R&D; into printers, papers and inks is starting to pay real dividends, as Kevin White reports.
Some breakthrough advances made in the technology of printers, papers and inks could potentially have a big impact on the capability and cost of ownership of the office printer.
But the arrival in the spring of 2007 of so-called Edgeline technology from HP will signal a period of even more intense competition in the mid-market enterprise print sector.
HP already claims 45% of the world's print business, but faces growing competition from the likes of Canon, Lexmark, and Dell. Yet, according to print industry watchers such as Lyra Research, HP will finally be playing in the 'sweet spot' of the digital copier market with its new Edgeline series, able to compete with the fastest convenience colour copiers that are currently on the market.
Lyra Research reckons that shipments of convenience colour copiers in the US are growing at around 15% a year, with revenue growing even faster at around 30%. Indeed, Edgeline looks to pose a distinct threat to all laser-based colour printers and multifunctional printers (MFPs). The secret is in the way in which HP has assembled multiple print heads into a page-wide array, so that the paper can be pushed through the printer at speed while the print heads are held static.
Speed and quality are not compromised. The key is that it uses large, stationary print heads arranged in a line to dispense ink across the entire width of the page as the paper passes beneath them. As there is no need to have printheads scuttling to and fro, the control over the paper is improved.
The result is more accurate ink-drop placement, accelerated print speeds, and a crisp, print-shop quality. Future printers fitted with full-width Edgeline printer heads should be able to dispense smaller drops of ink at a rate of 1,8 billion per second, compared with the low hundreds of millions that is the current standard.
Edgeline technology already powers the HP Photosmart pm1000 Microlab printer and the HP Photosmart Express self-serve kiosk.
In enterprise models it should be capable of print speeds in excess of 70 pages per minute, the company claims. Vyomesh Joshi, executive vice-president of HP's printing and imaging group, says the Edgeline development came out of the company's five year, $1,4bn Scalable Print Technology R&D; initiative. "That has allowed us to put more ink nozzles on to the printhead so units can spray ink faster and at higher densities than seen before," he says.
Vyomesh Joshi, executive vice-president of HP’s printing and imaging group
With Edgeline, each multidie printhead module prints two colours of ink and has 10 560 nozzles, or 5280 per colour. The development is said to combine the benefits of ink and laser for workgroup printing in the enterprise. It does call for use of some specially formulated HP Vivera inks, however.
According to HP, most or all of the print quality burden on office printing, which is primarily on to plain paper, rests on the ink, because plain paper properties are highly variable. Ink formulations have to resist smearing, dry quickly and form a durable film on the surface so that the colorant does not penetrate porous papers and reduce colour saturation and print optical density.
Match your market
Accordingly, HP claims the Vivera inks and media designed for enterprise class Edgeline printers will offer image quality and performance that are matched to the requirements of different market segments.
Joshi claims there is no limit to the form factor and that the heads could be stacked into printers that could cope with any size of print job, making it possible for the system to play a role in a wide range of jobs, from standard sales and marketing collateral to internal and annual company reports - even to over-sized sheets of full-colour graphics.
Edgeline is being positioned to offer a step up from the HP Colour LaserJet 9500 MFP range. HP even claims that it should decrease the total cost of colour printing, compared with department-class colour laser MFPs, although no cost of ownership data is available yet.
"With EdgeLine we have the cost structure of a consumer product, with lots of printheads being made on the same wafer, but with the performance of a high-end printing system," says Joshi.
Xerox and Ricoh have also been working to drive cost out of printer ownership through the development of solid inks and gels.
George Gibson is manager of the research and development portfolio within the Xerox Innovation Group, which sits between the company's renowned R&D; facilities and its product development groups. He argues that the technique has none of the problems of smear and smudge that aqueous inks present.
"We see it as providing a real alternative for office printing, because it prints well on ordinary paper stock," says Gibson, who claims this makes it far less expensive than systems that call for specially coated papers. "It produces laser-like image quality and performance, but with lower running costs," he adds. Xerox claims it also produces 95% less waste than a typical colour laser printer.
The company adds that solid ink prints the same colour regardless of paper type because it uses a consistent dot colour and shape that is unaffected by paper type. Temperature and humidity levels also have little or no effect on solid ink print quality. As printing starts, a microscopic layer of silicone oil is applied to the printer drum to aid ink release. No other costly consumable is required.
In the Xerox Phaser and its WorkCentre series, the full-width printhead applies all the colours at the same time on to the drum, which helps eliminate mis-registration. And the image is transferred from drum to paper without any need for another costly consumable, that of the fuser. The solid ink simply cools, solidifies immediately and is permanently bonded to the paper.
Ricoh is also pursuing alternatives to ink, developing a gel which it says should place it somewhere between inkjet and toner printing. "It is a very interesting technique that we think overcomes some of the cost versus speed issues that people face in almost all office printing scenarios," claims Chas Moloney, Ricoh UK marketing director. "The gel dries almost instantaneously on contact with the paper, so we can achieve speeds with inkjet printing that are normally associated with toner printing." Ricoh is about to launch three new GelSprinter standalone and network models into Europe, all of which make use of this water-proof, fast-drying, viscous ink that does not smudge, blur or bleed and will print colour and mono pages at speeds up to 30 pages a minute.
