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Beware – ‘refurbished’ inkjet print heads for sale in the US … and they cost a fortune

Issue #0912/2 – Let’s be clear right from the start – it is not possible to refurbish an inkjet print head! And yet, there are outlets in the US advertising print heads for the Hewlett-Packard range of Officejet Pro printers and All-in-Ones that not only claim to be refurbished but are being sold at a price some 70% higher than the price published by Hewlett-Packard for a brand new print head. This article reveals deception in the US reseller environment and explains why refurbishing an inkjet print head just is not possible.

Terms such as ‘refurbished’ or ‘remanufactured’, when talking about printer supplies, incorporate several possible meanings.

Firstly, where laser toner printers are concerned, a single-piece toner cartridge can be dismantled, cleaned, inspected and rebuilt with new parts replacing any parts that are worn or degraded (most notably the OPC drum).

Secondly, laser printer toner cartridges that do not include the OPC drum, but do include a developer roller, may also be described as refurbished or remanufactured when they have been subjected to the same cleaning and inspection process as the single-piece cartridges.

Note: These are the only genuinely correct uses of the terms refurbished and remanufactured for printer consumables.

Thirdly, when a toner cartridge is a box only (i.e. containing no imaging mechanics at all), it may be cleaned and refilled but cannot genuinely be described as remanufactured or refurbished. It is merely a refill.

Fourthly, used inkjet cartridges are frequently described as ‘remanufactured’ or ‘refurbished’ when it has only been cleaned and refilled. This is an incorrect description and is the primary subject of this article.

Ink cartridge explosionExploded view of an inkjet cartridge

An inkjet print head is a unique piece of technology; it’s technology is unique to the printer manufacturer; there is no third party manufacturing of inkjet print heads. And yet, the common perception is that it is just a plastic box filled with grossly overpriced ink. The print head itself is the thin piece of foil glued to the bottom of the cartridge, without which the entire system would be useless.

If ever there was an amazing piece of technology, it is the inkjet print head. They are capable of spitting many thousands of miniscule droplets of ink per second from each and every one of thousands of nozzles on the one print head. Ink droplets are as small as 1 picolitre (one trillionth, or one millionth of a millionth, of one litre). Several manufacturers have developed print heads for their desktop inkjet printers that now present a nozzle density of 1200dpi, meaning that correspondence quality printing can be achieved with a single pass of the print head.

In fact, Hewlett-Packard’s development engineers realised that the number of drops that its new generations of print heads were capable of firing was keeping pace with Moore’s Law (see for more information).

Just attempting to imagine the process of laying down the billions of ink droplets it takes to build a photographic quality image is, to me, the equivalent of trying to imagine the universe having no end!

Print head structurePrint head structure

Print head manufacturing involves highly complex and precise wafer engineering. Furthermore, multiple patents protect the design and manufacture of the heads, between them ensuring that no third party could afford to get involved in that business.

Head design and construction varies according to the manufacturer’s technology but, in principle, they are built from several layers that are bonded together providing a heater (thermal inkjet), channels within a substrate layer for the ink to flow along and a nozzle orifice layer through which the ink droplets are fired – as shown in this greatly simplified diagram.

To keep it simple, in order to refurbish a print head, it would first be necessary to dismantle the head. This would not only involve removing the head from the plastic carrier or cartridge but then separating the layers in order to re-engineer or replace the orifice plate in particular. Then the layers would have to be bonded back together again and reattached to the plastic carrier or cartridge.

This process has been described to me as being the equivalent of taking a “damaged AMD/Intel microprocessor (lets say a quad core where one core is no longer working) and assume someone can dismantle the processor, fix a section and then reassemble it all”. I think you’ll agree that this would not be within the realms of possibility! It is not quite like dismantling an auto engine, re-boring the cylinders and reassembling the engine, is it?

Why would this process be necessary? Simply because, over time, the ink flowing through the system and the nozzles literally ‘wears away’ the surfaces it is in contact with. As the nozzle, in particular, wears away: the bore becomes larger, meaning bigger and uncontrolled drops; the shape of the nozzles become distorted, meaning drop positioning accuracy is compromised; and general loss of head integrity severely reduces print quality. In addition, heating elements can fail, resulting in missing lines and image streaking.

True, a print head can be cleaned by flushing the channels and nozzles with a flushing fluid but this is not the same as remanufacturing or refurbishing because it cannot rectify any damage to the delicate structure of the head or surfaces within the head.

Once a nozzle has failed for any reason other than being clogged by dried ink, it is lost. It cannot be reinstated, it cannot be removed and replaced and it cannot be rebuilt. Therefore, once a print head has reached the end of life, it can only go for disposal or materials recycling.

Round all of this together and we have two main conclusions:

Firstly, it is impossible to refurbish or remanufacture inkjet print heads to extend the life of the basic unit.

Secondly, any print cartridge or print head on the third party aftermarket is, by definition, second hand. The nozzles, ink channels and heaters have already done their job for however many heating and cooling cycles, whatever quantity of ink, for however many droplets they have been required to fire, for however many documents they have printed.

There is always a risk involved in buying a cartridge that has been refilled or so-called ‘remanufactured’ because the new buyer has no idea how many times the refilling process has been repeated and, therefore, how degraded the print head is and, therefore, what print quality can be expected from the cartridge.

HP 88 Print HeadHP 88 Print Head
In terms of the specific print heads that prompted this article, the HP 88 heads, these are designed for long life – approximately 41,500 typical pages – and then to be dispensed with. The fact that any reseller can be collecting these used print heads, cleaning them and then selling them on as ‘refurbished’ at a price 70% higher than customers can buy a brand new Hewlett-Packard branded original, can only be described as outrageously deceptive and possibly fraudulent. There is no ink involved in the sale – there is nothing to refill!
Refurbished print head adRefurbished print head advertisement from the US

Terms such as ‘remanufactured’ and ‘refurbished’ should, strictly speaking, be illegal to use on third party inkjet print cartridge and print head products. The products in question cannot be genuinely refurbished and cannot provide the same print quality as a new print head.

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