Cutting printing costs, one pixel at a time

Tech at Israel’s Preton trims stray pixels, reducing ink and toner use

By Robert Daniel, MarketWatch

TEL AVIV (MarketWatch) – A popular riddle these days asks: What’s the most expensive stuff on the planet? The answer is supposed to be printer ink, and while a perfume or other esoteric fluid might actually qualify, there is no arguing that the technological containers take a big bite out of consumer and corporate budgets.

An Israeli start-up, Preton Ltd., produces a software agent, downloadable to a personal computer or server, that trims unnecessary pixels from all documents—images and text—so printers expel less ink and toner to reproduce them. Preton’s patented Pixel Optimizer system works without reducing the sharpness of the printed documents, said Chief Executive Ori Eizenberg.

These days, everyone assumes that since documents can be instantly transmitted over the Net and cellphones, no one will use printers, Eizenberg said. In fact, “world-wide, 1% to 3% of global revenue goes to printing,” simply because the machines are cheap and literally everywhere, he says.

And there is little point to all that printing, since 70% of printed documents are dumped in the trash within they day they’re printed, he said.

Simple question. Unclear answer.

Eizenberg, 42, founded Preton in 2005. (The name is pronounced PRE-tone and connotes pre-toner technological intervention.) He runs it with Yishai Brafman, chief technology officer, and Boaz Katz, vice president of technology support. The company employs 13 at Tel Aviv headquarters, five in Hong Kong and two in Japan, and it recently opened its U.S. office in Boca Raton, Fla., with one staffer.


Preton

The method behind Preton’s technology.

Eizenberg says that when he started Preton, he canvassed some major companies with a simple question: “`Do you know how much you’re spending on printing?’ I got the same answer from all of them: `a lot, but we don’t know how much,’” he said. “All of them understood that it’s expensive but they had no visibility” about the true cost.

For the printer companies, the market is like razors and blades: The profit sits not in the equipment itself but in the consumables people must buy thereafter, “The ink is massively profitable,” he said.

One obvious example is Hewlett-Packard, HPQ +1.39% the Palo Alto, Calif., imaging-equipment major. “The previous CEO was thinking of selling the printer business,” Eizenberg said.”The new CEO will merge it with the personal-computer division. [Printer] companies are aggressively marketing printers and people are using them.”

Gartner Inc. analysts said that ink and toner account for half the total cost of operation on some printers and more in color printing.

For businesses, “reducing the density of ink or toner by 10% to 20% could help realize annual cost savings” of about $30 a user without major loss of readability, the June report, by Sharon McNee, Ken Weilerstein and Tomoko Mitani, said.

In addition, Weilerstein told MarketWatch that 10% to 20% is a conservative range. Some companies can and will cut their ink and toner usage 30% to 40%, with additional savings.

How it works

Eizenberg explained that computer pixels are squares, but printers can’t print squares, so printer drivers convert them to circles. In the print process, these circles are structured so they overlap each other, and that overlap creates substantial unnecessary pixels.

Preton’s optimizing technology identifies and deletes those useless pixels and enables ink or toner to bleed into the spaces left by the deleted pixels.

The system also negotiates text and graphics differently. The savings on color printing is less since colors aren’t uniform across a picture and fewer pixels can be deleted in the interest of maintaining the quality of the image, he said. On the fly, the system distinguishes text and different graphics on a particular document and eliminates pixels from each element, he said.

What’s critical, Eizenberg said, is that the savings on ink can be measured in real money.

Preton’s current customer base varies widely across sectors including banking (for example, Spain’s BBVA BBVA +0.82% ES:BBVA -1.79% and South Korea’s Hana Bank,KR:086790 -0.73% health care (Israel’s Clalit public-health-clinic network, a number of U.K. hospitals), retail (Tiffany & Co. TIF +2.29% in Japan, Carrefour S.A. FR:CA -2.58% in Spain), telecom and technology, government and education.

One group of companies has Eizenberg’s particular attention: providers of managed print services like a division of Japan’s Oki Electric Industry Co. JP:6703 +1.09%

For these providers, to which organizations outsource the management of their imaging needs, toner makes up half of fixed costs, Eizenberg noted. “They have a strong incentive to reduce fixed costs,’ he says.

Preton is profitable, Eizenberg said, but declined to discuss financial details. The company has financed itself internally from the get-go, with no input from venture capital, he said.

