The key staff of InkjetMall (Sales Manager Wells Smith, Product Support Manager Dana Ceccarelli, and myself) were in China last month for two weeks visiting cartridge and micro-chip factories. It was an arduous two-week trip without a moment to rest. We managed to attend an inkjet trade show, and visit with one of our key partners to see their latest factory that has just been completed.
Because InkjetMall is a sister company to Cone Editions Press, we also spent three days to get an impression of the arts and photo “scene” in Shenzhen’s OCT Loft district (I will report more on this in the near future). In Shenzhen we were greatly assisted by InkjetMall customer, Aaron Chan.
Because we visited several provinces we were able to sample many different types of local cuisine. We ate exceptionally well (see below). A Tianjin feast, the spiciest noodles ever, whole young chicken cooked in wine, chicken’s foot, among other delicacies.
We saw the middle class in China expanding at triple and quadruple the rate of our shrinking middle class. In the larger cities we visited, China looks like a “Maxi-Me” of USA. In some cases it was hard to distinguish that we were not in wealthy USA suburbs. Some of the department stores and shopping centers exceed our wildest dreams. Exotic sports cars prowl the highways and most of the traffic jams are the result of new cars being purchased in droves.
In the villages, and in the hutungs of Beijing some memory of post-Mao China is preserved. But, our overall impression of Tianjin, Zhuhai, and ShenZhen is that the middle class has adopted credit cards and a taste for expensive USA and European made goods. They want high quality for themselves even as most of the China factories seem to pump out low quality goods for our Walmarts. Is that what we really want? Or was that Walmart’s idea?
Cartridges and chips
We went to China to seek out the absolute highest quality plastic ink cartridges. A lot of research and expense went into this trip so that we could service our customers better. We narrowed down more than 40 cartridge makers into a group of the top five. We narrowed down five chip makers to two. We wanted to leave China and return to the USA with the goal of marrying the best chip to the best cartridge designs.
What we learned about cartridges (the main purpose of our trip) was incredible. We certainly gained a great understanding of the Chinese cartridge industry. We saw many fine examples of engineering. We also saw some very good copies of these fine engineering designs, and very poor copies of the copies of the fine engineering designs. It is very difficult to navigate the cartridge industry in China because there is very little internal copyright protections.
Last month I reported that China has barred EPSON entry into the Chinese CISS ink market because of patent infringement. The Chinese government is preventing the import of EPSON new CISS printer products that infringe Print-Rite CISS patents. However, it is clear that many Chinese cartridge manufacturers copy each other’s designs. The internal copyright protection seems non-existant. EPSON in the USA uses a similar form of patent litigation in which it asks the US Government to bar the entry of infringing products into the USA but does not turn it’s attention against USA made products. EPSON has been very successful using this manner. And according to Vermont US Senator Patrick Leahy’s office, to use patents to prevent competition from USA made products would trigger the US Anti-Trust Act. So, something similar in China must be occurring.
In my opinion, the only way to truly tell all these similar products apart is through the eagle eyes of Dana Ceccarelli. Dana can take four absolutely identical carts and within a minute divide them into four totally different carts. The differences are not manifest on the exterior or in the labeling. Nothing obvious. The differences are how they are constructed from the welds and gluing, the materials used for the chambers, and the internal designs. She can spot material differences in the plastics and metal components. Even the internal designs that look exactly alike are often made of subtley different parts.
This is very important because many of these carts fail where others which seem to be the exact same do not. Many companies in China selling carts pose as factories. It’s a very difficult maze. Some of these “factories” are agents buying up inventories of unknown origin. Some are renting time on idle plastic injection mould machines, renting moulds, and attempting to put together finished pieces. Others are actual factories which simply have no idea what they are doing other than copying designs. Few have means to test their products. Some have extraordinary testing facilities.
We now understand quite well who the better injection moulders are and which companies have the best engineers. We found an engineer who we believe has the best creativity; an engineer who can dream along with us. Many of his designs are legally licensed by other cart makers in China. That was very reassuring to see that there is some form of protection going on, and some attempt to control quality. We are now working in a more and more exclusive manner with this factory. They make cartridges full time. It is their only business. Many of the China cartridge factories make carts one day, and then any number of other products the next. Whew!
We have already received 1000s of new micro-chips which we are using to replace the generic chips on many of our carts.
So, now that we have the opportunity to redesign many of our cartridge supplies there are several products in design phase that we hope to release in time for the New Year. We will even introduce a CISS that is compatible with our color ink formulations. And in the meantime we’ve married an excellent chip (from the best semi-conductor maker in China) with a beautiful example of a R3000 cartridge to introduce our new ConeColor Pro inks. We’re introducing our new ink on the R3000 printer. We’ve made an excellent profile library of 56 ICCs that are now online. You can read more about the R3000 ConeColor Pro system here.
Piezography K7 is now up and running on the R3000 and that should be released upon our next shipment of R3000 carts. I still have some profiling to do with the K7 inks.
We believe that China can produce some very high standard products. But, it is very difficult for a customer or an end-user to find these. If they looked substantially different from one another it might be easier. But, then that doesn’t really speak for the manufacturing quality. The Chinese are fond of saying something that goes like this… “It is EXACTLY the SAME, but DIFFERENT.” But, this is not something our new relationships says. He says something that goes like “Tell me exactly what you want, and I will make it exactly that way.”
Our trip was made to benefit our customers. While we have absolute control over the inks we produce, we do not manufacture our own cartridges. Now, we have a relationship in which we can manufacture to our specifications and have a measure of guaranty that what we specify remains consistent.