Quite the oddest thing that landed on this writer's desk this week was a marketing push for erasable printing. Back in the day, one printed things out primarily because one wanted a long-term record of a document.
However, now that documents can be created in uneditable formats, general print jobs stand to gain from the ability to erase the printing – not least from the potential to save on paper and other costs.
This takes the form of erasable toner technology, featured in a new multifunction printer announced this week by Toshiba Tec UK Imaging Systems – the e-STUDIO306LP/RD30.
This machine was originally announced in December 2012, and is now being promoted again after a successful trial of the technology by broadband provider Virgin Media – which already uses other Toshiba Tec kit in-house.
Dave Holdsworth, IT regional support manager at Virgin Media, says in a statement: "We'd heard about systems from other manufacturers that claimed to do a similar thing – albeit with limited success – so wanted to see what Toshiba Tec had come up with."
Holdsworth says that Virgin Media was particularly interested in finding out if such technology could help the company save money – an issue always high on the agenda of the channel's business customers today.
Virgin Media estimates that it prints about seven million colour pages every year. It is therefore obviously keen to make its print function as efficient and cost-effective as possible.
Managing and reducing waste is a key element of this objective – so the company encourages its staff, customers and business partners to come up with ideas to achieve this.
"With sustainability at the heart of its activities, the company prides itself on growing its business in a way that's good for people and the environment," the company claims.
According to Toshiba Tec UK Imaging Systems, the erasable toner technology used in this MFP mean paper can be reused on average five times before it is ruined. It believes that waste could therefore be slashed 80 per cent.
"Users can print and copy as they would on a typical MFP. However, when used paper is fed into the eraser unit it heats the toner and de-colourises the print, so providing a blank sheet to use again," a spokesperson said.
Previous erasable printing systems have required specially coated paper – but the e-STUDIO306LP uses standard copier paper.
For example, the i2R e-paper developed in 2011 won several awards for its innovative high-res printing capability. It is rewritable about 260 times, according to the Taiwan-headquartered International Technology Research Institute (ITRI) that developed it.
It comes in note card or banner roll sizes. A thermal printer fitted with a thermal head generates the heat needed to capture an image, or erase it and replace it with a new image, according to ITRI.
"No ink, no toner and no paper are consumed," it says.
Commentators at the time, however, warned that the i2R paper itself is rather costly – estimating it at about $2 (£1.30) per page.
Even further back, in 2006, Xerox announced patents pending on experimental Xerox paper that erases itself, as it were.
The document images – once again requiring special paper – last only one day, so the paper can be reused many times. However, little has been heard about the brainchild of the Xerox Research Centre of Canada and Palo Alto Research Centre, US, since.
Xerox at the time estimated that as many as two out of every five pages printed in the office are essentially for "daily" use, including many emails and reference materials printed to be viewed just once.
Xerox's low-energy technology relies on compounds that change colour when exposed to certain wavelengths of light, then gradually become colourless. Special hardware may also be required, though – and there appear to have been no announcements about that since then.
Toshiba Tec has given no indication of the cost of its technology overall.
Jeremy Spencer, marketing director at Toshiba Tec, says that in its technology, printouts are fed into the eraser unit (pictured, on the right of the MFP above), which heats the paper to wipe the print.
"This drastically cuts overall paper usage which obviously saves costs," Spencer says. "If the same piece of paper is used five times, the total CO2 emissions can be reduced by 60 per cent, compared with printing once per sheet."
The machine can be integrated into a so-called digital workflow where printed documents are scanned into an electronic format and stored, and then the paper can be reused. Users often prefer to print out documents – but in this case the paper can be reused.
Virgin Media tried out a prototype e-STUDIO306LP in February and March, allowing people from different departments to use it. Feedback was "unanimously positive", according to Toshiba Tec's marketing department.
Was it something they'd use? Maybe.
According to Toshiba Tec, some people's jobs at the broadband provider involve printing documents which then are annotated. The eraser unit is also able to detect if the sheet is reusable and separates out those that cannot be reused, putting them in a separate bin. Currently it can only erase documents printed in black ink – but full-colour support is on the drawing board.
Documents annotated using a special pen – the Pilot FriXion series – can also be erased, as these pens use a gel ink that is erasable when heated.
Toshiba Tec believes that educational institutions, publishing companies, government and many other office-based organisations can benefit from the technology.
Could erasable printing help your customers cut costs? Email us
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