Slimmer Kodak still aims to innovate

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Kodak emerged from bankruptcy protection Tuesday vastly different from the company of old.

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Todd Griffin makes a demo print with a high-speed drum at Kodak research labs in Rochester, N.Y. The print will be used to investigate the quality of new ink sets.  HEATHER AINSWORTH/ASSOCIATED PRESS
HEATHER AINSWORTH/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Todd Griffin makes a demo print with a high-speed drum at Kodak research labs in Rochester, N.Y. The print will be used to investigate the quality of new ink sets.

Gone are the cameras and film that made it famous. The company hopes to replace them with new technologies such as touch screens for smartphones and smart packaging embedded with sensors.

“Look for a case of a company that had to go through this kind of excruciating restructuring and kept innovating,” CEO Antonio Perez said. “It just doesn’t happen, but we’ve done it.”

Much of Kodak is gone except for its commercial and packaging printing businesses. The company now has about 8,500 employees, just a fraction of the 145,000 it had at its peak in the 1980s. Reve­nue is expected to total $2.7 billion this year.

Perez said that by slimming down, Kodak is able to focus research and development on businesses the company sees as more profitable. The restructured company’s operations are split between a trio of businesses: packaging, graphic communications and functional printing. All three are rooted in Kodak’s commercial printing technology.

Kodak scientists created printers, inks and other materials designed to improve resolution, while also increasing the variety of surfaces that can be printed on. In doing so, it has boosted printing speed and lowered costs for customers.

Kodak executives point to the Prosper Press as one of the best examples of its printing technology at work. The devices contain more than 100,000 computer-controlled inkjet nozzles that spray special Kodak-made ink that allows for crisp resolution. Meanwhile, cameras and software monitor the print process, looking for defects. The presses can reach speeds of up to 650 feet of paper per minute.

Kodak has moved away from manufacturing all of its products by itself. It now focuses on what it does best and looks for partners to help with the rest, Perez said.

One of the company’s biggest projects in development is a cheaper touch screen for smartphones and tablets. Touch screens currently work through the use of a very rare, transparent metal called indium that’s laid out in a grid pattern applied to a thin sheet of glass. Kodak wants to use its printing capabilities to lay out super-thin lines of metals such as copper and silver, which can be more effective and cheaper to obtain. The technology could also allow the screens to be flexible and foldable.

Though the technology is still being developed, a production facility is under construction. Kodak says it has reached deals with
electronics makers and expects to begin production of the screens by the end of this year.

Kodak wants to use the same technology to eventually create smart packaging, which could include sensors that, for instance, tell consumers if a bag of food had been out of the refrigerator too long.

Todd Watkins, who worked for Kodak in the 1980s and now serves as an economics professor at Lehigh University, said that for the new Kodak to survive, it will need to find a way to stand out in a fiercely competitive market where companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Xerox Corp. are already entrenched and struggling with problems of their own.

Even as some of Kodak’s technology, like the new touch screens, has potential, Watkins said, it remains to be seen whether the company can transfer that into profits.

“It’s cool, absolutely, but is it a business? That’s the question,” Watkins said.

Ari Zoldan, CEO of Quantum Networks Inc. and a technology analyst and entrepreneur, was more skeptical about Kodak’s ability to compete in commercial printing.

He said that while Kodak symbolized the gold standard in the printing industry for many years, it failed to evolve with the times. He said its competitors now have too strong of a hold on the market. But he said Kodak’s research and development capabilities are very strong, so the company could succeed if it can quickly focus itself on just a few niche areas.

“Can they hang their hat on these technologies?” Zoldan asked. “It’s a long shot. By no stretch of the imagination is it a slam dunk.”

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