It’s become almost a cliché that technology companies, gadget makers and high-tech service providers have been learning to listen to their customers. Examples abound, from Apple succumbing to the demand for large-screen smartphones despite a near-religious adherence to smaller formats, to Facebook putting more privacy controls in the hands of its users.
But now one company is taking the conversation further: listening to both the customer and the community. Seiko Epson, known for both its pioneering watches and its printing and robotics solutions, believes that it is no longer enough merely to give customers what they want.
“We have to listen to both our customers and to our society,” said Minoru Usui, president and CEO of Seiko Epson, speaking at the CeBIT technology fair in Hannover, Germany, last week. “We want to help make the world a better place and we are determined to make Epson a company that is indispensable in that process. But we can only do this by listening to society.”
The result is that the company has become fiercely focused on reducing the waste resulting from one of the business world’s most wasteful activities: printing.
Three years ago, Usui declared that his company would “make printers that are faster, more beautiful and more efficient than ever before”. Now, he believes, the company has achieved its goal.
CeBIT saw the launch of the new Epson PaperLab, a recycling machine that can fit in any large office. Designed to allow printed paper to be reused, it shreds and pulps the used pages, and spits out clean paper.
However, rather than it being the sole focus of Epson’s CeBIT presence, it was just one element of the organisation’s wide-ranging strategy to transform the office.
“We are exploring the world of tomorrow through the eyes and minds of the workforce of today,” Usui said during a keynote address at the event.
Later, in an interview, he elaborated.
“One thing is clear: there are going to be a lot of advances in Internet and cloud technology, and we have to look at what we can do with our technology and see how we can adapt our products to make a contribution. For example, as technology evolves, there is a need for ever-higher productivity, and to make things lot easier to use than they are now, while having less impact on the environment.
“If we look at what society wants and what we can deliver, there are environmental areas where we can contribute, there is a need for greater precision, or the same precision in a more compact format. We will focus on areas where our technology is suited to fill the gaps.”
The company is specifically focused on four areas of innovation, namely inkjet printer technology, visual communications, wearables and robotics.
Although laser printing exceeds inkjet technology almost fourfold in the global office market, Usui believes the latter has far greater potential in the workplace.
“In laser printing, there have been no technical advances in recent years and users seem quite dissatisfied with its high running costs. We hear from many customers they want to print in colour, but don’t because of the high cost. Inkjet technology has helped release people from restrictions they have felt about office printing today.”
Advances in inkjet printing technologies also mean fewer moving parts in Epson machines, and therefore less energy consumption. This has helped some large corporations make dramatic reductions in their own carbon footprints.
Usui points that many photocopier companies have been trying to reinvent themselves by putting an effort into managed print services. However, he says, this does not address fundamental issues like printer speed and cost of operating. As a result, he believes, 2017 will see a tipping point in the rate at which companies move over the inkjet printing.
While Epson has long served the consumer and small business market with inkjet printers, it also used CeBIT to unveil an enterprise offering. The WorkForce Enterprise WF-C20590 is not as sexy a name as the PaperLab, but it is possibly more important strategically. An A3 multifunction printer, it is Epson’s first corporate high-speed inkjet line head printer, and prints 100 pages per minute – which the company calls “breakthrough speed”.
The machine’s junior sibling, the WorkForce Pro WF-C869R, aimed at slightly smaller offices, uses a highly economical ink solution called the Epson Replaceable Ink Pack System, which allows the company to claim the lowest-cost colour printing in its class.
“Products like the high speed printers address cost issues, and innovations like the PaperLab address environmental issues,” said Usui. “We are taking an overall look at the business of printing, and removing concerns and restrictions one by one.”
Naturally, there are likely to be conflicting demands when society is pulling in numerous directions. But Usui believes this should be built into business strategy.
“Yes, there are lots of needs in society. However, it’s important for us to look at megatrends, understand the things that definitely will happen, and look at ourselves and see to which ones we are able to contribute.”