Why are Printer Cartridges so ‘expensive’?

While ink cartridges aren't cheap by any standards, it's best remembering it's a technological product afterall...

Why are Printer Cartridges so ‘expensive’?

Martin Hurren, an ink category business manager for HP, summed up perfectly the question of why printer cartridges are so expensive, with this quote:

“I wish it had never been called ink. That makes it open to comparison with everyday writing implements. This is unfair, it is a much more technological product than that.”

Have you ever sat and considered what printers, and cartridges, do in every print? Take a small 6”x4” photograph as an example. This photo is made of around 40 million ink droplets. These droplets are roughly a third the size of a human hair, fired 36,000 times per second by your printer. Each one of these droplets must land in a precise location to build your picture accurately. This accuracy is akin to you or I dropping a 5 pence piece from the top of a skyscraper… into a paper cup… 40 million times without missing… Really, really quickly.

Now how about standard Word documents? Do you see this ‘i’? There are 19 droplets of ink that make the dot in the top of that i alone. Reckon you can hit that paper cup 19 times instead? Congratulations, you’ve made a dot.

It sounds, and is, amazing, yet you can enjoy this for ‘only’ £40 in budget printers, and continue enjoying it in the same printer for £20-40 each set of new cartridges.

And another thing…

This is without even touching on the research that goes into the ink itself, with differing particle types, UV resistance and absorption rates requiring vast sums of money. Indeed, HP alone has 100 chemists working on ink formulations. Yes, cartridges can be expensive, but you’re paying for a technology… not a pen!

Does this make up for anti-competitive behaviour though?

The original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have to make a return on this R&D investment, leading to the higher costs for cartridges. However, third party manufacturers that provide the cheaper options have no such requirement.

Naturally, if a cheaper alternative can be produced, at a profit, market forces will make it happen. Thus we have the market we’re in now, with remanufacturers taking a used OEM cartridge and refilling it, and new-build manufacturers replicating the cartridge design, and eating into the OEMs’ market share and profits.

OEMs have not taken kindly to this, and have plunged significant time and resources into counteracting both threats. They started to add chips to cartridges, and it’s a nigh on certainty that if you head to your printer and take one of the cartridges out, you’ll find a shiny bronze contact chip on the casing.

This chip can do numerous things, the most important being validating whether a cartridge is genuine or not. It also controls functionality so that it stops working once it’s done a certain amount of printing or is past a certain date. This creates a massive headache for remanufacturers, who rely on refilling used OEM cartridges. If the chip is programmed to a number of pages that equals the OEM cartridge’s yield, the refilled cartridge won’t work, regardless of how much ink is in the cartridge.

For the new-build, compatible manufacturers, the OEMs have resorted to law. The patents that OEMs have approved on cartridge design, features or technology (Epson even managed to patent a chip!) mean that compatible manufacturers have to tread very carefully when manufacturing a replacement.

Why don’t the OEMs just let the quality shine through?

If these cheap options were not a viable choice, everyone would try them once, then switch to OEM products. Does the market reflect this? No. Is there repeat demand for cheap options? A resounding yes.

High quality third party cartridges from approved, quality assured suppliers make this question a moot point, which creates the confusion in the market we all know so well.

Let me close with the key benefits for each side of the argument, and I’ll let you decide what you’d rather your printer fed on.

What you’ll enjoy with OEM inks

  • “100%” reliability – no matter how good the third-party cartridges get, there will always be one or two failures
  • Readily available supply – most office suppliers provide original ink cartridges. High quality third-party options, especially for less popular cartridges, are harder to find.
  • Highest quality, long lasting prints – no matter how good third party options get, the OEMs will still be the benchmark in print quality. The difference in certain ranges now though is negligible.

What you’ll enjoy with third-party options

  • Significant cost savings – if you’re a heavy duty business user you’re looking at printing savings in the thousands of pounds per year.
  • Environmental friendliness – each remanufactured cartridge you buy is a cartridge kept away from landfill. Keep it green, folks!
  • Extended printer life – the very existence of remanufacturers means that, even when your OEM stops producing the genuine cartridges, you can still get hold of cartridges for your machine.

John Sollars, founder & MD of online printer ink retailer, Stinkyink.com

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