The disruption of a major industry is no small feat. Companies have been trying to put a ripple in the printing razor and razorblade model for years, both from within the industry and externally. While the general consumer may not be able to appreciate the technological advancements that have occurred over the past 10 years in the inkjet printing world, as an analyst for inkjet supplies, I have seen the major positive shifts in print speeds, print quality, as well as overall cartridge ease of use. With that, the main areas of contention that consumers have with the industry is not necessarily with the technology but with the cost and convenience, or lack thereof, of buying printers and their associated supplies.
Print Companies Evolve in Declining Market
Over the past couple of years, we have seen major players within the print industry look for ways to solve these issues and essentially disrupt the status quo in the hopes of gaining market share in a declining industry. We have seen HP debut its Instant Ink program for added convenience, better costs, and environmental benefits for home printer users. We have watched the debut of HP’s PageWide technology that blows old print speeds out of the water and poses a threat to the laser printer market. Epson launched with an aggressive campaign launching its EcoTank, the first CISS printers offered stateside, with the hopes of offering lower supplies costs and convenience to customers. Brother debuted INKvestment focusing on the pain point of supplies replenishment following the initial hardware purchase. Brother also partnered with Amazon for the Dash Replenishment Service, aiming to reach customers that are comfortable with the subscription model and crave even further convenience.
Each of these offerings aim to not only shift the way that printers and supplies are sold and perceived within the market, but essentially to disrupt the competition and get a leg up on gaining market share. Each of these major companies is thinking outside of the box to differentiate themselves with the hopes of finding the business model or structure that will propel it into the future. With each of these launches over the past year taking charge, 2017 will be the true test of what works for these companies and what does not work in terms of the bottom line. It will then be determined if these changes and new sales methods will be able to preserve the industry in its current state.
New Companies Push for Greater Innovation
In addition to disruption from within the industry, newcomers are also trying to disrupt the inkjet printer market from the outside. They are generally small startups that have received initial funding either through investors or programs like Kickstarter. The newcomers are ambitious people that are looking to make a mark on an industry that appears to move slowly and respond to change with subtleties.
Inkless by Tocano is based in the Netherlands and is a spin-off of the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) and part of the incubator YES!Delft. They claim to have developed sound technology that allows for black and white printing without the use of ink, toner, or any print consumable. They state that they can make the annual $14 billion of printing consumables sold each year in an obsolete industry. I wonder if the audience they are targeting is as afraid as they want them to be…my guess is that the printer goliaths of the world are not quite trembling in their boots quite yet.
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According to Inkless co-founder, Arnaud van der Veen, their technology has now met print quality and speed standards of traditional inkjet printers. They claim that their technology not only prevents further cartridges from ending up in landfills, but avoids the inconvenience of ever having an empty cartridge again, a common complaint of many consumers. Further, Inkless’ technology avoids ongoing print costs once the device is purchased.
So how does Inkless work? It carbonizes regular office paper, a method that the founders claim has not been successfully done by any other company on plain paper. Challenges that other companies have faced when trying to achieve this is that the paper will burn or the print will not be permanent. Inkless says that its technology allows for it to not print as deep and therefore not burn through the paper. The company has several patents protecting its technology.
Inkless’ technology is only able to print monochrome at this time, which could pose a challenge to its goals of interrupting a business that prides itself on high quality color prints. However, with printing moving more to the office and away from the home, there is ample room for monochrome-only printing. Inkless lists a number of applications on its website that it is looking to break into including monochrome production printing, office and consumer printing, and coding and marking.
Inkless has not disclosed the price of what its technology will cost or where it hopes to sell. From the information available on its website, it appears that Inkless’ patented process can be integrated into existing technology and can work alongside color cartridges. With that, Inkless will still face an uphill battle of not only introducing disruptive technology, but shifting attitudes on value.
Another already established company that set out to disrupt the inkjet printing industry is Zink. This company unveiled its first portable Zero Ink printer in 2007 and has since expanded to new editions of its products each year since. Zink had initial ambitions of disrupting the printer industry with its Zero Ink Technology media. The paper has colorless dye crystals that are embedded inside and sealed with a protective polymer overcoat layer And are heated from the printer, which activates the dye crystals and creates the image.
Image Credit: zink.com
While Zink has not had a significant disruption to the print industry, it has helped bring back portable printing and is a modern day approach to instant prints from Polaroid from 30 years ago. With that said, Zink did contribute to bringing back a type of mobile photo printing that had been lost. It created a way to print memories that are often stuck on mobile devices. And with HP’s partnership, Zink’s technology is even more solidified than ever before.
What Does the Future Hold?
As mentioned before, to the everyday consumer, a printer is a printer and not much exciting occurs in the industry. But, to someone who lives and breathes this industry every day, it has been an exciting couple of years with changes to print technology, business models, and players. I believe that over the next several years, the way we purchase supplies and our thoughts around printing will change and evolve. We will be presented with different ways to produce content and I am excited to see how all of these will work together. While these alleged disruptions might not completely change the market or displace what we know as traditional printing, I think that the industry will evolve and something even more powerful, useful, and consumer friendly will emerge.