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Forgotten elements of Total Cost of Printing – Reliability – Part 4a, Inkjet supplies failures

Issue #1002/1 – Along with paper jams and misfeeds, printer supplies are probably the biggest cause of printer downtime and unplanned cost. In this contribution to our series on reliability we have a look at the type of problems that are frequently experienced and what costs are associated with those problems. We begin with inkjet supplies in this article and move on to laser toner supplies in the next article (Part 4b).

Typical faults and problems associated with inkjet supplies fall broadly into three categories:

  • Cartridge failure
  • Print head failure
  • Third party remanufacturing/refilling faults

Specific problems we have experienced in recent years (behind each of which is a story) include:

  • Ink cartridge faulty on delivery (needed cleaning 3 times before useable)
  • Leaking ink cartridge on delivery
  • Inkjet print head fault (head failure / nozzle failure / cross ink contamination)
  • Ink cartridge/printer interface problems (no ink flow / cartridge not recognised)
  • Inkjet print heads catching edge of paper (ink smears)
  • Third party ink cartridge not refilled to designated capacity

New cartridge faults
Even brand new OEM inkjet print cartridges and print heads can be a problem. Two of the inkjet printers we have tested in recent years have experienced several new cartridges each that would not print when first installed.

In one instance (integrated print head) three cleaning cycles were required before the cartridge could be used. In the other instance (tricolour ink tank sitting on semi permanent print head), the printer refused to recognise the newly installed ink tank and no ink flowed from the tank to the print head. The only way to encourage the ink to flow was to prime the interface with cleaning fluid and persist several times.

Leaky ink cartridgeLeaky ink cartridge

In fact, with this second printer, one tricolour cartridge, still sealed in its original packaging, can clearly be seen in the accompanying photo to have leaked seriously, rendering the cartridge totally unusable.

Because ink and toner is the most expensive component of an office desktop printing system, cartridge failures are a serious problem with a high associated cost if, for any reason, the problem cannot be resolved under warranty (for instance, if the user becomes so frustrated that the cartridge is just thrown in the bin).

Even just running the cleaning cycle takes a surprisingly long time (and consumes ink), during which the user is sure to be watching and waiting – thus accumulating wasted time.

A single cleaning cycle typically takes around 1 minute 20 seconds (and note that these times could be much longer on some printers). On those machines that have a three-stage cleaning programme, the total time taken is around 4 minutes 30 seconds. In addition, one sheet of paper is used to produce a test print and a quantity of ink is wasted during each cleaning cycle (amount of ink wasted is variable according to the type of inkjet technology used). With 10 seconds required for each of: diagnosing the problem in the first place; inspecting the test print at each cleaning stage; and then to accept the final resolution of the problem, the total time lost is more than 5 minutes.

So, for each cartridge that does not work first time, the labour cost of a thorough clean at our €50 per hour rate is well over €4 (see table below).

And also, printer downtime for replacing an exhausted cartridge is more than 5 minutes longer than it would have been had the new cartridge worked first time.

Cartridge/print head failures

Time to diagnose problem 10 seconds
Clean print head – stage 1 1 minute, 17 seconds
Inspect test print 10 seconds
Clean print head – stage 2 1 minute, 35 seconds
Inspect test print 10 seconds
Clean print head – stage 3 1 minute, 38 seconds
Inspect test print 10 seconds
Accept successful resolution 10 seconds
Total time spent resolving problem = 5 minutes, 20 seconds
Cost of resolving problem @ €50/hr €4.44
Problem not resolved after cleaning  
Contact support service 20 minutes
Receive and install new cartridge 10 minutes
Total time spent resolving problem = 35 minutes, 20 seconds
Cost of resolving problem @ €50/hr €29.44
Printer downtime (with next-day delivery) ~24-48 hours

Note: Cost of time at €50 per hour is based on cost model outlined in article .

If the cartridge has leaked, or fails to work even after several cleans, then it will need to be replaced – hopefully under warranty – a process that could potentially result in more time being lost than the cartridge is worth and in many cases could equal the value of a cartridge. Even a simple three-stage head cleaning process is likely to cost around 20% of the value of the cartridge.

Just to take the problem-solving up a level, whereas we experienced the faulty printer mentioned in the previous article being replaced in 2 days, the replacement for a faulty inkjet print head (that was displaying symptoms of cross-contamination of ink within the semi-permanent print head) actually took 10 days.

Either of these items I could have bought on the open market and received replacements either next day or within a couple of working days. So, although a 2-day turnaround is entirely acceptable (especially when it involves the shipping of a complete printer unit), 10 days is absolutely not acceptable under any circumstances, especially when it involves just a print head. Part of the reason for the unacceptable delay was that the print head was shipped from mainland Europe instead of within the UK.

However, there is an immediate and unacceptable cost implication if the user decides to buy a new unit immediately (cartridge or print head, not complete printer!) and get the printer working again as quickly as possible, rather than accepting this kind of unacceptable delay.

There may not be funds in the budget for buying another new cartridge at that point in time. The only consolation is that the replacement received from the supplier, when it does arrive, can be kept for the next replenishment cycle. But, which is better, buy a new cartridge either in-store, or on a next-day delivery, or wait 10 days with no printer?

This solution does not work well for a print head that should last the life of the printer though!

