Zuta Labs Is Making An Inkjet Printer That Rolls Free

3D printers may be getting all the hype right now, but an Israeli hardware startup called Zuta Labs wants to inject some particles of excitement back into 2D printing — by turning the standard 2D printer box into a mobile robot that rolls across paper free-style, dropping ink like a road-surface marker inks white lines.

The startup has built a prototype of its Zuta mobile printer robot which is getting some decent traction on Kickstarter. They are hoping to raise a hefty $400,000 to turn their prototype into shipping product. At the time of writing they’ve managed just over half that, with another 28 days left of their campaign to roll.

Their basic idea is to drastically shrink the size of the printer box to make it portable, while retaining the ability to print on large pieces of paper. The Zuta is therefore 10cm x 11.5cm — not quite pocketable, but certainly small enough to fit in a bag.

The printer is being designed to roll itself over the paper, rather than having to ingest pages to spit ink onto them. The robot is therefore going to be battery powered (charging via USB) so you can untether it from the wall socket and take it out and about with you, ready for when the urge to print something strikes.

The battery apparently lasts for about an hour on one full charge. While one inkjet cartridge will be good for “more than 1,000 printed pages”. It’s using “standard” HP inkjet cartridges so there’s no premium on the cost for cartridge refills.

Zuta’s makers say it takes an average of 40 seconds to print an A4 page. So, in other words, it rolls pretty slow — giving you time to order another couple of lattes to go with that 100-page report you’re printing from the café.

Of course, with the printer moving around on an unanchored piece of paper the potential for smudgy print-outs seems pretty high. And that’s clearly one of the key challenges for Zuta’s makers as they try to turn their prototype into a consumer-grade product.

“The main issue from the technology side we’ve been dealing with is making sure the printer moves accurately along the paper and also has a good grip on it,” Zuta Labs tells TechCrunch.

How will smudgy print-outs be avoided? “Combination of the bot’s weight and its Omni wheels, also, the stepper motor makes micro and steady steps, so there aren’t any sudden accelerations. We’re using a high resolution optical laser sensor in order to control the movement, speed and placement of the bot,” it adds.

Hopefully the bot won’t be too heavy, or that might be a drag on portability.

The teardrop shape of the Zuta’s casing is designed to make it easier for users to align it with the corner of the paper to ensure print-outs don’t come out looking too wonky. But there’s a reason standard 2D printers have all those trays and pedantic paper prompts and holders. Pedantry is a requirement if you want aligned margins. Expecting a free-rolling, free-style printer to deliver perfect lines seems unwise.

Really this is lining up as a gadget for occasional, casual use — one that might have been better targeted as something fun for kid’s to play around with. Except that with a starting price of $180 to Kickstarter backers, rising to $200 standard price-tag once all the early pledge levels are bagged, it’s not exactly cheap. Especially considering you can pick up a decent inkjet printer for sub-$70 these days — being as printer makers make their margins on the ink.

It also only prints grayscale, not colour. So the fun-factor is a little bootstrapped. Still, watching a robot dropping lines onto a piece of paper may be fun enough for some.

If Zuta hits its funding goal, it’s aiming to ship to backers by January 2015.