Epson president shares future of projector and printer tech

Image Credit: Forbes

It’s not every day that you get to sit down for a chat with a company president, especially one from a technology giant. We had the opportunity to speak to Mr Yasunori Ogawa, Seiko Epson Global President, during his visit to Australia to discuss the future of projector and printer technology as part of the company’s 40th anniversary.

As Epson’s key products include printers and projectors, I was curious about where these fit into a future where we’ll likely be printing less, and have more access to cheap, big-screen big TVs. However, what I wasn’t expecting to learn was about the new and innovative ways that Epson plans to adapt its technology for the future, as well as advances in augmented reality glasses – but more on this later!

A hands-on career

Mr. Ogawa wasn’t just helicoptered into the top position at Seiko Epson Corporation, he’s had a remarkably hands-on career with many foundational roles across the company’s diverse portfolio.  

Starting in 1988, Mr Ogawa was tasked with designing image sensors for Epson’s fax machines. He then moved on to the projector division, where he worked on commercialising the first Epson projector.

It was in 2017 when Mr Ogawa was appointed CEO, and a year afterwards, Director and CEO. Not resting on his laurels, he also became CTO in charge of R&D and manufacturing.

In 2019, Mr Ogawa devoted his time to Epson’s wearables division, which is part of Epson’s industrial solutions business.

When not working, Mr. Ogawa is a keen skier, a passionate soccer fan and just so happens to be an accomplished ukulele player.

Printing the future

Starting with the humble printer, Mr. Ogawa believes that it has seen the most evolution since it was introduced. Apart from using ink, Epson’s print heads have diversified to new applications including the ability to print little dots on OLED television panels and tiny metallic wiring for electronic circuit boards. However, most exciting is that in place of ink, Mr. Ogawa says that soon: “you could print human cells,” opening up incredibly exciting biotechnology research and experimentation opportunities.

Epson Paper Lab machine
Epson’s Paper Lab can recycle paper using less water. Credit: Epson

But it’s not just industrial applications. Epson’s specialised print technology can also benefit the environment. Epson makes a machine called “Paper Lab” sold in Japan and Europe that enables paper recycling with minimal use of water.  Also, the same technology can be applied to turn paper into a packaging ‘sponge’ sort of like a natural Styrofoam. This can also be formed into a harder plastic-like material to make useful objects such as garden chairs. Mr. Ogawa says that the technology can also recycle fabrics, and is called “dry fibre”.

The paperless office?

Of course, when it comes to printing in the modern age, the big question is “When will the paperless office happen? Shouldn’t we have stopped using paper by now?” Mr Ogawa believes that “in ten year’s time we will still have printing on paper.” However, he concedes that “our reliance on screens means that our printing needs are getting smaller.” 

Ogawa expects that in the future, environmentally conscious printing will be centre stage. As laser printing is the dominant technology in offices and corporations today, Epson’s opportunity lies in converting these machines into inkjet printers.

Compared to inkjet, laser printers require more energy and also have disposable parts like cartridges and drum units. Epson’s inkjet printers, on the other hand, do not require heat to fuse ink onto the page, and need fewer consumables as its ink tanks can be refilled.

In ten year’s time we will still have printing on paper.

Mr Yasunori Ogawa, Seiko Epson Global President

While there will be work needed to re-educate corporate customers who are accustomed to laser printing, inkjet technology has certainly progressed, with improved printing speeds and large-capacity ink bottles to reduce waste.  

Inkjet can also be used in place of specialised machines such as analogue fabric printers. Here, inkjet reduces the need for print plates, and requires less ink and water. Mr Ogawa also says that Epson’s print heads have evolved to be able to print on other materials such as wallpaper and even tiles, opening new and creative applications for truly customised design.

This versatility is in some part thanks to Epson’s unique Piezo-Electric print head technology. Established years ago, this uses tiny Piezo Electric crystals to precisely ‘push’ ink from nozzles. This has also differentiated Epson from its competitors, such as Canon, which uses thermally activated ‘bubble jet’ technology instead. Mr Ogawa said that Piezo Electric is “still core print tech but also unique because it is scalable across the whole line. There are also cost advantages in terms of volume as well as performance.”

Australian market differences

Comparing the Australian market, Mr Ogawa believes that it is similar to many Western markets, and not vastly different to America and Western Europe. “There are lots of price rises so this is challenging”, he explained. Epson Australia MD Craig Heckenberg added that technology trends tend to happen quicker in Australia because it is a smaller market, and has the same competitors fighting over a smaller pie.

It was interesting to note that Australia has a higher standard for print quality than many other countries. Australia also sells more higher-end kit than Europe or America. Mr Heckenberg also said that Australia has a higher concern for the environment than other countries including the US.

On the horizon is a ‘print as a service’ type model called ReadyPrint. This essentially lets people pay for their printer and the ink they use as part of a subscription. Mr Ogawa believes that this business model “will provide advantages for the customer”. He also noted that Epson is trialling the ReadyPrint service in Australia, and it has been running successfully in Europe, with the “no lock-in contract” contributing to growing demand.

Projecting the future

Moving on to Epson’s projectors, the big question is what lighting technology will be used to light up our screens. Mr Ogawa said that “the light source is changing from lamps to laser” so there’s little doubt we’ll be seeing more laser projectors. Mr Ogawa added that laser is “more energy efficient, and has a longer life.” And in the more distant future, Mr Ogawa says “we can also shine lasers on LCDs, and beyond, we can use light emitting sources.”

When looking at how consumer needs are changing in the projector space, Mr Ogawa looks to what’s happening in China as an indicator for things to come.

“There’s a focus on home projecting, smart projectors connected to the internet with high brightness, and very compact.”

This aligns with the portable projector trends GadgetGuy is seeing with the popularity of Samsung’s portable Freestyle projector, as well as LG’s upcoming CineBeam Cube. These projectors are easy to take with you, enabling impromptu movie or gaming nights indoors and outdoors.

Interestingly, Mr Ogawa noted that portable projection is growing in popularity among young Chinese people, which is also catching on in other regions. Further to that point, he noted that “…they think that a large TV is a waste of space and want something that they can move from place to place.”

Of course, with portability, it’s not surprising that “the need for very high brightness projectors is growing”. Mr Ogawa believes that growth in smart portable projectors will soon spread to other markets.

Extended Reality on the horizon

Extended reality, or ‘XR’ headsets, are getting a lot of attention thanks to Apple’s new Vision Pro and Meta’s Quest 3 hitting the market recently. While not a major product area, Epson is still selling virtual reality glasses today.

However, more exciting is that the company makes the Optical Engine, which is a core technology used in XR types of devices. Optical Engines are actually very small OLED panels that also need to be lightweight, compact and energy efficient. These need to last a long time as well, which can be a challenge with OLED-type screens.

“They need to be small and light and that’s the challenge, and Epson is doing R&D on that”, Ogawa said.

Time will tell just how large this opportunity is for Epson as the technology matures and more people want to integrate extended reality headsets into their daily lives.

40 years and beyond

With 40 years behind it, there’s little doubt that Epson has exciting opportunities as well as obstacles to overcome in the years ahead. It’s clear that the company is up for the challenge, and there’s little denying its success.

Here in Australia, Epson started in 1983 with a small team of 20 people in the suburb of Frenchs Forest on the northern beaches of Sydney. It’s now 150 people strong, with offices across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Auckland.

Epson 40 year anniversary logo

And it even gets noticed by its global boss, who said that “Epson is committed to achieving sustainability and supporting the community, and no group company embodies this commitment more than Epson Australia.”

It will be fascinating to see what the company has become in another 40 years.

Read more printer tech news on GadgetGuy