AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
THE ON-DEMAND color print market may seem like a revolution to the printing industry, but to Neal Tompkins and Frank Rowe it is merely the evolution of a technology they've been helping to conceive for more than a decade. Tompkins and Rowe, cofounders of T/R Systems, have watched desktop color laser printers gestate from engineering dream to commercial reality. At the same time, they see high-priced digital presses that, like luxury cars, lure wealthy customers and leave middle-class customers envious. Tompkins and Rowe think they have the answer -- the MicroPress, a low-cost digital press built from desktop color laser printers. It will make its debut at Seybold San Francisco on Sept. 27.
"Our goal is to bring digital press technology to a broader market," explains Tompkins, T/R's president. "Our product will bring high-speed digital printing to quick-print shops, inplants and other firms that don't have the budget or volume to justify the $350,000 to $600,000 investment required to buy an Indigo or Xeikon-based machine."
Who is T/R Systems? What is MicroPress? And is this idea of pulling together a bunch of $6,000 color laser printers to make a low-end Xeikon alternative one that should be taken seriously?
We went to Atlanta last month to see firsthand the MicroPress at a special presentation T/R Systems made to a group of prospective U.S. graphic arts dealers. Here is what we found.
T/R Systems is a four-year-old company that is well known in laser-printer engineering circles and unknown everywhere else. But many readers will recall the founders' former employer: Colorocs. Tompkins and Rowe founded T/R four years ago when the beleaguered Colorocs laid off Tompkins and the rest of his engineering staff because of financial setbacks.
Tompkins and two of his engineers have been together for more than a decade, collaborating on laser printers at Datapoint before joining Colorocs in the mid-1980s.
Rowe, T/R's CEO and vice chairman, was executive VP at Colorocs, helping the firm develop its corporate strategies and its eventual public offering when venture funding did not materialize. He has 30 years of experience in the computer market and has played a leadership role in obtaining financing, in structuring, and in staffing and managing T/R's development, its business and product strategies and its corporate alliances.
The small group began as an engineering services firm, providing technical assistance to well-known laser-printer suppliers, some of which were developing color engines. Since then, the Colorocs-developed double-transfer technology has been licensed for use in a series of low-cost desktop color printers manufactured in Japan.
By 1993, T/R was doing well enough to consider developing its own product. It obtained upward of $6 million in venture-capital backing from several high-tech investors, including Sevin Rosen of Dallas and Noro-Moseley of Atlanta, both of which are represented on the company's board of directors.
Last April, Rowe recruited Mike Daly as VP of sales and marketing to lead that part of the effort. Daly is an industry veteran, with service dating back to 1976. He filled sales and marketing roles with some of the heavyweight suppliers of systems and output devices, including Compugraphic (now part of Agfa), Varityper and Barco Graphics.
In a few short months since then, the marketing plan has gone from the drawing board to the product launch.
The Engine and RIP
The MicroPress consists of a PC-based controller driving two or more dumb color laser print engines, which act in concert as a single device. It supports a variety of Macintosh and PC network protocols, including TCP/IP.
Parallel color laser print engines
At the back end are the Canon P320 color laser print engines (four will be the typical configuration initially; as many as eight will be supported), the same engines that are used in the new Apple Color LaserWriter. Each engine is rated at 3 ppm for four-color pages, and 12 ppm for black pages. (In a mixed document, black-only pages are printed at 12 ppm and color pages at 3 ppm.)
T/R takes the raw engine from Canon and adds its own personality card. Then, through its controller, it connects and drives four machines in such a way that they act nearly as one device that prints 12 ppm for color, 48 ppm for black only. When eight engines are configured in the future, those numbers will be doubled, making the system much more competitive with other alternatives.
Format. The P320 accepts letter-size (or A4) or legal-size paper, and it prints only on one side. As we'll describe below, T/R has written some clever software to enable it to handle duplex printing with a minimal amount of manual intervention. Although automatic duplexing is not part of the initial MicroPress, its architecture will allow duplexing engines to be added in the future. It also is expected to support larger formats in the future.
Technology. We won't go into detail on how the engine works because that portion of the system functions the same as the standard unit being sold by Apple and it is very similar to the way other desktop color laser print engines work. It uses a laser beam to cause selected areas of a charged photoreceptor drum to be discharged and pick up toner from four toner cartridges (cyan, yellow, magenta and black). Each cartridge is rated to last for about 4,000 copies at 5% coverage. Cartridges can be replaced individually when exhausted. It isn't necessary to change all four at the same time.
The standard Canon engine uses a 60- to 80-micron spot and images at 600x600 dpi. However, T/R Systems incorporates some proprietary technology that rasterizes images at higher resolutions and uses the extra data to enhance the image quality (see below).
Duty cycle. Each engine is rated to last for 250,000 pages (fewer if the load is primarily full color). This engine is too new to know how it will fare with respect to the rated cycle, but engines of this sort typically last considerably longer than their rated lives. Two or three times the duty cycle is frequent, T/R says. In any event, whenever an engine fails, it can be swapped for a new one. We'll talk about the economics of the system later.
Besides the toner cartridges, the only other consumables are a photoconductor and fuser oil. It accepts any printing stock from 16- to 28-pound bond.
Personality card. To the basic engine, T/R adds a proprietary …