Epson and the Ultimate Printing Technology

Epson's proprietary Micro Piezo technology is opening up new printing horizons.

Tadaaki Hagata
Tadaaki Hagata

Despite its origins in the rural environment of Nagano in Japan, Seiko Epson Corporation ("Epson") has grown into a global electronics maker with a reputation for innovative breakthroughs and a broad array of outstanding products. Its lineup of excellent printers is particularly well known, with the Epson brand name eventually becoming part of the company's name.
Epson's printer business can be traced back to the compact and lightweight EP-101, a byproduct of the microprecision technology honed through the company's manufacture of Seiko-brand watches. Epson subsequently developed highly competitive thermal, thermal-transfer, thermal-fusion, dot-matrix, electrographic, and inkjet printers-the last being an area in which Epson claims great expertise. The market success of these products has made the Epson brand virtually synonymous with printers.

A Saturated Market?

Some industry watchers have stated, though, that the inkjet market in which Epson maintains a strong global presence has become saturated in recent years with dim prospects for future growth-particularly in the field of consumer printers. Even the market for all-in-ones that combine printer, scanner, fax, copying, and direct-photo-printing functions appears to have become saturated.
The growing popularity of network-linked, high-resolution digital displays, including photo frames, has emerged as a new challenge. If information can be sent to and shown on a display, it would not be surprising if demand for printed materials declined.

Epson's Core Strength

Despite some signs that the inkjet market may have already peaked, many manufacturers continue to invest in this technology, and Epson is no exception. Under its SE15 Long-Range Corporate Vision, Epson positions inkjet printers at the core of its operations.
"There is no question that the inkjet printer business will continue to drive our growth," notes Tadaaki Hagata, Epson's chief operating officer for the Imaging Products Operations Segment. His confidence comes from an assessment that there are many segments of the maturing consumer market that have yet to be tapped and that additional demand can be generated. "Making printouts on a personal printer is still not as easy and straightforward as it could be; for example, it first requires the user to operate a computer and install a printer driver. The printer is thus not a product that anyone-particularly those who are not accustomed to using a computer-can operate straight out of the box." Making printers easier to use, Hagata notes, is the first step toward capturing some of the untapped demand.

Latent Demand

The inkjet printer broke into the consumer market around 1995, thanks to the rapid spread of the personal computer. Epson's inkjets, in particular, took the market by storm for their photo-quality printouts. These printers later evolved into all-in-ones with scanning and other functions. Stand-alone, compact photo models were also developed, but printers remained largely dependent on PCs. "Our aim is to build printers that are fully PC-free," notes Hagata. "We want to enhance user friendliness and offer printers that are fun to use. It was with this in mind that we developed the PictureMate series of personal photo labs."

PictureMate with large LCD

The PictureMate became an instant hit when launched in 2004, and it has since evolved to incorporate such user-friendly features as large LCDs; the latest high-end model comes with a full keyboard, enabling it to create a variety of printed materials without a computer.
"With all kinds of displays that can be hooked up to networks that are now available, there's no denying that people are printing fewer photos," Hagata concedes. "But at the same time, with so much more information available in electronic form today, there's that much more for people to print out." Hagata also believes that there is still untapped demand in the emerging economies, where there are fewer photo shops offering printing services. And while ownership of digital cameras has become saturated in the industrial countries, there is still room for growth in the emerging ones. Thus there is the potential for a significant increase in the number of printed photos in such markets.

Broader Applications

Epson Stylus Pro WT-7900
Epson Stylus Pro WT-7900

Hagata also sees bright prospects in the commercial and industrial applications of inkjet technology-an area that is likely to expand significantly in the years ahead.
Epson's Micro Piezo technology is already being used to manufacture color filters for LCD TVs, and it can also be used to produce printed circuit boards. It is an energy-saving, environment-friendly alternative that can dramatically reduce the volume of raw materials consumed and waste generated, compared to conventional production methods.
There is strong latent demand in the commercial field. For example, many mass-volume retail outlets now change their sales items and the way products are displayed on a daily basis to catch buyers' attention. Some also regularly adjust their point-of-purchase advertisements. While such ads may be easy to change if they are printed on paper, many POP materials are made of plastic.
"A major French mass retailer chose to use Epson's wide-format printers to create different POP displays every day, based on the ideas suggested by its in-store staff," Hagata relates. "This boosted shoppers' eagerness to buy, and led to a significant jump in sales."
With renewed recognition of the value of printers for POP and signage uses, Epson began work on developing models geared for the commercial market. One result has been the incorporation of white ink. White is usually unnecessary when printing on paper but becomes crucial when printing on transparent film used in product labels and wrapping.

Micro Piezo's Advantages

With ample power and controllability, the Micro Piezo format is playing an important role in expanding the range of uses of inkjet technologies, such as the use of white ink and the printing of layered, three-dimensional designs.
Epson's strength lies in being able to build miniature piezoelectric elements at low cost-which had been considered difficult. Because inkjet printers require the use of multiple nozzles to eject different color inks, most other inkjet manufacturers use the thermal method.
Epson has continued to focus on honing its Micro Piezo technology, though, developing a miniaturized print head with high-density nozzles. Micro Piezo heads are more durable and powerful, and because the ink does not need to be heated, as in the thermal approach, a broader range of inks can be used.
The most outstanding feature of Epson's technology is the accuracy with which the ink is placed. Adjusting the voltage applied to the piezoelectric elements enables Micro Piezo print heads to actively control the discharge of ink. Even minute drops of ink can be placed with great accuracy and reliability.
It was this technology that triggered a boom in photo-quality printouts among professional photographers and artists in the late 1990s. The same technology is featured in the highly popular Epson inkjets for the consumer market, and it is now helping the company pioneer new markets in the commercial and industrial sectors as well.

New Applications and Markets

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The interview was conducted in February 2010.