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Total Cost of Printing – Why does ink and toner cost “so much”?

Issue 0803/2 – Many printer users resent the amount of money spent on supplies for their printers when the hardware itself seems to cost so little. We see, or perceive that ink or toner is wasted when we dispose of an old cartridge and we think that the cost of the liquid or powder does not equate with how much we are asked to pay for it. This article explores cartridge developments and technologies with a view to setting our minds at rest and helping us understand the dynamics of cartridge pricing.

Starting with inkjet printer cartridges, ink tank technology has moved on significantly over recent years and much less ink is left inside the tanks with the latest generations.

For instance, Epson now uses an electrical sensor connected to the on-board chip to sense when the ink level has fallen to the necessary minimum permissible. Brother, on the other hand, continues with its use of a mechanical signal arm and optical sensor to stop printing when ink is low.

Enabling it to be so efficient, Canon uses an optical sensor that tells the printer when there is no ink in the open chamber of the tank. Thus, there will always be enough ink held in the foam to ensure that the system does not run dry.

Canon’s system could be even more efficient, however. The amount of foam in the tank could be reduced, thus reducing the amount of ink held within it.

Canon CLI-8Y

Canon BCI-8Y photo

Brother’s system could be more consistent, perhaps partly by moving the ink valve back to the bottom of the tank. However, this was the system employed in the previous generation of ink tank, LC-900, and that series was capable of leaving vast quantities of inaccessible ink in the tank. The accompanying image shows two tanks, one where the main ink chamber is entirely empty and the other with a couple of millimetres of ink in the bottom.
Brother LC1000Y

Brother LC1000 photo

It is the mechanical signal arm that causes this potentially excessive waste. There is too much scope for the signal arm to be jogged by movement of the printer, which, together with too much friction in the pivot point, can allow the arm to swing to the empty position, and stick there, thus stopping the printer.

Epson’s design also has a safety margin that could be reduced. Some ink, which appears not to have found its way down to the sensor and ink feed channel, can still be seen in one chamber of the cartridge.

Epson  T0714

Epson photo

Only integrated ink cartridges (those with a disposable print head attached to the cartridge), are ever left to run dry. These are typically employed by some Canon printers, Hewlett-Packard’s consumer inkjet printers and all of Lexmark’s printers. This is because they can be allowed to run dry – there is no system behind the cartridge relying on a continuous flow of ink with no air bubbles to ensure that the system does not run dry and cause ink feed problems.

With these cartridges, users can wait till the print quality deteriorates from ink starvation, thus knowing that they have used all of the ink that is available to them (note: wastage of two colours of ink in a tricolour cartridge is a completely separate issue).

In a toner system, the same principle applies. Historically, integrated cartridges are usually allowed to run dry while multi-part systems generally stop printing and throw up a ‘Toner Out’ message once the toner cassette is empty but while there is still toner within the print engine itself. This configuration allows the printer to alert the user to a toner out state without wasting toner in the cassette but before print quality is compromised.

To the manufacturer, the amount of ink or toner left in the cartridge is irrelevant. It is the user who feels hard done by and cheated if there is an indication that ink is wasted in the cartridge once that cartridge is rejected by the printer.

Essentially, the cost of manufacturing the ink or toner itself is so low that it can be disregarded. The cost is to be found in the research and development phases of the printer itself and, more particularly, of the writing system (inks, toners, print heads, print engines). Several years ago Hewlett-Packard was spending as much as half a billion Dollars to develop a new ink system (inks, print heads and media) for each new generation of inkjet print engine. This figure is sure to have increased since.

Half a billion Dollars is a vast cost, comprising: human resources in the form of scientists, researchers and technicians who actually do the job and develop the ink system; equipment and systems to make the technical development possible; printer test engines, test rigs and batches of test ink and media to determine the success of each phase of development; laboratory, office, transportation and communications costs; and the vast array of other overheads to keep the program rolling and supplied.

This is why a simple plastic container filled with ink, or a canister with a few rollers, gears and powder, costs what seems to us, as the user, to be such an outrageous price.

However, it is only by the sale of cartridges that the manufacturer can recoup development costs and move forwards with funding for new and better print engines for us to use in the future.

In reality, it is we, the users, who need to undergo a paradigm shift in our thinking such that each new cartridge bought represents an integral and vital piece of the printer rather than representing a rip-off for a few millilitres of ink or grams of powder in a box or bottle and in which we recognise that we are investing in the development of the exciting new printer that will occupy our desktop in the next year or two.

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