UPDATED 2010: New inkjet printer technology that analysts believe will revolutionize the imaging industry was unveiled today by secretive Silverbrook Research.
The company has released astounding videos* of desktop, photo and wide-format printers that print pages and photos 5 to 10 times faster than products from current printer market leaders HP, Canon, Epson and Lexmark.
“This thing is gigantic, we've been in this business for 20 years and I've never seen something as mind boggling,” says Charles LeCompte, president of leading printer market analysis firm, Lyra Research.
“The technology will be available in products in late 2007, starting with a 100mm printhead that will be used for home and retail photo printing as well as label printing devices. An A4/Letter printhead will be available in 2008 with many different components and technology improvements planned for the future,” the company announced today.
HP, Canon and other printer manufacturers are described as "potential customers", by Memjet Technology, the main company established by Silverbrook to market and license the technology. The company expects the printers to eventually cost $200 or less, sources say.
See also our latest opinion article, 'Is Silverbrook's Memjet printer a hoax?' for a discussion of some of the arguments from people who believe these demonstrations could be faked, and a peek at some of the remarkable technology that Silverbrook Research claims will enable a printing revolution (page will open in new window).
The cheap A4 desktop printer with a color printing speed of 60 pages per minute shown in this video is just one of the revolutionary new devices promised by Silverbrook, a company which holds more than 1400 patents, but has never released a product. The video was released today by Memjet Technology. Analysts from leading printer market research firm, Lyra Research Inc say they have personally examined prototypes of the desktop printers and verified that they work as Silverbrook claims
Other products that Silverbrook says will be made possible by the new technology are a $150, desktop photo printer that prints 30 photos per minute. This is more than 10 times faster than all existing desktop products, and 2 to 3 times faster than the speediest competitor, HP's new Edgeline printer, which is not available in a retail product for ordinary consumers.
HP's competing printer costs $16,000
While Edgeline could be the closest competitor to Memjet in terms of speed, it appears to be far more expensive.
The only HP Edgeline printer announced for sale on the open market, the multifunction CM8050, costs $16,000 according to HP, and $21,000 according to a retail outlet which advertises the printer as 'available in the near future'.
In fact, a spare paper tray for the HP edgeline printer currently costs more than $2,000 - ten times the $200 analysts say is possible for Silverbrook's desktop inkjet printer (Silverbrook itself says only that the price will be under $300). It is not clear when the HP CM8050 will be available, as HP has removed the product page from its website recently.
(Update March 30: Since this story was written, HP staff have contacted Texyt to inform us that the company has not officially announced pricing for the Edgeline series. We await further clarification from HP)
Silverbrook's assault on the market
In almost 3500 patent applications over the past decade, Silverbrook has described an incredible array of potential products. These include a full colour printer module small enough to fit into a mobile phone, digital camera or even into handheld games like the Sony PSP or Nintendo DS. Silverbrook's working prototype of this miniature color inkjet printing module is shown here in this low-quality snapshot.
Other patents describe large scale printers to print wallpaper and textiles. According to Lyra Research, Silverbrook believes the radical technology can scale from handheld devices right up to huge commercial printing presses that could print magazines and books.
The desktop printers as described by Silverbrook have a “price/performance ratio that is off the charts”, says Steve Hoffenberg of Lyra Research.
Low printing cost claimed
Silverbrook has forecast printing costs for the 60 page per minute desktop printer at below $0.02 for black text, and under $0.06 for color pages (with 20 percent ink coverage), according to Lyra Research, which had early access to prototypes.
The desktop printer's individual color ink cartridges hold 50ml of ink, an almost unprecedented amount in a consumer product, and will sell for less than $20 each, the company predicts. Most existing inkjet printers from companies like Epson use ink cartridges with a capacity of about 10ml, and prices of $15 to $30.
"Silverbrook expect costs of ink and media supplies will be pushing new lows. They're not looking to subsidize their costs with high ink prices, instead they want more of a balance," says Steve Hoffenberg, Lyra's director of consumer imaging research
The privately-held company has not disclosed the identities of investors, but states that "No existing printer company has any stake in the Memjet Companies".
Analysts have suggested that Silverbrook could license its technology to outsiders who are trying to break into the printer market. Dell, which already has a printer business, but owns little of the technology behind it, is one name that has been mentioned.
