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Innovation heritage

Even as a copier company, Xerox was famous for its pure research. Brainstorm gets an inside look at the innovation that undergirds its transformation to a services-led document management solutions provider.

BY  Warwick Ashford , 1 November 20060 comments

Sophie Vandebroek, XeroxSophie Vandebroek, Xerox

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In upstate New York, on the shores of lake Ontario, lies the small town of Webster. Its largest employer is Xerox, which chose the town for one of five R&D facilities that span the United States, Canada and Europe. Together, they employ over 5 000 researchers, scientists and engineers, all dedicated to maintaining the track record of innovation which remains core to the Xerox strategy to evolve as a document management company. These centres focus on things like colour science, computing, digital imaging, electromechanical systems and natural language, although a visit to the site makes clear that Xerox no longer pursues technological development for its own sake, nor does it rely on technology alone to remain competitive.

Complementary consulting and outsourcing services are becoming increasingly important. So, too, is integration throughout the technology platforms used within the office and professional printing environments. These services, designed to improve business processes, include the scanning of accounts, invoices, contracts and receipts to enable document management, including tracking and storage, as well as in-depth reporting.

Technological innovation has always been one of the company's core values, and accounts for $1.7 billion in expenditure each year.

At the Webster research centre, founded in 1960, teams focus on developing high-tech imaging and services solutions that include systems to ensure automatic confidentiality, known as "intelligent redaction".

According to Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek, such systems build on the company's heritage of over 60 years in innovation, which spawned such modern essentials as the photocopier, laser printer and Ethernet networking.

She says the innovation group continues to drive invention and integration, continually adding to the company's store of over 50 000 global patents.


IP as currency

On a recent visit to South Africa, Michael Lightner, president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, pointed out that intellectual property is an increasingly important bargaining tool in the modern business world. According to Lightner, local companies should also register and protect all IP to use in exchange for strategic technology developed by others.

Although famous for failing to protect early innovations, Xerox today recognises the truth of Lightner's statement. Vandebroek says the company's innovation group produces an average of two technology patents a day.

However, the Webster research centre is not exclusively dedicated to new inventions, but also to innovation for improving existing imaging supplies and paper. It is one of three facilities that support the Xerox media and competitor-compatible ink and toner cartridge business.

"As one of the world's largest suppliers of cut-sheet paper, we have probably done more tests on more kinds of paper than any other company in the world," claims Adam Missell, a paper engineer at the media and compatibles technology centre at Webster.

Missell says the quality of paper is critical to the performance of the company's products and is, therefore, strictly monitored. Paper, other media and consumables are also developed in close co-operation with product engineers and tested using a wide range of equipment and environmental conditions to ensure the best possible results.


World of paper

In a whistle-stop tour of the facility, Missell points out a wide variety of curious looking paper testing devices. Some are standard to the paper industry, such as the surface friction test, though he points out a few he says are unique to Xerox, such as the test for the degree of curling due to fibre alignment in the top and bottom layers of paper sheets.

Paper sheets from around the world are also continually quality tested to make sure they conform to the rigid standards set for the dimensions, brightness and quality of cut for each sheet of paper.

This focus on paper engineering seems a little out of place in a research facility that is so highly focused on reducing paper consumption and taking the concept of a document far beyond a piece of paper with marks on it. Vandebroek concedes there will still be a significant number of paper documents in use in the next ten years, but she predicts that in the following ten years, there will be a rapid transition to smarter documents that are digital records of information.

Already the move has begun towards documents that contain embedded information to control how those documents are updated, transmitted and displayed. This information can also already be used to automate processes such as document classification, storage and retrieval.

Vandebroek is confident the world will continue to create documents, but says that their form will continue to be redefined through technological innovation.