:
- Don’t expect your estimated (or actual) monthly print volume to match the duty cycle of your appropriate printer.
- Don’t compare one vendor’s duty cycle to another vendor’s duty cycle.
Why Duty Cycle Is Confusing
If you’ve browsed several printer models you’ll know that the stated duty cycle for a given printer is a rather big number, tens or hundreds of thousands of pages per month. The vendors will tell you that a printer’s duty cycle represents the amount of use the printer is designed to handle, measured in “maximum” pages printed per month. The cheapest laser models promise 8,000 pages per month and a typical workgroup printer may claim a 250,000-page monthly limit.
If you were to match your real estimated monthly print volume to their duty cycle numbers, you’d rarely need anything more than a $250 printer!
Basically, the stated duty cycle, or maximum monthly volume, is a disclaimer figure for the vendor. There is no industry standard for duty cycle, so one vendor’s figures can sufficiently vary from another’s so that it isn’t useful to compare across vendor lines. However if you’re comparing models from one company, the duty cycle figures can give you a sense of how much through-put one model can take compared to another.
Duty cycle is a number that’s based on stress testing of the printer. It’s an upper-limit print volume that’s generally many, many higher than the amount you will print on that model. The duty cycle doesn’t take into account the practical limitations of a particular machine — the print speed, paper tray capacity, toner or ink capacity, and memory. It only measures the total amount of work the non-replaceable components can withstand.
Paul Preo, an expert on business workgroup printers for IBM, demystified duty cycle along the following lines. He explained that part of the arbitrary quality of the stated duty cycle is due to the fact that vendors don’t pinpoint the expected lifetime of a given printer. Vendors will set different measures for estimating the lifecycle of a machine, limiting it to the expected usage (based on stress testing) before a particular part wears out. Other vendors may count certain parts among the “consumer replaceable parts,” and thus extend the lifecycle of the printer — and increase the total volume of pages a machine might handle in its lifetime.
Hewlett Packard, the market leader for business printers, sets the standard for the RFQ (request for quote) for the business market. As long as HP continues to tout printers with 200,000-page duty cycles, other vendors will follow suit, even though the figures themselves don’t hold much use for the customer. Mr. Preo suggested that the convention may break, and there are indications that there is change coming. IBM lists the usually large duty cycle number on their printer specifications, but a footnote to the large number adds that you really shouldn’t print this volume “on a regular basis.” Even HP is says the company is working on an alternate figure that would instead present a printer’s “rmpv,” or recommended monthly print volume, which would be a more realistic estimate of the volume you should expect given the limitations of the toner and paper capacity.
So when you’re evaluating different printers for your business, you should steadfastly ignore the duty cycle figure. Instead, make your best guess as to your office’s monthly print volume, and take that information to the vendors. When the salesperson recommends an $800 model with a 100,000-page monthly print volume, understand that customers typically print 5 percent, perhaps up to 10 percent, of a printer’s stated duty cycle.
How can you tell whether you’re being sold more printer than you really need? Instead of puzzling over the stated duty cycle, you can run a few other numbers and follow a couple general rules to determine whether a particular printer is suited to the volume your office will print. Consider how much paper the default paper tray (or trays) hold: assuming that each person in the office prints the standard estimate of 35 pages per day, calculate how frequently people would need to reload paper on a given model.
Rather than trying to decode the meaning of the stated duty cycle on a printer — a pointless task given the arbitrary inflation in that number — you might try a more practical way to make sure you get just the right machine for the volume of printing in your office.
First Rule of Thumb: Assume that everyone prints 35 pages per day.
According to Paul Preo at IBM, customers tend to overestimate their regular print volume. He cites studies that show that the average office worker prints 35 to 50 pages per day; this is the range that IBM uses to help business customers find their optimum office printer. If you don’t have another way to estimate the print volume in your office, use this as a starting point.
Second Rule of Thumb: You don’t want to have to change your toner or ink more than once per month, and even that is probably too frequent (and costly) for most businesses.
Now, you can consider your monthly print volume in relation to the number of pages that a printer’s ink or toner cartridge is supposed to handle. Look at the replacement toner that a particular model accepts, and find the print volume of the toner. How frequently would you have to buy new toner at your monthly print rate?
Higher duty-cycle machines hold more paper, use higher-capacity ink or toner cartridges, and are rated at higher print speeds. Here’s one scenario: You have a small office with several people on each printer, generating a few thousand printed pages a month. You buy a $250 laser printer that prints 10 pages per minute, and uses a toner cartridge good for 2,000 pages of that kind of printout, and a 30,000-page drum. Your monthly printing will take three or four hours over the course of each month, you’ll change the toner cartridge once that month, and your printer drum is still good for most of the rest of the year. The only irritant will be refilling that doggone 250-page paper tray ten times.
Here’s another scenario: You’re a high-volume shop; you crank out 100,000 pages a month. Try it on that little $250 laser printer, and here’s what you’ll be spending your time on that month: printing all day for 22 workdays, changing the toner cartridge 50 times, and replacing the drum three times. And you’ll throw the printer out the window long before you’ve refilled the paper tray 400 times. Obviously in that case you’re better off spending a lot on a high-end laser printer with high-yield toner cartridges, much higher print speeds, and supersized paper trays.
So in order to figure out what level of printer to buy, you need to know roughly how much you print each month. You may know this already. If you don’t know, you can ask the staffer who buys printer paper for your office. Or check with the shop from which you regularly buy printer paper; they may have a history on you. Or you might look up on the vendor’s Web site the model of printers you have now to find out its rated duty cycle; you can plan to buy another printer with the same duty cycle rating, or use this as a starting point if your demands are going up.
If this is your first printer purchase, and you can’t even guess how much you’ll be printing, you can take advantage of those unbelievably cheap inkjet printers: Buy one, set it up, and see how much you print in the coming month. Bingo, you’ve got your answer.
Once you’ve got your monthly print volume number in hand, tell the printer salesperson — and do the above calculations to make sure you get the right thing! If the salespeople happen to know what they’re doing, they can match you up with the right level of printer for that level of use. Even online-only shops like Dell have online sales support you can call or IM to get that match-up.