Dataproducts Shifts Emphasis With New Computer Printer

Times Staff Writer

Dataproducts, the nation's largest independent manufacturer of computer printers, is expected to unveil on Monday its long-awaited ink-jet printer, developed in partnership with Exxon.

The introduction will add momentum to a shift over the last few years in the company's line of products. Since its founding in 1962, Dataproducts, which is based in Woodland Hills, has mainly sold what are known as impact printers, which tap out characters on paper with tiny metal hammers.

But now the company is trying to step up sales of quiet, "non-impact" printers that produce sharp images and graphics with ink-jet sprayers and lasers. Dataproducts got into non-impact printers--increasingly in demand for computer networks and other office uses--in 1984, when it introduced its laser printers.

Wax-Based Ink Used

The new ink-jet printer, scheduled to be displayed next week at the Comdex computer-industry trade show in Las Vegas, uses a patented technology developed by Exxon engineers. The printer heats solid, crayon-like pellets of wax-based ink to 212 degrees and then sprays the melted material through tiny holes onto paper, where it hardens.

The first batch of the printers, whose base price is $2,795, will be delivered in the first quarter of next year and will use black ink only. A color ink-jet printer is expected to be introduced in about two years.

Dataproducts executives are clearly counting on the new printer to become a major part of the company's business quickly, projecting that sales of the printer and related supplies will make up as much as 15% of its revenue next year and as much as 40% in five years. Any profits are to be split 50-50 with Exxon. For the fiscal year ended March 29, Dataproducts lost $26.8 million on revenue of $353.8 million.

John W. Leggat III, Dataproducts' senior vice president for marketing, goes so far as to call the new machine the company's most significant product since it started selling its first line of impact printers.

One of Last in Unit

For Exxon, the world's largest oil company, the joint venture is one of the few projects left from its ill-fated diversification into the office-systems business, which for 10 years made electronic typewriters, word processors, facsimile machines and computer work stations. Exxon scrapped the loss-plagued unit in late 1984, selling most of it to Lanier Business Products.

Leggat acknowledged that the new venture is about three months behind schedule, but said the partners wanted to make sure the equipment worked properly before introducing it.

"Dataproducts has made some errors in the past in making announcements about products before they could be delivered," he said.

Industry executives and analysts familiar with the new product generally praise its quality. They add, however, that Dataproducts needs to improve the printer's graphics capacity. Some also question the wisdom of introducing a version that doesn't offer color printing when there already are faster laser printers that print in black.

Leggat counters that Dataproducts' ink-jet printer has some advantages over laser printers. He noted that it can print on continuous rolls or separate sheets of paper, whereas most laser printers can work with sheets only. Leggat also said Dataproducts' printer is as fast as many laser printers.

Ink-jet printers have been touted for years by computer experts as a major advance because they have the potential to be economical, fast and capable of producing sharp color graphics.

The machines have sold slowly, however, because they have had technical problems. Dataquest, a San Jose market research firm, predicted late last year that ink-jet printers would account for $404 million in sales nationally this year and $700 million next year. But researchers with the firm now say they plan to lower those estimates.

Problems in Past

The primary problem of ink-jet printers has been that the ink often clogs when the liquid in it evaporates. Dataproducts executives say that the wax-based ink Exxon developed has no evaporation problem because it is stored in solid form. They also said their equipment is fast, printing as many as eight pages a minute, contrasted with one per minute for most existing ink-jet models.

In addition, market researchers say that previous ink-jet printers also sometimes produced smudgy images because the ink would ooze outward through the paper's fibers as it was absorbed. They say that should not be a problem with ink-jet printers such as Dataproducts' because the ink is harder when it dries and sticks to the surface of the paper instead of being absorbed.

Although several companies are believed to be working on similar machines, the only one expected to be introduced soon is made by Howtek, a Hudson, N.H.-based company started by Robert Howard, founder and former president of Centronics, another manufacturer of computer printers. Howtek is introducing a printer priced at $2,995 that uses a plastic-based ink and prints in color.

Although Leggat said it would not be a problem, John Boldt, a Dataquest executive, suggested that print produced by the new ink-jet equipment in general may flake and fall off the page.

"The technology is definitely an advance, but to call it a breakthrough might be overstating. The print samples I've seen from Howtek and Dataproducts look very promising, but they were not all the way there yet," Boldt said.

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