每日英語跟讀 Ep.912: Kodak Struggles to Envision a Viable Future After Film
Of the roughly 200 buildings that once stood on the 525-hectare campus of Eastman Kodak’s business park in Rochester, New York, 80 have been demolished and 59 others sold off. Terry Taber, 60, and a loyal Kodak employee of 34 years, still works in one of the remaining Kodak structures, rubble from demolition not far from its doors.
Mr. Taber oversees research and development at Kodak. Many people might be surprised to know that Kodak is still in business at all, much less employing someone in the hopeful-sounding enterprise of developing new technology ideas. But if the film company, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, has any light in its future, Mr. Taber is likely to have something to do with it.
In basement labs, some of the 300 scientists and engineers who work for Mr. Taber are studying nanoparticle wonder inks, cheap sensors that can be embedded in packaging to indicate whether meats or medicines have spoiled, and touch screens that could make smartphones cheaper.
Much of this is old stuff, left over from the company’s glory days. But Mr. Taber’s boss hopes that somewhere in those projects there might be a nugget of gold.
“I’m mining the history of this company for its underlying technologies,” said Jeff Clarke, 53, who became Kodak’s chief executive last year. Mr. Clarke has no delusions that Kodak could bring those technologies to market on its own; it will need corporate partners to make actual products. “We’ll never be able to prosecute the value of our intellectual property with Kodak-branded sales,” he said in an office in the same tower where George Eastman once looked out on his global tech empire.
Kodak is to digging deep into a legacy of innovation in the photography business and seeing if its remaining talent in optics and chemistry can be turned into new money in other industries.
For Kodak, the advent of digital photography was ruinous. Today it has $2 billion in annual sales, compared with $19 billion in 1990 when consumer film was king. It now has 8,000 employees worldwide; it had 145,000 at its peak.
Since emerging from bankruptcy, the company has mostly served niche film markets – there are still a few directors who refuse to shoot digital. Much of its revenue comes from legacy businesses. For Kodak’s new chief executive, along with veterans like Mr. Taber, the key to survival is in its research legacy, thousands of patents and a coterie of scientists who are making new discoveries.
At the research lab, a laser prints a 256-count mesh of silver wires, thinner than a credit card, in one second. That technology could be the basis of a new kind of phone screen, cheaper and more useful than the touch screen. It is work that Mr. Taber and his veteran team are clearly proud of.
“People ask me why I’m still here,” he said. “It’s because I see the possibilities.”
If any future is coming for Kodak, it had better hurry up.
Mr. Clarke is impatient. He came to Kodak a year ago and says he was shocked that the company had done so little to capitalize on the work of its scientists. Kodak’s technology for packaging sensors, he noted, was developed years ago. No one had figured out what to do with it. “We missed enormous opportunities,” he said.
Kodak has a market capitalization of about $800 million. He noted that GoPro, a maker of cameras for extreme sports, is worth more than six times as much.
With $750 million in cash, a 2014 net loss of $114 million and possibly more losses this year, the company needs to find partners. Among his partners for future business is Bobst, a $1.3 billion Swiss company that makes machinery to manufacture cardboard boxes. Bobst is interested in using Kodak’s digital printing technology to personalize packaging, said Jean-Pascal Bobst, the chief executive. “It could be revolutionary for corrugated boxes.”
Kodak diversified into pharmaceuticals, paying $5.1 billion for Sterling Drug in 1988. Kodak’s researchers invented digital photography and put the technology in professional cameras in the 1990s. There were plans to move to digital consumer cameras, but the cash Kodak made on traditional photography made it complacent. By 2001, even before smartphone cameras, film sales started to fall by 20 to 30 percent every year. The 3.5 billion meters of film Kodak manufactured as late as 2007, enough to circle the earth about 88 times, has shrunk 96 percent.
At an October meeting of 80 employees, Mr. Clarke was asked when Kodak’s 20-plus years of layoffs would end. “My answer, of course, was ‘Never,’ ” he recalled. “No individual company can say that things aren’t going to change.”
In December, Mr. Clarke made good on his word, with more restructuring and layoffs.
Source article: https://paper.udn.com/udnpaper/POH0067/276646/web/