Epson: A Printing Success Saga

The story
goes back to 1964. The event-Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Seiko Corp, the world class Japanese watch manufacturing company
was chosen the official time keeper for the event. In addition
to supplying crystal chronometers the company also developed
an innovative printing timer for the event. Four years later,
this led to the development of the world’s first mini electronic
printer called EP-101. The product saw such unprecedented
success that the company was determined to produce ‘many worthy
sons of the product.’ And thus was born EP and Sons or simply
Epson. The birth of Epson in 1968 marked the beginning of
Seiko Epson’s expansion into multi-faceted businesses in the
ensuing years. From watches to computer printers, color image
scanners to digital cameras, office computers to hand-held
computers and notebook computers, precision assembly robots
to factory automation robots, and LCD TV watches to LCD projectors-the
company has undergone a major transition to emerge as a $8
billion diversified business group.

Innovation
is the key

Despite
its diversification, the commitment to make Epson synonymous
with printers and maintain technology leadership in the printer
industry continues to be its mission. “Epson is the printer
company and will remain so in the future. However, the nature
of printing is changing rapidly and we are ready to meet the
challenges of time,” asserts Toshio Kimura, Senior MD, Seiko
Epson Corp. The development of products from the mini printer
to the serial impact dot matrix to the inkjet and laser printers
over the years signifies Epson’s commitment towards the printer
market. And at each stage of development it is the company’s
technological breakthroughs that have propelled its growth.
Epson has clearly made its mark with its list of world’s firsts.
Among these count the total automation of printer manufacturing
processes of its proprietary Micro Piezo technology for the
inkjet range of printers, the photo reproduction quality technology
for the Stylus range of printers, reaching the 1440 dpi resolution
milestone and producing the world’s smallest ink droplet for
3 picoliter or developing the world’s fastest color printer
at twelve pages per minute. It might still not be the #1 printer
vendor in the world but it has to its credit a number of world
firsts which make this Asian peripherals giant a name to reckon
with. “First we make the product. Then the attitude and efforts
are towards making it smaller, faster, lighter, better, more
user-friendly, energy-saving and a leader in that product
category,” explains Toshiyuki Yakuwa, Senior Manager, Epson
Singapore.

That is
exactly the way Epson went about its printer business. Graduating
from EP-101 to a robust impact technology, Epson has continued
to retain the world’s #1 position in the DMP segment for over
two decades. According to IDC during 1998, out of the total
five million DMP units sold worldwide, Epson captured 45%
marketshare. But faced with the threat of the shrinking DMP
market and the technology obsolescence Epson had to refocus
its efforts in the late eighties. The popularity and increasing
marketshare of the inkjet technology made this the obvious
choice for the company to zero in on this technology. Says
Yakuwa, “A late entrant in this segment, Epson decided that
the only way to survive the competition would be to have superior
proprietary technology and capability for mass manufacture,
including the manufacture of components and machinery used
in printers.”

In the
early nineties, Epson succeeded in developing its own Micro
Piezo technology after painstaking R&D at its centers across
the world. Its considerable experience in other businesses
no doubt added to its advantage. The Micro Piezo technology
was derived from the expertise of the Seiko watch division.
In its endeavor to manufacture smaller and more compact watches
Seiko pioneered the Micromechatronic technology. This technology
allows extremely precise processing-down to 1/100th thickness
of a strand of human hair. “The Micro Piezo head is the key
component in the photo-realistic quality printers of Epson
that enables controlling the size of ink droplets. To this
day, this Micro Piezo technology differentiates Epson from
other printer manufacturers,” says Paramjit Singh Puri, Senior
Country Manager, Epson India. Alongside the development of
printer technology, Epson looked at emerging opportunities
and identified photography, and photo-features as promising
areas where it could make a difference. Plans to work on products
related to this printer industry also began simultaneously.
“Epson’s R&D was working on all aspects of the printer such
as hardware, software, medium and media used in the printing
process. Ink droplet size, shape and resolution, printer driver
technology and ink formulation were areas identified for research.
The result was Epson’s five-pronged printing solution called
the Perfect Picture Imaging System (PPIS),” narrates Daisuke
Hori, Manager (Technology). PPIS, the rugged formula for Epson’s
inkjet printers, is a suite of technologies used exclusively
by Epson’s Stylus inkjet printers. The backbone of Epson’s
inkjet printer business, the PPIS, is the result of improvisation
on all aspects of the printing process. Epson achieved this
by working on five main elements, namely, the Micro Piezo
print head technology, high print resolution, AcuPhoto
halftoning,
Epson ink and Epson special media.

