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Printing gets a purpose

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Technology companies have long been claiming to listen to customers. Now one of them is taking the conversation further, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It’s become almost a cliché that technology companies, gadget makers and high-tech service providers have been learning to listen to their customers. Examples abound, from Apple succumbing to the demand for large-screen smartphones despite a near-religious adherence to smaller formats, to Facebook putting more privacy controls in the hands of its users.

But now one company is taking the conversation further: listening to both the customer and the community. Seiko Epson, known for both its pioneering watches and its printing and robotics solutions, believes that it is no longer enough merely to give customers what they want.

“We have to listen to both our customers and to our society,” said Minoru Usui, president and CEO of Seiko Epson, speaking at the CeBIT technology fair in Hannover, Germany, last week. “We want to help make the world a better place and we are determined to make Epson a company that is indispensable in that process. But we can only do this by listening to society.”

The result is that the company has become fiercely focused on reducing the waste resulting from one of the business world’s most wasteful activities: printing.

Three years ago, Usui declared that his company would “make printers that are faster, more beautiful and more efficient than ever before”. Now, he believes, the company has achieved its goal.

CeBIT saw the launch of the new Epson PaperLab, a recycling machine that can fit in any large office. Designed to allow printed paper to be reused, it shreds and pulps the used pages, and spits out clean paper.

However, rather than it being the sole focus of Epson’s CeBIT presence, it was just one element of the organisation’s wide-ranging strategy to transform the office.

“We are exploring the world of tomorrow through the eyes and minds of the workforce of today,” Usui said during a keynote address at the event.

Later, in an interview, he elaborated.

“One thing is clear: there are going to be a lot of advances in Internet and cloud technology, and we have to look at what we can do with our technology and see how we can adapt our products to make a contribution. For example, as technology evolves, there is a need for ever-higher productivity, and to make things lot easier to use than they are now, while having less impact on the environment.

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“If we look at what society wants and what we can deliver, there are environmental areas where we can contribute, there is a need for greater precision, or the same precision in a more compact format. We will focus on areas where our technology is suited to fill the gaps.”

The company is specifically focused on four areas of innovation, namely inkjet printer technology, visual communications, wearables and robotics.

Although laser printing exceeds inkjet technology almost fourfold in the global office market, Usui believes the latter has far greater potential in the workplace.

“In laser printing, there have been no technical advances in recent years and users seem quite dissatisfied with its high running costs. We hear from many customers they want to print in colour, but don’t because of the high cost. Inkjet technology has helped release people from restrictions they have felt about office printing today.”

Advances in inkjet printing technologies also mean fewer moving parts in Epson machines, and therefore less energy consumption. This has helped some large corporations make dramatic reductions in their own carbon footprints.

Usui points that many photocopier companies have been trying to reinvent themselves by putting an effort into managed print services. However, he says, this does not address fundamental issues like printer speed and cost of operating. As a result, he believes, 2017 will see a tipping point in the rate at which companies move over the inkjet printing.

While Epson has long served the consumer and small business market with inkjet printers, it also used CeBIT to unveil an enterprise offering. The WorkForce Enterprise WF-C20590 is not as sexy a name as the PaperLab, but it is possibly more important strategically. An A3 multifunction printer, it is Epson’s first corporate high-speed inkjet line head printer, and prints 100 pages per minute – which the company calls “breakthrough speed”.

The machine’s junior sibling, the WorkForce Pro WF-C869R, aimed at slightly smaller offices, uses a highly economical ink solution called the Epson Replaceable Ink Pack System, which allows the company to claim the lowest-cost colour printing in its class.

“Products like the high speed printers address cost issues, and innovations like the PaperLab address environmental issues,” said Usui. “We are taking an overall look at the business of printing, and removing concerns and restrictions one by one.”

Naturally, there are likely to be conflicting demands when society is pulling in numerous directions. But Usui believes this should be built into business strategy.

“Yes, there are lots of needs in society. However, it’s important for us to look at megatrends, understand the things that definitely will happen, and look at ourselves and see to which ones we are able to contribute.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults

An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.

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By 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.

These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.

Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:

  • The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
  • The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
  • The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
  • The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
  • The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
  • The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.

The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been. 

“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured.  The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.

“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’. 

“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves.  Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).  

“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”

For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.

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How load-shedding is killing our cellphone signals

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Extensive load-shedding, combined with the theft of cell tower backup batteries and copper wire, is placing a massive strain on mobile network providers.

MTN says the majority of MTN’S sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on site to run the system for several hours when local power goes out and the mains go down. 

“With power outages on the rise, these back-up systems become imperative to keeping South Africa connected and MTN has invested heavily in generators and backup batteries to maintain communication for customers, despite the lack of electrical power,” the operator said in a statement today.

However, according to Jacqui O’Sullivan, Executive: Corporate Affairs, at MTN SA, “The high frequency of the cycles of load shedding have meant batteries were unable to fully recharge. They generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category, and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge.”

An additional challenge is that criminals and criminal syndicates are placing networks across the country at risk. Batteries, which can cost R28 000 per battery and upwards, are sought after on black markets – especially in neighbouring countries. 

“Although MTN has improved security and is making strides in limiting instances of theft and vandalism with the assistance of the police, the increase in power outages has made this issue even more pressing,” says O’Sullivan.

Ernest Paul, General Manager: Network Operations at SA’s leading network provider MTN, says the brazen theft of batteries is an industry-wide problem and will require a broader initiative driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors to bring it to a halt.

“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the back-up power. This is due to the fact that any coverage gaps need to be filled. The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load shedding.”

Loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people. On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost.

Click here to read more about efforts to combat copper theft.

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