Tiny ink-less printer is born

Device relies on dye-imbedded paper developed by ex-Polaroid scientists

Plugged In

February 01, 2007|By The Boston Globe

The rise of digital photography spelled doom for the old-fashioned instant film cameras from Polaroid Corp. But now a team of Polaroid veterans plans to make digital cameras more like classic Polaroids, with a device that fits in a shirt pocket and prints digital snapshots in seconds, without using ink.

"It's going to go places where no printer has gone before," said Wendy Caswell, president and chief executive of Zink Imaging LLC. Zink unveiled its new printing system Tuesday at DEMO, a showcase for promising new technologies held annually at a resort in California.

According to research firm IDC Corp., people worldwide made about 66.5 billion paper prints of their digital photos last year. They generally used ink-jet printers, which spray colored inks onto the paper, or dye sublimation printers, which use bursts of heat to transfer colors from a multicolored dye ribbon onto the paper.

The Zink technology also uses heat, but the dyes are embedded into the paper itself - hence the company's name, which stands for zero ink. Bonded inside the paper are three dye layers, colored yellow, magenta, and cyan, a shade of blue. Properly mixed, these three colors can produce the entire visual spectrum. Each of the dyes is in crystalline form, and each is formulated to melt into liquid at a certain temperature.

A Zink printer pulls the paper under a thermal print head. This device has hundreds of heating elements that can each heat a tiny portion of the paper. The Zink software controls the print head, so that its heat pulses activate the correct dye colors and produce the finished photograph. A single photo can be cranked out in about a minute, at a cost of about 25 cents.

Veteran Polaroid chemist Steve Telfer said that Zink technology grew out of Polaroid's efforts to market retail store kiosks where people could make printouts of their digital photos. "The company had been working for many years trying to penetrate digital imaging," said Telfer, `'and it failed." The work continued even after Polaroid sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001.

Petters Co. of Minneapolis bought Polaroid's assets in 2005. But Petters executive Robert White was so impressed with the inkless printing research that he and other private investors paid an undisclosed sum for Polaroid's research operation, which became Zink.

The new company had plenty of brainpower - 44 researchers, including 17 with doctorates. The company also had Caswell, a business development expert, who'd joined Polaroid in 2004. "I fell in love with Zink," said Caswell, who took the top spot at the new company.

Zink has filed over 100 patent applications on its various inventions, and the company plans to license the printer technology to a host of electronics firms.

Caswell said Zink has a deal with two global companies to begin selling Zink printer technology in time for Christmas. The company will identify its business partners in the second quarter of 2007.

The first products in the pipeline include a stand-alone printer, about the size of an Apple iPod music player. The printer will contain Bluetooth wireless radio technology, as well as a port for plugging in a USB cable, and will be priced at about $100. Zink and its unnamed partners are also planning a $199 digital camera with a built-in printer that would eject photographic prints in much the same way as an old-fashioned Polaroid camera.

Zink will continue research and development on the printer hardware and software. But the company's main source of revenue will be its unique paper. Zink will mass produce the paper at its Waltham facility, ensuring a constant stream of revenue. The company is in talks with other manufacturers to arrange additional paper making capacity, if the Zink printing system becomes a major hit.

Ron Glaz, director of digital imaging program at IDC Corp., said Zink's success is far from assured. He noted that in 2000, Polaroid teamed up with Japanese digital camera maker Olympus to produce an $800 digital camera that also generated Polaroid prints. The product was unsuccessful. "There was no advantage in actually having that kind of technology," said Glaz.

But Glaz added that the lower cost of Zink technology might make it attractive to consumers who want to share photos with friends or family members, especially those who prefer a photo print to the image on an electronic screen.

Zink is planning to move its technology well beyond photography. It can be used for all kinds of printing, said Caswell. And because the printer doesn't need ink or toner cartridges, Zink printers can be extremely lightweight and portable. Caswell said that companies could someday build Zink printers into laptop computers, cell phones, or practically anything else electronic.

"We don't even know what they're going to create yet," Caswell said, "because the applications are so broad."

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