Xerox: from photo copier, to print-on-demand, to variable data

Xerox, originally the Haloid Photographic Company, is an American global corporation that commercialised the process of Xerography, a technology integral to the development of photo copiers and laser printers. In 1938, Chester Carlson, a physicist who worked independently, invented and patented a process for printing images using an electrically charged photoconductor-coated metal plate and dry powder toner. Joseph C. Wilson, who inherited Haloid from his father, saw the promise of Carlson’s invention and in 1946 signed an agreement to develop it into a commercial product. Looking for a term to differentiate this system, the company came up with Xerography from two Greek root words translated as ‘dry writing’. The name pointed to the unique aspect of Xerography, which unlike other printing techniques available at the time (for example the Cyanotype) required no wet chemicals. With its investment in this technology Haloid changed its name to Xerox.

It wasn’t until 1959, once Xerox researchers had replaced Carlson’s flat plates with a cylinder or drum to carry the light sensitive photoconductor/sensor, that xerography found a successful commercial application. The Xerox 914, the world’s first plain paper photocopier, dubbed ‘the most successful single product of all time’, gave Xerox market dominance. The 914 model, so named because it could copy originals up to a size of 9 x 14 inches (229 mm × 356 mm) could make 100 000 copies per month or 7 copies per minute in single color (black) on basic paper (bond). A quirk of the 914 was its tendency to catch fire, and it was sold with a ‘scorch eliminator’ – a small fire extinguisher. Despite this problem, the machine remained popular due to it being complex enough to be interesting to use, but not so complex as to be overwhelming. A significant spin-off of the 914 was the Xerox 813 released in 1963 as the world’s first desktop photo copier, which would become the model for future desktop digital printers.


Xerox introduced their first full colour photo copier, the 6500, in 1973. The 6500 made it possible to reproduce full colour images on plain paper and transparencies, differentiating it from the 3M colour photo copier, which had been on the market for several years, but required the use of specially treated paper. In the years that followed, a period of record revenues for the company, Xerox launched the 9200 duplicator series. Different to the copier, the duplicator was aimed at the print shop as opposed to the office producing a higher document yield in less time – two page impressions per second / 7200 per hour. The 9000 series of duplicators also introduced the possibility for auto-duplexing, a crucial development for the print-on-demand workflows that would follow.

Up until this point Xerox copiers and printers used analog technology, exposing scanned images onto a light-sensitive drum for printing. In 1977, Xerox developed the 9700, the companies first digital device, which introduced laser printing to the market. Laser printers work by using rasterised data (the digital image) stored in the printers memory, transferring it to the photoreceptive drum using a laser beam that passes repeatedly back and forth. Because the laser scans the image directly onto the drum, removing the need for developing the image used in the analog process, the printing speeds up.

In the 1990s Xerox took the step to combine its technologies into a single machine – the DocuTech Production Publisher Model 135 – creating the first print on demand service. The Model 135 was classed as a Multi-Function-Machine (MFM), combining networked printing (duplication and/or copying) and a fax machine (Fax was also a Xerox invention). It was on the strength of the Model 135 that Xerox shifted its business model from product offering to service where subscribing companies paid a monthly fee for supply, maintenance, configuration and customer support. At this point Xerox added the moniker ‘The Document Company’ to all of its branding.

The Xerox DocuTech Production Publisher Model 135

Furthering its investment in digital, and in keeping with the so-called ‘personalisation revolution’ Xerox acquired XMpie in 2006, a provider of software for cross-media, variable data one-to-one marketing. XMpie integrates with Xerox printer hardware allowing companies to develop personalised/variable data print media and multi-channel campaigns. By current standards, XMpie can, for example, be used with the Xerox Iridesse Production Press, the companies most recent cut sheet digital print offering. In addition to standard four color printing, the Iridesse is the only dry toner printer that has the option to add speciality inks: silver, gold, white and clear. This allows for advance finishing techniques – metallic finishes, spot varnish, white ink etc – that in the past would have required outsourcing, to be produced on demand by a single machine. These options can also be offered to the client without the need of a designer by using Xerox FreeFlow Core’s pre-built workflows that allow provides to selectively transform text and graphics. By adding the right finishing equipment to the Iridesse, print jobs can be fully automated, requiring no manual intervention.