The Reason Printer Ink is so Expensive


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Buying printer ink is a frustrating exercise in knowing that you are being ripped-off by the seller, but there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. It’s expensive to buy, little fun to use, and before you know it—it’s time to purchase it again.

And that’s a constant cause of frustration among printer owners.

You’ve heard all the comparisons before. For example, if you were to compare prices per gallon, you’d find that printer ink is more expensive than any other liquid except possibly Chanel No. 5, LSD, and cobra venom. But exactly why is printer ink so expensive?

Cheap Printers, Expensive Ink

Ink jet printers are often very cheap. That’s because they’re sold at cost, or even at a loss — the manufacturer either makes no profit from the printer itself or loses money.

The manufacturer will make most of its money from the printer cartridges you buy later. Even if the company does make a bit of money from each printer sold, it makes a much larger profit margin on ink. Rather than selling you a printer that may be rather expensive, they want to sell you a cheap printer and make money on an ongoing basis by providing expensive printer ink.

It’s been compared to the razor model — sell a razor cheaply and mark up the razor blades. Rather than making a one-time profit on the razor, you’ll make continuing profit as the customer keeps buying razor blade replacements — or ink, in this case.

Additionally, many printer manufacturers go out of their way to make it difficult for you to use unofficial ink cartridges, building microchips into their official ink cartridges. If you use an unofficial cartridge or refill an official cartridge, the printer may refuse to use it.

In a Computer World story from 2010, HP argued that they spend a billion dollars each year on “ink research and development.” They point out that printer ink “must be formulated to withstand heating to 300 degrees, vaporization, and being squirted at 30 miles per hour, at a rate of 36,000 drops per second, through a nozzle one third the size of a human hair. After all that it must dry almost instantly on the paper.” They also argue that printers have become more efficient and use less ink to print, while third-party cartridges are less reliable.

The Engineering Is Complicated

The oldest ink drawing in the world was created 73,000 years ago, according to archaeologists. Scott Williams, a chemistry professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, says that early printer inks were essentially a mix of food dye and water that would fade in just a few months.

“Companies like Epson, HP, Canon, they all had to do research in translating a dye to a pigment composition to be able to get the photographic quality everybody wanted,” he says, “while also producing prints that would last.”

Today’s inkjets have a tough job: firing thousands of drops of ink per second, representing four different colors, with tremendous accuracy. And it needs to be quick-drying and water- and smear-resistant, and avoid making the page curl up—while also preventing the tiny jets from clogging.

“Ink companies spend a lot of time to get the right blend of pigment, dye, and vehicle to be able to have a very stable small droplet for high-resolution printing,” Williams says.

All of that research and development, of course, costs a lot of money—and that’s where the price comes in.

You’re Paying Off Your Printer

Think of the original price tag of a printer more like a down payment for years of use. You’re still expected to make periodic payments over the course of ownership.

According to IHS Markit, a global information provider, the cost to build a printer is higher than the retail price of most—if not all—consumer printers. IHS estimates the manufacturing cost of an average printer to be about $120.

IHS says it created the estimate by disassembling a basic inkjet printer and tallying the price of every component, including the digital display, enclosure, the included cartridge, the scanning window glass, image sensor, the mechanics, software to make it work, and so on.

The $120 figure doesn’t include research and development and post-manufacturing costs, such as shipping or marketing. Yet, that very printer may cost less than $100 at your basic retail or online store.

Lots of Ink Gets Wasted

Most consumers are getting only half of what they think they’re paying for.

Printers use ink in two ways. First, of course, they use ink to print documents and images. But inkjets also use ink just for maintenance, mainly for cleaning the print heads. Most people aren’t really aware of the maintenance needs of inkjets. It’s typical for an inkjet to waste as much ink on maintenance cycles as it uses to print documents.

Turning a printer off and back on can trigger a maintenance cycle, so it’s more efficient to leave your printer on.

It’s also important to keep your printers in a cool, shaded location. Drier, hotter environments may also increase the chance of clogged heads.

Are there alternatives?

Laser printers. You may associate laser printers with home offices or small businesses—and high prices—but some black-and-white laser printers are very affordable and can be attractive for everyday use.

Laser printers use dry toner, rather than ink, and don’t use any toner for maintenance, making them less expensive to operate.

However, laser printers are not for everyone.

Lasers can’t match inkjets in quality when it comes to printing photos. And though black-and-white laser printers don’t have to be expensive, color lasers tend to have high prices. Additionally, color lasers are larger and heavier than their inkjet counterparts.

Third-party ink. Printer makers want consumers to buy ink from them, but consumers do have other choices. A number of companies sell refurbished or refilled cartridges online and through walk-in stores. You can even get your empty cartridges refilled at Costco or Walgreens.

Many third-party inks are a step down in quality from the manufacturer brand, but still usable, and many of those cartridges will work initially, but then may clog printer heads.

However, third-party inks can be a good choice for some consumers. If my end use is just copies for the office to be able to use as a memo and I really don’t care about high definition quality, I think a third-party ink would be just fine, so long as it doesn’t gunk up my printer.

Ways to Conserve Ink

No matter which model of printer you choose, you won’t be able to adjust the maintenance cycle. We’ve found they occur based on a frequency set by the manufacturer. But you can reduce the number of cycles in several ways.

Leave the printer powered on all the time. This avoids triggering a maintenance cycle each time you use it. Even with some of the most ink-hogging models, it noticeably reduces ink consumption.

Worried about the cost and environmental impact of the extra energy? Inkjets left on use up very little power when not in use, so your ink savings should outweigh the expense considerably.

For less critical work, print in draft mode. This will reduce the amount of ink used, though not necessarily for maintenance. And think twice before printing lots of large photographs, especially in high-quality mode, because they use the most ink.

If you need to print large numbers of color images or photos, it may be cheaper to use a commercial printing outlet like Kinkos, FedEx Office, or an OfficeDepot near you for that task.

Don’t change cartridges unless you must. When you get the pop-up warning that says a particular cartridge is running low on ink and that’s it’s time to change it, know that there is still a lot of ink inside the cartridge. That’s simply a prompt telling you ink is low, there is no need to swap right then. Since learning that little tip I just continue to keep using that cartridge until it literally runs dry. Sometimes I can get as much use out of a cartridge AFTER I get the swap-notice as I do before, thereby almost doubling the life of a cartridge.

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