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Drupa snooper – Australia’s huge digital influence at drupa

Tuesday, 20 March 2012
By Print 21 Online Article
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At first glance, it looks like there are only two Australian exhibitors at drupa 2012 – Serendipity Software of BlackMagic Rip fame (H8b/A72) and Rohan Holt’s Lithotechnics who invented the Metrix sheet impositioning system (H7/C22). However, Andy McCourt has tracked down other Australian-developed products and technologies to be displayed for the world to see, such as Memjet and the Rapid Label Systems X-1 inkjet label presses.

By the way, anyone using WiFi hotspots to access the internet during drupa has CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific Research Organisation) scientists to thank. WiFi was developed and patented by CSIRO Canberra in 1996 and all global IT companies pay a royalty to incorporate it in their devices.

Snooping deeper into Australia’s influence on the world print and graphic communications market reveals a startling conclusion: Almost ALL non-inket digital printing technologies owe their genesis to work conducted by Australian researchers, in Australia. Does this sound fanciful? I thought so too until Xeikon’s announcement of its new Quantum electrographic imaging process, to be previewed at drupa, caused me to follow up on some hunches. The bell that rang took me to Research Laboratories of Australia Ltd, a low-profile organization established in South Australia in 1959 by the Daw family and more recently presided over by Dr Owen Crees and Alexander Daw. RLA’s directors are also involved with AIP Advanced Imaging Processes of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Around 2007, I became aware that Miyakoshi, the Japanese company behind many of the high-volume inkjet web presses in the world today, was funding research at RLA and an experimental Miyakoshi press was installed there. Miyakoshi showed a liquid toner press at drupa 2008. Indeed, Miyakoshi list two liquid toner presses in their catalogue, the MD Press5000 at 100 metres/min and MD Press260 at 60 metres/min. In 2009, RLA’s Alexander Ozerov was granted a patent on a new high-speed electrographic printing process using high-viscocity toner carried in a liquid.

It is this patent, acquired last year, that appears to be behind Xeikon’s new Quantum process that promises to deliver inkjet-speed colour using liquid electrophotographic toner.

South Australia has an illustrious history surrounding the development of advanced printing technology, but as with so many inventions, this was a by-product of military R&D; specifically the Woomera Long-Range Weapons work started as a joint UK-Australian programme in 1947. At that time, such secret and advanced programmes generated mountains of papers, charts and maps that need to be copied, shared and archived. Duplicating and Photostat copying already existed and early manifestations of Chester Carlson’s dry-toner Xerography were available, but these were all monochromatic and lacked the ability to resolve fine detail.

At the Defence Standards Laboratory, Adelaide SA, Ken A Metcalfe and Bob J Wright developed a ‘wet’ photocopying process that could resolve much finer detail using micro-particles suspended in a carrier liquid and a selenium-coated photoconducting plate. This became the basis of virtually all photocopiers – and essential to the development of colour copiers and colour digital printing – most notably Indigo (now HP), whose founder Benny Landa acknowledges Metcalfe’s pioneering work in liquid toners, and met with him in the 1970s.

In 1996, Metcalfe (pictured R), by then a sprightly 80 years old and Wright (L), 68, were interviewed by The Adelaide Advertiser’s Nic Hopkins in the article ‘A success that everyone copied.’ Hopkins noted that, if they were lucky, Metcalfe and Wright would have gleaned around $6 million in licensing agreements in an industry that grew to a multi-billion dollar US-Japanese behemoth. As government employees, they depended on Canberra to handle the patenting process and they chose to patent in only a handful of countries. This still yielded millions of dollars to the government and the Defence Standards Lab, but left loopholes so wide it was basically a botched process.

So, wherever you see colour digital printing at drupa using liquid toners and developers, (microfine organic toners have reduced the need for liquids in dry-toner processes since 2000), think of its Australian origins and two brilliant scientists from South Australia. Metcalfe did receive an MBE for his work and also, in 1971, was presented with an ‘Excellence’ Award by the Federation Internationale de l’Art Photographique, Brussels, for his work in electrophotography; but otherwise these two are the unsung heroes of modern digital colour printing.


But wait…there’s more! This might be hard for some quarters to swallow, but it can be said that xerography itself was invented here in Australia. Yes, the mighty Xerox and Fujixerox can thank an Australian Professor for the groundwork that resulted in Chester Carlson’s 1937 patent – thirty years before!

Professor Oscar Ulrich Vonwiller (1882-1972) was Head of Physics at Sydney University when, in 1907, he published a research paper on the photoconductivity properties of selenium. This provided the key technology that resulted in the invention of the xerographic process, resulting in the Xerox copier four decades later. Vonwiller was the Australian-born (Paddington, NSW) son of Swiss immigrants and dedicated his life to scientific advancement and teaching.

As with so many Australian inventions, a lack of follow-through, investment and global patent protection meant that others reaped the benefits of Metcalfe’s, Wright’s and Vonwiller’s discoveries. Kia Silverbrook’s Silverbrook Research has doggedly registered patents for all of its inventions, including Memjet. Silverbrook is by far the world’s most prolific inventor and patent-holder, although this IP is now the subject of a legal challenge by major US investor the Kaiser Foundation. Alex Ozerov also protected his intellectual property, albeit now in the hands of a Belgian company but at least it will be eventually commercialized. Miyakoshi (H9/A04) might have already commercialised something similar; another great Australian development in our long history of imaging innovations.

Drupa is the world’s largest trade fair dedicated to the printing and allied graphic media industries. Held every 4 years, it opens on May 3rd at the Messe Düsseldorf, Germany and closes on May 16th. The Printing Industries Association of Australia, in conjunction with Eastern Suburbs Travel, is organizing tours including a pre-drupa ANZAC-themed tour of Gallipoli and beyond. For details please contact Marty, Vicki or Sonia on 02 9388 0666 or

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