"We believe the running costs are lower than for comparable inkjet machines," says Moloney. Additional cost-saving attributes include a duplex printing mode, where both sides of an A4 sheet are printed, and a Level Colour Mode (LCM) feature that automatically detects where text and graphics sit on a page and varies the print quality accordingly. "The feature is very useful when several iterations of a document are likely to be printed before a final copy is ready for output," adds Moloney. "With LCM, pictures can be printed in draft quality mode and only the text printed out in full mode. Together these sorts of feature help reduce the amount of paper and consumables used to an absolute minimum."
HP's Edgeline technology is designed to provide an alternative to laser printing. In laser printers, toner is transferred to the paper as it moves through the machine at constant speed. This continuous page-wide printing process can be very fast because the motion is continuous and the printhead is stationary.
In digital printing systems, inkjet offers the brightest, most saturated colours and the widest colour gamut on photo papers. But getting ink to perform with precision and quality at the speed of laser printers on non-photo papers is technically challenging. Moving to a stationary, page-wide printhead means the ink can be applied at high speed.
Another benefit of removing the printhead from contact with paper, is the elimination of a source of wear that requires periodic replacement of laser writing system components. Edgeline's non-contact printheads are designed to last up to two million pages, which should put the system in a position where it is capable of producing some market-leading reliability statistics.
Samsung is another vendor that is pressing the reliability button. Though it is one of the leading consumer gadget makers, Samsung is a novice in the office appliance field. But while it is not so well-known for its multifunctional printers, Samsung actually OEMs units for Ricoh, Xerox and Dell, among others.
"Samsung manufactures all its own hardware components and print consumables," says Martin Fairman, general manager of the Samsung fax and printer division. "Reliability is a distinguishing factor and we are unique in being able to offer lifetime warranties."
Samsung's future product strategy is focused heavily on laser technology. "The company has made a pledge to be market leader in the MFP/colour laser segment by 2010," Fairman notes. That will be quite a turnaround for Samsung's printer business, which made its name in the small office, home office (SoHo) market, but now sees colour laser printers as a good point to enter the enterprise market. CEO Yun Jong-yong has said that the company's printing operation is expecting sales of $3bn for 2006 and that going forward the business would grow by more than 20% every year.
Yun Jong-yong, Samsung Electronics vice chairman and CEO
"Colour lasers are where all the R&D; effort is being directed, and we are already stepping up development of the range," Fairman comments. "We have a new 43-page-a-minute A4 machine as an entry into the multifunctional copier market and we are about to launch four other colour MFP devices based on the budget CLP-300 laser printer."
For the new range, the toner delivery mechanism has been completely rethought and redesigned to reduce the size of the cartridge, without affecting its performance.
"The new cartridge fits into the palm of the hand, and can comfortably handle anywhere between 1000 and 2000 prints," adds Fairman. As a result, the $300 CLP-300 and network-ready CLP-300N are the smallest colour laser printers in their class, something Samsung sees as an important differentiator in the SoHo and teleworker sectors, where people are currently using inkjet printers as their perceived lowest-cost option. In some industrial settings, such as the printing of warehousing dockets, shipping notices and factory floor barcode slips or labels, Toshiba believes there is a role for its new B-SX8R printer, which runs out re-usable printouts. Currently being piloted in Europe, the printer produces erasable mono prints on specially prepared plastic paper using the thermal printing technology that is commonly used in fax machines. The system is already on sale in Japan.
Mike Keane, European product manager for Toshiba Tec Europe, claims that the printer could find a niche in any 'closed-loop system' where a sheet of paper could be recycled. "Think of all the warehousing processes that depend on a picking list to be printed, or all the various forms of inventory listings and shipping documents that are normally printed and then thrown away as waste," he says. "We believe there is something to be said for re-writable paper in all those cases."
Toshiba uses paper that carries an 'active' layer of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET plastic, on to which heat-sensitive chemical pigments can be temporarily fused. The vendor claims that in test conditions it was able to re-use these special paper sheets at least 500, and up to 1000, times. The B-SX8R machine erases a previous image by passing the A4 sheet under a heating element that sits in front of the paper feeding mechanism. The paper is also washed to remove any marks or air contaminants.
Quality and speed
Print quality is not high at 300 dpi, but it should be more than adequate for many jobs, and the printer can push out sheets at reasonable speeds of up to 12 pages a minute. Any problems of ghost images and shadows should be resolved once the paper has been re-used several times, Keane adds. Toshiba maintains that although each sheet of PET paper costs about $10, its system would still offer cost benefits if its studies of total cost of ownership are correct. In a situation where an $8000 B-SX8R printer was used to produce 800 sheets a day, it would work out cheaper than other laser printer options over a period of five years.
Printer costs are a big drain on most enterprises, so with luck some of these advances – particularly in the mid-market space – should be good news for consumers. Meanwhile, although the cost of ink is not set to fall any time soon, new paper technologies might just help to bring down the total cost of ownership for some applications.