MICRO
PIEZO PRINTER HEAD:

Basically
the inkjet is all about shooting ink dots onto a page. The
cleaner and rounder the dots, the sharper the output. While
the conventional inkjet technology uses a thermal printing
process to boil the ink and jet out the droplets onto the
page, Epson differed by using an electronic impulse to precisely
force the ink through the printer head. This method allows
cleaner droplets to be formed and ejected on the page. “The
modifications to the structure of the Micro Piezo print head
controls the shape of the ink droplet that is ejected. The
print head contains a number of tiny electric pumps powered
by Piezo crystals which change shape at fantastic speed and
act as highly effective pistons. This is in turn controlled
by a feature called the Active Meniscus Control, which has
a pull-push-and pull mechanism unlike other printers that
are equipped with the push mechanism only. The meniscus control
in the first pull decides the size of the droplet and in the
push factor propels the ink out of the chamber. While the
second pull stabilizes the ink thereby ensuring an accurate
firing of the ink drop which stops vibrating when it lands
on the surface,” explains Hori

HIGH
PRINT RESOLUTION:

One of
the technological breakthroughs for Epson has been the achievement
of high print color resolution at 720 dpi and later on the
1440 dpi, in the mid and late nineties. This led to the promotion
of photo-realistic printer outputs for Epson in the Stylus
range. With true photo-quality in mind Epson began to produce
smaller droplets of ink to fill up the image that would result
in higher print resolution. Placing small droplets next to
each other at such proximity would give greater finish and
fineness to the quality of output. Although the 1440 dpi satisfied
the quality of outputs it was not the final answer. Smaller
dots meant increased number of dots required to cover the
page which lower the speed of the printer considerably. In
its effort to meet this challenge of maintaining speed for
the same quality Epson came up with a system called the variable
dot technology (see box). This technology incorporates two
new developments-the Ultra MicroDots (Epson has developed
the world’s smallest ink droplet at size 3 picoliter, while
the average ink droplet size is still at 8 picoliter) and
the ability to print with different sized droplets. With this
technology the printer driver controls different droplet sizes
to be produced simultaneously by choosing the appropriate
size for the area of the image to be printed. Thus different
sizes of ink droplets fill up the image based on the volume
and richness of ink required. With this technology, Epson
recently launched Epson Stylus 900-the world’s fastest color
printer at the 1440 dpi resolution at the rate of twelve pages
per minute.

ACUPHOTO
HALFTONING:

Epson
achieved the desired speed and photo-finish of the printed
output through a method called AcuPhoto halftoning. While
the conventional halftoning is the method used in laying ink
on paper, AcuPhoto halftoning is a method of determining how
ink droplets should be applied to a page for best print quality
results. This technology has been built into Epson’s new printer
driver software. Using advanced halftoning algorithms, the
AcuPhoto halftoning module examines each page’s contents,
resolution and media type and then determines the best pattern
in which to apply dots on the page. The driver also includes
color tables allowing smoother tones and gradations ensuring
the printed output closely matches the original. Epson’s AcuPhoto
Halftoning comprises new technologies including Advanced Error
Diffusion and 3D look-up table for high fidelity color translation.
It also speeds up the color conversion process by avoiding
the use of complex mathematical algorithms.

QUICK
DRY INK AND PHOTO-PAPER:

With the
objective of photo-realistic output in mind, Epson worked
at improving the medium and the media used in printing. It
manufactures its own color ink used in the ink cartridges.
These ink are super penetrating and highly concentrated to
achieve quick drying of ink on the surface of the output.
Epson also develops its own special photo quality papers for
better image. The reduction of ink droplet size from 13 picolitre
in 1997 to 3 picolitre in 1999 contributed to better, sharper
image print-outs. The process of a totally automated ink cartridge
manufacturing plant has enhanced cleanliness and the quality
of ink contained in the cartridges. Its six robots control
the entire automated manufacture of ink cartridges in five
stages: foam coating, rubber sealing, ink filling foam compression
and packaging. Last year Epson grabbed 27% marketshare of
the 43 million inkjet market worldwide, with HP stealing the
show at 40% marketshare, according to IDC. With PPIS in place
Epson hopes to level its marketshare with the #1 player in
the coming years.

