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 user 2009-10-16 at 10:45:10 am Views: 128
  • #22533
    It’s been 20 years since a small team of IBMers released a product that eventually became the cornerstone of Lexmark International.Lexmark, one of Lexington’s largest private employers, is looking back this week at the production of the IBM 4019, the company’s first desktop laser printer.It hit the market in 1989, when typewriters remained the norm and personal computers were what some might have called newfangled technology.”We started from scratch with no technology and did the whole thing in three years,” said Lexmark chief executive Paul Curlander, who was product manager for the printer at the time.IBM, which eventually spun off Lexmark, had launched the PC and introduced a dot-matrix printer in 1981, Curlander said.

    By 1984, Hewlett-Packard had developed the first LaserJet laser printer using a printing engine produced by Canon.
    Priced about $3,500, it offered users their first look at the advancements of laser printing compared to dot matrix. A year later, Apple introduced a similar device with some added functions that sold for more than $7,000.At the time, IBM worked on high-end laser printers that worked with minicomputers, devices far more powerful than PCs, and sold them for more than $20,000 each, Curlander said. IBM got into the laser game with the 3812, a $7,000 device that could sit on a table.But beginning in 1986, Curlander and a team of about 100 employees were given the task of producing a desktop version.

    The team’s goals were clear.
    HP’s printer weighed about 75 pounds. The IBM version needed to weigh half that.The LaserJet printed pages out of order. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if it came out in order?’” Curlander said.And if you tried printing an envelope on the machine in those days, the printer would heat up the envelope so much that it sealed. The IBM version needed to remedy that.”We could see this was big because the PC was going through the roof,” Curlander said. “We put together a proposal for what we viewed to be a fairly revolutionary new design.”Once approved, the question came of just where to build this new printer. A facility at Boulder, Colo., had developed the 3812, but Lexington was the typewriter hub and had a history of office products. And the design team was starting from scratch to build the printer from the ground up and would benefit from the strong material science knowledge in Lexington, Curlander said.

    Development begins

    By August 1986, work had begun with Curlander as product manager. He and a few others moved from Boulder.”I came on a two-year assignment, and I’m still here,” he said, laughing.
    As time passed, the team encountered a number of struggles.IBM had developed its OS/2 operating system, making it necessary to have printer drivers.”It was the first time I heard about drivers,” said Harry Cooper, who managed software and firmware development. “We all take drivers for granted today.”The first time they tried the printer’s fusers, which seal the toner to the paper, they “didn’t work at all,” Curlander said. The group reacted by staffing a whole department to work exclusively on that technology.The team had constant reminders of the printers they were determined to best. Cooper said Curlander bought HP LaserJets and installed them in everyone’s offices.”It was a completely positive thing,” he said. “We were all very, very focused on making it better than HP. Twenty-five percent faster … that was the mantra.”

    The first test print came at 5:09 p.m. on April 14, 1987.
    It’s still tucked away in a binder kept by Cooper, who is now Lexmark’s director of digital imaging systems.By May 6, 1987, the printer was producing pages with text and pictures. Cooper, looking back, thought it might have been the date of a big executive review, because one of the pictures was of IBM executive Marvin Mann, who approved the project and eventually became Lexmark’s first CEO.

    A solution a day
    The project was “intense,” Cooper said, “but it was great because you would come in each day, and you wouldn’t really know how you would solve the problems you had to solve.”A lot of us would come in and say, ‘I just need to come in today and solve today’s problems, and then tomorrow is another day.’”Despite the struggles they encountered, “everyone on the team acted as though there would be no impediment to getting this out of the door,” said Gregory Ream, who at the time was senior engineer in electrophotographic technology development.Launched in October 1989 and priced at $2,600, the 4019 sold about 100,000 units in its first year and was honored as laser product of the year by PC Magazine.It became the building block for IBM’s printers, which expanded to far faster speeds and improved print quality. In fact, the technology was so adaptable that several more years passed before the company built another from-the-ground-up printer, said Ream, who is now a Lexmark Laureate in laser technology development. The laureate designation is an honor given to scientists, programmers or engineers for extraordinary achievement in technical innovation and implementation.

    Toner cartridges for the 4019 are still sold today.
    By 1991, IBM had spun off Lexmark into a standalone printer business.
    “Clearly the laser technology was the jewel of Lexmark when we launched it in 1991,” Curlander said. “In terms of spinning off Lexmark, this was integral to making that happen.”Cooper said he thinks the 4019′s development and legacy “really was the salvation of the site.”"Undoubtedly we might have done other things, but with where the typewriter was heading, we eventually moved all the other printers from IBM from Charlotte to Lexington,” he said. “It became the cornerstone of the business here.”

    That business has grown, although it has suffered with the economy’s drop in recent years.
    Lexmark has focused on becoming the standard printer in certain industries as a way to carve out its segment of the market. And the investment to develop its own patented laser printing technology is what has aided that and differentiated Lexmark from competitors, Curlander said.The fact that we had our own technology really allowed us to advance into things HP couldn’t match,” Curlander said, noting that HP buys laser technology from Canon. “Everything we do started with the fact that we developed the technology.”