No one would have placed Lexmark among the leaders in desktop inkjet technology. The company focused on being the low-cost producer of desktop printers – until now. Lexmark’s focus is on consumables, and it found that buyers of its low-cost – often bundled – printers just don’t use many ink cartridges. The company reduced its emphasis on that market, but lacked the technology to compete with the other desktop players in performance and print quality as well as consumables costs.
That changed with the company’s announcement last fall of its Vizix printer line, which feature fixed printheads and ink tanks. This is Lexmark’s first venture into fixed, life-of-the-machine printheads, and it represents something of a breakthrough for the company, especially considering its modest investments in research and development. It spent less than 7% of revenue on R&D in 2004-2007, though this has increased to nearly 10% in 2008-2009 (actual spending remained flat). It ranked eighth to tenth among printer companies in patent applications in 2005-2008 and fell to fourteenth in 2009. It has been in last place among desktop vendors.
Lexmark has said very little about the new printheads, but patent research suggests that they feature reduced actuator stack height, making them more efficient. This is achieved through improved, thinner protective layers with better cavitation resistance and lower thermal expansion. It also appears that thin-layer photoimageable nozzle plates are used to allow wafer-level processing of complete heads, leading to improved registration of layers. The photo shows a cross-section of one channel, with the actuator stack at the right, offset from the orifice at the left.
Lexmark has used its ability to sell ink in tanks (rather than integrated cartridges) to reduce some ink prices and to join Kodak on the “cheap ink” bandwagon. TV ads trumpet the $4.99 “500-page black ink cartridge”. They don’t mention that devices that can use the aforementioned cartridges are priced at $199.95 and up. Black cartridges for the mid-range Vizix devices sell for $15.99, and no page yield is mentioned.
Still, the important point is that Lexmark and its OEM customers are very much in the game, with competitive technology and print quality. Rumors that Lexmark would exit the inkjet business were clearly unfounded.
Mike Willis, Pivotal Resources