A new dawn from down under


When Kia Silverbrook took the stage at this year’s Global Inkjet Printing Conference in Prague, what he had to say shook the inkjet printing industry by the lapels and left it reeling.
Office products is not a market that generally conjures up such moments and over-excited reporting on breakthroughs can lend itself to overstatement, but the tale of a prolific inventor, a secretive company and a "stunning" new technology is a story too irresistible to miss.
Hiding in the shadows and pumping out patents for ten years (it is one of the top ten patenting companies in the world), Silverbrook Research in Sydney has been busy inventing a new way of inkjet printing that promises to be double the speed of the fastest printers, currently on the market and cheaper than all its rivals.
Using MEMS (or Micro-electro-mechanical Systems) technology, Silverbrook’s Memjet was designed from scratch to be a full page-width array printer, unlike the evolution of standard inkjet printers which arrived from scanning technology.
A visit to Memjet’s website reveals the various prototype printers in action and makes for astonishing viewing for the average consumer, but it must be hugely disconcerting for the established inkjet printer manufacturers out there.
Even more worrying for the likes of HP and the other big three is that Memjet is talking about its A4 printers selling for an astonishing $199 in just two years’ time.
The print engine is capable of powering copiers, scanners and fax functions, making it suitable for full integration into MFP-type products. The innovation has caught many offguard. As one printer industry executive put it: "This wasn’t even on our radar."
A quick snapshot of the technology goes something like this: Five print heads, spanning less than 1mm across, use individual microchips in segments joined together into a fixed page-width printing system. Each chip measures just 20mm across, contains 6,400 nozzles and is powered by a specially designed computer chip and bespoke software.
Remarkable technology
Unusually, the paper passes underneath the nozzles (70,400 nozzles in a standard A4 printer to be exact) and the printer is capable of knocking out 60 pages per minute (ppm) in full colour. Currently the fastest laser jet printer can only manage a leisurely 35ppm.
"The technology itself is quite remarkable in that it was designed from the ground up to do full page-width array inkjet printing," says Steve Hoffenburg, director of consumer imaging research at inkjet printer analysts, Lyra Research.
Historically, inkjet printers have had scanning printheads, which print an inch or less in width terms with each swathe across the paper.
Its only recently that HP, with its high-end Edgeline printer, has assembled printheads in this new way.
But Memjet is arguably higher-speed and uses simpler technology than its HP counterpart, although the two products are pitched at different markets and not currently in direct competition.
"To do all that in a low-cost printer is remarkable and it’s off the charts in its cost to performance ratio," says Hoffenburg. "There’s nothing else that is as fast except products that are much more expensive. From a technology standpoint it’s a breakthrough."
To achieve this speed Silverbrook has not, despite what some rivals say, had to sacrifice print quality. The ability to get full-page printing at 1,600 dots per inch (dpi), higher than any devices currently on the market, adds to the plaudits mounting up.
The futuristic technology is only half the story. The firm’s business model is also surprising. According to a recent Lyra webcast the company will be "cracking the market open" by licensing the patented system to the established inkjet companies, meaning the big four – Epson, HP, Canon and Lexmark – could be customers of Memjet in the future.
This also means no Memjet products per se. As the company puts it: "Each business area – labels, photo retail, home and office printing – has a mature eco-system of companies consisting of OEM brands, manufacturing partners and service partners."
The Memjet model is for the company to become a horizontal component supplier that provides print components and consumables to OEMs. The development of printer devices will be up to them. Historically the technology in the inkjet industry has been manufactuered by the big four, but again it appears Memjet plans to change the market.
Says Hoffenburg: "Other companies that have attempted to develop their own inkjet technology have run into technical and intellectual property difficulties when establishing patents. Because Silverbrook developed Memjet on its own, it has produced technology that does not appear to infringe on other patents and has the ability to offer it up to other companies that have never been in the inkjet market before. In the next few years there could be two, three or even five significant new entrants to the inkjet market."
