My answer to that staple of travel small talk, “Where are you from?” often prompts “Rochester? That’s Kodak, right? Didn’t they go bankrupt?”
“Yes,” I say. “But they reorganized and are still in business. Moreover, Kodak’s legacy continues in our most treasured cultural institutions and in many prosperous local firms.”
While Kodak’s local employment today has dropped to fraction of its 1982 peak, the company earned revenue of $1.3 billion in 2018. It posted a net loss of $14 million, disappointing after earning $94 million in 2017. Yet the company continues to contribute directly to the Rochester community.
Outside the firm itself, Kodak has become a property developer. The sprawling Kodak Park was renamed Eastman Business Park in 2008 after the firm took down obsolete buildings and made significant investments in remediating the sites. The park today is a 1,200-acre R&D and manufacturing campus with over 16 million square feet of multi-scale manufacturing, distribution, lab and office space. Kodak says there are 114 companies onsite employing more than 6,000 people, many of them working on next-generation technologies in the areas of food and beverages, biosciences, specialty chemicals, roll-to-roll manufacturing (otherwise known as coating), energy storage and photonics.
To offer perspective on Kodak’s past, present and future, I reached out to longtime Chief Technical Officer Terry Taber. He joined Kodak in 1980, and became CTO in January 2009. A senior vice president since 2010, Taber in January 2015 was named president of Kodak’s new Intellectual Property Solutions segment. In May 2017, he became president of the Advanced Materials & 3D Printing Technology Division. He reports to Executive Chairman Jim Continenza.
Taber’s experience at Kodak also includes a stint as chief operating officer of the company’s Image Sensor Solutions business, which develops advanced CCD and CMOS sensors serving imaging and industrial markets. Before that, he held a series of senior positions in Kodak’s research and development and product organizations.
An edited version of this correspondence follows:
ROCHESTER BEACON: You’ve been at the Eastman Kodak Company since 1980. Did you come to EK right after earning your PhD in organic chemistry from California Institute of Technology. Did you consider other firms or did you have your sights set on Kodak while in grad school? Why Kodak?
TERRY TABER: Yes, I came directly to Kodak in October 1980, which was just a few weeks after successful defense of my PhD thesis and multiple research proposals that were a Caltech requirement for any PhD graduate. Earlier in 1980, I interviewed for R&D positions at Kodak, DuPont, Eli Lilly, and Monsanto, and declined several other interviews (1980 was a great year for PhD scientists). I received job offers from all four interviews but selected Kodak based on the strength and reputation of the Kodak Research Labs, the range of science that was being done at Kodak in 1980, and the people that I met during the on-site interview.
BEACON: As Kodak’s Rochester employment peaked in 1982 (at 60,400), you’ve had a front-row seat to the company’s transformation. Can you identify the most exciting and the most disappointing events in that long history?
TABER: Wow, too many to list over the last 40 years. From a business perspective the most exciting events are the introduction of new Kodak-invented technologies into products that excite customers:
■ Stream printheads and Stream inks to create the Prosper commercial inkjet printers and S-component print modules in 2008 and now the next generation of this technology—Kodak Ultrastream print systems and inks, the process free Sonora plates for offset presses;
■ the best 400 speed film in the early 1990s to provide an overall better imaging experience for consumer photography;
■ the first OLED display panels; and
■ particle technology for light control for window treatments.
The list goes on and on.
The most exciting events are possible through the creativity, dedication, and passion of Kodak people to delight customers and make Kodak successful no matter what the company’s environment was/is at any point in time. The most disappointing events involve the sale of technologies and/or businesses created at Kodak, as well as having to say goodbye to thousands of Kodak colleagues who left the company due to downsizings or sale of a business.
BEACON: Surviving the bankruptcy required that Kodak unload many of its salable assets. Sitting here in 2019, what would top the list of assets you wish had been retained?
TABER: I include two significant transactions that occurred before the Chapter 11 in 2012. I wish Kodak had retained our larger-scale specialty chemicals business (Tennessee Eastman became Eastman Chemical Co. in the early 1990s) and our OLED technology/business, which was sold in 2009. Both of these align strongly with Kodak’s rich and long history in innovative materials, ability to optimize and integrate such materials into complex systems, and the demonstrated ability to produce unique and complex materials at full-production scale.
