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From robotics to saving the environment: Epson has a plan

On the face of things, Epson isn’t a very exciting company. Well known for its printers and projectors – not particularly the “sexy” side of technology – it is often eclipsed by companies hailing from Silicon Valley. This is perhaps unfair. Give the company a closer look and you’ll find a company revitalised in recent years, releasing products on par with Google Glass, HP, and Amazon.

Usui the Japanese Jobs?

In every talk, presentation and interview with Epson, the company’s newfound focus on innovation and differentiation has been cited as the brainchild of President and CEO, Mr. Minoru Usui.

“Mr. Usui took over in 2008 as the President,” says Rob Clark, Epson Managing Director, UK and Ireland. “He looked around at what the company was doing, and his conclusion was that we were far too focused on our competitors and not focused enough on the customer.”

“So he spent the next couple of years changing the focus towards the customer and has driven innovation back into the organisation. We're not just following the small and incremental changes that our competitors are doing. If you follow the competition you end up with “me too products”, follow the customer, you end with these new, innovative, interesting technologies like the Force Sensor, like Movario, like PaperLab.” Clark calls this Epson ethos “a completely different philosophy” to simply following the competition.

In June Mr. Usui laid out the company’s new 10 year plan, “Epson 25”. The company’s goal is to be generating revenues of ¥1,700 billion ($15.6 billion) by 2025, up from ¥1,000 billion ($9 billion) in 2015. The four key areas the company plans to focus on in this 10 year plan are Printing, Visual Communications, Robotics, and Microdevices such as IoT.

The company now spends 6% of its annual turnover on R&D, equating to around $1.3 million every day. And the results of late have been impressive: two new versions of the company’s Movario Augmented Reality smartglasses, Eco-Tank printers, PaperLab, cloud-based POS offerings, high end projectors, and the recently announced Force Sensor robotic arms. Originally developed for Epson’s Jonny Five-esque dual arm robot, the six-axis arm force touch can “feel” its way around objects, enabling it to work on jobs that require a more gentle touch – such as threading transistors.

As well as strong philosophy around innovation, Epson has a big focus on sustainability and using technology to improve people’s lives. Epson already has partnerships with Oxford University on a project that allows people with partial vision to see the world more clearly, while Clark outlines how its robots will eventually be ending monotony and helping care for the elderly.

“If you listen to Mr.Usui's vision of where this is going for the future, the vision is the further automation of manufacturing; having 3D printers producing components on demand using metal powder, and then that station followed by robots using force sensor technology to then assemble those parts that have just been created. So you get a real on-demand manufacturing process that can instantly change to do a different task.”

“That's one step towards the future. The second step is moving those robots into the home or into care services for the elderly or infirm. Again it is philosophy that Mr. Usui is driving; the improvement of life through technology.”


Making printing green and business savvy

Clark admits that talk of robots and augmented reality often surprise people who know the company primarily for printers and projectors. “We did too good a marketing job on that, didn't we?” he jokes. But given that it makes up such a large portion of the business, it’s not surprising that the company is doubling down on the printers again.

In November, Epson announced a major new push into Europe, with plans to open new offices in three countries as well as increasing the company’s headcount on the continent by 10%. Clark says that so far the plan is on track and the company is “starting to see good results”, with new offices in Munich, Berlin, Lisbon, and Madrid, all spearheaded by a marketing campaign focusing on the ecology of its printing business.

“With laser printers, you sometimes see eco messages that are given out by manufacturers where they're saving 10% on power consumption,” explains Clark. “With Business Inkjet, we're talking about a complete step-change in saving: 95% power consumption savings. So this is no small feat, this is a big change in the marketplace.

“What we're trying to do is show that the eco-advantages that we're bringing in and of themselves will give you a commercial advantage. For example, the power saving you get from moving to Inkjet is actually going to save you money.”

One of the biggest announcement in the year has been PaperLab; an office-based paper recycler that doesn’t use any water. Although the device is only currently due to ship in Japan later this year, with a wider release to be confirmed, the reception has been positive. “I've been with the company 24 years this year, and with PaperLab we've had more inquiries for an announcement than I've ever seen before.

“It seems to have really captured the imagination of people,” he adds. “The idea of being able to recycle your printed paper into fresh paper is something that people are buying into.”

The company has also launched Print365, a Managed Print Services aimed at Small and Medium sized businesses. “If you're implementing a MPS where you've got a thousand-printer estate, then the economies of scale there are relatively simple to understand.

“But if you're managing two, three, five printers, in one small enterprise, then the economies become a little tougher to manage. There are a couple of companies that have tried [MSPs for SMBS] in the past, and the reason it didn't succeed for them is because they didn't automate the backend. We had a very strong focus on automating the backend processes because you get crippled by the sheer quantity of process requests.”

Clark suggests that because its cloud system is fully automated that it has a “great opportunity” to make inroads in the SMB market. The service includes an invoice of the energy savings – known as an “ecology healthcheck” – which compares the power consumption of Print365 vs your previous printing solutions.

However, even if Epson can make the world a greener place with Inkjets, MPSs and paper-recycling, the threat of a paperless office must be a frightening one for a company that draws around 50% of its revenue from printing. “For so many years people have talked about the paperless office,” says Clark. “As these technologies come in, everybody hails this as the next thing that's going to kill print, and we haven't come across one yet.”

While the concept of the paperless office has been around since the 70s, there’s little evidence of it coming to fruition. Various studies – including those from Epson itself, unsurprisingly – predict paper usage to actually increase of the next few years.  “I'm not saying we never will, but so far, it's not happened.”


Also read:

Whatever happened to the paperless office?

Epson’s 10 year plan involves making you more eco-friendly

Epson VP talks binocular smartglasses and European expansion

Epson a steady presence in Augmented Reality

Epson innovation: From printers to wearable tech and robots


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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