Zink Debuts Inkless Printing at CES—The Technology That Might Have Saved Polaroid

What if printers became so small that you could attach one to the back of a television, a video game console, a camera, a digital photo frame, or even a cell phone? And what if these tiny printers never required ink—just tiny little packs of paper? You’d have the makings of a rebirth in instant-print photography, with every digital device that captures or displays images potentially acting as its own photo lab.

That’s the vision of Zink Imaging, a Waltham, MA, startup that’s taken technology conceived eight years ago at Polaroid Research Labs and turned it into practical devices that will make their public debut today at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

“We think it’s a game changer,” Zink CEO Wendy Caswell told me in an interview last month. “We are going where no printer company can go, which is into the pocket of the consumer. There isn’t any ink to spill; you just add paper. It’s a classic disruptive technology.” Which may be why innovation guru Clay Christensen is one of the company’s strategic investors—and is definitely why you don’t see Polaroid itself developing the technology. But more on that in a bit.

Zink doesn’t manufacture printing devices itself, but is licensing its technology to manufacturing partners such as Alps Electric, FoxConn, Japanese toymaker Tomy, and even a reborn Polaroid, which has recently emerged from bankruptcy as a purveyor of consumer electronics. At CES today, Polaroid will unveil a “Digital Instant Mobile Photo Printer”—based on Zink’s technology and manufactured by Alps—that’s not much bigger than the 2-inch-by-3-inch, peel-and-stick photos it produces. That means it’s small enough to attach to digital cameras and even camera phones. Caswell says Tomy is building a similar printer into an instant camera aimed at school-age children.

Zink Printer PrototypeWhat Zink is making, from a 385,000-square-foot plant in North Carolina that was about to be closed by former owner Konica-Minolta until Zink bought it last year, is the paper for those printers. And at an anticipated $0.20 per print, selling paper could turn into a lucrative business all on its own—in much the same way that ink-jet cartridges are more profitable for companies like Hewlett Packard than the printers that use them.

Zink’s paper isn’t actually paper at all, but rather a phyllo-like composite of three layers of dye crystals encased in polymer film. In fact, the idea at the core of the company’s intellectual property is encapsulated in its name, which stands for “zero ink.”

Around 2000, the way Zink CTO Steve Herchen explains it, scientists at Polaroid Research Labs realized that it might be possible to build an inkless digital printer by embedding all the necessary color-producing materials in the paper itself—an approach reminiscent of the self-developing instant film that Edwin Land developed in the 1940s and that made Polaroid famous, except that unlike with Land’s film, optics would play no part. Instead, this type of printing would be driven by thermal print heads, like those used in fax machines and gas-pump receipt printers.

The Polaroid researchers embarked on a hunt for temperature-sensitive materials that would be colorless in their solid, crystalline state but become brightly colored when melted. They eventually found crystals that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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