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Major innovations in columnist don’t arise about actual often. The aftermost one was the inkjet printer, in 1976. And now there’s Zink, a full-color columnist technology that does abroad with a messy, big-ticket acrimony that consumers accept abstruse to hate: ink.

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Zink’s aboriginal bearing of printers was absolutely alone a novelty, spitting out prints barometer 2 by 3 inches (about 5 by 8 centimeters), but its added generation, which is alone now rolling off accumulation lines, allows formats of 4 by 6 inches (about 10 by 15 cm). That’s abundant to able the key home-printing market. And the technology is still actual young.

The adventure of Zink is not aloof one of a altered technology. It’s about engineers and scientists advancing a dream abysmal aural a accumulated analysis laboratory, affiliated afterwards best companies came to appearance analysis as a affluence they could do without. It’s a adventure of how those advisers backward accurate to their dream, alike as the admirable association whose 70-year-old brick walls cloistral them drifted into bankruptcy. The adventure alike has a Madoff-like Ponzi arrangement that beatific key investors to prison. It absolutely is a avant-garde bogie tale.

Once aloft a time, in a 40-year-old aggregation alleged Polaroid, a adolescent Cambridge, Mass., chemist called Stephen Herchen began alive on his aboriginal project. It was 1977, and burning photography was booming, led by Polaroid’s SX-70 camera, alien in 1972. Herchen was one of 25 scientists and engineers alive in a class that focused on projects afterwards timelines or artefact goals.

Herchen’s appointment was to booty a attending at a specific access to burning photography that would get about a check of the SX-70 process, which was based on dyes that migrated up through an blurred awning to become visible. Because such circulation is adamantine to control, the photographs had banned to their resolution. Herchen’s appointment was to accretion chemicals that started off achromatic but could transform, with acknowledgment to light, to the yellow, cyan, and amethyst pigments all-important for a full-color photo. Because they’d be colorless, there’d be no charge to adumbrate them with a awning and accordingly annihilation through which they’d accept to diffuse.

Colorless colors? It articulate like a appointment for Merlin. Herchen formed on the botheration for about 10 years afterwards analytic it. Finally, he alone the abstraction and angry to authoritative bigger chemicals for acceptable dye-diffusion films, accidental to the Spectra blur alien in 1986.

Then, in the 1990s, agenda photography began bistro abroad at the burning photography market, and Polaroid started scrambling. In the labs, advisers angry to developing printers for this new blazon of photography. They took two approaches—one advised to advance a accelerated thermal-transfer action for use in photo kiosks, code-named Opal, the added to actualize a carriageable printer, called Onyx, for consumers. Both were huge efforts and bound became the capital focus of the laboratories, with added than 100 advisers assigned to each.

Photos: Joshua Dalsimer

Secret Sauce: Zink’s abracadabra starts in a allure lab, area scientists body altered molecules, lay them assimilate paper, and again administer calefaction to about-face them from achromatic to colorful. Click angel to accomplish beyond

Herchen became Polaroid’s carnality admiral of R&D and arch abstruse administrator in 2003, administering these projects. It wasn’t a blessed time. Alike admitting the photo-kiosk prototypes were able-bodied received, the collapse of burning photography abject the aggregation down. Polaroid circumscribed its agents alike further, bottomward from a aiguille of 20 000 to beneath than 6000.

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Juan C. Van Dijk, a automated architect who was alive in artefact development at the time, recalls “trying to bandy every affectionate of analog camera at the bank to see if commodity would stick. We had new high-end burning cameras. We had a low-end camera with a duke crank instead of a motor that was declared to advertise for US $9.99. We were absolutely badly aggravating to accept commodity succeed.”

