American Ink Jet Reaps Benefits From Its Refined Specialty Offering
- By Raegen Pietrucha
- Apr 01, 2011
Though American Ink Jet Corporation is practically a household name when it comes to the ink industry, its beginnings are unlike those of most other companies in the business. Instead of moving from desktop to wide-format products, Michael Andreottola (founder, president and CEO of American Ink Jet) took advantage of his skills as a chemist and his history with both Mead Digital Systems and Applicon to do just the opposite, and that’s given his business a unique position as an experienced supplier in today’s budding wide-format market. As more and more people gravitate toward, explore and innovate in the wide-format world — a world Andreottola is deeply familiar with — American Ink Jet continues to thrive.
Andreottola began his career in the inkjet ink manufacturing industry with Mead Digital Systems in 1974. Then, in 1978, he began working as an ink developer for Applicon; this company created a wide-format printer “before the word ‘wide format’ ever came out,” Andreottola said, enabling printing on 24-by-24-inch sheets of paper. “It was a four-color printer, and that was sort of the predecessor to the first high-resolution wide-format printer called an Iris Graphics inkjet printer,” he said. Applicon was one of the first manufacturers to produce a CAD (computer-aided drafting) system, and in the late 1970s, the company brought one to an electronics show in Dallas, Texas, so engineers and circuit board designers could see its new product.
Oddly enough, though, these printers (then called “imposition” or “proofing” printers) caught the attention of other sets of eyes — those of oil industry professionals. “Companies like Phillips Petroleum, Shell and Texaco looked at this printer, and they decided that this was a great way to interpolate and to show people seismic data,” Andreottola said, which was used for oil prospecting. Prior to this, oil companies might be drilling for days, weeks or months, only to come up with nothing; wide-format printers, on the other hand, allowed them to print out seismic data in a cross-section format that detailed an area’s physical composition — be it rock, shale, sand or oil — before they invested money in drilling down into it and also enabled them to share this information with others in bright, differentiating colors.
When Applicon was acquired by a French conglomerate that closed down the Massachusetts office he worked in six years later, in 1984, Andreottola decided to strike out on his own by starting his own company, American Ink Jet. He was joined by an engineer from Applicon in American Ink Jet’s first year of business to help support the printers the company was making inks for. However, this engineer left after several years to start his own company.
In 1988, Andreottola was joined by secretary/receptionist Nancy Powers. Shortly thereafter, Andreottola and Powers found themselves running the business alone; Andreottola would formulate his own aqueous inks, manufacture them, perform quality control and take them on the road to get sales while Powers would bottle and package the inks, take orders and ship the products to customers. “I very honestly say that we could not have accomplished what we did at American Ink Jet without Nancy,” Andreottola said about Powers, who is now American Ink Jet’s executive vice president.
As the wide-format business started to blossom, American Ink Jet found it was called upon often to fill this arena’s unique set of needs. When Iris Graphics developed its Hertz continuous inkjet technology, it entered the proofing market selling printers to newspapers like Long Island’s Newsday that were moving from black-and-white printing into color. However, as Newsday switched from using DuPont’s Cromalin technology (which, Andreottola noted, involved a lot of films, chemicals, developing time and waste products) to Iris Graphics ink, Newsday noticed that they weren’t getting the primary colors they were interested in. So Newsday contacted Andreottola and asked him to formulate color inks to be used with their printers. After developing a set of inks using novel dyes that allowed Newsday to print the colors they wanted, American Ink Jet found its business growing to accommodate the ink demands of other newspapers that used Iris Graphics printers, such as USA Today, Chicago Tribune and Detroit Free Press.
But it wasn’t just newspapers using Iris Graphics printers anymore, so it wasn’t just presses that required the specialized inks American Ink Jet offered. In the early 1990s, Andreottola revealed, “I was actually contacted by Graham Nash, whom you may know as part of Crosby, Stills & Nash. His love is really in photography even though he’s a great musician, and he had an Iris Graphics printer. He wanted to reproduce this artwork, but with the inks that Iris Graphics had at the time, they couldn’t get the good secondary reds or what I call tertiary … colors — like good purples and blues.” So American Ink Jet provided Nash with ink for his giclée work (a term for “artwork that’s reproduced on an inkjet printer”) and opened up a whole new business avenue: supplying ink to people using wide-format printers for fine-arts purposes.
