Recently there came the sad news that Olivetti is liquidating its inkjet activities and seeking a buyer. For some years the major printer product line has been fax machines, which is a declining market. Of course it may be a surprise to many that Olivetti was even in the inkjet business.
In fact, Olivetti has a long history of inkjet technology. Back in the 1980’s they developed some unique technologies, such as spark jet printing. A spark caused a small amount of carbon to blast out of a nozzle in the end of a glass tube and form a mark on the substrate. At that time even impact dot matrix printers were expensive, and the dry spark jet printer offered a low-cost solution for the growing computer market.
Then came liquid spark jet, which I don’t think was commercialised, and work with piezo technology. But the big step forward came in 1990 when Olivetti showed their first bubble jet printer and joined the small club of desktop printer vendors.
However the Olivetti printer range was rarely seen outside of Europe, and a lot of sales were on the back of enterprise computer installations. As the desktop printer market matured over the past decade, the lack of a worldwide sales base meant shipments were at a much lower level compared to their competitors with corresponding higher costs. And sometimes the stylish and quirky Italian printer designs didn’t appeal to markets used to the more conservative looking offerings of HP and Japanese vendors.
Over the last 5 years Olivetti has been leveraging its low-cost thermal inkjet printhead technology for industrial applications. They put together a credible set of printheads, mechanisms, modules and support systems to enable OEMs to develop products using a wide range of fluids. Although piezo technology is the choice for most non-office applications it has a major drawback – high cost. If you want to develop a product using inkjet technology that will sell for $1-2,000 it is very difficult to use anything other than thermal inkjet.
Olivetti i-Jet was making it easy for developers to work with cost-effective inkjet technology and the options for the future are considerably reduced. Today the industry focus of inkjet developments is in ever faster and more productive machines, some of which run to multi-$M prices. But there are hundreds of applications for printing where a small desk-top printer to do a specific task is needed. These range from cake decorations, industrial printing and labelling of components, laboratory applications for medical and bio-sciences and so on.
The loss of Olivetti from the inkjet world would be not just the lost jobs of a few hundred people in North-West Italy, but the loss of lots of potential products that are being developed, or could have in the future. Let’s hope a buyer comes forward. In any case printhead production and support will be available from Olivetti for the rest of 2012.
If you have an interest in the liquidation, the contact is:
President and CEO
Olivetti I-Jet S.p.A
Mike Willis, Pivotal Resources