This month marked the official launch of Seine Technology’s Pantum brand of laser printers worldwide.  Though almost year and half after their initial launch in China, this was for all intents and purposes, Pantum’s coming out party that included a big stand at CeBIT, press releases, presentations, interviews, and though speculative, a few steins of Germany’s best brews (ah, CeBIT!).

Headlining the party were a couple of tidbits that particularly caught my attention.  First, the company says it shipped 100,000 units in China during its first year (2011), placing it at about 5-percent of the mono laser printer market in China.  That’s not bad for a brand new printer line, much less a brand new company.  Secondly, Seine’s Pantum brand officially launched in Europe, its fourth geographic region after China, Australia and Israel.  Next on its checklist: South America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and of course, the U.S.

I think it’s safe to say that given the level of Chinese nationalism at play, Pantum expected to do well in its homeland.  Garnering nearly 5% share of the world’s second largest laser printer market in the first year is certainly admirable, but it’s not a landslide.  It’s similar to Mit Romney barely winning Michigan, except Mit’s been around the block a couple times, and let’s face it, capturing just 5-percent of China’s mono laser printer market isn’t exactly winning.  I could count on both hands and both feet the number of laser printer vendors vying to grab significant market share from HP, only to land in the single digit share range and winning away customers not from HP but mostly other “alternative” brands.

The real question – one worth exponentially more than $64,000 – is whether Pantum can win in Europe and ultimately in the U.S.  In stark contrast with China, Europe isn’t exactly what you’d call a homogeneous region.  It is exactly the opposite with many different cultures, races, countries, languages, customs, and of course, buying habits.  Choosing to start in Northern Europe, where it opened its first distribution center in Holland earlier this year, is a shrewd decision given the chaos in the financial sectors of Southern Europe.  But winning there will be extremely difficult – much more so than the first 5 percent won in China.

Pantum’s New P3000D

And if Seine finds the European market difficult, just wait until it hits the U.S. – the homes of both HP and Lexmark and not to mention a constant battleground between players such as Samsung and Brother.  Like Mit Romney stumping for votes in the South, the U.S. is an “away game” for Seine’s Pantum brand.  U.S. buyers are all too familiar with printer brands based in Asia; but printers and MFPs whose manufacturing and IP are 100% sourced in China – that might be a different story.

I’m no Xenophobe, but there are a lot of IT purchasing managers and SMB buyers in this country who watch, read and listen to the news, and many are familiar with the fact that China exports 4-times as much to the U.S. as it imports from the U.S.  Granted, Seine’s printer business would hardly add another picoliter-sized drop to the $273 billion US-China trade deficit (in 2010), but U.S. consumers are increasingly aware of their suppliers’ money trails, and Seine’s trail is a hole dug straight to China.

That said, Pantum printers offer a unique and intriguing value proposition that is supported by a refreshingly level-headed pricing strategy – at least on paper.  Seine claims that its Pantum printers, which are designed to be durable with a metal frame, can last 4 times longer than today’s competing products.  Compared to alternative devices that may need to be replaced every 18 months, Seine claims its Pantum printers are designed to last three to five years.  Sadly, this is a far cry from “the old days,” when customers used to replace their HP LaserJets once every 10 years.  Of course, back then (circa 1990’s), HP’s LaserJets were still priced at a premium and customers understood that they got what they paid for.  This is essentially the approach that Seine has adopted.  The New Kid on the Block is going Old School.

E.g., think LaserJet II:

And while others in the industry may criticize the company for having too much of a product focus in lieu of a services or solutions focus, the changing landscape of the printer industry—namely selling print as a managed service—actually favors products with longer lifecycles.  Durable, reliable print hardware helps customers keep costs low and it helps MPS providers keep margins high.  Longer-lasting hardware in today’s market is arguably a win-win-win–including a third “W” for Pantum.

Seine’s primary pricing philosophy is to price its printers reasonably.  It wants the Pantum brand to be perceived as low cost, but not cheap.  Part of those cost savings are intended to derive from “high capacity” cartridges, which at 2,300 pages is above average for products selling in this segment but not as high as other brands such as Fuji Xerox, Brother and Dell.  One of Pantum’s greatest values centers on ship-with cartridge yields, which range from 1,000 pages on the SOHO-class P1000 and P2000 to 1,500 pages on the business-centric P1050 and P2050.  All said, Pantum’s strategy is to offer a 25- to 35-percent advantage in cost of ownership, a goal that it currently achieves based on our analysis of entry-level mono laser printer street pricing in China.

But just how successful Pantum can be in a cutthroat market like the U.S.?  It’s safe to say the jury is still out on that one.  To its credit, Pantum is bearing ahead full speed thanks in part to recent momentum in China coupled with a strong financial backing by Lenovo, which reportedly owns a 15 percent stake.  The company says it will soon be coming out with a new color laser printer, and its first duplex devices, the 30ppm P3000D and P3050D are just on the horizon.  Whether the new player can achieve similar progress outside of China is debatable, but it brings to market a unique value proposition that is in sync with the direction of the industry.