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Kodak CEO talks company’s future


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Kodak’s Prosper Presses contain more than 100,000 computer-controlled inkjet nozzles that spray special Kodak-made ink that allows for crisp resolution. Meanwhile, cameras and software monitor the print process, looking for defects. The presses can reach speeds of up to 650 feet of paper per minute.

Kodak won’t say how many of the presses it has sold, but said the real money is in the consumable products, like ink, that it sells to go with them.

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The presses are also useful when it comes to customizing publications, something offset presses can’t do.

Christian Schamberger, president of Mercury Print Productions Inc., said the customization capabilities are a big reason why his company made Prosper Presses a key part of its operations.

Mercury, also based in Rochester, contracts with major educational publishers to print textbooks ranging from the elementary to college level. The company uses Kodak technology for about 75 percent of its production. Schamberger said that because educational requirements vary between states, and in some cases between school districts, textbooks need to be customized. That reduces the number of each version ordered and makes production on the Prosper Press more practical than offset printing.

Although inkjet printing is on the rise, the company said it continues to invest in technologies for offset printing, including new processes that reduce costs and environmental impact.

It also sees great potential for its printing technology in the rapidly growing packaging industry. Douglas Edwards, Kodak’s president for digital printing and enterprise, said that while the publishing industry may be in decline amid a shift toward online publications, "there’s no electronic substitution for packaging." Edwards said Kodak’s technologies make it cheaper and easier to print high-resolution images on everything from cardboard to plastic and cans.

Randy Ottinger, a former technology and banking industry executive, noted that although Kodak faces tough competition, its competitors face many of the same challenges.

Ottinger, who now serves as an executive vice president at the business advisory firm Kotter International, said the old company was hurt by its complacency. He said the new Kodak needs to put innovation above short-term profits and be willing to shake itself up to make itself relevant.

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Part of Kodak’s restructuring has been a move away from manufacturing all of its products by itself. The company now focuses on what it does best and looks for partners to help with the rest, Perez said.

Brad Kruchten, a 30-year veteran of Kodak and now its president for graphics, entertainment and commercial films, gave this example of how the company once did everything itself: When he ran its Colorado office years ago, there were cows grazing on its property because the company used them to make gelatin for film production. It also grew its own corn to feed the cows.

"Now we just look at what we know how to do and invest in that," Kruchten said.

One of the company’s biggest projects in development is a cheaper touch screen for smartphones and tablets. Touch screens currently work through the use of a very rare, but transparent, metal called indium that’s laid out in a grid pattern applied to a thin sheet of glass. Kodak wants to use its printing capabilities to lay out super-thin lines of metals like copper and silver, which can be more effective than indium and cheaper to obtain. The new technology could also allow the screens to be flexible and foldable, allowing them to be installed on a host of new objects.

Although the technology is still being developed, a production facility is under construction. Kodak has reached deals with undisclosed electronics makers and expects to begin production of the screens by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Kodak wants to use the same technology to eventually create smart packaging, which could include sensors that, for instance, tell consumers if a bag of food had been out of the refrigerator too long.

Todd Watkins, who worked for Kodak in the 1980s and now serves as an economics professor at Lehigh University, said that for the new Kodak to survive, it will need to find a way to stand out in a fiercely competitive market where companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Xerox Corp. are already entrenched and struggling with problems of their own.

Even as some of Kodak’s technology, like the new touch screens, has potential, Watkins said, it remains to be seen whether the company can transfer that into profits.

"It’s cool, absolutely, but is it a business? That’s the question," Watkins said.

Ari Zoldan, CEO of Quantum Networks Inc. and a technology analyst and entrepreneur, was more skeptical about Kodak’s ability to compete in commercial printing.

He said that while Kodak symbolized the gold standard in the printing industry for many years, it failed to evolve with the times. He said its competitors now have too strong of a hold on the market. But he said Kodak’s research and development capabilities are very strong, so the company could succeed if it can quickly focus itself on just a few niche areas.

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