For its latest technological breakthrough in color toner technology, Xerox officials said they took their cue from nature itself, starting from the molecular level, and in doing so hold out the hope of reducing costs for colour printing.
"This is a new way of making toner," explained Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) corporate vice president Rafik Loutfy, at the Wednesday announcement of the new technology - the EA (Emulsion Aggregation) toner creation process.
Although Xerox officials would not predict what the per-page printing costs of the technology would be, they did insist that EA would result in significant cost savings to their customers.
"We believe that EA technology will shatter the barrier to color printing. It will make color not just a luxury but mainstream," said Loutfy, at the premier of the technology, held at XRCC.
Traditionally, toner material is created in an energy-intensive process by grinding down large chunks of pigment-tinted polymer resins. This results in toner particles of various sizes and shapes. The Canadian-developed EA process works the opposite way. It starts off with latex monomer particles about 200 nanometres in size. These particles are placed in a water-based environment and, through the manipulation of a variety of factors including temperature and pH, the particles combine and grow into polymer resins ranging in size from about 3 microns to 15 microns. Pigments are also added to create the desired colours.
Loutfy said the toner that results from this EA process is more desirable than the traditional product for a number of reasons. For starters, it gives scientists complete control over the size and shape of the particles and thereby allows for the creation of uniform toner particles. Uniform particles go onto any type of paper more smoothly, can be packed together better, and can therefore create a significantly sharper, clearer image with less volume of toner.
Loutfy also added that since the particles can be custom formulated, it will be possible for companies to design and request specific corporate colours such as Xerox red or Kodak yellow -- a capability that Xerox hopes will allow the company to take a bite out the offset printing market.
It is this market that Ken Weilerstein, senior analyst with Gartner Group/Data Pro, sad will play a significant factor in the adoption of EA technology.
"The number of pages printed by presses is huge. If Xerox can take away a certain amount of the print volume from the printing press technology, even a small percentage, it is an enormous increase." In particular, he said this technology might appeal to those who only want to do runs that are too small for large presses or runs that require small changes to be made to every page.
Environmentally, he also said the EA process is a step forward because the photoreceptor transfer to the media is 100 per cent, thereby eliminating the cleaner and the waste bottle.
The process is also more energy efficient. Creating the EA toner takes less energy than traditional methods since none is spent smashing material apart. Loutfy predicted that EA printers will last longer than current designs because they will run at lower fuser temperatures since the uniform nature of the particles will make the toner easier to put down. Loutfy also suggested that because the toner particles can be built from scratch, they can even be designed to incorporate waxes that would eliminate the need for the fuser to be oiled.
Weilerstein noted that other companies are also designing toner particles on the molecular level, but that EA has the potential to bring color into places it has been never been used before, especially since Xerox has a such wide variety of output devices in the marketplace.
"This is the kind of thing that companies of Xerox's scale can do. A lot of what goes on in printer development amounts to refinements of the technology that do not require mega investments in R&D. The technology advances but vendors tend to make minor improvements. In this case this represents major research in the technology," Weilerstein said.
Xerox officials said Asia will see the first EA-based Fuji-Xerox manufactured products in late 2001. Other Xerox EA products will appear in 2002, but no specific product lines were mentioned. Officials were equally circumspect as to whether buyers would see completely new designs, modifications of current offerings or retrofits for existing hardware.