Printer Performance Can Still Make or Break Business Performance in the Digital Age. (Perhaps Even More Than Ever.)

That is Why Zebra Utilized a Thoughtful In-House-Only Engineering Process to Elevate Its Latest Enterprise Printer Designs

The Zebra ZC300 card printer
by Jaeho Choi
July 01, 2019

The power of a printer is often underestimated, and it can be easy to take the printer’s role in business success for granted, given the digitalization of many data-based processes. It may even seem ironic that there’s even a market for printers in an age when everyone is looking for ways to abandon hard copy versions of, well, everything. However, many organizations still have to put ink on paper (or cardboard, plastic, cards and other media) – especially those in healthcare, manufacturing, retail, finance, education and hospitality.

Bank cards, event access passes, attraction season passes and hospitality room keys are often customized for customers in real-time and therefore rely on technologies that can facilitate a fast desktop printing process. Even food safety labels and security badges such as employee access cards, student IDs, membership cards, and visitor passes are still printed onto various PVC materials on the spot. But, unlike generic retail loyalty program cards that may be batch-printed in a more industrial setting, distributed in mass and later assigned an owner via online registrations, these types of highly-individualized cards – which often feature photos or other personal identifiers – are often produced in more intimate settings one or two at a time, in real time. That makes device ergonomics and printing speed two of the most important qualities when evaluating desktop card printer options.

So, when I sat down with the rest of the Zebra engineering team in 2015 to discuss ways in which we could evolve and expand the Zebra Identity Solutions Portfolio within our printing business to make it more relevant in the digital era, we determined that device ergonomics and printing speed were two of our top design and functionality priorities. Operational simplicity was the third.

As we started sketching out the blueprints for the first-generation of what you now know to be our ZC-series printers, we wanted to ensure that:

1.       These printers could be installed in space-constrained environments such as under a counter or shelf.

2.       Anybody could learn how to use these Zebra printers with complete confidence within a matter of minutes. A lot of seasonal workforce turnover occurs in the gyms, restaurants, hotels, schools, theme parks, event facilities and other environments where these printers would be used most often.

3.       These printers could help expedite our customers’ transactions with their customers. These card printers are, in a way, the gateway to learning, fun and business for the recipients of the printed cards, so the faster we can help our customers get them in (or out) of the door, the better. Plus, slow printing can test anyone’s patience in any setting – even more so when lines are long, which is a common scenario during student registration periods, at a theme park in the summer or at the gym the first week in January when everyone is jump-starting their resolutions with new memberships. So, we wanted to shave time off the printing process for our customers so they can process their customer transactions without unnecessary delay.

Fortunately, we succeeded in our effort! So much so, in fact, that the ZC100 and ZC300 printers just received a Red Dot distinction and a prestigious iF DESIGN AWARD in the discipline of product design. Specifically, these card printers have been recognized for:

1.       Unique industrial design. Both printers were designed with an emphasis on ergonomics. We know that desktop space is limited for many of our customers, so we focused on slimming the printer as much as possible – especially in the front. The front of the printer is now the primary interaction area for cards, and the side panels are surfaced to hug the front to make it appear even slimmer, emphasizing card loading and removal.

The Zebra ZC100 and ZC300 card printers

2.     Customization of the printers’ covers. The aesthetics required for visible desktop devices at a bank, for example, may vary from what is acceptable in government, building, school or arena.

A ZC300 card printer with a customized side panel

3.       Ergonomics of the advanced card feeder. It automatically adjusts to the thickness of each card, eliminating the error-prone process that used to require users to manually adjust feeder settings for different card stocks. In addition, swing-open card output doors that were inspired by saloon doors have simplified the card loading and retrieval process.

4.       Unique ribbon door design. The ribbon cassette is now accessed from the top door. Once opened, the ribbon grip orientation makes it easy to understand how to insert and remove new ribbons.    

The Zebra ZC300 and its ribbon

5.       Security sensitivity. Cards that are rejected for any reason remain inside the printer to protect sensitive information until they can be properly disposed.

