When you take this palm-sized printer in hand and slide it over paper, words and illustrations are printed on the surface. Released in April 2019, the RICOH Handy Printer is a product that challenges the image of conventional printers where paper is fed through a device for printing. A system where data is sent to the device from a smartphone or PC application wirelessly or via USB, making printing a reality, not only on copy paper, but also on surfaces that cannot pass through a conventional printer such as notebooks, envelopes, cardboard boxes, disposable diapers and more. The product has drawn a chorus of surprise from the Internet, describing it variously as a “Nobel-prize-worthy idea” and “an unexpected type of product.”
What precipitated the development of the Handy Printer was a change in the way of thinking. Just as PCs have been downsized into tablets, Ricoh developer Yasunari Harada asked, “why can’t we make a mobile printer that is like a smartphone?” Obviously, a printer designed to feed paper through itself cannot be made smaller than the width of the paper on which it will print. The idea to “move the printer, not the paper” came about naturally, and various technologies were then developed to give shape to the idea.
After majoring in welfare ergonomics and optics in the department of natural sciences, he joined Ricoh in 2006.
After working on electronics and LSI development for GELJET and laser printers, Harada began formulating the concept for a handy printer in May 2013. As a leader of the elemental development, he repeated the process of creating a concept, making prototypes and marketing, and served as the Project Manager since September 2017.
He majored in mechanical systems in the department of natural sciences and joined Ricoh in 2005.
After being involved in work including product design and technological development of electrophotographic drive mechanisms and the development of sensing technologies, he served as lead imaging engineer on the Handy Printer project since April 2018.
After graduating from the department of electrical and computer engineering, he joined Ricoh in 2002.
He worked on electronics and LSI development for GELJET printers, and then he became involved with the elemental development. Nakata worked on development of a first handy printer prototype in 2014 and served as the lead electronics engineer for the project since January 2018.
He majored in electronic information engineering having joined Ricoh in 2006.
After gaining experience in the development of MFP engine software, he then served as lead software engineer for the handy printer project since October 2017.
After majoring in integrated design engineering at the faculty of science and technology, he joined Ricoh in 2007.
He worked on MFP scanner and ADF mechanical design development and became lead mechanical engineer on the handy printer project since April 2018.
After majoring in information engineering, he joined Ricoh in 2000.
He was seconded to Ricoh Japan where he was responsible for providing sales support, and then worked in the Product Planning Division, mainly on product planning for printers. Since 2013 he has been in charge of planning and marketing for the handy printer project.
Around May 2013, in the course of working on elemental development for a new product that was based on MFP (*) technologies, one of Ricoh’s core strengths, I began focusing on the approach to a “mobile” printer. Stories about different ways of working in society such as “nomadic work” had become talked about, and the idea of freely working in locations outside an office using portable devices was attracting more attention. The evolution of PCs also brought about a shift from desktops to notebook PCs and tablet devices. But among the mobile printers available at the time, none were of a size that could be easily carried around. I thought that if we could develop a printer that was compact and portable like a smartphone and equipped with adequate functions, it would be an attention-gabbing new product.
I devoted the first year to thinking about it, and examined various printing systems that would make the mobile printer I envisioned into reality. It was because I was given around a year of time to freely think about this that I was able to switch my way of thinking and create a mobile printer based on a new idea. I used the design technologies and peripheral knowledge I had gained through my work up to that point, and advanced the project while working to ensure its technological feasibility.
To achieve this completely new concept of “the printer moves instead of feeding paper through it”, we needed to develop a range of technologies. We did not have any technologies that continuously recognize the device’s own location as it moves. Mr. Murata, who handled the imaging design, focused on the imaging position detection technology that Ricoh had accumulated to date and brought the quality right up to a level that could be mass produced.
I developed an ejection technology that predicts where the hand holding a handy printer would move to next and in order to discharge the ink precisely. The manner and speed at which the device is moved differs depending on the person operating it, and targeted printing surfaces involve various states and materials. It took a lot of effort to eliminate the noise produced by those kinds of errors and expand the applicable scope of printing. We use sensors to detect the movement of the hand, whether fast or slow, and the state of the media being printed to, then match this against past data to predict the position of a handy printer as it moves and discharges ink accordingly.
Here’s the Secret!!
There were many challenges with the overall design of the electronics system as well. Adjusting the contact between the ink cartridge and electronic substrate and selecting a sensor to detect the position were big challenges. And in terms of system evaluation, we were not able to use MFP evaluation methods without modification, so we had to start by establishing a method for evaluation.
I was tasked with designing the embedded software and apps, and since a handy printer was to be completely different from conventional products, we were independently responsible for design, evaluation and verifying usability factors such as buttons and operating sounds while receiving support from the dedicated departments working on MFPs. It was a great opportunity to study subjects outside my field.