Product
strategies and roadmap

Having
achieved the goal it had set for its inkjet printers, Epson
is developing proprietary technology for its laser printers
at its R&D centres. A lot of emphasis has been placed on indigenous
development of color laser network capable printers. At the
same time, the concept of on-demand printing solutions for
the 21st century is also being worked out. “While the paradigm
shift was from impact to non-impact printers from the seventies
to the nineties, the future is towards on-demand printing,
photo printing and ecommerce,” says Kimura. Defining the print-on-demand
concept as “a process for creating printed matter that the
user needs through various sources such as the computer, communication
equipment and printers which will be Epson’s focus for the
future,” adds Kimura. To this extent Epson is rethinking its
printing business. The shift is from `time to print’ to `time
to market’; `reach the masses’ to `capture the individual’;
and `print volume’ to `print value’. This shift is evident
in the company’s move towards developing products such as
scanners, digital cameras, graphic printers, LCD TVs, multimedia
projectors, mobile communicator and multi-function devices.
Epson’s belief is that while the first generation required
long print runs and fixed contents, the second generation
requires short printing runs with customization for content.
In the third generation, the first and second generation printing
methods would be delivered via communications infrastructure
such as the internet, and satellite relay thereby creating
a flexible print-on-demand business model. “Instead of only
output devices, the strategy would now be towards expanding
other business units providing innovative color imaging solutions.
The printer market is now polarizing as users request high-quality,
multi-functional, intelligent equipment on the one hand and
special-use equipment on the other. Epson plans to address
both the segments, ” adds Kimura. Just-in-time printing, distributed
POD, personalized POD and web-enabled POD are opportune zone
areas the company has identified. The information equipment
business has indeed come a long way from a single product
division to a multi-product organization. Epson has identified
user group segments such as the, SOHO, photo, proofing, copying
and graphics as opportunity areas for print product innovation.
Products like mobile printers, page printers and customized
products are expected to hit the market by the beginning of
the millennium.

Manufacturing
strengths

Epson
has used its long years of technical experience gained in
manufacturing watches to develop sophisticated production
facilities. These include assembly robots and factory automation
(FA) systems which are used in-house and supplied to other
manufacturers. The entire assembly and sub-assembly of printer
components and most of the manufacturing processes are also
totally automated. Epson created history in 1988 by launching
the world’s first automatically manufactured printer. These
self-sufficient, automated systems and processes help Epson
maintain competitiveness, quality and lower cost of manufacturing.
This also gives the company a quick turn-around time to upgrade
or develop a new product. The 35 manufacturing plants across
the globe function non stop, 365 days a year, in two shifts
of 12 hours each. Employing locals in the manufacturing plant
and providing job opportunities to about 28,000 Japanese,
Epson survived the economic crisis that hit Japan during the
last few year.

Global
perspective

Shedding
its Japanese conservative attitude, the company is gradually
making strides in the world market and expanding its operations
across the globe. “The economic crisis of Japan was one of
the most compelling reasons that made Epson reconsider its
business strategy and get a global perspective. During recession
when the manufactured products were not sold within Japan,
we had to look at potential new markets,” says Yakuwa. Also
advancing towards the $10 billion mark has given Epson an
identity and a confidence to go on a global expansion spree.
Presently, Epson has set up three regional headquarters in
the US, Netherlands and China in addition to having 30 sales
affiliates and representative offices in different parts of
the world.

Environment-friendly
Epson

Epson’s
concern for developing environment-friendly products has helped
it to make products that are resource-saving. It started off
with developing the world’s first automatic quartz watches
as well as microcomputer-controlled, multifunction compact
watches that save resources and energy. The company declared
complete elimination of CFCs and trichloroethane from its
manufacturing facilities in 1992. In 1993 it received the
Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award from the US Environmental
Protection Agency. Epson has designated 1998 as the ‘second
environmental benchmark year’ for the company and has established
a new corporate General Environment Policy for global environmental
protecting. As Nobuo Hashizume, Director, Global Environmental
Policy Office, puts it, “The new policy addresses three major
objectives of preventing global warming, promoting zero-emission
activities and expanding activities towards global environment
protection.”

The
Japanese origin and work culture

Each time
one looks at the world’s first or smallest electronic gadget,
nine out of ten, one can rest assured it is from Japan. The
epicenter of electronics and consumer durable products, Japan
has breed most of the electronic giants of the world. From
watches to hand-held computers, electric cookers to computerized
commodes, automobile televisions to bullet trains, the range
of electronic products and technologies in the high-tech land
is amazing. Sharing the same Japanese spirit and corporate
work culture, Epson has an incredible way with electronics.
Starting with its watch business, the company has continuously
diversified its business. Coupled with this is the commitment
and hard-working nature of the Japanese. The Japanese employees
working with the robots, work with almost robot-like precision
in the factory set-up where targets and volume to be achieved
are clearly defined. The commitment of the Japanese work force
is so high that the popular joke is that when the Japanese
go on strike, they would rather over-produce than stop production.
An interesting anecdote goes that in one of the Japanese footwear
manufacturing companies, the striking employees manufactured
only half the pair, forcing the management to consider the
employees problems.

The work
culture and ambitious targets continue to be the same in Epson’s
manufacturing facilities outside Japan which employ local
people. With its continued efforts in R&D, its technological
edge and a commitment to revolutionize the printer industry,
Epson is on its way to making giant steps forward.