Specific to bankruptcy, even though Kodak retained the motion picture film business and film manufacturing, the consumer and professional film businesses became part of Kodak Alaris. Given the role consumer film has played from the days of George Eastman until today in establishing the brand, image, and success of Kodak, I think it is fitting that film is still part of Kodak.
BEACON: To hear some locals tell the story, Kodak failed to commercialize the first digital camera to protect the “cash cow” of silver halide film. What were the critical factors limiting commercialization of the digital camera?
TABER: The first digital camera invented by Kodak’s Steve Sasson was a technical and engineering achievement to demonstrate a new image capture modality. Significant disruptions in technology often take a long time, a decade or even two, to become embedded into mainstream markets. Two common critical factors are the ability to meet customer needs—features, quality, cost—as well as the evolution and development of the technology and manufacturing processes to bring such a product to the market. That is why the entry point for such disruptive technologies tends not to be the mainstream to start but rather a tangential or peripheral entry; most notably, Clayton Christensen has many papers and books on this topic of disruptive technologies.
Digital cameras followed such a path. Early products were linked to computer applications, such as the Apple Quick Take launched in 1994 and built by Kodak; next steps for digital cameras included photojournalists, then the broader professional market, and finally mainstream consumer. And, it is worth noting that Kodak was a major participant as a digital camera supplier in the consumer market (even achieving market share leadership in some regions of the world) in the early 2000s and a bit beyond. And, the world of digital capture has changed and will continue to evolve as the digital camera as an independent device has largely been replaced by the integration of cameras and phones to create smart devices.
BEACON: While Kodak’s roots (and yours) are in chemistry, both you and the company have become expert in semiconductors and microprocessors. Acknowledging that someone who earns a PhD in organic chemistry from Caltech can master just about anything, connect the dots for us. Was that a challenging transition for you and the research staff?
TABER: There are new, often exciting, challenges when moving from one set of technologies and products, but many of Kodak’s product lines share common threads or foundations or core competencies. These are how the “dots are connected.” For Kodak, these foundations are material science, image science (analog and digital), and manufacturing processes, especially large-scale chemical production and deposition of material formulations onto a variety of substrates (e.g. coating color negative film or color paper, or coating thermal imaging donor sheets or manufacturing Sonora digital plates, etc.).
For me personally, one such jump in technology, products, and customers was becoming the chief operations officer for Kodak’s Image Sensor business that included CCD and CMOS image sensors. There were definitely new areas for me to learn related to physics and digital design, but the use of materials and the manufacturing processes to fabricate the sensors were a familiar space for me. The learning process in any such change as this is significantly aided by Kodak colleagues who have expertise in science or competency areas that complement your own knowledge and the willingness to work, teach, and learn together. This internal learning and teamwork is truly a hallmark of Kodak culture and success.
BEACON: Looking ahead, can you describe the “core competencies” Kodak brings to new products? In your position as president of Advanced Materials & 3D Printing Technology (AM3D), what prospects (that you are at liberty to share!) most intrigue you?
TABER: For AM3D, I am most intrigued by smart, functional materials—these include materials used as component solutions or features and also include materials that could be used in 3D printing applications—and by printed electronics.
There are two examples I can share publicly.
■ The use of Kodak proprietary particles to produce a blackout curtain or drapery that simplifies construct of the manufacturing design and process and allows additional features to be built into the final product. KODALUXTM uses a proprietary particle and particle design to reflect, scatter, and absorb light.
Our current business is to sell fabric coated with the particle formulation. Kodak manufactures the particles in Eastman Business Park and we have designed the complete coating formulation to be applied to a fabric. We use a third-party supplier for coating the fabric since there are established facilities to do so and our own coating machines are not amenable to transporting 72-inch and 120-inch fabrics. As the business grows, we are open to other business models.
■ In printed electronics, Kodak sold printed touch sensors a couple of years ago that were produced in Eastman Business Park utilizing a high-resolution imaging, printing, and plating manufacturing process that is additive in design. Our immediate focus is on printed electrical solutions such as transparent, printed antenna for use in the auto industry—to allow antennae to be placed in the windshield and to add additional functionality for car-to-car and car-to-building communication.
These antennae can also be used in telecommunication applications such as transparent “repeaters” in building windows for 5G or other Wi-Fi or NFC. The “transparency” comes from Kodak’s ability in high-resolution imaging/printing and some color/image science to “hide’ the antenna pattern. Additional electrical applications are being explored given our manufacturing platform is viable for a wide range of transparent, conductive grids.
Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.