Toshiba rewrites printer rules with reusable paper

Toshiba Europe has today unveiled what it claims is the world’s first rewritable printer, with paper that can be used up to 500 times.

Toshiba rewrites printer rules with reusable paper

The B-SX8R uses thermal imaging to erase and rewrite documents printed on a special plastic-coated ‘paper’. The PET-based documents are wiped by passing the paper through a heated element that alters the rewritable pigment layer within each sheet. Images are then redrawn when the thermal print head – which has 300 individually controlled temperature elements per inch – is passed over the paper.

Toshiba claims the reusable paper will offer companies enormous costs savings and help reduce their carbon footprint. “500 times, we think, is an achievable numbers of reuses. The technology itself is capable of 1,000 uses, but that’s in perfect, laboratory conditions,” said Michael Keane, head of the print division of Toshiba Europe.

However, a demonstration at Toshiba’s central London headquarters this morning revealed a number of notable shortcomings with the rewritable paper. A legible shadow of the document’s previous content is still visible even after the paper has been erased, you can’t print in heavy black without risking lasting damage to the paper, and the paper must not be left in daylight for prolonged periods or else the image becomes permanently fixed. ‘It’s like photographic paper. You destroy the active layer after a day of sunlight,’ said Keane.

There are also enormous logistical problems for firms to contend with. The reusable paper obviously has to be collected separately from normal paper, and can’t be folded, bent or torn. Reusable paper that’s been handled repeatedly may have to be put through a separate washing machine to remove dust, fats and oils that accumulate from human contact. There’s also the problem of monitoring how often a piece of paper has been used, and removing it from the supply.

As a result of such stumbling blocks, Toshiba claims the printer will be best suited to specific applications, such as printing work instructions, picking lists or shipping instructions in industrial warehouses. And though the B-SX8R has already been launched in Japan, the company is taking a cautious approach to the product’s launch in Europe. ‘We’re going to approach customers to see if there’s an interest in the technology,’ said Keane, who also admitted that the technology’s limitations mean it ‘will never trickle down to a consumer product.’

Do not expect any European launch before 2008. Current investigations of possible markets, said Keane, would not be concluded before the middle of 2007 and extra support processes would need to be put in place before a roll out.

In terms of the market size for such a product, Paul Reynolds – Senior Manager, of Toshiba’s Identification & Printing Division – said that Toshiba would look for ‘five figure sales over three years’ on a per country basis. Ten thousand unit sales would need to be a minimum, he said.

He did not rule out the inclusion of an embedded RFID tag to help keep track of the special sheets, which cost around £5 each. Early tests suggest that the tags are capable of surviving the heating process.

Toshiba expects the printer to cost a hefty £5,000, with the ‘paper’ washing machine costing an extra £3,000.

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