Variable
dot technology

The latest
advances in high quality inkjet printing are found in the
newest Epson Stylus color printers which use variable dot
technology. Variable dot technology incorporates two new developments-ultra
microdots and the ability to print with different sized droplets.
Ultra microdots represent the very smallest size of ink droplets
available today. Ultra micro dots are between three and six
picolitres in size resulting in a dot diameter up to four
times smaller than the diameter of a strand of human hair
and close to the limit of resolution for the human eye. These
new incredibly small dots lead to much finer details with
less graininess and even smoother gradations. Print quality
is considerably enhanced. However, smaller dots are not in
themselves the final answer -the increased number of dots
required to cover the page can reduce printing speed. And
so Epson has introduced variable-sized droplet functionality.
The Epson Photo Enhance printer driver produces different
droplet sizes on demand, choosing the appropriate size for
the area of image being printed. It is like painting a room
by using a large brush for quick coverage and smaller, finer
brushes for areas of detail. Up to six different droplet sizes
can be produced on demand.

Note:
1 picolitre (pl) = 0.000 000 000 001 litre (dot size varies
with printer model)

The
Real Picture

The Real
Picture To address the demand for the ultimate in photo print
quality, Epson has developed photo reproduction quality (PRQ)
to accurately reproduce areas of strong color as well as areas
of pale or light colors such as skin tones. Dark colors are
normally reproduced using a high density of dots, while areas
of light color require the number of dots to be greatly reduced.
This means that for lighter tones it is not always easy to
render color gradations by dot density alone as the dispersed
dot pattern can become visible leaving a grainy effect and
preventing details from being rendered crisply. Epson has
overcome this problem by developing two key advances. Two
additional ink colors, light cyan and light magenta, and improved
driver technologies have been introduced. The two additional
inks when used in combination with the standard four colors-cyan,
magenta, yellow and black ink-allow Epson photo printers to
output with true photographic print quality. The new PRQ printer
drivers ensure that each individual ink droplet is placed
accurately. Epson’s enhanced error diffusion provides an advanced
halftoning system, leading to smooth tones and gradations.
In addition the Epson Photo Enhance function automatically
adjusts color, brightness, exposure and contrast to optimize
printed output from different sources including photographs,
photo CDs, digital cameras and scanners.

Epson
bullish about India

It might
finally be good news for India. Seiko Epson Corp, the $8 billion
Japanese electronics giant, has chalked out major plans to
become aggressive in the Indian market. Plans under consideration
include setting up a sub-assembly plant for printers and an
R&D facility for its in-house software requirements. Outlining
the strategy for Epson India, T Kimura, Senior MD, Seiko Epson
Corp, Japan, says “Epson would look at input and output devices
such as printers, digital cameras, LCD color televisions,
projectors. India will have more opportunities in the innovative
color imaging solutions business.” Nobuo Hashizume, one of
the directors of the company said, “Plans are under consideration
to set up a sub-assembly plant for printers in Bangalore or
Hyderabad.

However,
the final decision will be taken after Kimura’s visit to India
in the near future.” It is understood that Epson will create
greater awareness about its proprietary Micro Piezo technology
to establish its product superiority in the market, rather
than working on the price points. As part of its focus in
India, Epson has appointed Paramjit Singh Puri as Senior Country
Manager to steer the Indian operations and expansion plans.
Epson plans to become a 100% subsidiary in India in less than
six months and has approached FIPB for the same. According
to Singh Puri, all other major plans for expansion in India
will follow after the company becomes a 100% subsidiary.

“However,
we are strengthening our existing operations and getting more
aggressive in the market through specific programs with the
objective of becoming the #1 total printing solutions vendor
in India,” he said. These programs include concentrating on
support and service operations, lowering the price of products
and consumables to suit the Indian market, setting up of offices
in other parts of the country, setting up spare parts distribution
centers and opening customer help desks across the country.
To start with Epson has set up three regional service offices
and 10 Epson authorized service centers in various cities.
It plans to have a total of 42 service centers across the
country by March 2000.

In order
to curb fake consumables in the market, Epson has launched
its genuine consumables campaign and is supplying products
with an Epson hologram and special India packaging. These
packages have also been introduced with special pricing to
suit the requirements of the Indian market. It is launching
a series of advertisements and anti-fake ink cartridge campaigns.
The company is also educating its channels and users on the
genuine consumables, in addition to making special user and
channel promotion programs in India. On the marketing front,
Epson is looking seriously at the government and corporate
segment and has made strategies to be able to participate
in tenders and large orders. There are also programs for demand
creation and increasing brand awareness. Other activities
on the anvil include road shows, displays at prominent retail
locations and bundling schemes with PCs. Training is a focus
area through which the company has already trained about 1,900
resellers and 600 engineers. Epson plans to have a year-long
program to train all its dealers and resellers. A special
Epson India web site for user enquiries and product information
was launched recently.

AKILA
SUBRAMANIAM
in Tokyo

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