R&D: A Must for Success

By Jenn Hess, Ink World Associate Editor | 09.02.05

Ink suppliers and manfacturers would not be where they are today if it wasn't for R&D labs.

Ink suppliers and manufacturers would not be where
they are today if it wasn’t for R&D labs

Players within the ink industry are constantly striving to develop a product that will meet the changing needs of their customers and be well received by the market. Competition within the industry is stiff, so keeping customers happy and satisfied is a key to success.

That’s where research and development (R&D) comes in. Without a well-funded R&D lab, companies would be hard-pressed to meet their customers’ needs with new products and quick assistance. “We spend a lot of effort developing new and differentiated products,” said Dr. Joseph Raksis, senior vice president of research and new product development, Flint Ink Corporation. “We have to be able to anticipate customers’ needs in advance so we can meet their needs when they arise.”

With the pace of the ink industry getting faster and faster, there is a constant push to introduce new products to the industry in a more timely fashion. Because of the focus on new product introduction, R&D’s role has changed some. “In our industry, a majority of the work we perform in the R&D is related to product development and not in real term ‘research,’ ” said Kent Shah, vice president and chief technology officer at Color Converting Industries (CCI). “Most of the time the research department is kept busy evaluating different compounds in different ratios to complete a project. This is not sufficient to call an R&D. The real task of R&D is to understand and implement fundamentals of chemistry and physics to eliminate guess work. This will result in the accuracy in the product performance and time management.”

As the name indicates, R&D labs were designed to have two major functions – research and development. “In an ideal world, the research side would be finding and patenting new ideas, and surveying the market/customers,” said Paul Doll, American Ink Jet’s director of research and development. “The development side would then take those ideas and develop products to meet the needs of the market and customers. But in actuality, these two aspects tend to be blended together. Research involves working with the raw materials supplier, and development is when we work with the printhead manufacturer.”

Open Lines of Communication
The best way for ink manufacturers to find out where the demands are within the industry is to go to the source – their customers. “As a supplier of performance additives to the ink industry, Shamrock Technologies recognizes the vital importance of positioning our research and technical organization as close to the customer as possible – and we are structured accordingly,” said Dr. Chuck Cody, Shamrock Technologies’ director of research. “We foster direct interaction between the customers and our technical experts who serve as problem solvers to address formulating challenges. Our sales force initiates and coordinates this effort, ensuring that each customer is aligned with the correct Shamrock team and resources.”

Mr. Shah said interaction between R&D labs and customers is becoming more and more important. “For any R&D project it should be a prerequisite that technical interacts with a customer to thoroughly understand all the specifications and processing parameters,” he added.

Once manufacturers find out where the needs are, they can begin to look into what is available in terms of raw materials.

“Additionally, interaction of R&D is as important with suppliers to screen and define the raw material specifications,” Mr. Shah continued. “On the other hand you expect poor results when the project is discussed with customer by just sales and marketing and then the suppliers are dealt with only by purchasing department.”

Dr. Raksis has seen the relationship between raw material suppliers and ink manufacturers change for the better over the past few years. “In the past, manufacturers dealt with suppliers at arm’s length,” said Dr. Raksis. “Over the past few years, Flint has been working closely with a select number of suppliers through joint development agreements. We identify a need in the industry, and our technical people determine what is needed to create this product. We then go to the

suppliers, explain what we are looking for, what properties we need a product to have, and work together to develop this product. It benefits the supplier because they get better direction. If the technology is successful, the supplier will have Flint as a strong customer.

“We also work with printers and find out what products they are looking for, and work with them to see how they can improve overall print performance and reduce their costs,” Dr. Raksis continued. “There are much closer relationships with press manufacturers and paper manufacturers – we will team up to develop new systems the industry has shown a need for.”

“Sun Chemical Corporation has developed a number of strategic alliances with research groups in press equipment manufacturers, paper suppliers, and suppliers of other graphic arts consumables,” said Dr. John Rooney, vice president of research and development. “Collaborative projects can be initiated by any partner in these alliances and may involve two or more participants. This approach provides one source of input to our R&D planning process.”


Maintaining a Well-Oiled Machine
As ink companies begin to utilize the services of their R&D departments in more projects, and at earlier stages of development than in the past, keeping R&D well-funded is of vital importance. “Sun Chemical Corporation allocates approximately 2 percent of sales revenues to research and development,” said Dr. Rooney. “We regard research as an investment in the future growth of the corporation.”

Dr. Cody said 2 percent of Shamrock’s sales are invested into R&D activities. “We expect this figure to approach 4 percent sometime in 2000,” he said. “Shamrock continues to refocus its resources to increase the size and scope of our research group. Our purpose is to further accelerate the introduction of new products and innovations for the ink industry. We are currently undergoing a dramatic expansion of our technical facilities. We have made a major investment in state-of-the-art instrumentation. In addition, we are tripling the physical space of our technical facilities and doubling our personnel in these areas. As we move forward, we will continue to seek and hire innovative technical people to keep pace with the growing numbers of opportunities in the marketplace.”

Flint Ink, which also allocates about 2 percent of annual sales to R&D, has made some changes to the structure of the company’s R&D sector. “The size of Flint’s central R&D department has stayed the same,” said Dr. Raksis. “As the company grows, we have been changing the focus of our work, and changing some of the aspects of the way work is done.