Over the years, American Ink Jet has made wide-format inks for Rohm and Haas, Stork (in Holland), DuPont and Encad, and the company still provides Kodak with inks for its graphic-arts printers. And because of Andreottola’s work with OEMs — in this case, HP, whom he at one point consulted for — a fairly unique opportunity for American Ink Jet presented itself in 1991. “During Desert Storm in 1990, the Army was using Hewlett-Packard inkjet printers to interpolate … real-time data imaging from satellites, so they were tracking not only the positions of the enemy but also positions of their troops. They would print it out on an HP wide-format inkjet printer, and because everyone was sweating — it was so hot there — they were actually sweating on the prints, and the maps were being washed away.” American Ink Jet’s solution? “The first ink-paper waterproof system for an inkjet printer,” Andreottola said.
Though American Ink Jet has diversified its offering over the years to include desktop inks and remanufactured cartridges, its innovative wide-format products still account for approximately 70 percent of its business. Andreottola credits not only a long (nearly 30-year) history and background, product consistency and great reputation, but American Ink Jet’s investment in people and equipment to its continued success in the wide-format industry. American Ink Jet’s R&D director, Sean Kelly, has been with the company for 15 years, and the director of sales and marketing, Jim Andreottola, has been there for 12. “People have been with us for years, so I think that’s very important. The investment in people — that’s the major thing,” Andreottola said. American Ink Jet also invests in QC and R&D equipment as well as the printers they make inks for. “Every time a new printer comes out, we have to buy one,” Andreottola said. “Just last week, we bought two new printers. That’s a big investment for us.”
Andreottola acknowledges that because American Ink Jet doesn’t have all the resources that OEMs do, “it’s been sort of difficult through the years to keep up with a lot of the demand.” Still, in spite of challenges like these that most small companies face, such as being able to compete with OEMs that can afford to pay hundreds of chemists to develop inks, American Ink Jet’s experience, investments and diversification have paid off. “Since we did get involved in the remanufacturing business over 20 years ago, people have come to us and said, ‘You’ve done these inks for the recharging industry all these years on desktop. Can you do anything in the wide format?’ And a lot of people didn’t know that we had already done that, so it’s helped our business continue to grow.”
American Ink Jet continues to advance with the industry, inventing new wide-format inks regularly. Its most recent innovation is a wide-format pigment ink for the HP Z6100, which was introduced last year. And just prior to that, the company created inks for Epson’s 12-color wide-format inkjet 7880 and 9880 models. But American Ink Jet also makes sure it maintains high quality and consistency in its seasoned offerings. “When we make an ink, we have very, very tight tolerances from batch to batch — not only the physical parameters of the ink, which is surface tension, viscosity and pH, but also in color. We’re one of the first companies to use what’s called a color spectrophotometer. If (customers) bought an ink today and wanted to compare it to an ink they bought from us two years ago, those inks would be virtually identical,” Andreottola said.
This level of color consistency is of particular importance in the wide-format industry — specifically in the aqueous segment because such inks are much more difficult to formulate than solvent ones, Andreottola said. Knowing wide-format customers are “very, very intelligent … (and) more sophisticated” when it comes to color, American Ink Jet performs plenty of life testing and other QC analyses on its products. “When it comes to the wide format, you’ve got to be dead on. That’s what’s left a lot of people out of it,” he said, “(but) that’s one of the things that we excel at.” And in an industry like wide format, where the stakes are higher just based on the cost of hardware and consumables alone, it’s important for suppliers to provide consistent, high-quality, reputable products because, as Andreottola pointed out, “if someone has a wide-format printer, and they buy a remanufactured cartridge from someone, they put the cartridge in, and they get halfway through a print and the print head clogs up, (suppliers) are not going to get a second chance with that. And although price is important, quality definitely is more important today than price, because you don’t get a second chance.”
Those at American Ink Jet are proud to be masters of their craft, specializing in wide-format inks well before this industry really started to take off. Andreottola believes that the company’s experience in this arena has definitely given it an edge over its current competition. “I (was) talking to the president of (a competing company) at a show back in October, (and he was) saying that they were trying to come up with a wide-format ink. And they had actually hired a chemist to help them, and they just couldn’t really understand what was going on … with the colors, things with profiling and a lot of those issues, so they sort of gave up on it. But those were issues that we had dealt with for years.” And most likely, the extent of its wide-format experience will give American Ink Jet an edge over future competitors as well. “I think that we’ve been in it for so long, we’ve got a good reputation for quality,” Andreottola said. “I think that sets us apart.”
Contact American Ink Jet at 978-670-9200, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.americaninkjet.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Recharger.
Raegen Pietrucha received her B.A. in English from University of Arizona and her M.F.A. in poetry from Bowling Green State University. She is a former teacher and has written for several industries, including legal, private investigation, heath care and currently document printing. She has also served as an editor for both professional and literary publications. Her creative work can be read in Cimarron Review, Edge, Puerto del Sol and other magazines.