6.       Transparency. The ZC300 has a flipper module in the back for dual-sided prints. Though some would say we were trying to hide the module, that is quite the opposite of this design choice. We decided to celebrate the performance of the unit – its unique dual-sided printing capabilities in particular – so we showcase the enclosure using a translucent window that makes mechanical actions visible to the world.

As my colleague Curt Croley noted in the iF DESIGN AWARD press release, these card printers were “designed to simplify all end-user touch points in order to create an intuitive, worry-free experience.”

But perhaps more noteworthy than the final design of these printers was the design journey itself.

Beginning in 2015, Zebra’s Specialty Printing Group (SPG) worked closely with our in-house Industrial and Design (I&D) team to modernize the print experience. Our teams worked day in and day out together to develop and design a new fleet of card printers, which ultimately became the award-winning ZC100 and ZC300 Series printers.

It wasn’t always easy, if I’m being honest. This was the first time we had integrated User-Centered Design and Performance Engineering into our deep engineering-based research and development (R&D) model. As Curt often told business leaders, the process we used to develop these two particular Zebra printers was unlike any we had seen before.  Fortunately, “this big company can do big things," Curt would remind us.

And, boy, did we.

Pushing Through the Challenges and Celebrating the Breakthroughs

Building a printer is much like building a custom house: you have to first identify your customers’ wants and needs; sketch out an aesthetically-appealing, yet functional, design; choose the right materials; consistently confirm structural integrity during the actual build process; and conduct several systems performance tests before you can turnover “the keys” to the customer. You also have to pay attention to the details. You want to make sure everything is perfect before the big reveal so it will exceed their expectations. And, yes, there will likely be obstacles along the way – if you hold yourself to the highest standards and refuse to take shortcuts. But, like any great builder, you will find a solution and persevere; the end result being something more magnificent that you could have imaged in those early concept phases. Design is about creating moments of delight and surprise, after all. Even when you’re designing enterprise card printers.

In the three years it took us to bring our ZC Series printer concept to fruition, we had plenty of challenges to overcome, starting with the customer “worry points” that were identified in early end-user research. We had identified 21 areas of opportunity to improve integration and ease of use for card printers (in general), and we were determined to address every single one of them with the new ZC Series printers.

At the same time, we were constantly on the search for the ideal user experience, even resorting to “human factors testing” at several points in our design journey. And, like any homebuilder, we cared about the visual aesthetics. Our quest for the perfect color was quite fun. We wanted something visually sophisticated and professional, and we went to great lengths to ensure we made the right choices, even manufacturing mini versions of the printers to test out samples “on the wall.”

The most exciting “aha” moment may have been when we realized we had nailed down the slim, industrial design of our new printers. This before and after photo of Zebra’s old card printers (left) and new proposed ZC Series design (right) shows how dramatic the breakthrough was for our team and our customers.

A side-by-side photo of the old Zebra card printer and the new Zebra card printer showing the mechanisms inside

We had simultaneously size-optimized a card printer – a breakthrough for our customers who were looking for something more compact – and laid a solid foundation for a printer that we knew was going to be exceptionally special from a design perspective. (Which the latest awards have validated.)

There were thousands more of these exciting, often intimate, moments celebrated by our engineering team along the way. Conceptualizing something incredible is exciting. Being a part of the team that brings it to life is awesome. Watching the world celebrate it is awe-inspiring. Especially when the “thing” being celebrated is an enterprise card printer that many would have thought would be down and out for the count amidst the digitization of so many printed media.   

I am forever grateful for the opportunity to be part of this printer design journey and to prove just how important printers – and printer performance – remain to this day for so many businesses and their customers around the world. Next time you speed through a theme park or concert access line, I hope you think of this Zebra engineering team and the incredible effort that was put into making a printer that would make your experience that much better.

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Jaeho Choi
Jaeho Choi is responsible for the Industrial Design function at Zebra, with a particular focus on the Enterprise Mobile Computing (EMC) and Specialty Printer (SPG) category products. He has spent more than 18 years designing enterprise class products and ecosystems, and he has led efforts to solve complex design problems. He is credited with driving both design vision and execution for products ranging from rugged handhelds, wearables and tablets to printers and in-vehicle computers.