This could have substantial repercussions depending on which companies sign up with Memjet and what products they bring to market with the technology.
Launchpad CES
The only company mentioned publicly so far is Photo-Me, a UK-registered firm that operates automatic photo booths. No paper printing or office printer manufacturers have been mentioned and none are expected until the second half of 2007 at the earliest but most likely in early 2008, with the CES show next year the obvious launchpad. For the niche market, Memjet already has a working prototype phone with printer, and expect PDAs to be on the market by 2010.
A camera that prints instant photos, in the Polaroid mould, has also been mentioned, with the possibility of consumers hiring the camera pre-set with a limited number of prints then returning it afterwards.
The range of companies that could partner with Memjet include the major electronics brands like Sony, Panasonic and Samsung. If such a company wanted to license the technology and bring to market a small office/home office (SoHo) printer, then next-year’s CES is a logical place.
At the same time the technology could be licensed by office equipment supply companies like Ricoh and Xerox, for example, who wouldn’t be concerned about using CES as a launch platform.
New threat
There is some way to go, then, before we see new faces on the inkjet scene and super- fast printers on the shelves, but Hoffenburg believes the technology and business plan is robust enough to see it thrive through the next few years.
"It’s more likely than not that products based on Memjet technology will come to market. Certainly that poses threats on a number of levels to existing printer manufacturers," says Hoffenburg.
All the current printer manufacturers are said to be keeping an eye on developments but which ones are in talks is unknown, along with details of how much Memjet is charging for licences, and the costings for the deals on the table.
If the price is high, the technology will be limited to the major players and those large companies that want to enter the market. If the terms are set fairly low then that could be a whole raft of companies joining the fray.
The reality is more likely to be somewhere in the middle, with sources close to Memjet saying that its objective is not to get the largest quantity of partners, instead looking at a small number of quality companies to become partners.
The ink cartridges, or ‘tanks’ as Memjet calls them – so-called because they will hold enough ink to satisfy a business customer – will be sold by Memjet’s OEM customers and will be refilled via an authorised refill process. Details of this are again unknown, but Memjet says the intention is to allow third parties to refill the home and office customer’s ink cartridges through a common process authorised by Memjet.
Silverbrook Research, the secretive company behind Memjet, began developing its technology in 1994. The firm made up of both academics and researchers, led by Australian inventor Kia Silverbrook, stated patents related to do with inkjet technology soon after.
Originally the intention was to produce a printer for a mobile phone (which they now have in prototype form) but quickly the patents started ramping up. They quickly increased from 100 per year between 2000 and 2005 to 500 per year more recently – more than the inkjet industry’s patent leaders Canon, HP and Epson.
This reflected a change in pace and direction for the company but despite the numerous interesting patents, industry analysts still were none the wiser.
In 2006, the privately-funded company was responsible for 47 percent of all the patents in Australia.
"It’s obviously a very active engineering and development group that has stayed operating in stealth mode for a decade – which is certainly unprecedented in the printing industry and possibly unprecedented in the history of high-tech," says Hoffenburg.
It appears that Silverbrook has kept its research private to avoid a patent war, like that seen in the printer cartridges industry, which has turned into a dogfight. All the inkjet analysts had to work on was a confusing array of patents, which include printers for phones, games, PDAs and even in-car entertainment systems.
Hoffenburg and Lyra’s president Charles LeCompte were the first ‘outsiders’ allowed into Silverbrook’s research facility to see the equipment, under a non-disclosure agreement prior to Memjet’s unveiling in Prague.
What the pair saw, and what the public can now see through videos on Memjet’s website, shocked them.
"We were immediately impressed, the sheer speed of it is simply stunning. It almost doesn’t seem possible that a desktop inkjet printer could print that fast – but it does, I have seen it for myself," says Hoffenberg.
He took the opportunity to run his own tests on the quality of the prints, including trying to smear photo prints immediately after they printed, and dunking prints into water to see if the ink bleeds. It didn’t.
