Posted on June 4, 2024 in Technology

Printer Ink Is Expensive. Does It Have To Be?

The type of printer is going to affect the cost of the ink. A thermal printer, like the kind used for receipts and some shipping labels, won’t cost you any money at all for ink, just a bit of a surcharge for the special paper that needs to be put into it instead. Laser printers are cheaper to run than inkjets because they only use toner, but often cost more upfront; other styles, like risograph printers, are highly specialized for a specific purpose, and not ideal for the kind of printing that most offices and homes need to do. Inkjets are cheap to buy, but pricier in the long run – it was a bit of a running joke that just buying a new printer with the cartridges already in it was the cheapest way to “refill” a printer. This is because many printer companies are selling the printer itself at a loss! You can begin to see the problem of ink pricing when you know that, but surely that can’t be the entire reason.

According to HP, their cost mainly comes from R&D – to formulate an ink that is heat resistant, finely vaporizable, accurate, and colorfast all at once is very difficult! Around 2010, they said it costed them roughly a billion dollars a year to do that. But, you may counter, the average low-end inkjet printer has only had four colors available for years, and while jamming and clogging are not as common, the ink research has surely hit the point of diminishing returns. You’re probably right, although no company in the world would tell you that they mark the refills up because you have no choice but to buy. This is where the “razor” model comes in – sell the handle cheap, mark up the blades, infinite money machine.

You may have heard of a recent court case regarding a third-party repair company, and the vendor that makes and maintains the McDonald’s ice cream machines – in court, it was revealed that the ongoing maintenance was considered a source of income for the company! Meaning that if the McDonald’s franchisee wants to sell ice cream, they better keep feeding coins into the piggy bank (this practice is considered predatory – read more here at Business Insider: ). When a company sells a big machine to a consumer, they make one lump sum sale, and if they don’t sell the accessories or maintenance plans, then they won’t be making any more money off of that consumer until they need another big machine. But what if they sold the accessories? And even better, what if the consumer isn’t allowed to use substitutes?

They’ll be like a free money machine forever and ever, in the company’s imagination. A number of other companies try to sell people one big machine plus the juice that it runs on, with varying results – when Keurig tried to restrict consumers to Keurig-brand coffee pods, there was outrage over the plastic waste this would create and the limits it would put on coffee choice, and they backed down some. When Adobe Photoshop switched from one lump-sum payment for the program to a recurring subscription for forever, programs like GIMP and Photopia were shared around social media sites, so freelancers who didn’t have the funds could jump ship and be alright. When a printer company decided ‘no third party ink cartridges’ and started putting proprietary chips into the ink cartridges, most people were just forced to accept this because a printer is not nearly as easy to fool as a coffee machine, or to find an alternative for like the editing programs. To switch printers is, at the bare-bones side of the spectrum, 85$ on Amazon, but when you start looking at business-grade devices, you’d be looking at spending anywhere from 750$ to 1,350$. And then you still need to buy the ink for your new, hopefully better, machine.

An added complication to all of this is that businesses do not want to use some random assortment of programs or replacement parts for their investments! Third party ink cartridges might clog your machine or fail to print, and then what? HP/Brother/Etc. only cover their own cartridges failing under warranty. When Photopia doesn’t work quite right, you have to go to forums to troubleshoot; a business using Photoshop has the option of contacting Adobe for professional support on top of forums and other professional resources. A business wants to stick with reputable companies that have a professional reputation to maintain. Adobe is a well-trusted brand despite the nickel-and-diming, but GIMP? The name itself is a bit offputting – if you don’t already know the program, you might be concerned that someone wants to share a GIMP file with you.  

In short, the printer ink is expensive because the printer company demands that it is, and businesses are willing to accept the surcharge for the promise of quality, whether or not the printer holds up it’s end of the bargain. You can buy XL cartridges, you can buy refillable ones, or you can order from a printing company – but when it’s time to print, somewhere along the line, you need the ink. As such, you should pick carefully when you decide which printer to buy! Weigh the pros and cons carefully!