Epson, printheads and partnerships
Minoru Usui, president, and CEO of Seiko Epson Corporation holding a PrecisionCore print bar.
Epson’s corporate headquarters is at Suwa, Nagano, which is roughly a three-hour train journey northwest from Tokyo. It’s high up in a mountainous region, 700 meters above sea level, with a scattering of snow on the ground, and stepping out of the train station, the air immediately feels fresher than Tokyo. Epson occupies a large sprawling site with multiple buildings spread liberally around.
Usui joined Epson in 1979 and initially worked on designing mini-printers for calculators before moving into inkjet development. He was instrumental in developing the A4-sized Stylus 800, Epson’s first inkjet printer fitted with a MicroPiezo printhead, launched in 1993. By 1997 he was the general manager of the IJ Development & Design Department, and by 2002 he took over as director of Epson’s Imaging & Information Products Operations Division. He followed this with a spell as the general administrative manager of the Production Engineering & Development Division before becoming managing director in 2007 and President and CEO in June 2008. He recently announced his intention to step down from these roles and will become chairman as well as a director of Epson from 1st April.
Usui started off the conversation by pointing out that Epson’s strength has traditionally been in consumer printing, saying “that’s still very much our focus.” He described how the drive to create Epson’s MicroPiezo technology came from the need to compete against companies such as Canon, which used its thermal BubbleJet inkjet, as well as laser technology and toner, adding: “When we first came out with the printhead we needed to compete right from the go and obviously the consumer BubbleJet was going to be the first battle that we had.”
However, although Usui championed the development of MicroPiezo inkjet, there were also voices within Epson arguing in favor of developing laser technology as a better fit for the consumer and office markets. And Epson did look at laser printing but when the development faltered inkjet was the obvious alternative.
This led Epson to develop the first photo quality inkjet printer, which went on to be the foundation of the company’s wide-format printers. These are widely used, from the photographic and fine art markets through to proofing, display graphics, and textile printing. Epson has also taken a similar approach to label printing, starting with desktop devices and then scaling up the technology to create several commercial label presses.
As inkjet started to grow, Epson looked at the industrial sector, opting to start with the textile printing market. Usui explains: “We felt the time for inkjet had started to come because there was a lot of concern over the environment and the running cost and there was a fear in the background that the world would move to paperless so we wanted to get into areas like label printing.”
This led directly to Epson investing into and later acquiring the Italian textile companies For. Tex, which specializes in textile inks, and Robustelli, which makes the Monna Lisa range of textile printers for the garment and home furnishings markets.
Usui says that Epson’s future plans are to concentrate on its existing textile and label printing markets and to expand into other markets through partnerships with relevant companies rather than by developing its own printers or making further acquisitions. He explains: “In areas like textiles and labels we believe we have sufficient capability to make our own equipment. Not just because of the printhead but because of the image processing technology. We think that we have got to the stage where we are good enough to compete on the basis of the complete product.”
However, he says that outside of the label and textile markets, Epson does not have much experience in producing big industrial equipment, adding: “So we want to work with partners who have more capability to make their equipment while we supply the heads, and have everybody stimulate each other and grow – that’s our target.”
He points out that having a printhead is not enough to expand into other industrial markets, and that other elements such as material handling and servicing would also be necessary. But he also says that Epson has a more holistic approach and wants to manufacture products in a more sustainable way. He adds: “Working with partners means we can work with people with a different points of view. We would like to have partners with the same like mind to change the world. We have a great printhead and we created it in a very tough environment and we want that to be a core part of this new world that we are looking to create.”
Usui sees the PrecisionCore heads as a platform that Epson can use to grow its business, noting: “So piezo technology can fire almost any kind of liquid so we will continue to concentrate on developing our printheads, inks, and materials. We want to create a new industrial infrastructure based on this.”
He says that the key element is the actuator and that Epson has many different designs, noting: “An inkjet printer is putting pressure on an actuator and firing the ink and we have a lot of capability with that. This is an area where we will continue to grow.” He continues: “We realized that if we made the piezo material itself thinner and thinner then we could make it bend even further so we started developing the base material itself.”
It took Epson over 20 years to develop the current generation of PrecisionCore printheads. Usui says: “Inkjet is an extremely simple technology. You just fire ink on a page, so when we set about selecting a technology we wanted to realize the best possible technology to allow that.” The aim was to develop a technology that could fire many different types of ink, that would be durable, and which could be used in different markets, from office to industrial.
He explains: “We designed the actuator from the ground up, from the design of the materials to the MEMs technology which is not something that many other people would be able to do.” He says that the MEMs technology gives Epson complete control over the heads down to the micron level. Usui adds: “One of our strengths is meniscus control and we can control this with very high precision.” He says that Epson has the actuator technology to be able to fire very viscous inks, and can simply redesign the nozzles to handle different inks, adding: “There are lots of different types of ink and we are focusing on improving the head so it’s capable of firing all types.” However, he also stresses that he sees the printhead as a platform, but adds: “We are not thinking of using ink like a platform as we are with our heads.”
Essentially, Epson’s aim is not so much to create the finished printers, but rather the print engines that it can sell to other developers, and its strategy is to develop a really deep understanding of those components to make it difficult for other companies to compete. In terms of printheads, this means not just designing the architecture but also developing the materials and the manufacturing process to have total control down to the micron level, and to be able to use this to manufacture at high volumes. (It’s worth noting that although the Epson name first appeared in 1975, the company can trace its roots back to Daiwa Kogyo Ltd, which started in 1942 to supply components for watches, another business that depends on manufacturing high precision parts in large volumes.)
Usui acknowledges that Epson benefited from having good competitors, noting: “Basically for our business to survive we had to win against BubbleJet so we had to produce at a lower cost and get very high quality and that gave us a very high hurdle.”
But he also stressed that it is important to work with partners, saying: “At Epson, we want to change the world but we understand we can’t do it by ourselves.” Usui concludes that the original purpose for developing the piezo technology was not just to change the world of printing for the better, but to contribute to society in a meaningful way and that he had a strong belief that inkjet could help achieve this which is why he put so much focus into it throughout his career at Epson.