Interview with Joe Ryan - Ricoh USA Enabling Technology Innovation

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We talked to Joe Ryan at Ricoh USA ahead of the InPrint USA Conference in Chicago on 1-2 May. Ricoh is one of our sponsors at the event and we wanted to profile Joe’s view on the development and the future of industrial inkjet, and what it is Ricoh will be showing, and saying, in Chicago next month.

Joe, tell us about your background and experience with inkjet – where did your story start?

I got started in the mid-1990’s. At the time, the company was called Data Products, Data Products was a printer supplier to the OEM market. They developed or acquired all printing technologies for their customers. Data Products acquired solid ink capability and developed a product called ‘Jolt’ for the desktop inkjet which was only emerging at this time. HP came out with their inkjet which took over the market but our technology survived. And the Ricoh product we use today goes back to this solid ink technology – the fact we had a solid metal head with a built-in heater provided something new. We started with 2D Printing and Data Products started supplying inkjet technology to other people for them to be able to build their own printers.

So from Desktop Inkjet printing to Industrial inkjet, this is a long journey – what else occurred to project the business towards inkjet

Originally I was a product manager for a printer that was one of the first to offer PostScript page description language printer. People started focusing more on graphics printing as opposed to only text. Looking back, our all-metal print-head technology – for outside signage the ink had to be aggressive and the head had to be more robust and rugged that lent itself to a lot of different applications. Data Products was independent until 1990 when it was purchased by Hitachi (the “General Electric” of Japan) they then went through a period of reorganising and were acquired by Ricoh in 2004.

The period at Hitachi broadened the value of our offering. My role at the time was to be part of strategic planning. Hitachi had a lot of relevant technology and the print engine availability with our components enabled us to create new things. The business model didn’t change and access to even more technology came available to us which in turn enabled us to enrich our product offering to the market.

Eventually, the ‘Jolt’ technology was noticed by other people and they wanted to use this for wide format. We received interest from a number of different people for the technology to be supplied for a number of different products. We found that by supplying a number of different people you have improved potential and likelihood of success.

So how did Ricoh get involved?

Back in 2004 Ricoh was focused almost entirely on office and document printing technology. When Ricoh came to us we were put into a unique position within the business. Where most of their other units had end-user products, we had components that we sold to other companies.

As a result, we were therefore kept independent and became a bright spot, we were consistently developing the right technology with the right characteristics. Our ability to work with a lot of different fluids was the key to our success, and our collaborative culture meant we enabled new technology possibilities for other companies, this remains a key theme for us today.

And at the same time, we had a lot of business in Israel. There were a number of technology entrepreneurs launching new businesses.  As soon as a company got to a certain size, it was split off and launched into another company. For around 10 years most of our customers were start-ups. Our view quickly became, ‘You never know who is going to succeed and who is not going to succeed’! Such is the nature of innovation. Then, with our head, which still had unique characteristics, we were part of the rapid growth of demand for inkjet applications in late 1990’s. 

What characteristics of the Ricoh head were popular?

The unique combination of all metal print head and high-temperature operation capability broadened the applications – and the possibilities with viscous fluids. With this head, you were able to heat up the fluid, and then jet the fluid as by heating you lower its viscosity. And also we had the ability to handle water-based inks. Another key feature is the ink path and electronics – this was separated – therefore the piezo didn’t come into contact with the ink. Today, a number of competitive print heads have these characteristics but back then it was ahead of its time. It is now a level playing field.

In Israel, we worked with the pre-runner to Scitex, Idanit’ around 1996 and they started working with our technology. They were developing the high-speed printer that was eventually sold to Scitex, which was then sold to HP. We also worked with Vutek (now part of EFI) in the early days. As a company Vutek were printing billboards with spray paint then they started using our printed heads with 300 dpi – when compared to 72 dpi this was a revolution!.

So wide format was a key market for Ricoh and a lot of other people, but is it still a key part of your business?

Yes, it is still a large part of our business and some of our largest customers are in wide format. But it is, of course, a mature market. What we are seeing more and more is that people want to get into the industrial market. The InPrint market is really crucial to our future. We are now getting a number of people wanting industrial work. For example, as a result of InPrint USA last year, we have had 3 OEM engagements which is superb. They are all different people from diverse markets who want to use the technology distinctly. So many different processes are analogue and these people want to convert to digital for their manufacturing and they see inkjet as a very compelling option. For us, we need to get into more and more applications, but you never know how big a particular application will get. For example, the HP Turbojet has been a huge market for print heads, but it started its life as an Israeli start-up. Back then people were wondering if it would ever work. Then you work with them and help them and over time they become very successful. You work as hard as you can for everyone you work with but you just don’t know if they are going to be big or not so you have to be there for them. So many stars need to align. Timing, right product, available inks, market readiness, so you work on what you can control with the inkjet heads to be there if demand accelerates.

