San Diego’s Printer Industry Veterans Offer Some Insights Into Memjet’s Technology

One of the most surprising personnel moves announced in San Diego so far this year came in early January, when former Qualcomm COO Len Lauer was named to head Memjet, a startup the Wall Street Journal described as “a closely held company most people have never heard of.”

Lauer’s move was puzzling. As a wireless industry veteran—and former Sprint Nextel COO—Lauer was rumored to be a possible successor to Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg. Memjet, on the other hand, has been working for at least a decade to develop a broad spectrum of new inkjet printing technologies that promise to revolutionize the printer market. With many inkjet printers selling for less than $100—or included for free when you buy a new PC—it doesn’t seem more like a commodity than an industry that’s ripe for an innovation revolution.

Memjet nevertheless has amassed substantial gravitas since it took the wraps off its technology in 2007. Memjet has four U.S. based operating companies (Memjet Home and Office, Memjet Labels, Memjet Photo Retail, and Memjet Wide Format) and says it holds more than 2,600 patents—with 2,000 more pending. Managing so many patents—and using such intellectual property to maximum advantage is one reason why Memjet looked to recruit a top executive from Qualcomm, which holds more than 9,400 patents and generated more than a third of its 2009 revenue from licensing its proprietary technologies.

Memjet’s core technology was invented by Australian Kia Silverbrook, a former chief technology officer for Japan’s Canon. He is renowned in the printing industry as both brilliant and eccentric.

Memjet CEO Len Lauer

Memjet CEO Len Lauer

Lauer’s experience in organizing and managing big technology companies also was “likely overdue,” according to the Hard Copy Observer, a trade journal published by Lyra Research, a printer market research firm based in Newton, MA. “As Memjet has expanded, the company’s ability to execute across the broad range of fronts in which it is engaged has likely suffered from the lack of a professional executive,” the Hard Copy Observer reported in January. So Lauer’s appointment also marks a restructuring of a company that reflects Silverbrook’s priorities. Of Memjet’s 600 employees, Lauer told the Wall Street Journal that 400 are employed in Sydney, Australia, as engineers. In the U.S., Memjet has operations in Boise, ID, and San Diego, but no chief financial officer.

As it turns out, Memjet and Silverbrook are well-known in certain quarters of San Diego, which has some longstanding local expertise in imaging and inkjet printing technologies.

Hewlett-Packard’s Imaging and Printing Group, headed by Vyomesh Joshi, has maintained its headquarters in suburban Rancho Bernardo, CA, for decades and HP still has an inkjet R&D engineering group in San Diego. HP’s long presence also has spawned some local startups with industry expertise, including Eastman Kodak, which established a business unit in San Diego that is focused on imaging and printing technology. (A Joshi predecessor, Antonio Perez, left HP in 2003 to take a leadership role at Rochester, NY-based Eastman Kodak—and Perez immediately led Kodak back into San Diego with a major initiative focused on the photo printing business.)

To gain some insight into Memjet’s technology, I asked some industry experts to discuss the potential revolutionary changes underway. Of the people I spoke with, none would talk on the record. One expert who has looked at some of Memjet’s patents said it’s because of corporate sensitivities that arise when speaking publicly about a rival’s technology.

So what is so unusual about Memjet’s technology? Unlike conventional inkjet printers, which have a print head that moves laterally across the page, Memjet’s print head is stationary and extends all the way across the page—so it lays down an entire line of ink as the paper advances. The design poses both advantages and disadvantages, and here are some of the observations I gathered:

—A print head that traverses the page essentially prints one character at a time. In contrast, having the nozzles on a fixed print head that goes all the way across the page is an approach that can be incredibly fast. The new Memjet approach gets rid of many of the mechanical things that can fail and it eliminates a lot of the print head tolerances that can become problematic. But it requires a lot of nozzles—from 600 to 1,200 nozzles per linear inch. That’s upwards of 10,000 to 20,000 nozzles across the page. So one of the big challenges is for Memjet to make its printer robust, reliable, high-quality—and affordable.

—All of the major printer companies (HP, Canon, Epson, Kodak) have worked on print engine technology like Memjet’s. But they haven’t succeeded in making them easy to manufacture, reliable, and affordable. A key vulnerability is that the nozzles get clogged, which results in print jobs with vertical streaks running down the page. Not good when you’re printing photos or trying to impress the boss with that monthly sales report.

—There’s been some speculation that Memjet’s technology might also offer some advantages in large enterprise networks as a centralized printer and copier. Such a networked configuration would pose challenges in getting tremendous amounts of data—in terms of hundred, or possibly even thousands of print jobs—to the printer.

—There’s also considerable debate over just how much growth the printing industry can expect, especially with the advent of E-ink and the proliferation of electronic readers from Sony Electronics, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. The printer industry’s big players make most of their money in the aftermarket sales of consumables like ink and print cartridges—which usually are more than enough to make up for the losses they incur in selling printers for less than $100, or giving them away.

Lauer has said that Memjet doesn’t plan to make printers itself, and instead plans to sell ink and components to printer makers. He has compared Memjet’s business model to the way Qualcomm supplied its chips to cell phone makers—which helped Qualcomm get its proprietary wireless technology established in the global market. So maybe Lauer’s move isn’t so puzzling, after all.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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