Buying ink cartridges is no longer a black-and-white issue

HP explain the science of ink

HP explain the science of ink

With cheaper options now available, printer firms have to justify the high cost of cartridges, writes Adam Maguire.

STAFF AT HP are quick to list interesting facts and figures about the company’s print technology, and they do so with a certain sense of pride. An ink cartridge’s nozzle is one-third of the width of a human hair, for example, and can have up to 36,000 drops of ink passed through it every second. It can take three to four years to develop a new ink formula and it must be suitable to use in several climates and on any type of job.

These and many other statistics are used by HP, to some degree at least, to explain the high cost of ink for the consumer. The mantra that “ink is not just coloured water” is stated repeatedly by Geraldine Morel, the company’s European marketing product manager, as she explains just how much work is involved in print and ink production.

“We are always spending on RD [research and development] at all levels to ensure we can provide reliability to our customers,” she says.

“For example, certain climates can cause mould to grow inside cartridges if they are not made in a particular way so we work to ensure that does not happen.”

In the past printer manufacturers did not really have to justify the cost of ink. But with towns and cities across Ireland – and the world – now dotted with cartridge refill centres and companies such as Tesco selling own-brand cartridges, this has changed.

Customers are increasingly moving to these so-called “after-market” suppliers to get ink for their printers, having noticed a significant difference in the upfront cost of a full cartridge.

HP suggests this is a false economy, however, pointing to research it commissioned QualityLogic to undertake. According to the study, HP cartridges give nearly 17 per cent more prints than third-party alternatives and over 52 per cent more than refills.

This alone may not compensate fully for the price difference but Morel points to the study’s other statistics on cartridge reliability to make up the difference. According to QualityLogic, more than 12 per cent of third-party cartridges and 18 per cent of the refills it tested simply did not work at all.

“Reliability is hugely important – if a cartridge does not work, that’s time you have lost in having to go back out and buy another one, not to mention the headache caused if it means not having a job done when it was needed,” she says. “It also means you might have to buy another cartridge so you’ve spent twice as much before printing anything.”

With these figures in mind, HP claims that after-market ink can cost up to twice as much as its own consumables in the long run.

However, ink is always going to be most expensive for consumers. As Morel points out, ink’s cost per page drops when bought in larger quantities but as home users only buy a small amount at a time the cost stays high. HP is trying to counter this by offering “standard” and “value” versions of some cartridges, the latter being of higher capacity and so cheaper per print.

Morel does not make any cost comparisons between HP and other printer manufacturers, however, saying the company’s focus is currently on the alternative sources of ink for its machines.

Another study conducted by QualityLogic on ink costs does make this comparison and is less than flattering to HP. Kodak machines proved to be the cheapest, costing 4p per colour page printed. HP’s cost fluctuates depending on the machine tested, ranging between 11p and 17p. The worst was a Lexmark cartridge, which cost 22p per colour page.

However, value is not the only thing HP is using to keep customers buying its consumables; its environmental credentials is another. The company, like other manufacturers, has a recycling programme which encourages users to send back empty cartridges so they can be re-manufactured into new ones.

As part of the HP Planet Partners recycling programme, customers can order recycling envelopes or boxes online, and new cartridges are being designed to be more easily processed upon their return. The programme is running in 53 countries and has recycled 770,000 tonnes of waste in the past 20 years, though this only represents a small percentage of the cartridges manufactured in this time.

The company also uses recycled material in its product packaging and says it is considering launching a specialised line of recycled paper in the future. According to Morel, the company previously had a similar product but it did not prove popular with customers.

At present customers are encouraged to recycle for their conscience alone. When asked if the company would consider offering a discount scheme to those returning empty cartridges, Morel says this is not an option.

“Our lawyers say we cannot link [cartridge recycling] to financial incentives as it would be deemed unfair competition to the after-market industry,” she says.

“We would need to find a non-financial incentive instead and so far we have not found anything.”

This article originally appeared in The Irish Times on the 14th May 2010.

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