Open a modern self-service kiosk and you won't see much motion. Most of the machine's functionality is handled by a few fan-cooled boxes. The more a kiosk shifts to solid-state internal components, the fewer parts that can jam, crack, bind or fall out of alignment.
But one key part of many kiosks will likely never lose its moving parts. The printer is a common component, and is one item that can single-handedly make or break a deployment.
"It's the most maligned part of a kiosk," said Terry Cooper, western regional OEM sales manager for printer manufacturer Telpar. Much of the consternation, he explains, comes from a simple error: not having a clear idea of the printer's role in a given kiosk application.
"I've probably heard it a million and one times," he said. "A client will say, â€˜I've picked out a kiosk and now I want to force-fit a printer into the kiosk.'
"When you go face-to-face and say, â€˜let's do a reality check,' they say, â€˜gosh, I didn't think through that too well.'"
A well-planned printer/kiosk combination should be relatively bulletproof, says Zebra Technologies' Tim Dreyer.
"The number of times between failures is hundreds of thousands of printouts," he said.
But one errant decision — perhaps a printer with a too-small paper roll for its frequency of use — cold turn a kiosk into a useless floorspace filler. How does a deployer limit the risk of downtime due to printer failure?
"Test, test, test and verify, verify, verify," said John Gomersall, Telpar's eastern region OEM sales manager.
Built to last, designed for abuse
"You're asking a lot from a printer," Gomersall said, "so you start out with a design that's as simple as possible." Depending on the application, this could mean a number of things: A basic printer with one motor to drive its rollers, or a sophisticated unit with delayed-presentation (the ability to internally hold a receipt until printed and cut from the roll). The determining factor, again, is application — how will the kiosk be used, and how might it be misused?
"You have to assume all these things could happen to it, or could potentially happen to it," Gomersall said.
The considerations include both user actions, such as someone pulling a long receipt out of the machine before it's cut from the roll, and deployer-side issues, such as making sure the printer holds enough paper to avoid frequent refills and designing the printer so that staff can easily load paper and clear jams.
And engineering to enhance printer performance shouldn't stop with the hardware, Cooper said. Designing the printed documents so that they are legible on the chosen paper width is just as important to customer satisfaction as ensuring the printer's working.
"A lot of that needs to be gone through, and a lot of times it doesn't get done," he said.
A case for communication
Arguably one of the biggest factors in increasing printer up-time is the development of communication tools that allow deployers to keep track of printer performance and catch problems before they become major issues.
Fujitsu Frontec's Randy Fox explains that his company's printers, like Zebra and Telpar, can electronically alert maintenance staff when paper runs low or a jam occurs. A built-in error code reader on some Fujitsu models allows service staff to quickly identify problems, and Fox says that well-designed components can even make manual repair a quick, efficient process.
"Even if you haven't developed a robust application, you can just look at the device itself," he said.
Gomersall said the relatively recent switch from parallel-port to USB and Ethernet connection on printers also improves performance, thanks to much faster data transfer. And thermal printing, in which the printer marks specially prepared paper using heat rather than ink, is making kiosk printers smaller and more reliable, since they eliminate ink cartridges and the attendant need to change them over time.
But the bottom line on kiosk printers? Planning ahead can pay huge dividends, says Gomersall.
"These are things you have to consider right from the beginning" of the development process, he said. "It all comes down to the application, the environment and what you're expecting out of the printer."