This Week in Imaging: Is the Ink/Toner and Gasoline Analogy Correct?

fall-colors-4The fierce war in the after-market toner and ink supplies market continues to simmer. As print, and particularly copy volumes, continue to gradually decline, retaining consumables (toner and ink) revenue for vendors becomes even more key. On the one hand, while some copier/MFP vendors allow dealers to sell third-party supplies, others such as HP and Canon rigorously fight against use of third-party supplies.

This week, the secretary general of the European Toner and Ink Remanufacturers Association (ETIRA), Vincent van Dijk, posed an interesting analogy, stating that not being able to use third-party ink cartridges in one’s printer or All-in-One would be the same as not being able to use a certain brand of gasoline to fill up one’s car. (ETIRA, by the way, may be filing anti-competition complaints against HP Inc. and Canon Inc. regarding third-party ink cartridges.)

The problem with this analogy are four-fold. First, auto makers aren’t in the gasoline business, and second, to our knowledge at least, no auto maker specifies that customers use a specific brand of gasoline, noting only to use unleaded or diesel fuel at the most. Third, as most can attest, there’s virtually no difference between using Exxon or Shell gasoline in one’s car (although some dedicated car buffs may argue otherwise, for the vast majority of drivers, any difference is imperceptible). And fourth, auto makers don’t price cars much lower because they’ll be able to reap profits from the aftermarket sale of gasoline.

On the one hand, printer/MFP makers routinely state that they specially formulate toner and ink to use with their printers and MFPs, and that these consumables are specifically designed to work with their specially designed imaging systems. Our own testing shows that both third-party ink cartridges and toner cartridges don’t work as well versus OEM supplies in terms of image quality and reliability. We haven’t of course tested every third-party brand under the sun – which would take decades at this point, since so many are available – but a majority of the brands we tested don’t measure up. On the other hand, a few well-established third-party toner brands deployed for many years in the field appear to have earned a good reputation, and state that they test their supplies in in-house labs.

On the other hand, we note that various toner-based MFP vendors seem to be increasingly promoting the low-fusing temperature of their toner, noting that the lower the temperature required to fuse toner to paper to form text and images, the less energy is required, saving on energy costs for customers. But is this advantage lost when third-party toner is used? The answer appears to be yes, unless the device can sense the toner formulation and adjust fusing temperatures accordingly. This means that the toner employed by third-party suppliers may not fuse properly and that they must find a new source of toner that can handle low fusing temperatures.

The question of whether ink and toner formulations matter (and Wirth Consulting, after extensive testing, certainly believes that they do), and the idea that ink and toner are all the same, just as gas from Exxon and Shell is the same, are sure to be around for quite some time. And, while anecdotal, comments on the Wirth Consulting Web site indicate that although users want third-party supplies, many are disappointed when using them.

What is very certain is that this issue isn’t going to go away anytime soon.


3 Responses

  1. Silviu C. says:

    Here’s a better analogy. It’s like a coffee machine maker would force its customers to only buy their brand of coffee (either beans, ground coffee or various kinds of coffee pods). There’s one notable case of such a thing actually happening. The company that did this is called Keurig. They tried to make their machines only accept their own, DRM-ed coffee cups. It did not go well for them as it did not go well for HP.

    A lot of the arguments you used to present a view from the machine maker’s side can be used for Keurig too. Coffee is not just coffee. They formulate their recipes too. Like how many varieties of robusta coffee will they use in their blend, how many varieties of arabica and in what quantities… But you know what? So does every other company in the business of roasting and selling coffee. Why should Keurig get to decide which coffee brand I get to enjoy on the machine I bought from them?

    Sure, with coffee machines you don’t risk to damage the actual machine with crappy coffee, however, people should be free to decide what sort of cartridges/ink they use with their printer. This is not and should never be the decision of the printer maker. The law in my country, for example, does not force a company like HP to replace or fix, free of charge, a printer or any other item that was improperly used. If a set of “compatible” cartridges broke the printer, that’s on the user. It also does not reflect badly on the company that made the printer, it reflects the poor choice a user made.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that what they did was wrong.

    There’s also no doubt in my mind that original consumables are going to be defect free and will allow for a larger amount of printed pages. What should set apart companies like HP from the others is good customer service. DRM is never good customer service.

    PS: Printer companies have surely taken the hint that there’s a huge market for cheap printing. DIY CISS kits have been around for a long time but installing them was a PITA. Epson, Brother, Canon and even HP now have offerings of printers with CISS systems out of the box. And they work. And they’re not a royal PITA to run or install. Bam. They have a new market. They can sell cheap ink and their printers can be sold for a profit, not as a loss leader.

    • Terry Wirth says:

      You make good points and we respect your opinion, but feel that this is a misplaced analogy. Kuerig wants to have its cake and eat it too by charging four-times more for a proprietary coffee machine AND for a cup of coffee. You can buy a coffee machine for $15 dollars and use any ground coffee product, whereas printers are designed around specific ink formulations, and can be damaged beyond repair from the use of improperly formulated ink.

      We still recommend that cost-conscious users who have eligible printers subscribe to the HP Instant Ink Program (if available in their country), or invest in one of the latest generation printers with factory equipped CISS.

  2. Kathleen Wirth says:

    Also keep in mind that 1) all printer and copier/MFP OEMs want their customers to use OEM ink and toner, not just HP, and 2) some inkjet printers are designed to work with pigment inks or dye-based inks, or a combination of both. Using pigment or dye inks incorrectly will certainly cause problems with image quality and reliability.

    Overall, as you state, OEMs seem to be moving away from the razors-and-blades business model (take a loss on the sale of the product, but make up for it with sales of supplies, such as blades or ink). Keep in mind that that means they will have to charge significantly more for the printer in order to provide lower-cost ink. That means the customer should be sure that their monthly print volume justifies purchase of a higher-priced inkjet printer that can, however, be supplied with much lower-priced ink.

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