One of the key benefits of this product is its compact size. In working on the mechanical design, we were not restricted to MFP design guidelines, so I aimed to incorporate new methods through a process of continual evaluation in order to make it as compact as possible. I worked with personnel specializing in component technologies and assembly to reduce the size of components, and we used adhesives to optimize layout through a process of trial and error.
In an effort to pursue usability, we made prototypes available inside the department and ran a booth at our in-house exhibitions to solicit feedback from as many colleagues as possible.
It’s amazing that the Handy Printer moves perfectly horizontally with such small rollers, isn’t it?
Considering that the device is moved by hand, we made improvements to reduce weight and the load when it is sliding so that it can slide perfectly horizontally. That was done in response to feedback from our colleagues in mechanical design.
Since this project was the result of a ’technology-led’ approach i.e. creating a product based on technology rather than customer demand, we had no way of predicting the needs of the market. It was difficult to get internal approvals to bring the product to market, but the key factor was the large amount of feedback we collected from potential customers.
In all, we gathered feedback from around 200 companies. When we gave presentations, I spoke about my own concept of a “dream printer that grants the wish of writing neatly in my pocket-size notebook, as a creative way to convey the vision. We learned about the needs of various industries, and went through several iterations of the process for creating prototypes, receiving feedback and making adjustments.
When making prototypes for various industries, we had to make changes to the design each time, but everyone in the project team handled the changes without resistance. At first, we ran into challenges while trying to uncover the needs of customers, but the more we listened to them, the more buyers we found, and gradually we increasingly had the necessary evidence to persuade company executives.
The decision to commercialize the product took some time, and I was tasked with implementing product development as both designer and project manager.
I think one good thing about having a small project team was that it was easy to share information and consult with people, and the design and planning members could speak openly to one other. In the event something wasn’t going well, you could quickly seek advice from someone else, which allowed team members to support each another. When I myself thought of something in terms of design, I would tend to dismiss it as impossible and give up. But when talking with other members on the team, who have a marketing perspective, and clarifying the shared purpose of making a user-friendly product, it would become clear that certain ideas needed to be incorporated, and as a result, the product was enhanced.
There were frequent proposals on how to solve things technically based on market needs, which was rewarding work. The environment encouraged everyone to make proposals from a planning perspective.
Basically, we didn’t have a product proposal. The designer determined the detailed design. It was great to see what I designed make it directly into the end product.
When we unveiled the product, the reaction from the media was better than expected, and we received orders for four times our planned production volume. As a designer, this filled me with emotion. Moving forward, as a project manager I think I need to grow personally so that I can invest in development while maintaining a management perspective and contributing to company earnings. As an engineer, I hope we can develop the product into a series, create an model for markets outside of Japan, and add a variety of new functions.
In terms of marketing, the product attracted a lot more attention than I had predicted, and I was frankly delighted at that. But the RICOH Handy Printer is just at the start line as a product. We are analyzing reactions on social media and elsewhere to uncover potential needs, and by combining our strengths, we are going to develop products that are even more marketable in the future.
Right now we need to start thinking about the next functions that will be demanded by the time RICOH Handy Printer becomes more widely used in several years from now. I hope to use the power of our imagination and add new functions that are not merely an extension of what we currently offer.
I will continue to design software to make the RICOH Handy Printer an attractive product. By providing app updates to address functionality and usability, I hope customers will enjoy printing easily.
One of the keys to success of the RICOH Handy Printer is that the engineers visited customers directly, gauged the intentions behind their words and their level of interest, and clarified what their needs were with their own eyes. Moving forward, I hope that more engineers take the approach of actively visiting customers.
Something I was reminded of during a business trip to Europe is that when you explain the concept you came up with yourself, the reaction of those listening changes. Since Ricoh is a global company with sales channels around the world, I think we can use this strength and present the products we’ve created in a number of countries.
As an engineer working at a company engaged in manufacturing, selling something I thought of myself as a product is one of the major achievements of my professional life. I am full of gratitude having being surrounded by such an outstanding team and that we have managed to launch a brand new product onto the market.
By gaining experience as a project manager, I was able to expand my knowledge outside the area of design into things like the purchasing of materials and parts, production, sales and marketing. I feel that my way of thinking also changed. Shortly after joining Ricoh there was a time when I felt frustrated about acquiring knowledge and technologies for my job in the near term, instead of using what I had studied at university. I want to tell myself back then that if you first spend three years mastering a single field, that experience will surely lead you to new challenges.
Ricoh provides a development environment and culture that allows us to take an idea we have come up with, turn it into a product, and sell it to the world. I hope that young engineers will also experience the pleasure of manufacturing, and create many interesting new products in the future.