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Today's Printers Truly Are State of the Art

Computers: Advances enable home users to output high-resolution photos and companies to download artwork and make reproductions on demand.


While most of the high-tech world perpetually focuses on the next new thing, a familiar device quietly has gotten so good as to be almost stunning: the printer.

Galleries and frame stores can download artwork from the Internet and make richly colored prints directly on fine paper or canvas within minutes.

Big laser printers and digital presses enable corporations to make customized glossy publications in-house and in short runs, without the expense of shipping them to specialty printing houses.

Inexpensive photo printers let consumers instantly develop sharp-looking shots from digital cameras, skipping not only the traditional trip to a photofinishing store but also a time-consuming upload onto a personal computer.

"These things keep improving in quality while coming down in price," said Keith Kratzberg, director of photo imaging for Epson America Inc. "We have totally refined the way these things are designed and manufactured."

New inks fuse to paper much more easily and in smaller particles, permitting greater resolution and sharper images with more subtle hues.

Other refinements make printing faster.

The iGen3 digital press, expected soon from Xerox Corp., should help graphic arts companies and corporations do their own publishing.

Forty feet long and costing about $500,000, the press can crank out 100 pages a minute.

For the rest of us, even a 17-page-per-minute desktop printer can be had for about $150.

One company built almost entirely on the recent advances in printing is Brightcube Inc. Its technology enables art galleries and frame stores with high-end inkjet printers to make posters and high-quality prints on demand, reducing the need to keep costly inventory around.

One painting of a Mediterranean-style cottage and a garden, downloaded from Brightcube, emerged on a large canvas with sharp reds and yellows. The brush strokes of the original also stood out on the digitally made copy.

"Sometimes, customers want to come in and order a specific piece, and rather than order it, we'll just print it," said Scott Gilsinger, owner of the Framing Loft in Sun City, Ariz., who uses Brightcube's service to make 20 to 30 prints a month. "It's excellent quality."

El Segundo-based Brightcube has 40 employees, about 100 customers and a somewhat limited selection of art and photography available to download.

But its potential is intriguing. Brightcube's technology keeps track of which works are downloaded and printed so artists can collect royalties.

Beyond artwork, Brightcube hopes retailers will want to download official logos and designs from their parent companies' headquarters and customize advertisements for individual stores.

Combining the Internet with new high-end printing technology also is a goal at Hewlett-Packard Co., which recently closed a deal worth as much as $800 million to acquire Indigo, a Dutch company that makes digital presses.

Digital presses let companies, such as advertising agencies and printing houses, create fancy color newsletters, brochures and ads quickly, in relatively small batches--and with customized content.

For example, HP and a European airline are exploring ways to use a digital press and Web-based customer-service platform to make personalized in-flight magazines for first- and business-class passengers.

"You'd find seat 12K, and with the magazines sitting there, on the top is one geared to you and your flight, welcoming you on board, giving you a summary of your frequent-flier miles, saying, 'Here's your menu, here's your videos you asked for and here's the articles you might like to read,'" said Bill McGlynn, an HP vice president of digital publishing.

Eyeing similar opportunities, Xerox expects its iGen3 digital press to bring in $15 billion in revenue in the next decade.

But despite their flexibility, digital presses probably will supplement the equipment that large printing companies already have, rather than steal their business altogether, said Mike Croke, who consults with companies on big printing tasks and farms out the work to specialty houses.

"It will start to take a toll on some of the mom-and-pop shops, some of the medium-size shops. But it's not going to knock the large printers down," Croke said. "I don't see a large insurance company going back into the printing business."

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