Once in a while one finds emanating from the noosphere something novel, as opposed to the daily atrocity or 99-cent sale. This week it was the debut of the PaperLab, a machine from Seiko Epson that makes new paper out of recycled paper in your office, or, presumably, anywhere you can plug it in: your living room, garage, or weekend cabin.

Being a printing geek, perforce a paper geek, this caught my attention. Paper is normally made on a machine as big as a commuter train, not on office gear. I checked the calendar: not April 1st. And Epson is a major Japanese precision manufacturer of printing and optical equipment, so this gadget seems unlikely to be total vaporware.

It’s compact compared to a commuter train: the main box is 2.6 x 1.2 x 1.8 meters (about 8.5 x 4 x 5.5 feet). It looks like a tall copier. You put in used office paper and it makes new paper in A4 or A3 sizes (roughly letter and tabloid sizes). Fourteen sheets a minute, or 6,720 in an 8-hour day, supposedly.

It uses no water.

Repeat: it uses no water.

Regular papermaking uses astounding quantities of water. Papermills are normally built on the banks of good-sized rivers so they can imbibe and micturate floods. (In North America and Europe, they used to be astounding river polluters as well, until evil government regulators denied our children the right to drink dioxins and other substances [which are actually beneficial but They are hiding it from us]. In some places they are still huge polluters.) Recycling paper also uses a lot of water, though not as much, as well as lots of energy to move old paper around and make new paper out of it.

So if this machine doesn’t use water to form a slurry of fibers and then roll out the fibers into paper how does it work?

Here’s Epson’s explanation of the three steps involved:

  1. “Fiberizing,” which is apparently some species of super-shredding. Epson also calls this “restor(ing) paper to fibers.”
  2. “Binding,” in which “a variety of different binders” are added to the fibers to increase strength, alter color, or affect other properties.
  3. “Forming,” or making the mixture of fiber and binders into sheets.

To a paper geek, this explanation raises more questions than it answers, including:

  1. How the hell does it shred finely enough to “restore the paper to fibers,” which are, after all, almost microscopic? Sounds like the mother of all dust clouds.
  2. How do the fibers stick together if you’re not using water to soften the lignin and orient the fibers so they provide tensile strength? Is the magic in the binders? Can heat alone do the job?
  3. Presumably the sheets that come out of the machine are printable, which implies a host of properties: accurate sheet sizing, consistent and controllable sheet thickness, printable surface, paper grain direction (is there grain direction?), not too dusty, etc. All of this implies some pretty amazing engineering.

To a business geek (one of my other hats), these questions come to mind:

  1. How much will they sell the machine for? (It goes on sale in Japan next year, with sales to the rest of the world to be announced.)
  2. What are the razor blades? Companies like Epson—and HP, Xerox, Canon, etc.—make their margins on selling ink, not on selling the machines. This is known as the razor-and-razor-blade business model. Printer ink is up there with scorpion venom and human blood in the top ten most expensive liquids you can buy. My cynical business mind jumps to the conclusion that there is some magic additive that you will have to buy from Epson to keep making paper. Is it in the binder? The forming unit?
  3. What is the real production potential? Epson states 6,720 sheets per 8 hour day. This assumes that the machine produces straight through for 8 hours at 14 sheets per minute. Based on twenty years of experience with paper handling and printing equipment, I’d say this is laughable. If it ran for 4 hours in a real-world 8-hour shift, I would be truly surprised.
  4. What is the end-to-end cost of a sheet of printable paper, net-net-net?
  5. How many books could you print on the paper produced in one day by the machine?

Let’s take a stab at the last question. Let’s pretend that this machine actually produces 6,720 sheets in an 8-hour shift. (While we’re at it let’s pretend that controlled nuclear fusion has been perfected.) Further, the book’s pages are 5″ x 8″, which is about what would print two-up on an A4 sheet. No paper is wasted in printing and binding: remember, we’ve perfected controlled nuclear fusion, so totally eliminating waste in book printing is easy-peasy. That means 26,880 book pages worth of paper produced in an 8-hour shift. Mining the secret Bookmobile data hoard reveals that the average book has 246 pages, so this means 109 books’ worth of paper produced by the machine in a shift, not including cover stock. Bookmobile, which as a digital-only book printer is tiny compared with the offset big boys, would need about 30 of these machines. I love running fantasy numbers.

Wearing the hat that cares whether my kid drinks dioxin from paper mills or mercury from coal-fired power plants, what are the net energy consumption comparisons between making paper from new fiber, making paper from recycled fiber in the traditional way, and using the PaperLab? That’s a really interesting question.

I should say that behind my mask of world-weary cynicism there is a naive enthusiast who’s pretty darned curious about this gadget. That credulous fellow is eager to see what the reality is behind the press release.

Need a printing quote, eBook conversion quote, or more information?

You can request a printing quote here, or request an eBook conversion quote here.

I’d be happy to answer questions—you can contact me via email.
 I welcome any feedback, including that pointing out my errors!

Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.