Preparing for a major launch of new inkjet printers next month, Lexington-based Lexmark International recently took a look back before looking ahead.
Later this week marks the 15th anniversary of the company's first Lexmark inkjet printer, the Lexmark ExecJet 4076 IIc.
It arrived in a dot-matrix and laser printer world but would herald a rapidly evolving industry.
"It's more clear to us how far we have come," said Paul Rooke, head of the company's inkjet division, citing the many functions that are now standard in Lexmark printers.
Just three years earlier, Lexmark had been spun off from IBM. Its product base included a line of typewriters and monochrome laser and dot-matrix printers. (A bit of trivia: Lexmark still manufactures dot-matrix printers since some companies continue to use multi-part forms.)
"Back at the time, the world was a lot of dot matrix: noisy and slow," Rooke recalled.
It was mainly black and white printing, though customers could add color ribbons "if you wanted to struggle with them," he said.
"And then all of a sudden this thing called inkjet came to be," he said. "We could do color with this small, low-cost platform."
It was the company's first experiment with ink, having been familiar with just toner and ribbons.
"You were dealing with a whole new set of materials," Rooke said. "In contrast to technologies in the day, this offered so much promise. We invested heavily in it, and the rest is history."
One of the people responsible for that history is Vic Hair, who was product program manager at the time. Today, he's Lexmark's vice president of research and development strategy for the inkjet division.
Hair said there were fewer than 100 people who helped develop the Lexmark ExecJet 4076 IIc.
Lexmark had some experience in inkjet. It had released an inkjet printer under the IBM brand the previous year, but this was the first truly Lexmark brand.
"There was a lot of debate back then on inkjet," Hair said. "There were a lot of doubters."
The group found its share of problems. One day, it saw that the belt that drove the printhead back and forth was disintegrating.
The same belts were used on the monolaser printers, so the group deduced it must be related to the new ink.
Sure enough. The ink was interacting with the rubber compound in the belt, and the belt was rusting.
"You wouldn't think a rubber belt would rust, but that's one of the things you run into," Hair said.
The end result was a printer that held one color cartridge that made black ink using the three colors inside. Users could buy a separate black-only cartridge but would have to switch it out, said Mike Smith, who was in technical support at the time and now is in inkjet development.
The printer had four buttons to control things like fonts or printing landscape versus portrait, though users could lift the panel and have access to four more functions, Smith said.
And while it might seem like a relic from the past, it's really not. Lexmark built nine printer models that used those ink cartridges, and it continues to receive orders for those cartridges today, even more than a decade since they were introduced.
And as the company looks back at its past, it also looks forward, continuing to innovate.
"Even 15 years later now, inkjet's not a mature technology," Rooke said. "There's still a lot of advancement going on. When we look at a printer 15 years from now, it could be a horse race even as stark. ... Some of the features you're beginning to see emerge right now like being Web-connected will continue to evolve."