esterday’s Wall Street Journal reported that Kodak was preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection if it couldn’t raise cash by selling 1100 of its digital imaging patents. This caught me by surprise, but it shouldn’t have.
I lived in Rochester, NY during the 1960s and had many friends who worked at Kodak (“The Big Yellow Mother”). It was the industrial backbone of a city that was loaded with technology leaders: General Dynamics, Xerox, General Motors, Bausch & Lomb, General Railway Signal, Gleason Gear, Stromberg-Carlson, RF Communications. Kodak’s main office on State Street alone employed 35,000 people
It seemed that the party would never end. Kodak was built upon the same business model as Gillette razor blades: give away the camera in order to make money on the consumables (film and paper). It had missed some golden opportunities when it turned away new technologies offered by inventors Edwin Land (Polaroid instant photography) and Chester Carlson (Xerox copying), but the party continued, fueled by juicy film and paper revenues.
Smart manufacturing kept camera prices low
Kodak had some brilliant engineers on board. Around 1969 I visited its Instamatic camera production facility. It was impressive. The camera was assembled entirely by machine on a circular assembly line. Each segment of the circle was fed by a spoke that transported sub-assemblies inward to the assembly line. Parts were picked and moved from inventory via robotic pickers/carts.
The plastic lenses were (injection?) molded by computer-controlled presses that used multi-cavity molds. Each lens was light-beam tested under computer control and statistics kept on the percentage of rejects produced by each mold cavity. When the percentage of rejects from a particular cavity exceeded a limit, that mold cavity was replaced during the next scheduled downtime.
I was told by my host that Kodak knew that Japanese manufacturers were nipping at its heels, so they invested heavily in the latest low-cost manufacturing techniques. I was told that most of the manufacturing engineering was done in-house.
I was impressed with what I saw and was sure that Kodak had a bright future.
Invents the digital camera
In the mid-1970s, Kodak experimented with CCDs (Charge Coupled Devices), which are light-sensitive solid-state devices. They developed a prototype digital camera around 1975-76. Krista Gleason wrote about it in her two-part 2008 article, titled A Kodak Moment with Steve Sasson. In the article, Steve describes the tough time he and two technicians had developing the camera, which eventually captured a full image in December 1975.
Sells camera manufacturing to Singapore
I’ve lost touch with Kodak and am not an active photographer. However, it seemed to me that Kodak was competing successfully in the new world of digital imaging. I guess that I was wrong. In view of the advanced camera manufacturing that I’d witnessed decades before, I was surprised to learn that Kodak had sold its camera manufacturing operations to Singapore-based Flextronics in 2006.
Today Kodak is concentrating on the inkjet printer market. I’m not surprised: inkjet consumables are way overpriced. Some inkjet ink, if purchased in gallon containers, would cost thousands of dollars per gallon. Unfortunately, it’s a crowded market and Kodak is way behind first-place. (Besides, inkjet printers make lousy copies.)
It’s sad to see a once proud giant brought low.