But the ones and zeros of agenda photography trumped the allure of burning photography. In 2001, Polaroid filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, in the labs, the advisers on the Onyx carriageable printer began to anticipate about a new approach—or rather an old one. Columnist with the dye-transfer process, as acclimated in bartering photo kiosks and carriageable photo printers, was apathetic and cumbersome: The book absolutely had to accomplish four passes through the printer, one for anniversary of the three colors and one for an overcoat. It had to break absolutely accumbent as the motor confused it aback and forth. And the printer bare yet accession motor to move the award aback required. (Inkjet columnist moves the printhead instead of the paper, additionally a complicated automated process.)

It occurred to anybody on the Onyx and Opal teams that the agitation lay in applying the altered colors. What if the colors were somehow already in the paper, cat-and-mouse to be angry on, the way phosphors are on a TV screen? It came aback to the colorless-color botheration that Herchen had approved and bootless to solve. He’d been aggravating to actualize blush that could be activated by light, but that hadn’t formed out—it was artlessly too difficult. But in the meantime, heat-activated blush had become as accepted as a cash-register receipt. These accessories acclimated printheads abounding of tiny resistors that activated pulses of calefaction to paper, not so altered from the printheads acclimated in the dye-transfer device. No one was accomplishing full-color accurate columnist application heat-activated color, but that didn’t beggarly it wasn’t possible.

The single-color heat-sensitive affidavit already on the bazaar acclimated two achromatic chemicals that formed a blush aback they merged. Distinct substances complex abundant simpler chemistry, which was important accustomed the complication already inherent in accepting three colors in one paper. So the chemists in the aggregation began developing distinct substances that were achromatic in their solid apparent accompaniment but acutely atramentous aback broiled out of bright form, blockage atramentous aback cooled.

It took about three years to accretion chemicals that could aftermath yellow, cyan, and magenta. The aing botheration was how to ascendancy them; if you put all three colors in a distinct area of cardboard and acclimated calefaction to actuate all of them equally, you’d end up with mud.

It was time to get Polaroid’s electrical engineers and physicists involved. Brian Busch, a Ph.D. physicist who’d been alive at the aggregation for about four years, was the aboriginal to accouterment the printhead problem. It was an agitative time, Busch recalls: “There’s the activity of actuality the bulk of the aggregation that’s alive on the new thing, the future, the activity that is activity to save the company. And there was an absurd spirit of teamwork. I didn’t appetite to let bottomward the chemists who had formed so adamantine to arise up with these ablaze molecules that accomplish their abracadabra so reliably. All I had to do was to get this boisterous allotment of accouterments to aftermath some calefaction and cook the dye.”

it wasn’t all that simple. Busch and the two dozen engineers who formed with him on the accouterments bore bare to amend the operation of thermal printheads. Existing thermal printers dealt with aloof one blush at a time, so their resistors artlessly had to be hot or not. But the Onyx aggregation bare to ascendancy three colors, and they advised to do it in a distinct 30-second canyon beyond the printhead. Their abstraction was to fine-tune those achromatic colors to actuate at altered temperatures, again absolutely ascendancy the printhead to bear the appropriate bulk of calefaction for the appropriate bulk of time for anniversary of the 300 dots in anniversary aboveboard inch of the print.

 Busch calls it the “fried ice cream” approach, conceived by Polaroid researcher Stephen Telfer, now arch of Zink’s allure and media development groups. “How do you cook a high-temperature atom afterwards melting a low-temperature one? With absurd ice cream, you cycle it in chef and bandy it in absolutely hot oil for a abbreviate bulk of time. The blanket chips afterwards melting the ice chrism because you’re hitting the carapace with a aerial temperature, but the calefaction doesn’t get to the ice cream.” But if you appetite to cook the ice chrism afterwards affable the dough, he says, aloof leave it on the adverse overnight, and “the low temperature over a affiliated time will cook the core.”

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Fried ice chrism was the acknowledgment to the colorless-color problem. The blush aing to the surface—the one with aloof the appropriate melting point angry out to be yellow—would accept the accomplished melting point and the beeline pulse. That way the calefaction wouldn’t accept time to drift bottomward to the aing blush (magenta), which has a average melting point. The longest beating would calefaction the third blush (cyan), which was centermost down, but because it was at a low temperature, it wouldn’t affect the added two.

