HP excels at life in the fast lane

Vancouver branch plays key role in development of new inkjet printer that is world's fastest

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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With Hewlett-Packard's newest inkjet printer, a product hatched partly in Vancouver, many numbers stagger.

Some examples: The newly released Officejet Pro X printer contains 42,240 nozzles, each placing ink drops one-third the size of a human hair on a piece of paper. The ink drops onto the page at a speed of up to 30 miles per hour. Hewlett-Packard boasts that the printer can produce documents at half the cost per page of comparable laser printers, while using just half as much energy.

But HP is banking on one number, and it's one that employees of HP's Printing and Personal Systems Group in Vancouver are especially proud of: this machine can produce up to 70 printed pages per minute. In fact, the new Officejet model is listed in Guinness World Records as the world's fastest inkjet or laser printer in its price range. That claim is based on a test of comparable printers undertaken April 6 in Vancouver. (The record is based on the printer's fastest setting; a higher-quality setting prints 42 pages per minute).

The new Officejet Pro X printers are getting rave reviews, even from inkjet skeptics. "Blazing fast," declared one technology geek blog. "The baddest business inkjet printer of all," claimed another. Among mainstream computer publications, Computer Shopper joined the praise chorus by calling the Officejet Pro X "a slam-dunk winner for small businesses and workgroups."

In the glow of such commentary, it's not surprising that local HP engineers and other design team members take special pride in what they've helped create. Indeed, they believe the new line of printers -- which contain hundreds of patented components -- breaks through so many technological barriers that they have the potential to reinvigorate and expand the stagnant inkjet printer market.

"This is one of those moments when you introduce a set of innovations that you see the significance of what you've done and possibilities of where you can go in the future," said Stephen Nigro, HP's senior vice president of Inkjet Printing Solutions, who is based in Vancouver. "It changes the view of where inkjet printing will go. We're changing our market projections about the growth of inkjet."

Company turmoil

That's heady talk about a technology that many consumers consider inferior to laser printing. And it's a bold projection when consumers and businesses are printing less, and printer sales overall are declining.

If Nigro is correct, though, the Officejet line could deliver a much-needed bright spot for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP. The legendary company has struggled to maintain is mantle as an innovator against a backdrop of seemingly endless management turmoil, deep employee layoffs, and misguided investment decisions. In recent years, HP hasn't offered much reward to its investors: The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Hewlett-Packard's stock has fallen 20 percent since the market's low point in March 2009, a worse showing than any company included in the 30-company Dow Jones Industrial Average.

On the printer side of the company's ledger, revenue declined in this year's first fiscal quarter, which ended Jan. 31, by 5 percent as businesses and households increasingly rely on electronic communication and cloud-based document stor

age. The implications on HP's bottom line are vast. The company's imaging and printer division accounts for about 20 percent of the company's revenue, and more than two-thirds of that amount comes from sales of ink and other supplies.

HP is seeing signs that the Officejet is helping stem the decline. It saw gains in hardware sales, including printers, in the last calendar year's fourth quarter, as well as modest growth in ink sales, which it attributed in part to the early success of the Officejet Pro line.

Years in the making

HP opened its printer operations in Vancouver in 1979, and Brad Freeman arrived just a year later. As director of research and development in the HP Printing and Personal Systems Group, he oversees the work of some 260 employees. He also helps steer product development as it unfolds in far-flung corners of the globe, from Boise, Idaho to Singapore, to China, to Barcelona, Spain.

The core of the company's printer development takes place in Vancouver and in Corvallis, Ore. In simple terms, Corvallis teams develop the printheads and other printing components; Vancouver creates the engines and mechanisms that integrate the printing technologies into the printer. The company has three primary inkjet computer printer lines -- Deskjets, primarily for the home market; the Officejet, targeted for small businesses, and the Photosmart line. Some of the company's breakthrough printer designs, many developed in Vancouver, are on display in the vast lobby of the Columbia Center at the Columbia Tech Center, where HP is now located after moving in 2011 from a much larger site where it once manufactured printers. HP continues to dominate the inkjet market, with by far the largest market share of any company.

With the Officejet, HP sees growth opportunities even in a generally stagnant or declining market. The company cites an InfoTrends projection that pressures to increase productivity and cut costs will fuel growth in inkjets. It hopes, of course, to take market share away from competitors and induce new demand, rather than pull customers away from HP's own laser printers produced by another unit of the company.

In developing the Officejet line, HP was incorporating the technological breakthrough of the printer head it has named PageWide, developed in Corvallis. The PageWide inkjet extends across the length of a piece of paper, delivering thousands of tiny ink dots onto a page. The printer's design allows the ink to dry without smearing despite the machine's speed.

The process of designing a new printer can take years, Freeman said. It starts, of course, with an idea, tested against the challenges of scope, schedule and resources. One of those three can slip, Freeman says. If more than one, the project is in trouble. "There is a lot of pressure to stay on schedule."

The work of product development falls to small development teams representing many specialties. They can include software, electrical, and mechanical engineers, finance experts, chemists and other scientists, and marketers. Ideas are tested in focus groups, and emerging designs are placed in the field for testing. In Vancouver alone, more than 200 employees worked on developing the Officejet.

Those employees were under intense pressure to create a machine that offered significant savings in cost and energy consumption. Their first run achieved those goals, but at a product cost that Nigro deemed as too high.

That was tough, Freeman said. "We started over," he said. They worked every angle of materials and design to trim costs until they finally met the company's goal. The single-function (551dw) machine now sells for $599, and the multi-function, duplex wireless (576dw) printer sells for $799.

The attempt to establish a Guinness record was part challenge for designers, part marketing tool. Freeman was confident that the Officejet would win, of course, but like an actor poised for a big performance, he worried about what might go wrong.

The tester for the Guinness speed competition flew out from New York for the April 6 test. Employees gathered to watch a most peculiar competition: a contest on how long it would take a printer to produce 500 printed pages. HP won with its Officejet Pro X, completing the task in 7 minutes, 19.25 seconds. The company kept the results secret until last month's product release.

There were more anxious moments this spring, when the product went out for professional reviews. The reviews from consumer publications came back almost uniformly positive. Freeman wasn't terribly surprised.

"We expected them to be blown away by the speed," Freeman said. What was a pleasant surprise, he said, was the positive commentary about the size of the digital display, the ease of setting up and using the printer, and the fact that the printer doesn't jam.

It's no wonder, then, that his boss is singing the praises of his team.

"Nobody in the world could have done what we did -- period," Nigro boasts. "It's our 30 years' experience in technology."

Gordon Oliver: 360-735-4699; gordon.oliver@columbian.com.