At the end of May, I had the pleasure of attending the RT Imaging Summit, hosted by Recycling Times Media (RT). The event was designed to discuss questions and issues faced by the North American remanufacturing market, and (hopefully) provide attendees with solutions. Around 100 people attended the event, a pretty respectable turnout for the first event held in North America, for North America (RT is also the host of the RemaxAsia Expo held in China each year). The exhibition room featured table exhibits for the gold and silver sponsors, including MSE, Mito Color, and Green Project, where you could visit with these companies during lunch or the mid-morning and afternoon breaks. While the majority of the attendees came from the remanufacturing side of the industry, there was also participation from OEM representatives who tried to provide a different perspective.
The content of the show was extremely informative, with presenters ranging from remanufacturers and patent attorneys to chemical producers and printer remanufacturers. Because my view of the remanufacturing world is very specific, it was refreshing to be among people that are living in it every day and have a more robust understanding. Attending provided me with valuable insights and a new perspective that I might not have otherwise had.
The show started with a discussion about how the aftermarket has changed over the past 5 years or so. Since 2009 and the global financial crisis, there has been an increase in low cost foreign aftermarket products, clones, counterfeits, a decline in quality, and an increase in ecommerce. OEMs have been responding by stepping up patent infringement litigation, introducing new and more complicated chip technology and more complex cartridges, as well as increased printer refresh cycles — all of which provide limitations to the aftermarket’s market share. In particular, with the rise in ecommerce as a preferred shopping method, remanufacturers are increasingly finding themselves and their dealers or resellers competing with other resellers that, for whatever reason, can afford to offer competing products for a much lower price point.
However, while low-price online resellers are an issue and cut into the sales of legitimate remanufacturers and their partners, one of the things that I really respect about many of the companies was their acknowledgement that a main issue holding back the remanufacturing industry is quality, not price competition. Many participants agreed that they are currently very limited by quality, especially with regard to color, because color customers have different requirements and standards, whereas most people using monochrome for everyday office documents don’t necessarily need the highest quality output. Remanufacturers typically don’t have the resources to support a research and production facility that would be comparable to an OEM, and I respected that these companies were so upfront about the fact that they haven’t been able to achieve 100% OEM quality, and that no aftermarket company should say they have.
The timing of the conference could not have been better, as it happened to take place shortly after Canon filed an intellectual property complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against 18 aftermarket manufacturers, distributors, and resellers in January and took many of the same complaints to the ITC against 33 companies (including some of the same 18) in early May. Litigation pretty much set the tone for the first day of the summit, as we heard from Print-Rite, a large remanufacturer that was also named in the recent Canon lawsuits, and got a lesson in the art of reading patent claims by patent attorney Ed O’Connor. After all of the presentations, open forums, and lunchtime discussions, my insight and understanding of patent infringement lawsuits in general increased significantly, as well as the kind of reaction they generate and impacts they have on the aftermarket from the remanufacturers themselves. There was a lot of back and forth about whether OEMs are bringing these types of lawsuits to shut down the aftermarket or defend their intellectual property. However, regardless of whether these defendants are actually infringing, simply bringing a lawsuit against a remanufacturer causes customers to question their legitimacy and can have lasting impacts on that company.
Because there hasn’t ever been an easy and affordable way for the aftermarket to keep up with OEM patents, it’s been difficult for remanufacturers to even know when they are infringing – an OEM could be filing for a new patent during a remanufacturer’s development of a new cartridge. As a result, Recycling Times developed its own solution to that challenge, announced at the show as the forthcoming Patent Smart (or PatentSmart) portal. This was a solution that I was not aware of before the summit, but it is definitely something worth keeping an eye on. Little information is available, but as far as I know, it will be a subscription-based portal that will allow remanufacturers to stay up-to-date on patented OEM products and components.
In the end, it was determined that there was at least one thing that was mutually agreed on by both remanufacturers and the OEM representatives: the two industries should be spending more time working together to focus their efforts on targeting those that undermine their legitimacy, such as counterfeits and clones.
From follow-up correspondence, it was clear that the show was a success and that attendees came away with new ideas and inspiration about how to address commonly-faced issues in their industry. While there may have been undertones of fear and concern over the detriments caused by OEM lawsuits, there was also a lot of talk about opportunity. The market is mature, the technological solutions are here, and customers are still looking for value. Although the future of the remanufacturing industry is unknown, it is clear that it’s changing fast and that the aftermarket needs to continue to adapt accordingly to successfully capitalize on these opportunities.