"They appear to be waterfast instantly. On plain paper they are dry right out of the printer, although it was possible to smudge the ink if you moisten your fingers."
Untapped goldmine
Hoffenburg also met with Kia Silverbrook and was impressed with the "brilliance" of the man behind the invention. The division of the technology company with the various marketing companies, Memjet Labels, Memjet Home and Office and Memjet Photo Retail, appears to be a deliberate attempt by the company to separate out the ideas and technical know-how from the marketing, sales and consumer side of the business.
Also this appears to be only the start of the innovations to come out of the Sydney company with Silverbrook the inventor sitting on an, as yet, untapped goldmine.
Within five years the firm believes it will have devices producing colour prints at 120-150 pages ppm and full page photos at 60-75ppm. Any more than that and things get silly (paper goes airborne into the output tray at anything more than 150ppm).
The company can currently produce black and white prints at 300ppm, and there is in place a five-year plan to build gangs of printheads for commercial printing capable of 6,400ppm – another lucrative market open to the company.
In fact, the wide format printing industry is not overly worried about the technology in the short term, due to Memjet’s current use of dye-based inks, but pigmented inks for use in the system are apparently being developed.
"This technology has promised to deliver high resolution at low cost for some years now," says John Law, general manager at SunChemical, the world’s largest ink and pigment manufacturer.
"MEMS technology is something other companies are looking at and Memjet offers a cost resolution benchmark for other companies to consider – but in the markets where it would have an application, like SoHo, kiosk and photo markets. Assuming that it works, of course, in terms of its robustness and reliability."
Law says that Memjet’s use of dye-based inks at their viscosity lends itself only to the SoHo, kiosk and photo markets – albeit the biggest markets out there.
"In the office space, this could be a very significant innovation indeed. In the industrial space there are a number of limitations. Its low viscosity in its use of dye-based inks. Its speed is also not currently at the speeds of an offset press – but it could be. Does it have an application in newspapers? I think the opportunity in the office or consumer environments is significant enough to retain the focus of the company going forward into the near future."
Green agenda
There are questions to be answered about Memjet’s power usage, both for environmental and carbon-cutting reasons and in terms of the computer power needed to use the system, but it’s hard to imagine that these issues will have been missed by the boffins at Silverbrook’s lab.
Also, the paper moving under the printhead means fewer moving parts than the printers currently on the shelves today.
Memjet confidently states that it has a green agenda saying that "components will be manufactured to comply with the latest environmental regulations" and argues that its printheads require "only a fraction" of the energy needed in typical inkjet printers to heat up and fire a drop of ink.
It adds: "[The] printheads use much less energy to print than laser devices. In addition, we are currently designing an authorised ink refill business for our home and office product ink cartridges that will give customers many options for recycling and/or refilling Memjet ink cartridges, regardless of which brand sells them.
"Environmental stewardship is core to our company values and business model. We are committed to look for ways to be responsible environmentally because it is so important to our customers and is simply the right thing to do."
Memjet appears to have carefully managed its launch to cover all the angles, but what does all this mean for its rivals? HP’s high-end system for wide format printing, Edgeline, would not be directly affected by the appearance of Memjet.
However, traditionally, new technology trickles down to machines that would be attractive to the consumer market, so future plans could need a rethink should the new kid on the block achieve the success it promises to.
Kodak is soon to release its first range of inkjet printers, featuring an "innovative new ink" that apparently lasts longer and costs less than any competitor.
Outside of that, the big four printer manufacturers are remaining tight-lipped and playing a ‘wait and see’ game, with plenty of contingency plans being drafted over what to do should heavyweights, like Sony for instance, take an interest.
It promises to be an interesting few years for this market. Dealers have good reason to be excited with such a raft of new products that could appear following the launch of this new technology.
If Memjet fulfils its potential and captures the imagination of consumers, a new round of selling could begin like a smaller version of the high-definition TV phenomenon of the last few years. Believe it folks, this is just the start of the story.