Radical new technology
The ultra fast speed of the printers is partly due to their 'pagewidth' format. Unlike conventional inkjets, the printhead spans the full width of the paper and does not need to shuttle from side to side. The A4 or letter-size desktop printer's printhead is a full 8 inches (21.3 cm) wide and contains 70,400 ink nozzles. This microscope photo shows a tiny section of the print head - each of the small white circles is a single ink nozzle.
The ink nozzles are arranged in lines, with 1600 nozzles per inch. These can produce more than 2.5 million ink dots per square inch of paper in a single pass. (The screen you are reading this story on has approximately 10,000 dots per square inch). These tiny nozzles can fire out ink droplets smaller than one picoliter (one millionth of a millionth of a liter). This produces tremendously sharp prints, say analysts.
The very small size of the ink droplets is important, because it helps the ink dry in less than a second. This is a critical factor in high speed printing without smudging.
The printhead is made up in four-inch units. These are themselves assembled from smaller pieces, 20 mm long, which are built using a semiconductor fabrication process, similar to that used to make CPUs and graphics chips. The photograph on the right, shows an 8-inch silicon wafer on which these 20 mm print head sections are visible
Please refer to Texyt.com's exclusive first article on Silverbrook Research and its Memjet technology for background information on Silverbrook Research and its founder, Australian inventor, Kia Silverbrook, and a look at some of the patents behind the invention.
See this article for more on Memjet, including its predicted disruptive effect on the printer industry
Can this remarkable technology actually succeed in the market? See also our look at Memjet's print quality, intellectual property issues, and competition from HP's Edgeline.
*Update April 2: Since this story was written, Memjet Technologies has removed the video of the wide format printer from its website. The company also removed another video which showed all three of its prototypes, including the wide format printer. Videos of the other two protoypes, the A4/Letter printer and the photo printer remain on the site.
Update May 28: Memjet has now added a new video of its wide format printer prototype to its website, replacing the original video which was removed. Part of this video segment is shown at the end of the video sequence displayed on this page. The printer and adjacent workstation appear identical to those in the original video - as far as can be ascertained in a low quality video of this nature.
Update Aug 2008: Despite maintaining their customary low profile, Silverbrook and Memjet have been recruiting numerous engineers with experience of MEMs and other areas that are related to Memjet during the past year. Hiring has been in Asia and Australia, with an emphasis on practical manufacturing experience. We've removed the predicted year from the title of this article because development of the mass-market version of the printer is obviously behind the schedule given by Silverbrook last year.
Update Nov 2008: According to recent statements by Memjet representatives, the company's high-speed A4/Letter page-width printhead is expected to be ready by the end of 2008. A printer based on this is expected to be announced in early 2009 by another vendor. Memjet is predicting a price as low as $300 for this product - though the company notes that the price will be set by the printer vendor. If these predictions prove accurate, the first consumer-oriented Memjet printer will be released approximately one year later than initially forecast.
Update July 2009: Since this article was originally published, Memjet has put back the launch of products several times. While Silverbrook and Memjet have been characteristically shy of talking about internal activity, recruitment ads and other sources reveal that the company has been hiring numerous engineering staff and other employees worldwide during this period.
The most recent news from the company, as of mid-2009, is that no commercial availability is expected until 2010. Memjet is not manufacturing or selling printers itself, but is supplying components to other manufacturers. According to the company: after unexpected delays, almost all problems with the Memjet printheads and other components have been sorted out, but partners' ramping up to mass production is now also taking longer than expected. The first products expected on the market are desktop printers aimed at small businesses.
Memjet has not named any of the companies that will use the technology. However, Videos on the Memjet Home and Office website which compare competing products unfavorably with Memjet technologies include HP, Samsung, Canon, Xerox and Brother - suggesting that Memjet is not partnering with any of these companies, as it would be unlikely to criticize a business partner's products. Notably these comparisons make no mention of Epson, one of the world's largest printer manufacturers (other notable printer makers or vendors not mentioned include Kodak, Lexmark, Dell, Oki Data, Ricoh).
Other announcements from Memjet make clear that, in a break with current industry practice, a key feature of some or all of its home and office printers will be refillable ink cartridges.
Update Feb 2010: Memjet is now expecting products on the market in the second half of 2010, with office printers appearing first, followed later by cheaper products aimed at ordinary consumers. The company has hired tech industry heavyweight, Len Lauer, as its new CEO. Lauer provided the new product release schedule in interviews. Lauer was formerly COO at Qualcomm and prior to that held the same position at Sprint Nextel.