A Brief History of the Laser Printer and Cartridge Remanufacturing Industry
- By Lester Cornelius
- Dec 01, 1997
The toner cartridge remanufacturing industry thrives on a 25-year-old design that is the basis for today's laser printer. We fit into a unique vocation of job-providing, cost-saving,
recycling efforts of the highest order. It is profitable as well. How we evolved into this industry is a story of intelligence, perseverance, and a large dose of luck. That luck travelled from a Xerox
inventor working in California, to Japan, and back to the United States.
While the laser printer design is attributed to one man, its success is credited to several visionaries. When a story like this one is told, it encompasses truth, interpretation, and the tendrils of legends.
In September 1993, Canon President Hajime Mitarai commemorated the 10 million printer engines sold to Hewlett-Packard and their 20-year relationship with a short speech and the planting of cherry trees.
The synergy between these two companies is one that defies the odds. Both excelled in separate areas and accepted the strengths and weaknesses of the toner. Canon designed and refined the printer
engine; HP designed and refined the process control and software.
The proper place to begin the story of the invention of the laser printer is with Chester Carlson, the inventor of the copier. His invention became the basis for the Xerox Corporation. That
core technology was the seed for laser printers. While thousands of researchers from many companies contributed to copier technology, the leap to laser printers did not occur until more than 20 years after
the invention of the copier. Appropriately enough, the laser printer was invented by a Xerox employee.
Gary Starkweather is the Xerox employee credited with the first laser printer. His invention changed the way copiers work. He controlled the images to be created on the OPC by
computer rather than using the reflected light of a copy. This bold concept took the core technology of copying and changed it from passive copying to the active control of printing. His first innovation was
the use of a laser to discharge the photoconductor (see fig. 1). His second was a brilliant way to scan the extremely narrow laser beam across the length of the drum with a rotating mirror. Today, we
can shake our heads in disbelief, but Xerox management saw little value in this printer design.
Xerox ordered Starkweather to stop working on the laser printer. Starkweather continued his work surreptitiously until he transferred to Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where
his laser printer work was needed. The transfer allowed Starkweather to openly continue his development. In 1971, Starkweather's first laser printer prototype printed one page per second with 500
dpi resolution. Xerox had this incredible prototype yet dismissed it. Xerox saw no demand because personal computers (PCs) were not commonplace in the early 1970s. The laser printer's full
potential could not be exploited without PCs. Xerox gave away the unwanted technology to anyone who was interested, in this case, a Japanese company called Canon.
Canon's Takashi Kitamura was looking to expand his company into computer peripherals. In the early '70s, Canon's primary business was still cameras. Canon's view was that film
manufacturers made most of the profit in other words cameras were "film burners." It is from this perspective that the concept of the all-in-one cartridge was developed. Canon built the first laser printer engines
(cartridge burners) using disposable toner cartridges and looked to create a market that did not exist. The company exhibited its creation in 1975 at the National Computer Conference. That trade show framed the act
of providence that led none other than William Hewlett, then CEO of Hewlett-Packard, to Canon's small booth. During that meeting, HP's involvment with laser printers began.
In 1939, two electrical engineers, Dave Packard and Bob Hewlett, launched Hewlett-Packard in a garage in Palo Alto, Calif., with a total of $538 in working capital. They decided
their company name with a coin toss. Today, HP boasts more than $38 billion in sales and more than $2.5 billion in profits. Laser printers had the biggest impact in the company's growth and profitability.
HP's role in the success of the laser printer was based in the software and electronics of the technology. In the early '70s, HP's efforts were in small- and medium-sized personal computers.
Their expertise dovetailed perfectly with Canon's engine technology. HP's contribution followed the same course as Canon's, with close scrutiny to details and in-depth coordination between the
end user and the machine. It was a match in expertise where the end result was far greater than the sum of its parts. HP's sales at that time were about $365 million.
As in most companies both large and small a major project is usually championed by one person who sees it through to fruition. The credit for fulfilling the potential for
this revolutionary idea in printing using the Canon laser printer engine goes to HP manager Dick Hackborn who was the driving force behind it. HP's first Laserjet was introduced in 1983.
Today, HP is rated number one in: laser printers, ink jet printers, personal computer products, scanners, and all-in-one machines. More than 85% of its profits come from this group
of products. The single product that was the greatest success in HP's history is the laser printer.
Printer engines are composed of the mechanical portion of a printer including the paper path devices, the cartridge, and the laser scanning assembly. Canon worked diligently on making
the printer engines smaller and more reliable. The problems related to printer reliability were identified as a group of components that were consolidated into a toner cartridge. Canon designed
disposable toner cartridges based on rock-solid engineering. Environmental concerns did not extend to toner cartridges at the time.
Canon developed a high-quality, low-cost OPC that did not have to last a long time. This OPC was included in the components to be replaced periodically with the spent cartridge.
