Printers quietly become standout technology

By Brian Bergstein The Associated Press
Thursday April 04, 2002

SAN JOSE — While most of the high-tech world perpetually focuses on the next new thing, a familiar device quietly has gotten so good as to be almost stunning: the printer. 

Galleries and frame stores can download artwork from the Internet and make richly colored prints directly on fine paper or canvas within minutes. 

Big laser printers and digital presses allow corporations to make customized glossy publications in-house and in short runs, without the expense of shipping them to specialty printing houses. 

Inexpensive photo printers let consumers instantly develop sharp-looking shots from digital cameras, skipping not only the traditional trip to a photofinishing store but also a time-consuming upload onto a personal computer. 

“These things keep improving in quality while coming down in price,” said Keith Kratzberg, director of photo imaging for Epson America Inc. “We have totally refined the way these things are designed and manufactured.” 

New inks fuse to paper much easier and in smaller particles, permitting greater resolution and sharper images with more subtle hues. 

Other refinements make printing faster. 

The iGen3 digital press expected soon from Xerox Corp. should help graphic arts companies and corporations do their own publishing. Forty feet in length and about $500,000 in cost, the press can crank out 100 pages per minute. 

For the rest of us, even a 17-page-per-minute desktop printer can be had for around $150. 

One company built almost entirely on the recent advances in printing is Brightcube Inc. Its high-end ink jets let art galleries and frame stores make posters and high-quality prints on demand, reducing the need to keep costly inventory around. 

One painting of a Mediterranean-style cottage and a garden, downloaded from Brightcube, emerged on a large canvas alive with sharp reds and yellows. The brush strokes of the original also stood out on the digitally made copy. 

“Sometimes customers want to come in and order a specific piece, and rather than order it, we’ll just print it,” said Scott Gilsinger, owner of the Framing Loft in Sun City, Ariz., who uses the Brightcube service to make 20 to 30 prints per month. “It’s excellent quality.” 

For now, El Segundo, Calif.-based Brightcube has only 40 employees, about 100 customers and a somewhat limited supply of art and photography available to download. 

But its potential is intriguing. Brightcube’s technology keeps track of which works are downloaded and printed, so artists can collect proper royalties. 

Beyond artwork, Brightcube hopes retailers will want to download official logos and designs from their parent companies’ headquarters and customize advertisements for individual stores. 

Combining the Internet with new high-end printing technology is also a goal at Hewlett-Packard Co., which recently closed a deal worth as much as $800 million to acquire Indigo NV, a Dutch company that makes digital presses. 

Digital presses let big companies, advertising agencies and printing houses create fancy color newsletters, brochures and ads quickly, in relatively small batches — and with customized content. 

For example, HP and a European airline are exploring ways to use a digital press and Web-based customer-service platform to make personalized in-flight magazines for first- and business-class passengers. 

“You’d find seat 12-K, and with the magazines sitting there, on the top is one geared to you and your flight, welcoming you on board, giving you a summary of your frequent flier miles, saying here’s your menu, here’s your videos you asked for, and here’s the articles you might like to read,” said Bill McGlynn, an HP digital publishing vice president. 

Eyeing similar opportunities, Xerox expects its iGen3 digital press to bring in $15 billion in revenue in the next decade. 

But despite their flexibility, digital presses likely will supplement the equipment large printing companies already have, rather than steal their business altogether, said Mike Croke, who consults with companies on big printing tasks and farms the work out to specialty houses. 

“It will start to take a toll on some of the mom and pop shops, some of the medium-sized shops. But it’s not going to knock the large printers down,” Croke said. “I don’t see a large insurance company going back into the printing business.” 


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END Advance