What markets do you see as particularly exciting? Now and in 2-3 years?

3D Dimensional printing. It is still small and everyone wants to get there so there is a lot of opportunity for us. Biological Sciences, the printing of organs etc.  Textiles is growing also. Ricoh is a player in textile with the Ricoh Gen5 head. We also had a place in the ceramics market – and now the next generation printers for ceramics are coming out – but this market is very saturated.

In textile, people are talking a lot about single pass inkjet, and machines like the SPGPrints machine is impressive and driven by the needs and demands of consumers and people in the textile market so there certainly is continuing interest in printing for textile. But the fundamental problem threads snagging and getting into the print-heads orifices so you have to pull the heads back. The less accurate the jobs, therefore, are due to media movement and aerodynamic issues. This is still a problem that is limiting growth for textile printing I think.
Also, we see a big opportunity in ‘Internal industrial printing’.

3 years ago as a result of InPrint we met a company that wanted to develop inkjet printing in Germany for their particular manufacturing market. We work in collaboration with integrators and ink suppliers and these opportunities are positive as the company becomes quite dependent on you to deliver your head for their custom printing technology which means eventually they want you to provide them with replacement heads, then you work on their next generation printers. If the company is sizeable they will want potentially a lot of printers, a lot of ink, and a lot of heads, and this is an interesting model for us as we don’t have to compete with other head producers because the printers are “internal use” and not generally seen on the market.

In this instance would you get the ink revenue as well? 

If we develop this new technology, often we become a joint risk taker on a new partnership. In a team, we are willing to take the risk and we do like to get ink royalty as a reward for this. As I said earlier, we are willing to work with people who have a vision and want to achieve something new. Often you don’t know if it will fully work, yet it is worth doing as the reward could be significant and we like enabling new possibilities with our technology.

So you see the challenge for inkjet as being more of a technical v commercial issue?

Yes, the challenge is in my opinion not really a market one as people really want it but the implementation is lagging behind.

What would you say is the most accurate word to describe the development of industrial inkjet? Challenging, Exciting, Frustrating? Or all three?

Maybe all three! But seriously one of the key challenges is finding new OEM customers which is why we think InPrint is so useful. 

We are pleased InPrint is helpful – but what would you say is the biggest single challenge for industrial inkjet growth?

I would say the biggest challenge for inkjet growth is the lack of system integrators.
For example, take brake pad manufacturers. The analogue print method for printing onto the brake pads needs updating but they don’t have the integrating skills. The barrier is having an integrator to expertly do the work of incorporating inkjet technology into an existing manufacturing process production line. We are working with a $2 Billion company, they are investing in inkjet to help them get new business but without events like InPrint, I wouldn’t know who the OEM is!

We know who the ink people are, and the inkjet head people. We know what we are doing, and we know what the brake pads people are good at that – but they don’t know inkjet! Getting someone in the middle to integrate – this is the most critical thing that is limiting the expansion. But being an integrator is clearly challenging. It is feast or famine for them – they are busy and everyone in the business is swamped – then they are quiet, and you are overstaffed!

So I believe there are more integrators in Europe. Why is Europe so seemingly more developed with industrial inkjet than the US?

I think this is partly due to having more integrators. But really I think the US market’s focus is on size and scale. The numbers at play don’t appeal that much to new business start-ups in the US. Think of Silicon Valley, the numbers and the scale are huge, this seems to grab a huge amount of attention and value. I also think Europe by nature is more fragmented as a market, and therefore a technology like inkjet is well suited to the cultural and structural characteristics of the market.

We have looked at becoming an integrator to assist our customer to acquire inkjet technology and this has proved to be too difficult for us to begin. The reason is that for an integrator it seems to be feast or famine, and therefore frustrating! 

What do you think you will be focusing on at the InPrint Industrial Inkjet Conference in Chicago?

One of the things we will focus on as a theme is the technology improvements and how they will fuel further industrial printing needs. For example, flow through technology. Now we can control and define smaller drop sizes, larger drop sizes, multiple drop sizes and new configurations. This adds more control to the system and therefore sophistication, breadth and flexibility. We are developing heads with more nozzles to improve the printing without having to worry about them if they go bad. There is wider temperature variation, higher viscosity – most ink jet print heads operate around 10 centipoise viscosity and this limits chemists. 
What I want to get across is that the future is unrestrained. There are more people that want inkjet solutions than we can service. We have to improve the technology and it is truly offering some enhanced and exciting opportunities. Sure, at times it is frustrating when barriers to growth get in the way of progress, but the possibilities for inkjet keep inspiring me to get up in the morning and really help our customers by enabling their ideas to come to life.

You can see Joe Ryan and Ricoh USA at the InPrint Industrial Inkjet Conference in Chicago 1-2 May 2018.

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