“We have strengthened the capabilities of some of our field labs, and turned them into product development labs,” Dr. Raksis continued. “Each business unit has a product development lab set up solely for that unit. It helps improve the manufacturing facilities of that business unit, and provides more direct support to our customers. We have several of these labs in the U.S., Europe and Asia/Pacific. The role of Flint’s corporate lab in Ann Arbor, MI is more focused on developing differentiated products and new technical capabilities to benefit our customers.”

Recognizing that it cannot compete with the larger ink manufacturers in terms of pricing, CCI allocates approximately 3.3 percent of annual sales revenues to R&D efforts. “Like any small and mid-sized ink companies, it is very important for CCI to differentiate it through technology and service,” said Mr. Shah. CCI’s new facility in Des Moines, IA has a new R&D lab.

American Ink Jet spends about 10 to 20 percent of its sales each year on R&D. “We put a lot of money into R&D, it is a substantial portion of our company,” said Mr. Doll. “We have been increasing the amount of money dedicated to R&D activities over the past three years,” added Mr. Doll. “Keeping R&D well funded is very key to maintaining and improving your position in the market.

“We have doubled the lab personnel and space as well as our manufacturing and added new dye-synthesis capabilities,” Mr. Doll continued. “By having dye-synthesis, it puts us in a unique position. No other company our size is doing anything of this scale. The research is done in-house. It is very labor intensive and a lot of money had to be invested into personnel and equipment. It gives us a tremendous advantage in the market. In ink jet R&D, it isn’t just chemistry – there are multiple disciplines that play a significant role in R&D – dye chemistry, polymer chemistry, color science and imaging science. And now we have them all!”


Identifying Goals
With a well-funded, well-structured R&D department, it is easier for R&D labs to accomplish their tasks, and meet the demands placed upon them. To be sure things run smoothly, it is suggested that an R&D department have defined goals.

Mr. Raksis said Flint Ink’s R&D Department has four goals: 1. We hope to grow our businesses through development of differentiated products that meet our customers’ needs. We believe there is an increasing need for products that are differentiated from what other companies might offer. 2. Develop lower-cost manufacturing processes, and lower-cost systems by reducing the steps of a process, or replacing a few different products with one product. 3. Rapidly solve problems that come along, and provide customers with practical answers in a timely fashion. 4. Be sure that any new product meets health, safety and environmental requirements.

“Flint’s R&D department follows the stage gate management process for new product development,” Dr. Raksis continued. “We find out where the customer’s needs are, and whether it is technically feasible to meet their needs at the cost they are looking for. By breaking the process down into stages, we can understand the various parts of the product development system. Between each stage, there is a gate keeper who makes sure that all the information from that stage has been gathered before moving onto the next stage. It allows for more efficient development of new products.”

The goals of Sun Chemical’s R&D department are illustrated in a mission statement. “The principal mission of the Carlstadt Technical Center is to provide the next generation of products on which the future growth of the corporation depends. These products must offer clear advantages to our customers in terms of quality, performance, environmental acceptability and economics. They will be designed in an atmosphere of scientific inquiry and technical excellence to enhance the productivity, safety and profitability of our operations.”


Dual Purpose
Many companies identify two responsibilities assigned to a R&D department: developing new products, and answering customers’ questions. These two tasks are both crucial to a company’s success, but very different in terms of the work needed.

“Short-term projects are needed for revenue, flexibility to meet the changing needs of our customers,” said Mr. Doll. “Long-term projects are not going to provide you with quick revenue, but are going to give you the technical edge, and make the company stronger. Long-term projects are key to continued growth. Both are very important.”

“The best way to view an R&D project portfolio is much the same way that you would view any investment portfolio,” Dr. Rooney said. “In order to balance long-term growth with stability, you need a blend of investments. Some projects must be high risk with a promise of high return. These projects provide the potential for growth. The stability component comes from shorter term, less ambitious projects with a greater probability of success.”

Mr. Shah said separate labs for short-term projects and long-term projects help R&D labs operate a bit smoother. “CCI has separate groups within the R&D lab for short-term and long-term projects,” he said. “Some time ago, we did have one lab where the same people focused on both short-term and long-term projects at the same time. With this set-up, the employees were very busy – short-term projects became more important because the customers needed answers quickly, which could delay long-term projects.

“CCI now has separate groups with different agendas–one focusing on long term projects/new product development; and the other concentrating on short-term projects/helping a customer get quick answers to a question,” he explained. “These groups must be separated with separate groups of resources–too often you get tangled with short-term projects and put off long-term projects.”


Changing Times
As the ink industry moves into the 21st century, R&D will continue to become a greater asset to ink companies. In order to continue providing customers with answers to questions and new products, R&D labs must pay attention to what is happening throughout the industry.

“The R&D function works closely with customers as well as colleagues in marketing and manufacturing to assess trends in the graphic arts industry from a macroscopic point of view,” Dr. Rooney said. “Typically those trends involve improvements in productivity driven by digital technology, enhancements to quality required by print buyers, and increasing environmental restrictions. These trends shape the R&D agenda.

“In any industry today, a dominant theme in technology is the adoption of more environmentally benign processes: reduction of organic solvent emissions, elimination of waste by-products, diminished energy consumption,” Dr. Rooney added. “These requirements fuel the search for chemistries responsive to ultraviolet light or electron beams, high solids, and waterborne systems.”

“I’ve seen formulating change from being an art to becoming more of a science,” Dr. Raksis said. “There is more of a science-based approach to learning how ingredients interact and how to get the desired effect/result. We learn a lot through statistical design of experiments.

“This allows us to develop more robust products that work under a variety of conditions, and give better performance at a lower cost to the customer.”