In November of 2006, Xerox Corporation announced the development of a technology that they call “erasable paper.” A year later, as laboratory milestones continue to be met by Xerox, John Eastman interviewed Manager of Xerox Canada’s New Materials Design and Synthesis Lab Dr. Paul Smith and Manager of Corporate Public Relations Bill McKee.
The research effort that is being conducted is a collaborative effort.
SMITH: Yes. That’s correct. It’s a collaborative effort with Palo Alto Research Center, PARC and the Xerox Research Centre in Canada. There is a reason for that. The Xerox Research Centre of Canada is fully responsible for all of Xerox’s materials research, which is why the media, the paper, was actually developed here, and then Palo Alto, which obviously is very renowned for development of the Ethernet and GUI [Graphical User Interface] and personal computing, is where the actual printer was developed,
So tell me about the research centers that Xerox maintains around the world.
SMITH: There’s one in Canada, then there’s Palo Alto Research Center, then there’s the Xerox Research Center of Webster, and there is one in Grenoble. The European research center, which is the Xerox Research Center of Europe, in Grenoble, looks after all of our linguistics research. It researches into how people use language, and also for things like search engines for looking at documents and seeing what words are used and how they are used in it so that we can categorize those documents and then file them into certain areas. So, four research centers, each having their own specific areas of expertise.
Do the research centers often collaborate with each other?
SMITH: Yes. It’s really a major part of the way that Xerox functions, actually, because the research centers do not overlap at all. A lot of companies have research centers that are country-based. This is not the case with Xerox. Xerox has four research centers, so we have to collaborate to actually end up with a product that gets developed. So we collaborate very strongly with the Xerox Research Center in Webster, and very strongly with PARC, because they have different expertise that we require to be able to develop a product.
You are the lead researcher and manager of new materials design and synthesis?
SMITH: I’m the laboratory manager, and this laboratory works on new materials design and synthesis. So this project is part of that laboratory’s research efforts.
And with regards to the erasable paper project, how many people, whether at XRCC and PARC, how many people are involved in this project?
SMITH: We tend to not actually say the size of our research efforts…
McKEE: Those are for competitive reasons, John.
SMITH: Well, the one thing is, the way we work the projects here, we use a matrix structure. So because it’s a matrix structure, if we need scale up engineering or if we need engineering on the printer, we can obtain the different skill sets that we require. There will be a core team specifically assigned to the project, then we will actually matrix the project out whenever it’s required so that we can speed up the commercialization of it.
…it’s been an intriguing project, because we had a lot of customer feedback… I believe I read the phrase — in the initial press release the term “experimental technology.” I am wondering is that term still appropriate a year later. Has it progressed into something else?
SMITH: Yes. I am in The Xerox Innovation Group. Their role is Xerox’s research and development work. So we’re really looking at research that will define Xerox in the future. We have business divisions to actually commercialize technology for us. So right now, this is in the research and development phase. At the moment we are having discussions with the business divisions, about how we would commercialize this. We haven’t actually moved the project into that division yet. Right now it’s still a research project.
I want to come to the commercialization a little bit later. In a research and development lab, there are milestones. Have the milestones, with regards to the erasable paper project, have they been met?
SMITH: Yes. Actually, it’s been an intriguing project, because we had a lot of customer feedback on this. We undertook focus groups and we had a lot of discussions with customers in general. So, yes, the project actually has, like any research project, been redefined after feedback from the customer. We’ve made it what people are really asking for. And at the moment, the way things are going, yes, we’re meeting the milestones that we expected. We have a very structured development timeline on this project for Xerox. We’ve been using Six Sigma [a set of practices designed to improve processes by eliminating defects]
I’m familiar with that.
SMITH: …to actually define the projects that we do, which includes statistical design. Through this we created certain checkpoints. We have quarterly reviews. We have checkpoints with the CTO, so that we can really make sure that we set up — what we call the major enabling technology advances — all of the critical technologies that we need to address. We use Critical, Major, Ordinary matrixes to actually follow the technology through. So yes, right now, we feel that we’re on track with this project.
If you had to estimate what percentage of the milestones have been met, what would that be, please?
SMITH: It’s hard to say because every time we do the project, we don’t really always look at it as a percentage. We look at what we call the Enabling Technology Advances which are the critical technologies required to enable the success of the technology. So we need to make sure that we’ve fully analyzed the problem. We decide what critical areas we need to focus on address them and make sure that it’s technically feasible. So we don’t really look at it as a percentage of checkpoints that have been met. The whole project has to work. We look at as a whole. At the moment the project’s moving along very well. We have a really good core team on this. They’re extremely innovative. The Xerox research centre is extremely innovative. It produces about 150 invention disclosures a year, and around 60 to 70 patents a year. So we’ve got a really innovative group on this.