HP–Memjet Patent Suit Puts Spotlight on Wide-Format Printing Technology4 Oct, 2015 By: Randall S. Newton
With two hardware developers grappling over technology patents, what are the ramifications for the marketplace?
Major drama is unfolding in the usually calm world of wide-format printing: HP is being sued by Memjet, a small company started by a band of Australian scientists. The suit has big implications for what is widely recognized as the next technology revolution in wide-format printing. But before we explore those implications, let’s look into the backstory behind the suit.
In 2014, HP assembled the press in Los Angeles to introduce PageWide, a wide-format printing technology it said would revolutionize the industry. PageWide technology would support both monochrome and color at 1,200 dpi and at remarkable speed (11” per second, or up to 30 D-sized plots per minute). There would no longer be any need to choose between fast, inexpensive monochrome LED printing and color inkjet printing, which is slower and uses more expensive inks, but is also more visually expressive. The 2014 announcement was not a product release, but an advance advisory; HP said it would not start shipping until 2015. The company said it wanted its customers to know what was coming so they could plan their leasing and purchasing strategies accordingly.
In August 2015, HP gathered members of the press again, this time at its wide-format printing factory in Alpharetta, Georgia. As covered by Cadalyst columnist Robert Green, HP unveiled three models in its forthcoming PageWide XL line. Using a set of stationary modular print heads, HP can fashion a paper path as wide as 1 meter, depending on the printer model. Sheets are printed in one pass, seeming to fly out of the device when compared with the inkjet wide-format printers HP currently sells. HP said PageWide XL would be a new company subdivision, with models of varying size and price to appear starting in November 2015. HP is already using the technology in smaller office-sized printers released earlier this year.
Shortly after the press gathering in Georgia, full-color printhead technology manufacturer Memjet filed a patent lawsuit against HP. It seems that in 2012, Memjet introduced what it calls “waterfall” technology: It uses stationary modular printheads in an array (just like HP) for a five-color ink delivery system that produces color and monochrome prints at speeds as fast as 12” per second at 1,600 dpi (faster and more dense than HP). Memjet builds the printheads for use by other manufacturers, including Canon/Océ. Printers came to market in 2014 using Memjet’s waterfall technology, but so far they are all in the $100,000-and-up range — intended for a limited market of mostly reprographics shops, compared to HP’s high-volume approach.
In the buildup to HP’s August 2015 event, the company acknowledged the existence of Memjet, but only in passing. For example, HP marketing director Francois Martin told PrintWeek in 2014, “HP’s intent is to disrupt the reprographics market, which is currently mainly using LED technology with a little bit of Memjet. ... Today most firms have separate technologies, using inkjet for color and LED for mono. We will offer everything in a single device.”
We believe both printer technologies represent a performance breakthrough. HP’s intention is to bring it to market as a replacement for existing retail-quantity wide-format printing. So far, Memjet licensees are selling to the reprographics market, which can use the technology to offer a wider range of print options and faster turnaround than any other printing method.
By printing with one device for both color and monochrome jobs, HP offers a way to have fewer wide-format printers in the office, streamlining support issues and increasing throughput. Both companies promise their new technology can open the door to better inks and a wider range of uses. Prices for the HP line of wide-format printers will be about 15%-20% higher, on average, than inkjet or LED printers for similar paper widths and volume of use. HP states that the total cost of ownership will be as much as 50% less than existing units.
Where the Parties Stand
The Memjet suit, filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of California, asks the court to prevent HP from using what Memjet insists is unauthorized use of its patented wide-printhead technology, and to award monetary damages for product already shipping. It mentions eight specific patents as relevant to the case.
There is no ruling from the court yet. HP is on the record as saying it does not comment on pending litigation, and when Stephen Nigro spoke at Euromold in late September, the new president of HP’s 3D Printing unit reiterated that stance. But when pressed, he added that HP’s road map for 3D printing specifically, and all its PageWide products, “is just fine.” There is no word from the company of any plans to delay the shipping dates announced last month. Earlier in September, HP introduced a new line of web presses using PageWide technology.
When contacted for this article, Memjet CEO Len Lauer said, “As company policy, Memjet does not comment on pending litigation. Memjet can say, however, that we believe it’s in the industry’s best interest to defend the [intellectual property] that Memjet has created through its extensive R&D, investment, and support of our partners.”
It may not comment on pending litigation, but Memjet has been making loud statements about its technology, portraying itself as the David to HP’s Goliath. Memjet has placed a comparison page online to show the differences it sees between its waterfall technology and what it calls HP’s “parody product.”
The lawsuit does more than threaten to derail the largest vendor of wide-format printing from bringing a print technology to market that is obviously superior to what it sells now in the design/engineering space; it could well derail HP’s plans for a new line of 3D printers based on the same technology. Terry Wohlers, a 3D printing industry analyst, has said the HP 3D printing approach “is going to rewrite the rules of 3D printing.” Initially HP played down the use of the term “PageWide” in describing the technology behind this new line of 3D printers still under development, but now the company seems more comfortable stating that the new line is a result of its PageWide research; a page on the HP website lists 3D printing as one of four product divisions for PageWide technology.
HP could buy Memjet without missing a penny on earnings per share, but to company executives that likely is not the point. HP takes great pride in its history as a research-driven company, and will probably spend heavily on lawyers to defend its claims.