Printer ink: Tired of feeding the cash cow?

Computerworld –

Human blood costs about $17.27 an ounce, silver about $34 an ounce. But both are bargains compared to the ink sold to the owners of inkjet printers, which can exceed $80 an ounce. Meanwhile, the ink used to print newspapers costs about 16 cents an ounce.

Today, color inkjet technology offers essentially photo-realistic output from consumer or home-office printers that cost less than $100. But even those who print out as few as 20 pages a week will probably have to buy several ink refills a year, at minimum, costing way more than the original price of the printer. Those who understand the issues can avoid the worst shocks. (See “Shopping advice,” below.)

“Everyone complains about the price of ink, but consumers do not do a net-present-value analysis when shopping — we only do it with higher-ticket items,” explains Federico De Silva, an analyst at Gartner, a market research firm. “They are going for a $49 printer, but when they have to refill it they realize they are spending $50 to $60 just on ink.”

Shopping advice

The rule of thumb is that, generally, the more expensive the printer the less expensive the refill ink, sources agree. But there is no cross-over point, or a printer price at which you can expect minimal ink prices, because multiple factors, such as print speed, can affect the machine’s price.

For the best deal, know your needs when printer shopping, and establish the cartridge yields of the units you are considering. So for instance, if you print 100 pages a week, that’s more than 5,000 a year; with a low-end machine with 400-page yields you may have to refill monthly. Picking the right machine can save you hundreds of dollars over its life. If you print two pages per week, ink is a non-issue.

Be careful about using higher print resolutions, as doing so drives up ink consumption exponentially, but the difference in quality may not be visible to the unaided eye, says Andy Slawetsky, head of Industry Analysts, a research firm in the print industry. For instance, Kodak’s inkjets have a default setting of 600 by 1200 dots per inch and can optionally be set as high as 9600 dots per inch, but the difference is often indistinguishable, says Rod Eslinger, comparative advertising manager at Kodak.

Thom Brown, a supplies technology specialist at HP, suggests that inkjet owners leave their machines on. The printers will go into sleep mode and do print head cleaning in the background as required, he notes. But if they are turned off between use they may launch a major priming and cleaning cycle when turned back on, wasting ink each time.

Some OEM cartridges have expiration dates built into their chips, and cannot be installed after that date, warns Slawetsky. Buying cartridges in bulk at a discount may be self-defeating for such machines, he warns, as a cartridge may expire before it is needed.

An often overlooked issue is durability, or how long it takes the ink to fade. For example, Wilhelm Imaging Research in Grinnell, Iowa, rates the ink from most OEMs as likely to outlive the owner by decades when used to print photos that will be displayed under glass. But all third-party refill ink for HP cartridges that it has tested fade noticeably within a year. As for unlit archival storage, Brown at HP said the issue is really the choice of paper, since yellowing is a bigger problem than fading.

“The industry figured out years ago that once people buy a printer they are committed to it, so you can sell the printer at or below cost knowing they will buy the cartridges,” adds Charles Lecompte, head of Lyra Research, a market research firm in Newton, Mass. “We think they are selling the cartridges for several times more than it costs to make them.”

Why? “Printer prices have hit rock bottom, and the manufacturers are trying to somehow make up for the money they are not making from the hardware,” says Seheje Saraphy, analyst at market research firm IDC.

At Hewlett-Packard, the world’s top-selling printer maker, justifying the price is not a problem. “There’s a lot of technology in ink,” says Thom Brown, a supplies technology specialist at HP. “It’s more than colored water; there are more than a dozen different ingredients.”

Aside from leaving a mark on paper, the ink has to remain unchanged in the cartridge for two years or more, and endure the heat and pressure of being shot through a microscopic hole in the print head after being heated suddenly to 300 degrees Celsius, he explains. The ink must then travel the equivalent of a quarter falling 30 stories, hit the paper and not bounce, dry instantly and not fade for decades.

“It takes three to five years to develop one new ink formulation and a thousand prototype printers, since there are so many iterations in the process,” Brown adds.

But Veneeta Eason, Kodak’s director of future product marketing, sees HP’s justification as a market opportunity. “When we entered the inkjet market several years we saw that the number one dissatisfier was the high cost of ink — printer prices were dropping while ink prices were going up,” she recalls. So Kodak decided to offer printers that cost somewhat more with cartridges that cost less, largely thanks to the print head being in the printer rather than on the cartridge.

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