Zink Debuts Inkless Printing at CES—The Technology That Might Have Saved Polaroid

1/7/08Follow @wroush

What if printers became so small that you could attach one to the back of a television, a video game console, a camera, a digital photo frame, or even a cell phone? And what if these tiny printers never required ink—just tiny little packs of paper? You’d have the makings of a rebirth in instant-print photography, with every digital device that captures or displays images potentially acting as its own photo lab.

That’s the vision of Zink Imaging, a Waltham, MA, startup that’s taken technology conceived eight years ago at Polaroid Research Labs and turned it into practical devices that will make their public debut today at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

“We think it’s a game changer,” Zink CEO Wendy Caswell told me in an interview last month. “We are going where no printer company can go, which is into the pocket of the consumer. There isn’t any ink to spill; you just add paper. It’s a classic disruptive technology.” Which may be why innovation guru Clay Christensen is one of the company’s strategic investors—and is definitely why you don’t see Polaroid itself developing the technology. But more on that in a bit.

Zink doesn’t manufacture printing devices itself, but is licensing its technology to manufacturing partners such as Alps Electric, FoxConn, Japanese toymaker Tomy, and even a reborn Polaroid, which has recently emerged from bankruptcy as a purveyor of consumer electronics. At CES today, Polaroid will unveil a “Digital Instant Mobile Photo Printer”—based on Zink’s technology and manufactured by Alps—that’s not much bigger than the 2-inch-by-3-inch, peel-and-stick photos it produces. That means it’s small enough to attach to digital cameras and even camera phones. Caswell says Tomy is building a similar printer into an instant camera aimed at school-age children.

Zink Printer PrototypeWhat Zink is making, from a 385,000-square-foot plant in North Carolina that was about to be closed by former owner Konica-Minolta until Zink bought it last year, is the paper for those printers. And at an anticipated $0.20 per print, selling paper could turn into a lucrative business all on its own—in much the same way that ink-jet cartridges are more profitable for companies like Hewlett Packard than the printers that use them.

Zink’s paper isn’t actually paper at all, but rather a phyllo-like composite of three layers of dye crystals encased in polymer film. In fact, the idea at the core of the company’s intellectual property is encapsulated in its name, which stands for “zero ink.”

Around 2000, the way Zink CTO Steve Herchen explains it, scientists at Polaroid Research Labs realized that it might be possible to build an inkless digital printer by embedding all the necessary color-producing materials in the paper itself—an approach reminiscent of the self-developing instant film that Edwin Land developed in the 1940s and that made Polaroid famous, except that unlike with Land’s film, optics would play no part. Instead, this type of printing would be driven by thermal print heads, like those used in fax machines and gas-pump receipt printers.

The Polaroid researchers embarked on a hunt for temperature-sensitive materials that would be colorless in their solid, crystalline state but become brightly colored when melted. They eventually found crystals that turn yellow, magenta, and cyan—the three basic colors used for most color printing. And in 2005—with Polaroid in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings—that technology, plus a team of 44 researchers from the lab, was spun off to create Zink. (The research operation and Polaroid’s inkless-printing patents were purchased for an undisclosed sum by Robert White, an executive at Petters Group Worldwide in Minneapolis, and a group of private investors. Petters Group itself went on to buy most of Polaroid’s other assets.)

Herchen, one of the Zink’s Polaroid veterans who made the jump when the company was formed, explains that when the Zink paper passes through a special Zink printer, it comes in contact with a thermal print head that applies hundreds of millions of tiny heat pulses. “By adjusting the temperature and the timing of each pulse,” Herchen says, “the printer controls which crystals are melted”—and therefore which exact color, out of a range of millions, will appear at each pixel.

But as simple as it sounds, it took a couple more years to make the technology work, according to Herchen. The previous existence of high-resolution thermal print heads and the electronics to drive them meant that half the problem was already solved. But the chemistry of the color crystals was another matter. “The most difficult part was efficient color conversion—-controlling the amount of color you get when the crystals are melted,” Herchen says. “Another challenge was to make the images stable after you’ve formed them… Also, there’s one color that forms at a high temperature [yellow], one that’s intermediate [magenta], and one that’s low [cyan], and it’s important that these temperatures be fairly well separated from each other. That took some doing.”