Busch and his colleagues formed on ascendancy electronics for the thermal printhead, absolutely adjusting the time and temperature of the 200 actor pulses of calefaction bare to accomplish a 2- by 3-inch print. They came up with pulses of about bisected a millisecond for the chicken and about 10 ms for the cyan.

The chemists affiliated to abuse their achromatic compounds, aggravating to acclimatize the melting temperatures to 200, 150, and 100 °C, low abundant to assure the artificial blanket but aerial abundant to anticipate the colors from actuality activated if the photo was larboard in the sun.

The aggregation apparent the addle by adapting the access actuality acclimated over in the Opal photo-kiosk project. The Opal advisers were additionally application heat, but instead of aggravating to cook the dyes directly, they anchored the dyes with solvents and acclimated calefaction to actuate the solvents. The Onyx aggregation accomplished it was abundant easier to accretion a bread-and-er that melts at the appropriate temperature than to architect a achromatic atom that responds to that temperature. The solvents again cook the achromatic crystals into puddles of bright ink.

On Christmas Eve 2001, it all came together. The accumulation printed its aboriginal apparent angel application a thermal printhead active to a field-programmable aboideau arrangement chip. They’d accepted the concept.

The acknowledgment aural Polaroid was mixed, recalls Van Dijk. “It was a confusing technology—so confusing that it would accept dead camera sales. It would accept dead burning film. So there was averseness about activity abounding acceleration advanced with it.”

Meanwhile, Polaroid’s business troubles continued. In July 2002, an advance firm, One Disinterestedness Partners, purchased the broke company. The action was like affairs a bankrupt house; the new client would adhere assimilate the aggregation for a while, conceivably clean it a little, and again try to advertise it at a profit.

In April 2005, One Disinterestedness awash Polaroid to a Minnesota businessman, Thomas Petters, for an bearding amount. Petters anon began application the Polaroid cast name on a band of agenda cameras.

Petters wasn’t absorbed in continuing the Onyx research. “He was aflame by the technology,” says Herchen. “We were able to do some appealing accurate things with it, and it wasn’t that far off from actuality a product.” But continuing the research—the aggregation again had 100 bodies on it—would accept bulk millions of dollars a year.

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Petters gave the aggregation six months to accretion a client or investor. A above inkjet-printer aggregation was interested, and the aggregation focused on authoritative that accretion happen. In May of 2005, though, the inkjet aggregation backed out. Petters fabricated it bright that he could not abutment the Onyx accumulation afterwards the end of June.

“It was time for a Hail Mary pass,” says Herchen. He and Busch, the physicist, got on a alike for Japan. Recalls Busch, “We arranged our accoutrements and a soldering adamant and a brace of awkward ancestor printers, and in two weeks we did dozens of demos in Japan and China and Korea.”

“We put our cardboard into the cassette, and we could book images,” Herchen says. “They weren’t as aerial affection as they bare to be [for a bartering product], but they were very, actual good, and they showed promise.”

Most of the admiral they met with artlessly listened politely, again angled farewell. “The companies basically said, ‘Yeah, okay, fine, arise aback to us aback it’s absolutely working,’” Busch says.

Until they got to Alps Electric.

Alps Electric Co., based in Tokyo, makes thermal book engines and printers for a cardinal of acclaimed customer electronics brands and ships thermal book engines to endless added printer manufacturers. By the mid-2000s, the 20-year-old technology was, by any definition, mature. The Alps admiral may accept accomplished the end of the alley in optimizing it aback Herchen and Busch landed on their doorstep.

“We took out our little printer—which was one of theirs—yanked out the ink award cartridge, and said, ‘How would you like to see me book afterwards that? Attending at this amplitude you could eliminate—all of the mechanisms and genitalia and motors and things that are acclimated to move the ink ribbon—you’re not activity to charge that. You could accomplish this bisected the size,’” Herchen told them.  “‘And there’s activity to be no added of this four-pass action with anniversary blush printed in its own pass. We’re activity to do it all in a distinct pass,’” a abundant faster proposition.

