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Printing without Ink

Startup ZINK Imaging is giving inkless printing a new look.

Last week, a number of new technologies were announced at DEMO, a conference in Palm Desert, CA, where startups are unveiled. One company, called ZINK Imaging, impressed the media by offering a new way to print pictures without ink. By rethinking printing, ZINK, a spinoff of Polaroid, claims it can make ultraportable printers that can fit in a human hand or be integrated into digital cameras and cell phones.

This Bluetooth-enabled printer could be used to print pictures captured on mobile phones. This printer is one of two ZINK-enabled devices that the company expects to make available by the end of the year.

The company’s trick is to use a novel type of photo paper that changes color when heat is applied, says Steve Herchen, chief technology officer at ZINK. “It’s the first new printing technology for digital printing that’s come along in more than a decade,” he says. There are a number of benefits that come with the new technology that aren’t available with today’s portable printers, he adds. At the top of his list is not worrying about running out of ink. People would still need to buy special photo paper, but the goal is to make this paper, which is expected to cost from 20 to 25 cents, ubiquitous.


Another benefit that comes out of the new printing approach, Herchen says, is technologists’ ability to make the printer small enough to embed in portable gadgets. “If you look at any printer that prints with ink, you’d see that a fair amount of space is taken up by ink cartridges, ink ribbons, and the mechanisms to manage them,” he says. With the ZINK printers, all of that bulk can be eliminated.

Historically, printing has been divided into several camps. Many home-office printers are inkjet, a relatively inexpensive technology that squirts ink from cartridges directly onto paper. More expensive laser printers use another approach that creates images using electrically charged colored powder, called toner. The third technology is called thermal printing. The most common type of thermal transfer printing uses a ribbon, similar to that in a typewriter, says Eric Hanson, manager of marking technology at Hewlett Packard Labs, in Palo Alto, CA. The ribbon is pressed to the paper, then heat is applied with a thermal printhead to transfer color. “Essentially, there’s a color that can be vaporized from a ribbon and stick to paper that’s designed for those dyes to stick to them,” Hanson says. An example of this technology is found in Kodak’s Easy Share Camera and Printer.

ZINK’s printing technology is a first cousin of these traditional thermal printers. In fact, the company uses a thermal printhead similar to what’s on the market today. “The printheads aren’t unique to ZINK,” says Herchen. “The technology to drive them is well-known. However, we’ve adapted them in a special way so that heat can be applied to ZINK media.” Unlike the existing technologies that use thermal printheads to transfer color to paper, the new media has the color embedded in it, in the form of dye crystals that are clear at room temperature. The thermal printheads have been modified to selectively bring out the color in the dye crystals.

To make ZINK photo paper, which Herchen says feels exactly like regular photo paper, the researchers start with a white plastic sheet as a base material, then add very thin layers of dye crystals. The dye molecules that make up these crystals are structured in such a way that the crystal is transparent. When heat is applied, the molecules change their physical orientation from a crystal to an amorphous glass, a process that releases color.

The configuration of the crystal layers–yellow on top, magenta in the middle, and cyan on the bottom–is a crucial element in the printing process. When these layers pass through the thermal printhead, says Herchen, they are heated by 300 tiny heaters per square inch. And in order to bring out the appropriate color at each pixel, the temperature and amount of time each heater is on is precisely controlled. The crystals in the yellow top layer require the highest temperature to show their color but the shortest amount of time. To turn on the cyan bottom layer, the heaters operate at their lowest temperature for the longest amount of time. Bringing color out of the magenta middle layer requires heating times and temperatures somewhere in between.

“[The printer] is doing combinations of these pulses for every single pixel,” says Herchen. To produce a green pixel, for instance, the heating element would turn on some yellow layers with a quick, high-temperature pulse, cool back down, and then turn on cyan with a longer, low-temperature pulse. It takes only tens of microseconds to deliver these pulses. In a typical two-by-three-inch picture, which takes less than a minute to print, there are approximately two hundred million heat pulses.

A technology based on thermal heating begs the question: how easy is it to ruin the paper before and after one has printed a picture? Herchen says that laboratory tests have shown that the paper–both before and after printing–doesn’t change colors at temperatures as high as 70 °C (158 °F). And if placed in sunlight, the picture will fade at a rate similar to that of other thermal printings and many inkjet printings: about 5 to 15 years.

Some analysts think that ZINK’s technology has the capability to change the way people think about photos. “Right now, we’re still relatively formal about photos,” says Chris Shipley, executive producer of DEMO and cofounder of Guidewire Group, a technology research firm. People take pictures, collect them, and put them in books, but if they’re taken with a cell phone, often they stay there, she says. “The idea that a photo can be a note, a moment captured and shared quickly, is something that ZINK enables,” Shipley says. In the short run, she says, the technology could make photo sharing more casual.

Herchen says ZINK has plans for two products by the end of the year: a stand-alone portable printer and a printer integrated into a digital camera, both producing two-by-three-inch pictures. While the printer can be designed into tiny gadgets, it can also be integrated into larger electronics, and Herchen expects that within the next few years the printing technology could also show up in computer towers, laptop computers, and even home television sets.

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