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HP Touts Its Image in Ink Sector

The firm is set to roll out a new brand as it fights to keep its lead in the profitable market.

August 27, 2004|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

RANCHO BERNARDO, Calif. — In the photopermanence room, behind massive steel vault doors, racks of special fluorescent bulbs bombard rows of photographs with intense light.

A month in the vault mimics 12 to 13 years in the real world and helps scientist Nils Miller develop printer ink for Hewlett-Packard Co. that keeps snapshots bright and colorful.

Images of grinning gap-toothed kids abound at Miller's tightly guarded lab outside San Diego, but this is serious work: A big chunk of HP's profit comes from printer ink, and the computer giant is determined to protect its dominance in the $4-billion U.S. market.

So important is ink to HP that the Palo Alto company today plans to roll out a new brand -- called Vivera -- that it hopes will make customers think about what's pumping through their printers the same way chip maker Intel Corp.'s Intel Inside campaign made them think about what's powering their personal computers.

Bolstered by a hefty advertising campaign, Vivera ink will be sold to flow through 13 new printers for the home and small office that will be introduced as part of what HP calls Big Bang 3, a lineup of products the company plans to put on store shelves before the end of the year.

Before the ink could dry on HP's news releases, however, rival Lexmark International Inc. revealed to The Times plans to market its own branded ink, Evercolor. Although Lexmark is a distant second to HP, it's gaining ground, thanks in large part to its exclusive partnership with Dell Inc., the top PC seller.

The branding efforts by HP and Lexmark are similar to Eastman Kodak Co.'s marketing of its Kodachrome color film and Tri-X black-and-white film.

"One of the challenges is that printer makers have got to keep moving," said Martin Reynolds, a senior analyst with Gartner Inc. "Otherwise, people ask, 'What's the difference?' "

Plenty, according to HP, Lexmark and even the venerable Consumer Reports magazine.

The magazine this year conducted a test comparing inks from name-brand manufacturers such as HP, Seiko Epson Corp. and Canon Inc. with generic ink. Its conclusion: "It almost never pays to buy off-brand ink cartridges."

That was no surprise to Pradeep Jotwani, HP's senior vice president for imaging and printing supplies, who said inks were developed for specific purposes such as printing text or photographs, and that entire printing systems were built around them.

"What people haven't traditionally understood is that printers are made for particular cartridges," Jotwani said.

Lexmark boasts that "Evercolor will have fade resistance in excess of silver halide, and for photo albums will achieve 200 years of storage," said Jeff Willard, vice president of worldwide marketing in Lexmark's consumer division.

Silver halide is the key ingredient in traditional film, and matching or exceeding its qualities is among the goals at HP's labs in Rancho Bernardo, where Vivera was developed over more than two years.

Scientists and technicians in ink-smeared lab coats pour brightly colored mixtures of ink into test tubes. Others spread experimental coatings onto photo paper. In another enclosed vault a worker in a ski jacket checks up on printers and snapshots exposed to prolonged cold temperature.

HP experiments with viscosity, surface tension, particle distribution, optical density and a host of other factors -- including something called smearfastness -- to seek the best combination.

Microscopic nozzles on Vivera ink cartridges blast tiny droplets of ink about the width of a human hair at more than 30 miles an hour and at a rate of more than 12 million per second. HP says photos printed with Vivera will last up to 110 years.

Cheap inks run together, making borders between colors fuzzy. And they are often absorbed unevenly, warping a photo's paper.

To demonstrate, Miller placed a drop of generic black ink into a dish of yellow ink. The black ink quickly broke apart, leaving a muddy mixture. But a drop of HP black ink in a dish of HP yellow ink stayed perfectly round, even while the mixture was swished around.

"Our bleed technology is a patented process, based on controlling the liquid-to-liquid interaction," said Miller, who would not give further details to protect trade secrets.

Liquid-to-liquid interaction is among the issues HP spends more than $1 billion a year researching in its Imaging and Printing Group. The company earned operating income of $3.57 billion from that unit last fiscal year, 74% of its overall operating profit.

HP's new lineup of printers, priced at $99 to $399, are designed to work with Vivera cartridges that have more than twice the typical number of nozzles -- 672 instead of about 300 -- and that are wider, allowing for clearer and faster printing.

Two models are portable, designed for printing snapshots at weddings, for instance, and several have Bluetooth technology, allowing for wireless printing from laptops and camera phones.

"This is pretty tough to match," says analyst Richard Chu of S.G. Cowan Securities in Boston. "HP will move along that vector at a pretty fast pace."

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