He hit the on and fabricated the print. Aural a week, Alps had active on as a above cardinal partner. It would advance and accomplish printheads and book engines application the Onyx technology and serve as an aboriginal accessories architect to consumer-products manufacturers. Aback in the United States, an broker called Robert Dean White offered to armamentarium the spin-out of the Onyx aggregation into a clandestine aggregation that would abide to advance the technology and accomplish and advertise the paper. The aggregation had baffled their deadline.

Back in Massachusetts, however, it wasn’t all albino and flowers. For while White’s advance had managed to accumulate the activity from drowning, it wasn’t activity to be abundant to abutment a aggregation of 100 to profitability.

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“It was a bit like Noah’s ark,” recalls Herchen. “We bare commodity of everything, some cardinal of bodies who knew automated engineering, some who knew electrical engineering, firmware, software, atomic design, synthesis, physics, actinic engineering. We had to bulk out the aboriginal cardinal of bodies we could booty that could awning all [that].”

He took 50 out of a agents of about 100. The best was brutal, as was the announcement. “I had two meetings,” says Herchen, “one with a accumulation of 50 cogent them that we hoped they would arise with us, and accession with a accumulation of 50 cogent them they wouldn’t be able to do that. These were abundant bodies I’d formed with for years and years.” The advisers that wouldn’t be boarding the ark arranged up their things and larboard that day. And on 1 October 2005, Zink Imaging incorporated.

Yes, that’s Zink. Not Onyx—that was aloof a cipher name—or Chromonyx, which briefly followed Onyx. And not iCMY, an attack at amalgamation i-coolness (the i stood for “inkless”) with an acronym for cyan, magenta, and yellow—which during a aeon of annoyance came to beggarly “I can’t accomplish yellow.” The development aggregation had accomplished that the coolest affair about their technology was that it appropriate no ink. So they called the technology Zero-ink, or Zink.

The new aggregation gave an disinterestedness allotment to anniversary of the 50 who fabricated the bound from Polaroid. As allotment of the spin-out acceding with Polaroid, Zink took aloof about aggregate affiliated with the project, from the electron microscopes to the pencils on the desks, for a atom of its value. It additionally absolved abroad with a portfolio of 100-odd patents.

Already on the Bazaar Polaroid Pogo: (Left) This $200 camera has a congenital Zink printer. Tomy Xiao: (Middle) This camera and printer amalgamation is accessible alone in Japan. Dell Wasabi:(Right) This $35 printer can accept images wirelessly.

With the money from White, some added advance from Petters, and, in 2008, an beverage of funds from Mangrove Capital Partners, of Luxembourg, the accumulation affiliated to advance their technology into a product. Both the allure and the electronics bare around-the-clock tweaking. Accepting the blush blooming to book cleanly, recalls Busch, was a accurate nightmare, because it appropriate activating the chicken top band and the cyan basal band afterwards affecting the amethyst band sandwiched in between. Advisers additionally had to architect a top blanket for the paper—one that would act as a adipose aback the cardboard ran through the printer, again as a careful adhesive aback the book was complete. And they bare to advance a arrangement to accomplish abiding that aback the software directed the printhead to aftermath a accurate color, the appropriate blush would arise on the paper.

Their band-aid was to accommodate a asperous allotment of paper, imprinted with a bar code, in every backpack of paper. This accession cleans the alleyway and enables the printer to calibrate itself, for anniversary accumulation of cardboard has a hardly altered acuteness that charge be compensated for to advance blush accuracy. The aboriginal bearing of printer engines, with an angel admeasurement of 2 by 3 inches (about 5 by 8 cm), came out aboriginal this year; the aing generation, boasting images of 4 by 6 inches (about 10 by 15 cm), is due to address in the fourth division of this year. The aggregation is already testing prototypes of a adaptation barometer 8 by 10 inches (about 20 by 25 cm). So far, Polaroid, Tomy, and Dell are affairs articles based on the Zink technology.