One outstanding design aspect of the low-cost OPC was the off-white layer on the aluminum substrates of the OPCs (see fig. 2). This layer, composed of a semiconductive epoxy, eliminates the cost
of diamond turning to make OPC tubes. OPCs made from rough aluminum cylinders show print defects from the surface roughness. To eliminate this defect, most OPC manufacturers use a
very expensive process called diamond turning to achieve a mirror finish on the aluminum sleeve. Canon developed this base coating to solve the problem very inexpensively. This layer also
functions as the blocking layer of the OPC.
As a company, Canon is one of the most prolific in obtaining patents on their designs. The company has a ratio of one patent per million dollars of research, a remarkable figure.
Canon has been granted a volume of patents as great as IBM's, a company of much larger size. Canon studies its technology with great scrutiny. Its patents cover toners, OPCs, printer
mechanisms, coatings for mag roller sleeves, fuser rollers, and applications that address the details of the printing process for its machines. Laser printer technology is more than 20 years old and
revolutionary new Canon designs continue to pour out, pushing the envelope of the technology. Once a patent is issued, and the patented item is used, Canon shifts its focus to the details of producing that
item, squeezing out the excess costs, and increasing efficiencies and end results. When one of its printer patents expires and the item is still in use, Canon has, by then, become a formidable
competitor due to its accumulated efficiency.
HP's introduction of the laser printer captured the attention of Steve Jobs, who was then with Apple Computer. Steve Jobs' attentions are usually noticed. Apple began buying printer
engines from Canon and designing its own software to work with Macintosh computers. Bob Belleville, then director of engineering, was the champion of the Apple version of the laser printer. The
running joke at Apple was that the laser printer project was killed at least once a month for two years. In 1985, the Apple Laserwriter was launched. Both Jobs and Belleville were subsequently fired.
HP and Apple spent considerable engineering dollars for this undeveloped laser printer market. You cannot simply place a housing around a printer engine and have a functional laser
printer. Software and electronics must be developed. HP and Apple had a significant stake in the personal computer market and they believed that the laser printer could catapult personal computers
into widespread use. The laser printer created a demand for the PC that continued to grow into a multibillion dollar industry.
Starting in 1985, entrepreneurs found hidden value in recharging spent toner cartridges. It appears that this effort grew spontaneously in different parts of the United States at
the same time. The early results from these refilled spent cartridges were appalling. Refilling amounted to no more than drilling holes in the spent cartridge and filling it with whatever toner
could be located. Franchises were started and many individuals were "trained" in cartridge refilling for fees averaging $5,000. The training had little to
do with the base technology and more to do with finding toner suppliers and marketing the products. The dismal performance of refilled cartridges were acceptable enough to sustain the fledgling industry. However, there was little in
the way of a stable customer base for this type of refilling because of quality issues.
The desire to improve the quality of the refilled cartridges created a supplier base, which worked with the technology. Two trade magazines began:
Recharger Magazine, and the now defunct Solution Magazine. A unique thing occurred in this industry when information was openly shared, instead of being hoarded. The early days of these publications were a little wild. Anyone
with a theory could expound upon it in the magazines. This created an equal amount of bad information with the good. The marketplace sorted that out by favoring results instead of wild theories. In the
last four years, Recharger Magazine imposed strict editorial standards that resulted in enourmous benefit to the entire industry.
While this was occurring, both HP and Canon sneered at the low-quality cartridge recharging industry. It is not hard to see
why they sneered at this group of splintered interests that did
not even have the sense to protect the technology HP and Canon
had worked to obtain. What possible chance could this group have in lasting more than a short time, let alone compete with
serious technology? Entrepreneurial ingenuity led the way in learning the technology and eventually some companies and individuals from the OEM side moved into the recharging side.
Recharging evolved into the remanufacturing industry
where quality results and reliability are paramount.
Today's remanufacturers evaluate many different cartridge components. While the industry was a supplier's market in the early days, today it is generally a buyer's market That means
the focus is now on the end results. If the product doesn't work correctly then it will not sell for long.
Our industry has certainly grown from the basement workshops that launched many companies. Some in the industry have achieved ISO 9000
and 14000 certifications and there are those that produce 65,000+ cartridges per month.
The invention of the copier allowed the reproduction of original documents. This led to the laser printer, which printed the original documents and duplicates, if desired, with
modified copier technology. Copiers started with replaceable components and service technicians. Laser printers isolated the replaceable components and made them disposable in cartridges, reducing
the need for service technicians. Remanufacturers made the disposable cartridges reusable in part with components essentially derived from copier technology. In this simple flow of the history of
this technology, remanufacturers close the loop.
Today even OEMs are becoming remanufacturers, but they can't provide the service that independent remanufacturers can provide. This means that independent remanufacturers have two great
assets: non-disposable cartridges and service. These two assets are extremely valuable and should be protected. Based on actions, they appear to be considered worthless to the laser printer OEMs. But their customers disagree, and so do I.
For further information, contact Lester Cornelius at (800) 682-7371, (718) 729-4970 or fax (718) 729-5291.
This article originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of Recharger.
Lester Cornelius is the technical director of Remanufacturing Technologies Corp. and an expert in coating formulation. His coatings have been used by OEMs and remanufacturers alike to extend their products’ lives and performance. Cornelius is also the chairman of the STMC and the Int’l ITC.