And with the June opening of the Florida office, he’s looking to expand broadly into the U.S. “The U.S. is in a fairly positive [economic] position relative to Europe and Asia,” he said. “It’s a huge market and it’s the right opportunity.”

Robert Daniel is MarketWatch’s Middle East bureau chief, based in Tel Aviv.

Eliminating Clogged Inkjet Printers by Mimicking Tearful Eyes

Electric “blinks” keep printer nozzles working.
Originally published:
Sep 12 2012 – 2:45pm
By:
Joel N. Shurkin, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) — It isn’t often that you can learn to build a better inkjet printer by studying eyeballs, but researchers have done just that.

One of the problems with an inkjet printer is that the cartridges can clog up. This can happen if the nozzle has dried-up ink, from infrequent use, or if it contains air bubbles, which can form after changing cartridges. When you send a job to a clogged printer, wet ink from the cartridge has to blast through the crust or air bubbles, and if it manages to work at all, you end up with some wasted ink.  If you are using one of the new3-D printers for additive manufacturing, it could waste even more expensive materials.

Like printers, eyes also require a consistent supply of moisture. Nature washes eyes in tears, spread on the outside of the eye with each blink. The problem is that the tears can evaporate in contact with air, leaving the eye dry and irritated if blinking isn’t constant.

That usually doesn’t happen because the outer layer of tears is a lipid layer secreted by the meibomian gland on the rim of the eyelid that prevents evaporation by keeping the rest of the tears from contact with the air.

The device invented at the University of Missouri ends the printer problem by imitating how eyes cope, said Jae Wan Kwon, associate professor of engineering.

“It can be used on any kind of inkjet printer out there at low cost, and it works just as well on the larger printers,” Kwon said.

Kwon and graduate student Riberet Almeida transferred the anatomical idea to the problem of clogged printer nozzles, a scientific approach called biomimicry, where science or engineering mimics nature.

The nozzles in inkjet printers are tiny. They are 45 microns wide, half the diameter of a typical human hair. The small size itself is a problem.

The system designed by Kwon and Almeida covers the nozzle of the printer with a droplet of silicone, keeping the nozzle and the ink at the nozzle mouth moist by blocking contact with the air.

Mechanically blinking the silicone over the tiny nozzle with tiny shutters or mechanical eyelids won’t work because surface tension would keep the nozzle closed, Kwon said. His process moves the droplet of oil off the nozzle when it is ready to print by an electrical field. When the printing is done, the field covers the nozzle with more oil.

“The oil drop can be used on any kind of print head,” Kwon said, including most if not all the printers used in home and office. Since ink cartridges are the most expensive part of operating a printer, which could save a considerable amount of money.

Printers are sold with the same business plan that got King C. Gillette rich: His razors were cheap enough to encourage a sale, and the profit came in expensive blade refills. In printers, the machines are cheap, and the profit is in the ink cartridges.

It can be expensive. A 2009 report by printer manufacturer Lexmark International and O’Keeffe & Co., a marketing firm, indicated that the federal government alone wastes $440 million a year in printing and each federal employee prints an average of 30 pages a day.

Further, studies show that when printers signal that they are out of ink, they often aren’t. A study by the magazine PC World showed that in some brands, the printer signaled “empty” where the cartridge still had nearly half its ink.

Anything that improves the efficiency of printers would help business and government.

Manufacturers apparently understand that.

Thom Brown, a supplies expert at Hewlett Packard, said the manufacturer was aware of the potential problem.

“HP already takes a number of steps to avoid ink from drying in cartridges such as cartridge design, ink chemistry, careful selection of ingredients, printer design, and servicing algorithms,” said Brown. “Additionally, HP printers are equipped with a physical cap to prevent the ink at the print head from drying out while the printer is not in use. Under normal wear and use this design performs very well to prevent ink drying at the nozzle.”

Brown said using the manufacturer’s ink, drying shouldn’t be a problem if the printer is used normally.

In 3-D printers, some of which extrude plastics or biological material, the savings could be even greater.

One type, Kwon said, would be in printers being used to create biological matter such as tissue material. These printers could eventually be used to “print” human organs by squirting out human cells.

“These cells are so expensive that researchers often find it cheaper to replace the nozzles rather than waste the cells. Clog-free nozzles would eliminate the costly replacements,” Kwon said.


Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. He is the author of nine books on science and the history of science, and has taught science journalism at Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.