Behind-the-scene interview with the developers of digital full-color MFPs ‘BP Series’ sold globally
[Sharp Corporation Japan - November 8, 2023]
Sharp started its documents business in 1972 to meet the demands for copying at offices, and last year it celebrated its 50th anniversary in business. Over that time, MFPs have evolved from analog to digital, monochrome to color, and telephone lines to Ethernet and cloud / external collaboration.
Based on the technology and know-how accumulated over these 50 years, Sharp newly introduced the BP-70C/60C/50C series digital full-color MFPs. The BP in the series name stands for “Business Partner” and expresses the concept of becoming a partner to support customers’ businesses.
Today, we interviewed Mr. Furusawa of Product Planning, Mr. Hirano and Taguchi of Technology, Mr. Tsutsui of Design, who were in charge of the development of the product.
■ What is the market environment surrounding the digital full-color MFP business?
(Furusawa) There is a global shift in environmental awareness, as seen in observing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) perspectives, and circular economy seen especially in Europe. In Japan, there is also a movement toward environmental impact reduction requirements such as green procurement conducted by the Environment Agency.
The world is changing in such a way that more environmentally caring products for daily use are preferred.
In the midst of such changes, office workers are becoming more conscious of the office environment they want to work in, and their desire to work in a more comfortable environment is also changing.
Meanwhile, the impact of the novel virus that broke out at the end of 2019 has brought about changes in the way people work. For example, the concept of remote work without coming to the office has become widespread, creating a need for MFPs to support remote work as well. Thus we are developing products that respond to these changes.
■ How have you reduced environmental impact?
（Hirano） In recent years, energy conservation has become an important issue due to growing environmental awareness. In response, MFP toner and hardware technology development for energy-saving has been a focus of our company as well.
■ What kind of toner-related energy-saving technologies have you developed?
（Hirano）The toner fusing process consumes the most power in MFPs. Lowering the fusing temperature is important for energy saving in MFPs.
Toner improvement is made to realize toner particle size reduction, optimization for a new fusing method, and a review of toner material design to achieve both low-temperature fusing and heat-resistant storage stability of toner.
In addition to saving energy by reducing the fusing temperature, the smaller particle size of the toner also plays a role in improving image quality, enabling the printing of clearer images.
Upon development, it was extremely difficult to balance the toner’s low-temperature fixability while maintaining heat-resistant storage stability.
Improving the toner’s low-temperature fixability also means that the toner melts at a lower temperature, so it is necessary to take measures to prevent it from melting during transportation and storage. For this reason, we repeatedly worked with related departments to design toner materials, select additive materials, and consider appropriate evaluation methods, and through trial and error, we were able to establish the current toner formulation and commercialize it.
■ How about the development of energy-saving technology from the hardware side?
（Taguchi） We have been working to reduce power consumption with toner fixing, which consumes a lot of power, and now we have achieved further reductions by using a pad fixing method, which is a technology that we adopted for the first time.
In the conventional fixing method, heat was transferred indirectly through the heater lamp, heating roller, and fusing belt.
The pad fixing method shortens the warm-up time by directly heating the fusing belt with the heater lamp, and by transmitting heat to the paper over a wide area using the fusing pad, it efficiently transfers toner to the paper with a low pressure. This will allow the toner to adhere to the paper.
As a result, we were able to reduce the power consumption of the fusing unit by up to 30% compared to the previous model*, achieving industry-leading low power consumption and a longer fusing belt life that is approximately twice that of the previous model.
* Comparing power consumption of the fusing unit of <MX-2661> and the fusing unit of <BP-70C26>.
At first, it was extremely difficult to apply the new pad fixing method while achieving long life of the fusing belt, which is highly demanded in the market.
