April 02, 2007

Interview with Kim Beswick of Memjet (SilverBrook Research)

By Jason Sattler

By Popular Demand: The Complete Transcript of Our Interview with Kim Beswick, Vice President of Marketing for Memjet Home & Office

The interview below formed the basis for our recent profile of Memjet.

Of the hundreds of patents Memjet has acquired, which is the most important to the new technology and why?

That's very difficult to answer. The short answer is that they are all important in different ways. Some document our direct path of development; others document future possibilities; others document approaches that we've ruled out. It's hard to predict which are most important. For instance, there are patents that document different nozzle designs, different print-engine product integration ideas, details of the manufacturing process, the driver chip functionality, the way the chips are joined together, etc. The patents that are core to the printheads we are developing today and about to introduce are the patents on the "suspended heater thermal bubble" nozzle design, the patents on the chip join (which assures great print quality and assure no missed nozzles where the 20 mm chips are butted together), and patents on the MEMS manufacturing process and printhead assembly process.

When should we expect to see the Memjet technology available for purchase by American consumers?

Early 2008.

How many American manufacturers should we expect to be selling the photo and A4 printers?

We currently have a handful of customers in different stages of discussion. We will likely have three to four customers introducing home and office products initially in 2008. These numbers, of course, could change. The Memjet Photo Retail company is working on customers for the kiosk market and Memjet Labels is working on customers for the label, ticket, and tag markets. All the home and office customers have distribution capabilities in the U.S. We are being very private about the nature of our customers at their request. We want them to have the opportunity to announce their products in the timeframe that they see fit.

How were you able to keep this project so low profile for so long?

Silverbrook Research was very private about what they were doing because they knew it was potentially disruptive to the R&D efforts of the industry incumbents. A high level of privacy gave them the time to evaluate the right path forward for the technology and patent it, without triggering a response from the industry incumbents, a patent war of sorts. The only thing that was public was the patents. The first patents were submitted in the 1997 timeframe and actually granted in 2000/2001. Silverbrook's patent portfolio grew at about 100 per year from 2000 through mid-2005 and nobody really thought that a lab in Sydney, Australia, that they hadn't heard of before could do anything significant. At the end of 2005 our patents started shooting up to about 500 per year, approximately the same rate as Canon (the leader in inkjet patents) and surpassing HP and Epson. This started to get some attention from the industry. The ultimate timing of the technology announcement was based on the maturity of the technology and our ability to reliably demonstrate our capabilities and potential.

Was your announcement timed for this year's PMA all along? Or did you move it up to respond to Kodak's inkjet rollout?

We were aware that both HP and Kodak would have announcements in the first half of 2007, but our announcement was really based on the readiness of our own technology and our desire to generate interest from potential customers and business partners as we move to the production stage of the first sets of our components.

There are reports of a "Netflix" like system for refilling Memjet ink cartridges. Will Memjet be the exclusive vendor doing the refilling?

We do have an environmental program/authorized refill strategy for our customers' ink tanks (i.e. "cartridges"). We call them "tanks" because the A4 products will actually have enough ink to satisfy a business customer, more in tune with toner cartridge life.

The details of this program haven't been disclosed yet — and we are still fine-tuning them. However the overall plan is to allow a range of partners to provide refilling capabilities for any Memjet customer cartridge. In this business model, Memjet, our brand-named customers and the refiller will all share in the profit associated with the refill process.

In the beginning we won't have enough volume to justify a distribution of refill stations, so a "Netflix" model where the cartridges are sent to a central facility and refilled/recycled will make the most sense. As our business grows, we will help our business partners install refill stations at convenient customer locations. Obviously this will become compelling to more and more refilling partners as our business grows.

What's driving this? We believe that having a "green" strategy from the beginning is fundamental to our philosophy of being a responsible global company, and is in line with what customers demand. Having an "authorized" environmental program allows us to assure the quality of the printing system for our customers and participate in the refill process, rather than ignoring it or trying to prevent it. At the same time we satisfy the end-user's need to reduce the environmental impact of the aftermarket "tanks."

The response of many analysts to the order of magnitude improvement in inkjet technology was "Wow. Is this really true?" Have you had to take any extraordinary efforts to prove that your prototypes are the real deal?

Yes, a common response is "WOW," followed by "How did you do that?" and a bit of skepticism. The inkjet industry, in particular, has made extraordinary claims in the past and then not delivered on them. Print speed has been overstated for years by the industry in general, with claims that far exceed customers' actual experience.

Having said that, "seeing is believing" and the systems really are as fast as we say they are. We knew that private briefings with live demos were the only way to be credible with many of the industry analysts. We wanted to give them the opportunity to vet out their questions and skepticism, look at the products printing, open up the trays, submit their own files, etc. Our goal was (and is) to spend as much time as needed with each analyst to answer their questions. With both analysts and customers, it's important as well to tell a full story. It's not just about the technology itself, but also about our ability to manufacture it and drive the data to the print head with a capable driver chip, for example. We've gone out of our way to talk broadly about the technology and the business, and to paint a thorough view of the accomplishments in each of these areas. 

What was the goal Silverbrook Research related to inkjet printers when they began work a decade ago?

The initial goal was to create a small, inexpensive, high-quality photo-printing engine that could be integrated into a digital camera. That is still part of the vision. although the home and office, label and photo-retail markets have taken priority over the smaller format print engine.

Memjet has said that by the time competitors catch up your printers will be three time faster. What is the page-per-minute goal for your A4 printers in five years and 10 years?

We believe within five years we will have the capability to do color office documents at 120-150 ppm and full-page photos at 60-75ppm. Beyond that doesn't make sense for typical office devices, but may be of value to other production and commercial printing environments. For instance, using the technology we have today we could print black at more than 300 pages per minute. We have plans in the five-to-10-year timeframe to have gangs of printheads that will be fast enough for color commercial printing applications that produce 6,400 pages per minute.

At some point higher and higher speeds for home and office printers will have a diminishing return and the paper-handling systems required to handle paper at 150 pages per minute get more expensive. At 150+ppm the sheet-fed pieces of paper, for instance, become "airborne" in the output tray.

We are, however, working on other areas of future value such as bringing the cost of the technology down, improving the flexibility around ink formulations, allowing for "interactive" paper solutions with infrared inks, etc.

Your latest patent involves putting printers in cell phones. How long before that technology is prototyped and licensed out?

We can prototype this technology now and Silverbrook actually has a working phone model in their lab today. Small-format devices for phones, cameras, PDAs and the like will likely follow our current introductions by about two years (or 2010).

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Virtually everyone who uses a computer uses a printer. But computers get all the glory. So we launched this blog to give printers their due. We hope you find our coverage enjoyable and useful, and encourage you to subscribe and participate.

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