At the end of the day, the speed at which a replacement item is received under warranty depends entirely on the systems and efficiency of the manufacturer or supplier. As we have seen, some appear to be efficient, turning a request around for delivery within two days while others appear incapable of an instant response.

Third party ink implications
One of the greatest problems with the third party inkjet supplies market is that integrated print cartridges (IPC – ink and print head on one disposable unit) can only be manufactured by the printer manufacturer itself (OEM). This is because the technology involved is highly complex, the manufacturing process is akin to the manufacturing of silicon chips and many patents are involved in their design and manufacture.

While the costs of setting up a manufacturing facility to replicate OEM print heads might not be beyond the reach of the larger third party manufacturers, the obstacles created by the patents and the costs associated with developing an entire ink delivery system to be compatible with an OEM’s printer without infringing those patents would mean that the third party may as well develop the printer as well and become a mainstream printer manufacturer.

So, the point here is that any third party compatible ink cartridge of the IPC variety is, by definition, not a ‘compatible’, it is second hand / used / pre-owned! Every third party or own-brand HP 56, Lexmark #34 or Canon PG-50 compatible cartridge sold has been used at least once.

Some third party brands insist that IPCs collected by their suppliers for refilling are what they term “virgin” empties – a term that is rather misleading in itself. The term “virgin” implies that the cartridges have never been used but the fact that they are empty means that they have been used. In reality, the term refers to original (OEM) cartridges that have only been used once, as prescribed by the OEM (most OEM cartridges carry a small-print rider that the cartridge has been designed for ‘single use’).

To the end user, the question then is, “how can I be sure that the print head on the compatible cartridge I have bought is in a good enough condition to give me top quality prints?” Indeed, how can users be sure that the ‘compatible’ cartridge bought has been used only once and that the third party remanufacturer involved is acquiring only ‘virgin empties’? Or, how can they be sure that the cartridges have been adequately cleaned before refilling?

Unfortunately, there is no answer to this question. The only solution is to insist on OEM cartridges. But, for users keen to save on the cost of printing by using third party supplies, some risk has to be accepted. Possible risks may be that:

  • nozzles are already clogged on first installation
  • ink has leaked in the packaging
  • the cartridge does not deliver the expected number of pages
  • the cartridge is dead on arrival because it has been poorly refilled and no ink is even reaching the nozzles

Costs associated with contending with each occurrence of these situations are essentially as above. However, costs escalate when repeated failures are experienced over the life of the printer.

As far as I am aware to date, the only research undertaken to determine how much a user might expect to suffer from third party cartridge failures was undertaken by an independent test lab sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. The findings pointed to enough failures of one sort or another (as outlined above) occurring in the third party compatibles that the average number of pages obtained per OEM (i.e. Hewlett-Packard original) cartridge was 43% higher than the average number of pages obtained per cartridge bought when using compatibles.

After all, it only takes one dead compatible cartridge out of three cartridges used in a year to reduce the average pages obtained per cartridge bought by 25%. It is then a question of whether the third party supplier will accept liability for the failure and replace the faulty cartridge free of charge and without question.

If the third party supplier refused to exchange a faulty cartridge, we might end up with a cost situation looking something like this.

Third party cartridge/print head failures – warranty not accepted

Attempt to resolve problem (as above) 5 minutes, 20 seconds
Cost of attempts @ €50/hr €4.44
Re-visit third party supplier Say 30 minutes
Purchase new (third party) cartridge Say €15.00
Cost of local motoring Say €4.00
Install and check new cartridge 5 minutes
Time to acquire replacement cartridge 35 minutes
Cost of acquiring replacement cartridge @ €50/hr €48.17
Total cost of resolving problem @ €50/hr €52.61
Printer downtime
(depending on availability to re-visit third party reseller)
~ 1 hour min,
perhaps 24/48hrs
Problem occurs once per year €52.61 per year
Total cost incurred over three years €157.83
Potential printer downtime over 3 years ~ 3 hours min,
perhaps 3-6 days

Note: Cost of time at €50 per hour is based on cost model outlined in article .

Using the assumed cost of €15 per cartridge bought, if one cartridge failed per year (cost of cartridges = €15 x 3 cartridges x 3 years = €135) the potential cost of resolving problems over three years would be higher (by 8%) than the cost of the ink actually used! So, using this example, the unreliability factor could more than double the Cost of Printing!

Using cartridges without an integrated print head (ink tanks), the potential for problems and faults to occur with the cartridge itself are reduced but the potential for problems to occur as a result of incompatible ink being pumped through the permanent or semi permanent print head is increased (most notably nozzle clogging). If this type of problem does occur, the printer itself will need a service, perhaps including replacement of the print head. In these circumstances the cost will almost certainly not be covered by the printer manufacturer. Some third party supplies companies will cover the cost of repair to a printer caused by use of their inks but this should not be assumed or guaranteed. The worst case scenario is that the printer itself will need to be replaced – a cost and hassle not many users would be happy with!

In summary then, it must not be assumed that printer failures involve only the printer unit itself. The supplies are also vulnerable to failure, the scale of which depends on the quality of the design and the manufacturing processes involved. Furthermore, use of third party supplies introduces a whole new range of potential problems and costs.

In the next article we take a look at potential faults, problems and associated costs involving laser printer supplies.

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