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Thursday, May 14, 2009

What's old is new again

InfoWorld is raving about a new environmentally-conscious printer from Xerox. Most eco-friendly printers are about saving milliwatts in standby mode, or making the case of recycled plastic, but Xerox has tackled head on one of the key problems with today’s printers: disposable consumables.

The new printer, the ColorQube 9200, has no toner or ink cartridges. Instead, the printer melts solid ink sticks and applies them to the page. This keeps all those cartridges out of landfills, eliminates the materials used to produce the cartridges, and all the reverse logistics of getting the cartridges back for partial reuse. (Of course, control of consumables is a big issue for printer vendors who want to control the profits of their "razor and razor blade" business model.)

I’m guessing that this Xerox technology is based on its 1999 acquisition of the color printer division of Tektronix, which had at least one solid ink printer more than a decade ago. Since the bulk of the color market was inkjets and laser printers — dominated by HP and the Japanese — Tektronix had created high-end niches that offered unique products that commanded a premium price (hence the interest by Xerox).

The announcement gave me a sense of déjà vu, from working with solid ink printers 20 years ago. My company was helping a small New Hampshire firm break into the Macintosh color printer market by writing software for their printer, the Howtek PixelMaster. The advantages were a more vivid image, but a disadvantage was that the thick ink dramatically increased the weight of the page.

Even back then, solid ink printers seemed like they were a great innovation that weren’t quite competitive enough to overcome their disadvantages. Now that consumable use (and waste) is an increasing concern, let’s hope they can be successful in this new waste not, want not era.

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