Zink Printer PrototypeAnd so did coming up with the software to precisely control the print heads in Zink’s system, which bristle with 300 heating elements per inch. Producing a single pixel of yellow, for instance, means heating a single element to a high temperature for just long enough to melt the yellow crystals in the paper’s top layer—but not long enough for the heat to dissipate to the middle or bottom layers. Producing a more complex color might require delivering two or three different pulses in quick succession, at different temperatures and durations, all while the paper is moving quickly past the print head. Zink “relied pretty heavily” on Alps Electric of Japan for help solving the control problem, Herchen says.

The company showed off its first working prototype at the Demo conference in Desert Palms, CA, last January, then spent 2007 transferring its technology to manufacturing partners, including Taiwan-based FoxConn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer.

Zink’s plan had always been to license its intellectual property rather than to actually build anything, says Caswell. But then came the Konica-Minolta deal. “We needed to get the paper manufactured in scale, and we were looking for factories that could do thin-film coating,” Caswell says. “We found a Konica-Minolta plant that was a perfect match in North Carolina. But when we said ‘Would you like to be a partner?’ they said ‘You’re half a year too late—we’re in the process of liquidating.’ We convinced them to stall the process while we went to see if we could afford to buy the facility. And by July 2 we had our own plant, along with 62 people who were previously Konica-Minolta employees.”

That roughly doubled the company’s employee base. And it made Zink into a full-fledged manufacturer. But the company is still a very different place from its birth parent, Polaroid, Caswell says.

“The Polaroid model was very successful for decades, but it was tightly integrated from end to end, from inventing the IP to manufacturing to chemicals, and then bringing the systems together and putting them onto the market,” says Caswell. The implication—though she doesn’t say it in so many words—is that there wasn’t room at Polaroid for innovations that didn’t fit into this model.

“We spun off because we believe that this goes way beyond being an instant photography opportunity,” Caswell says. “We’re working with other brands to build Zink into laptops, set top boxes, game consoles, airplane cockpits, plasma entertainment centers. Our intention is to enable a whole economy or franchise around Zink, like Microsoft did with Windows or Intel did with x86 chips. We believe that working through this network will give the best return on investors’ dollars and the best chance of building a really big company here in Massachusetts.”

Zink hasn’t raised any venture funding and won’t identify its investors, except for White and Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor well known as the author of the bestselling business tome The Innovator’s Dilemma. That book is partly about how established companies can overcome inertia and take advantage of the disruptive technologies bubbling up from their R&D operations—which obviously didn’t happen in the case of Polaroid and Zink’s inkless thermal printing technology.

But as Polaroid emerges from bankruptcy under the ownership of the Petters Group, it has its own new strategy—selling consumer electronics devices under the Polaroid brand—and, ironically enough, it’s Zink’s first partner. “Polaroid’s direction is something that makes incredible sense,” says Caswell. “They’re now in the market for TVs and portable DVD players, and digital cameras will be coming soon. With built-in Zink digital printers, of course.”

Could the old Polaroid, once a pillar of Boston’s technology scene, have survived if it had found a way to act on innovations like zero-ink digital printing? Perhaps, though the technology that Zink pursued wouldn’t have borne fruit soon enough to stave off the parent company’s 2001 bankruptcy and subsequent dismantling. But one thing seems certain: Zink is now in an enviable position to deploy its technology wherever the market calls for it.

“When you have something as new as this, it can go in many different directions,” says Herchen. “And one of the benefits of being spun out and taking private investment is that we’ve got complete freedom to come up with whatever strategy is best for Zink. We can match what the technology is capable of at any point to the opportunities for productizing it; we don’t need to have superimposed on us the larger corporate strategy of some other company.” Spoken like someone who reached the lifeboats just in time.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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