Designers Compete to Rethink Zink’s Pocket Printers

7/15/09Follow @wroush

Today Bedford, MA-based Zink unveiled the winning designs in a $25,000 contest called “Zero Boundaries,” launched to elicit creative ideas about how Zink’s inkless printing technology might be built into devices that young people and future mobile consumers could use to capture, modify, and share digital photos.

We’ve told you the story of Zink, the Bedford, MA, startup whose pocket-sized printers can make instant, 3-by-4-inch prints from any digital image without using ink. In essence, the company reimagined a thermal printing technique that was invented but never commercialized at Polaroid. In a contest announcement earlier this year, Zink (whose name stands for “Zero Ink”) asked designers and design students around the world to reimagine Zink’s own products.

The winning ideas hail from designers in the U.S., China, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Romania. They vary from an iPhone accessory to a little robot that crawls around on a giant piece of Zink paper, printing as it goes. The company has published slide shows and descriptions of the winning entries on its contest website.

Zink’s basic technology involves a thermal print head that applies precise pulses of heat to special paper impregnated with crystals that turn various colors when they melt. Contest entrants had to build their designs—whether physical models or 3-D CAD renderings—around the basic mechanical and electronic elements of the Zink printer.

Zink Mix“The designs were incredibly well thought-through and truly showcase the breadth and disruptive nature of the future of printing that only Zink can enable,” said CEO Wendy Caswell in today’s announcement.

In the “Youth” category, the company’s challenge to designers was to “make today’s youth crave Zink products in the context of their digital and mobile world.” The winner, Zink Mix, consists of an iPhone application that searches a user’s photo albums and social networks for pictures they might want to print, along with a fancy iPhone docking station with numerous sliders and dials for photo editing that give it the appearance of an audio mixer. Patrick Schuur, of design firm Maketropolis in the Netherlands, won a $10,000 cash prize for the design.

SmartBCIn the “Future” category, Zink wanted designers to reimagine printing altogether. The winning design certainly does that: called the Mini Giant, it’s a self-propelled, large-format poster printer that rolls across a piece of Zink paper the way a farm combine traverses a wheat field. A thermal head on the Mini Giant’s undercarriage exposes paper as it goes. The design came from Paula Adina Sumalan, a recently graduated design student from Romania, who also won $10,000.

The company also handed out $1,000 second prizes in each category and $500 third prizes, along with a $500 “People’s Choice” award, with the winner determined by voting at the contest website. Brazilian Arthur Ditlef’s design for a portable business card printer, called the SmartBC, won the popular vote.

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

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