It’s not unusual to see a small business outsourcing this or that these days, but when it comes to printing, the trend is going the other way.

Call it “in-sourcing” if you will, but the fact is that over the past couple of years, small and mid-sized businesses that formerly contracted with print shops are now doing much of that work in-house.

Credit a competitive environment, which has driven down prices not only for printers, but for printing itself. Charlie Vidal, senior manager of printer product marketing for Ricoh, remembers that seven or eight years ago, you couldn’t buy a color laser printer for less than $5,000. Today, you can get one for $399 or less.

Cost of printing per page

Of course, as anyone who has looked closely at the market knows, the price of a printer is a deceptive measure of the total cost of ownership. Prices for those ink cartridges can add up.

That’s why you’re more likely to hear a printer vendor quoting a per-page price. Such prices for color printing average seven or eight cents a page and the range goes up to about 12 cents, says Larry Jamieson, director-hard copy advisory services for Lyra Research, of Newton, Mass. That compares to around 49 cents a page for a print shop, though prices can go as low as 39, he said.

While a standard measure is hard to come by, Jamieson said it’s safe to assume that each employee will generate 200 pages per month.

That figure can fluctuate wildly depending on what type of work a firm does. Some businesses are much more print-heavy than others. But those that do the math usually find they come out ahead, especially if their projects aren’t too involved. “The difficulty is, people who don’t have much print expertise may not be able to produce as nice a document as they would with an outside designer,” Jamieson says.

Driving printing back in-house

Nevertheless, for those who find they can do their jobs in-house, plenty of vendors are beating the drum for their printing systems. And the pitch these days is often as much about affordability as it is about image quality. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, is driving home the point that using its printers will shave about 50 percent off contracting with a print shop.

HP’s boast is driven by research from InfoTrends, of Weymouth, Mass., showing that printing 5,000 color pages on an HP Color Jet 2600 was 56 percent cheaper than using a retail printer. “As the capability of printing systems has gone up, many more businesses are starting to print in-house,” Karl Schwenkmeyer, vice president of marketing for inkjet systems at HP. “What’s changed is that the quality of our output rivals or exceeds that of a professional printer.”

For his part, Jan Six never seriously considered using a print shop. “It’s not only the printing costs you have to worry about, but the gas and time to get back and forth,” says Six, who runs a drug-testing firm called Sixcess with his wife in Lancaster Calif. Six uses an HP Officejet Pro 7650 printer, which pumps out about 1,000-1,500 pages a month, mostly company statements and brochures.