To improve energy savings, we selected a thin metal-based fusing belt that conducts heat easily and is durable, and changed the heat control technology to suit it. Additionally, if the positional relationship of the fusing belt and pressure roller becomes inconsistent due to variations in parts that occur during manufacturing, the fusing belt will meander from side to side during rotation, which will affect the durability of the fusing belt. For this reason, we have incorporated measures to extend the life of the fusing belt, including a mechanism and control that automatically corrects meandering.
This mechanism and control sometimes caused problems with image quality, but we were able to optimize it by adjusting the shape of the parts, adjusting the mechanism and control, and repeating life aging tests, and ultimately achieved a lifespan that was approximately twice as long as the previous model.
■ How did you respond to changes in work styles?
(Furusawa) The way people work has changed, not only due to the impact of the novel virus, where people in the same department split work places such as reporting to the office and working remotely.
More cases sharing information in ways such as videoconferencing and storing data on cloud servers are seen compared with the past.
This has been introduced from previous models, but with this model we enable MFPs networking directly with existing cloud services (such as Google DriveTM and DropboxTM) to make data sharing easier.
In addition, we have made it easy to link our ‘BP series’ with Microsoft TeamsTM, which is being used by an increasing number of users due to the increase in remote work. With the right settings, scanned paper documents can be saved directly from the MFP to a cloud server such as Teams for use in videoconferences, and meeting materials can be printed directly from the MFP without having to be downloaded to a PC.
The MFP connects to the cloud, and can also be easily connected to smartphones and mobile devices. Meanwhile, as the number of devices and networks that can be linked is increasing, the level of security requirements is also increasing.
Therefore, we have prepared an optional virus detection kit. The MFP will detect any data containing a virus or malware and take measures to protect the office data from spreading to other office equipment connected to the it.
■ While such environmental efforts from a technical perspective are impressing, the chic gray body color that matches the office scene also catches the eye. What kind of philosophy supports this product design?
（Tsutsui）To express our commitment to care for the environment, we have made two major design changes.
The first is the use of a gray color on the exterior of the MFPs (housing) to fit in with a variety of office spaces, in response to the shift in the colors required for office spaces from white/black to more subdued, neutral tones.
The second is a renewal of the badge design (leaf badge). Since 2005, our MFPs show a leaf badge as their emblem to express our efforts to reduce environmental impact, such as energy consumption reduction. In recent years, amidst the growing interest in reducing environmental impact, we have changed the design of the leaf badge to express our various environmentally conscious efforts.
Specifically, there were a total of four different badge designs, one for color, one for monochrome, one for models up to A3 paper and one for up to A4 paper, but in order further emphasize our environmental consciousness, we unified the badge color design to a single turquoise blue, and we eliminated the base to create a simple yet impactful design.
■ Please give us a closing message to our customers.
（Furusawa）Many people were involved in the development of the BP Series introduced here, and the product is the result of ingenuity and creativity from a variety of perspectives. As the environment surrounding the office and global trends change, the requirements for MFPs also change. Under such circumstances, we are proposing products that meet customer needs not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of ease of use and design.
We have prepared a full lineup of digital full-color MFPs and digital monochrome MFPs, from low-speed machines to high-speed machines to meet diversifying needs, so we hope our users could try our products to actually experience their features.
Thank you very much.
As it is called a multifunctional printer, this device is packed with many functions, including scanner, copy, printer, fax, data storage, and wireless networking.
Through this interview, I was impressed by how such a complex machine is able to operate properly and repeatedly day by day. Looking back, I realize that I have been using MFPs every day for several decades since I started to work, but in recent years I don’t experience much malfunctioning of the device anymore. I realized once again that this is probably the result of the developer’s efforts to evolve the machine day by day, including areas that are not visible to the user.
As businesses around the world are recovering from the pandemic, we hope that you will consider installing our MFPs, whether to replace your existing machines or to introduce new ones to meet the needs of your expanding business.
(C from PR)
- Google Drive is a trademark of Google LLC.
- Dropbox is a trademark or registered trademark of Dropbox, Inc.
- Microsoft and Microsoft Teams are trademarks or registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation.