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Saturday, Jul 13, 2024

Co.’s Digital Parts Quickly Add Up

The shop at Memjet’s Rancho Bernardo headquarters has a 19-inch rack that in most other places would hold computer servers. This one, however, holds something more: printer’s ink.

Four rack-mounted supply modules dispense the traditional colors of cyan, magenta, yellow and black to a nearby industrial printing press, which uses them to create any color in the rainbow.

Memjet deals in the time-honored field of printing — printing equipment to be exact — but it approaches that craft in a digital manner.

Its commercial and industrial printing presses can roll very fast, and because they are digital, they can personalize every impression. Such presses can turn out batches of bank statements or personalized direct-mail pieces.

The company has a very big neighbor in Rancho Bernardo: HP Inc., which does roughly the same thing. While the people at Hewlett-Packard offer a line of vertically integrated digital printers under the HP name, Memjet offers components: print heads, electronics, software and inks. Partner companies take the Memjet components, put them into their own machines and then take them to market. There is no Memjet printer, only printers from names such as Canon, which use Memjet print heads and software.

Label Market

A business called Afina Label, with its U.S. headquarters in Minnesota, is a big user. So is Astro Machine Corp. of Illinois. Labels are Memjet’s biggest market, and there are between 5,000 and 10,000 label printers installed worldwide, said Memjet CEO Len Lauer.

Smithers Pira reports that digital printing for packaging is a $12.8 billion market this year. It is expected to grow at roughly 13 percent per year and is expected to be a $22.4 billion business by 2022.

Marc Mascara, an industry analyst, said the market for inkjet presses is growing. He sees a 20-30 percent growth over the next three to four years because inkjet is more economical. “I won’t say cheap,” said Mascara, an analyst with Massachusetts-based Keypoint Intelligence.

Lauer calls Memjet a “young growth company.” Revenue is “healthy” and growing in the range of 25-60 percent, the CEO said, adding that the company is close to profitable.

Memjet has 300 employees, with 65 in San Diego. The business manufactures its products in Asia, with print heads made in Taiwan. The business has an office in Taipei as well as in Singapore; Dublin, Ireland; Sydney, Australia; and Boise, Idaho.

Lauer said that speed, simplicity and affordability are his technology’s three value propositions.

“All the growth is going to digital,” he said.

Thousands of Patents

The standard Memjet print head is 8.7 inches wide and contains 70,400 nozzles. Thomas Roetker, the company’s vice president of engineering, likens each nozzle to a teapot, since ink boils out of it.

Each nozzle is a chamber with a very small amount of ink within. To apply the ink to paper, a heater in the chamber warms up quickly and makes a bubble out of the ink, which shoots out.

Some of the computing needed to instruct which nozzles need to fire happens out on the print head. Roetker said the microchips on the print head act kind of like a “traffic cop.”

Memjet has a hefty portfolio of 3,000 and 3,500 patents, depending on who you ask. One employee said the company has let a lot of its patents expire.

Competing technologies include piezo inkjet, which physically ejects ink, as well as continuous inkjet, which directs ink with a flow of air. Epson works in the former while Eastman Kodak Co. works in the latter.

“We’re half the cost of piezo,” Lauer said.

Potential business partners come to Memjet’s Rancho Bernardo print shop to see what Memjet can put inside their wares, and to get trained on the technology.

The business recently introduced a new technology called DuraLink, which offers its users modular components and more capability, including the ability to use multiple heads to print items 100 inches wide. A predecessor technology could only print images 42 inches wide. The first products in the DuraLink line will reach the market in the second half of 2018, said Gianluigi Rankin, Memjet’s director of product marketing.

Great for Short Runs

Digital printing lets manufacturers create a small amount of product — and do it economically. For example, Lauer said, a breakfast cereal maker might decide to customize its cardboard boxes for Valentine’s Day, printing just enough to stay on the shelves for three weeks. Once the holiday is over, it can revert back to the old design.

Digital printing is great for very short runs of college textbooks, say 100 or 200 copies, said Rankin.

It would be prohibitively expensive to set up a conventional press for short runs of 3,000 to 7,000 items, Rankin said. Only when you are printing something in volume (think of a Harry Potter novel) does the cost of setting up a conventional offset press go down, he said.


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