Memjet CEO Lauer Talks Strategy as Debut Approaches for “Disruptive” Inkjet Technology
When I got a chance to sit down with Memjet CEO Len Lauer a few weeks ago, I was full of anticipation—because, for me, Memjet is a study in contradictions.
Memjet, as I reported in March, has been developing a host of radically innovative inkjet printing technologies for a worldwide market that was established decades ago, and has been dominated by global giants like Hewlett-Packard, Canon, and Epson. It has the look and feel of a startup technology company. Yet Memjet was founded in the mid-1990s and has roughly 500 employees around the world, including 50 now working at its corporate headquarters—which is probably within range of a No. 3 iron shot of HP’s San Diego Imaging and Printing Group.
And then there is Lauer himself, who resigned as one of the highest-ranking executives at Qualcomm, the San Diego wireless giant, to become CEO of a company that’s little-known—if it’s known at all—beyond the inkjet printing industry.
“Qualcomm is a really good company,” Lauer tells me. “I got along fine. I wasn’t looking to leave.” He makes it sound like it was an easy decision, once Memjet’s board agreed to establish the company’s headquarters in Rancho Bernardo, a San Diego suburb that also has Sony Electronics and Northrop Grumman’s unmanned systems business in the neighborhood.
“In my view, it’s a businessman’s dream,” Lauer says. “It’s technology that represents a high-value proposition to the customer. It’s really fast. And it’s less-expensive.” He calls Memjet’s technology “truly disruptive.”
After maintaining a low profile over the past eight months or so, Lauer says Memjet plans to step into the open and increase its visibility later this year. The company gave a preview of what to expect in May, with the debut of the SpeedStar 3000, an ultra-fast label printer produced by Own-X, a Memjet partner based in Budapest, Hungary. The device makes high-resolution product labels at a rate of 12 inches per second. Memjet doesn’t make the printers itself, but is building its strategy around the idea of selling print heads, ink, and other components to partners like Own-X. (A Web-based video demonstration of the technology can be found here.)
Memjet intends to introduce its technology in the commercial label market this fall, beginning in Eastern Europe, according to Lauer. The company has similar agreements to supply its components with other manufacturing partners in other parts of Europe, Asia, and the United States.
“We’re not coming out with a Memjet-branded printer, we want to do in-branding,” says Lauer, who sees a big market for Memjet among the companies that print everything from Heinz ketchup bottles to UPS shipping labels—even the coupons printed on the reverse side of cash register receipts. He even envisions a Memjet-powered kiosk in hotel lobbies, with the capability of letting guests choose among 50 or 60 international newspapers—and printing out a current edition in just one or two minutes.
Lauer also sees opportunities for Memjet’s technology in the photo printing centers at pharmacies and warehouse retailers like Costco, in poster-size, wide-format printing, computer assisted design (CAD), and blueprints. The Memjet CEO estimates the global market opportunity for its technology is worth $30 billion.It’s a market ripe for innovation, he says, because while the giant companies manufactured printers for many years, the industry “really hasn’t spent much on R&D.”
In this respect, Lauer sees similarities in Memjet’s strategy to Qualcomm, which initially made cell phones and wireless network infrastructure as a way to gain market acceptance of its core digital wireless technology. “We’re similar in that we’re going to sell to existing printer and imaging OEMs,” Lauer said, referring to the original equipment manufacturers that make products for sale under another company’s brand name.
“Our technology will print 10,000 envelopes per hour, and it’s in color, which stands out in the mass mailing industry,” Lauer says. “It’s just much, much faster and at lower price points.”
To protect Memjet’s “disruptive” technology, Lauer says the company has obtained about 3,000 U.S. patents, with another 2,000 patents pending. Memjet’s core technology was developed at Silverbrook Research, founded in Sidney, Australia, by Kia Silverbrook, a onetime Canon R&D director in Australia, who has spent decades expanding Memjet’s patent portfolio.
So how does the Memjet printer work differently than the classic inkjet? Unlike an inkjet printer head that moves sideways across the page, Memjet’s print head is fixed. It extends all the way across the page—it’s 8.66 inches wide—so it lays down an entire line of ink as the paper advances. Each Memjet printhead consists of 70,000 inkjet nozzles (in contrast to the 1,500 to 2,000 nozzles in a conventional inkjet print head) and prints in five colors at 1,600 by 1,600 dots per inch (DPI), Lauer says.
Each Memjet nozzle is less than 100 microns wide (roughly the width of human hair) and uses micro-electro-mechanical technology (the MEM in Memjet) to spew 1.2-picoliter droplets of ink at a rate of 900 million per second, Lauer says. The nozzles are made out of silicon in a semiconductor factory and operated by Memjet’s proprietary, “systems on a chip” print engine controller electronics, firmware, and software.
Funding for Memjet’s extensive intellectual property protections, global workforce, and other operations has come primarily from one investor, whom Lauer declined to identify. “Our main investor came in about five or six years ago,” he says. “It’s an individual with a lot of money, someone whose name I’m sure you’d recognize, who came in as a private equity investor,” which has been reported to be Argonaut Private Equity of Tulsa, OK.
Apart from operating far more efficiently than commercial batch printers, Lauer says the genius of Memjet’s technology lies in its capability to customize labels and other print jobs “so maybe a Heinz ketchup label could have regional customization” for the San Diego Chargers or Padres. As Lauer puts it, “We’re ready to go, and fairly excited about it.”
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