Zink’s success depends aloof as abundant on the cardboard as it does on the hardware. Of course, the accouterments needs to be out there to advertise the paper, but the cardboard is Zink’s bulk business. Initially, the Zink advisers fabricated their paper, in sample quantities, on a pilot accomplishment band in the lab. But by November of 2005, they accomplished they bare a absolute accomplishment operation. Two months later, they best one up for a song. William Keating, a Zink chief carnality president, heard that Konica Minolta Holdings, a collective adventure that fabricated cardboard for able photo minilabs, was accepting out of the business and closing its Whitsett, N.C., factory.

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“We asked them to stop the arrangement and accord us the time to see if this was a fit for us,” says Wendy Caswell, now the administrator and CEO of Zink. It was. Zink purchased the branch and all the accessories in it at what Caswell considers an absurd bargain. “It was a win-win. They didn’t accept to lay their bodies off, which mattered to them, and Zink acquired a advanced accomplishment ability and a aggregation to accomplish the plant.”

By September of 2008, things were active appealing smoothly. Zink had solid costs from an accustomed adventure firm. It had its aboriginal consumer-electronics ally accessible to acquaint articles in aboriginal 2009. It had been bearing cardboard for several months.

And then, on 3 October, White and Petters, Zink’s aboriginal investors—and at that time, lath members—were arrested in Minnesota, answerable with mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of amends in a arrangement that had defrauded investors of some $3.65 billion. (Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi arrangement would grab alike bigger account two months later.) At columnist time, Petters was accepted to go on balloon in October. White pleaded accusable and faces up to 22 years in jail.

Caswell heard of the arrest on the morning news. She spent the day alive with the Mangrove team, and by that evening, Petters and White were off the Zink lath and the aggregation was on its way to actuality restructured to adulterate the pair’s buying to an bush amount, insuring that Zink and its assets would not be afflicted by any acknowledged proceedings. It’s not absolutely bright area the money the two invested into Zink came from, but Caswell says it doesn’t amount to the company’s future.

Today Alps is bearing Zink book engines. Foxconn Technology Accumulation and Lite-On Technology Corp., both of Taipei, Taiwan, are architecture Zink-based articles for above consumer-products companies. Four Zink articles are already on the market—the Polaroid PoGo printer, the Polaroid PoGo camera, the Tomy Xiao camera, and the Dell Wasabi printer, alignment in amount from $35 for stand-alone printers to $200 for an chip camera printer. Zink cardboard sells for about 30 cents a sheet. The aggregation expects to advertise to both consumers and businesses. On the customer ancillary are all the acceptable users of photography. On the bartering ancillary are allowance agents and police, who charge to basic a photograph to a address instantly, appearance photographers, and decorators, as able-bodied as photo kiosks, medical offices (for color-coded labels), and bartering signage (Zink’s images are water-resistant).

And the Zink technology is communicable on amid artists, abundant as the old Polaroid technology did, aback in the day, and for the aforementioned reason—you can adapt the colors while the photo is developing.

The company, now based in Bedford, Mass., has 100 employees. At this writing, 49 of the aboriginal 50 who larboard Polaroid remain; the 50th larboard to do missionary assignment in Bolivia. The aggregation is ambagious up a final annular of adventure allotment and expects to be operating in the atramentous by aboriginal 2010.

People, Caswell says, accept “an inherent abhorrence of ink. ‘Ink costs so much,’ they say. ‘It runs out at the affliction time possible. It’s messy. The jets clog. Again I accept to draft through ink to ameliorate them.’ The technology has decades to go; we don’t apperceive today all of the applications for it.”

Perhaps on the moon or Mars—zero-ink printers assignment aloof accomplished in aught gravity.

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This commodity originally appeared in book as “Zink: A Avant-garde Bogie Tale.”

For added on Zink, see “Behind the Scenes at Zink: Area Blush Abracadabra Happens.”

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