Sharp Optimises for Success


Showcases Every Part of Its Portfolio, from A/V to Document Imaging

Jun Ashida, Sharp’s president of Information Systems in Europe, addressed the crowd at the company’s “Inspire Expo”.

Keen to top up the fading tan from the balmy heat of a typical British summer, I recently set off for the sunny climes of Malta, a small island south of Italy, to attend Sharp’s “Inspire Expo” conference. During a full day’s session, analysts and journalists from across Europe heard senior Sharp executives outline the company’s plans for success in an increasingly tough market.

It’s no secret that Sharp Corporation has suffered with poor financials over the past few years, with the cut-throat consumer marketplace, in particular, taking its toll. BLI has already covered the news that Sharp has licensed its consumer TV division into a separate company, relinquishing it of the pressures it had on bottom line profitability. While the consumer A/V market is off the radar for Sharp for now, that’s certainly not true for the professional, business-centric A/V portfolio for which Sharp has an excellent name and technology pedigree.

Over the course of the morning’s keynote speeches, three common messages kept re-surfacing:

1) Sharp is focused on the business-to-business market; with the consumer market no longer a target, this allows Sharp to concentrate its attention on the more profitable areas of its business

2) Sharp must capitalise on its core technology and innovation and utilise it more effectively across all channels, in order for it to deliver more well-rounded and comprehensive business solutions

3) Sharp will differentiate itself through the optimisation of its hardware and software offerings to ensure that every Sharp experience is ‘Best in Class’

A key part of Sharp’s message, and a consistent talking point over the day, was the integration of the company’s A/V product lines (which include professional monitors and interactive BIG PAD whiteboards) into the portfolio of products being offered by its traditional document solutions/imaging channel. This has already been rolled out as a business plan in the USA as a test bed. I asked Jun Ashida, Sharp’s president of Information Systems in Europe, how the U.S. plan was working out and what aspirations he had for its success in Europe. Ashida told me that sales through the ‘copier’ channel in the United States were steadily growing and that he was not expecting overnight success from the rollout in Europe. He acknowledged some of Sharp’s channel partners already had an A/V or meeting room business and that these early adopters would take the lead, with many others following once they have seen how their colleagues ‘get on’. Ashida also confirmed that the necessary resources would be made available to support the channel with the pre- and post-sale implementation as it enters this new territory. Alexander Hermann, Sharp’s vice president of Document Solutions in Europe, who had previously run the German operation for Sharp before moving to his current European role, advised me that up to 20 percent of the Sharp indirect channel in Germany already had an A/V business, indicating that there is more synergy than people might have first thought.

While A/V equipment and MFPs and solutions may not sound like obvious ‘bed fellows’, there are many vertical sectors for which Sharp’s offering of these products could differentiate the company from its competitors. Education, retail and transportation were just three that were discussed today over a cordial coffee or glass of wine. The BIG PAD interactive whiteboard is an attractive proposition in education, from primary to higher education, allowing lessons to be more dynamic and enabling handouts to include discussion points made during the lesson, making them more relevant and memorable to the students. Bright, high-definition monitors can make retail point of sale content stand out and information boards and digital signage in transportation hubs easier to read. The opportunities are there—it is going to be up to channel partners to determine how these new portfolio additions can be best utilised in order to deliver more value to their customers.

It was, of course, not all business strategy talk; there were the usual smoke machines, flashing lights and fanfare as new products got rolled out. The key product announcements included a new A3 colour lineup, built around a single engine, with common parts, architecture and supplies (with a few exceptions). With dealers seeking small inventories, less SKUs and easier training of service and sales teams, all of which allow for faster implementations, Jason Cort, director of Product Planning and Marketing for Sharp’s Information Systems Division, highlighted this common engine platform will be a key element of its Channel Attractiveness’ goal.

Cort continued to pull out key details. The new engine series has lockdown toners that can only be replaced when empty, another attractive design feature for the channel, which stops customers from switching out toner bottle as soon as the toner low message first appears. Many listeners would have been pleased to hear that Sharp has responded to feedback about its last user interface and it has now simplified the whole experience. Replacing the visual overload of the previous generation of products, the new interface now sports four eye-catching icons per page in a central row, with Easy Copy, Easy Scan functions providing fast programing of common tasks. Also included is built-in integration with common cloud storage repositories, like Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and SharePoint. To speed up recovery from energy-conscious sleep mode, the devices offer a motion sensor that detects when someone has approached the device. If the person remains in front of the device, it automatically wakes itself up ready for action, reducing wasted staff time.

Sharp indicated that the next generation of monochrome engines will follow the same strategy as the colour family with a single-engine platform, with synergy between colour and mono range. Details on the exact scope of this colour/mono synergy nor a timescale for the move were not, however, forthcoming.

The new, simplified user interface on next generation Sharp colour A3 MFPs.

Along with the new office hardware, Sharp announced a new program of Optimised solutions. Peter Plested, director of Sharp’s European Solutions Business Centre, described them as solutions that have been optimized to work with Sharp’s open architecture, both from its own internal solutions development division and from preferred ISVs. The first three groups of solutions targeted for optimization are Optimised Print, Optimised Scan and Optimised Mobile. BLI will be testing some of these new Optimised solutions, so watch for reports on Solutions Center in the future.

Version 2.0 of Sharp Cloud Portal Office was also launched, aimed at supporting collaboration and improving document management. Although I didn’t get a chance to see this solution at the show, I was told that it has a new and improved user interface and offers more connectivity with third-party resources, among other things. BLI will be publishing a report on Cloud Portal Office 2 in the coming months.

Major hardware announcements included a new monochrome light production engine series: the MX-M1055 and MX-M1205. With speeds of 105 ppm and 120 ppm, respectively, these devices will replace the MX-M1054 and 1204 products. While sporting many ‘under the hood’ improvements, such as improved registration accuracy and halftone handling, the big addition is the inclusion of a Fiery MX-PE11 print controller option. The new monochrome devices will, like their sister colour production product, the MX-7500, integrate the Fiery controller interface directly into the large touchscreen of the Sharp devices, negating the need for a separate workstation. As with the MX-7500, the Fiery Command Workstation interface can be controlled using the large 15.4" touchscreen directly or via the included keyboard with integrated touchpad. A release date for these replacement devices has not yet been set, but it’s sure to please Sharp dealers who have been frustrated by the lack of a Fiery option, which had made it tough to replace devices being used in Fiery workflow environments.

In closing, while the geek in me may have been a little disappointed not to see as much technical innovation as found in some other manufacturer events and, indeed, Sharp events, the business side of me was impressed by the direction in which Sharp appears to be heading, and by its much sharper focus on business success through better use of innovation and technology.