The answer to the question needs to examine reasons that have been given in the past, since we all know how rapidly technology changes and how modern computing has made things much easier and cheaper. Except that happens not be the case when it comes to printer ink. Research from 2010, 2015, and 2018 all show the same argument being made for the insane price of printer ink: the engineering process. Here are a few examples from consumer publications of the past: “The key point in a nutshell: Ink technology is expensive to develop, and you pay for reliability and image quality. These liquids are completely different from a technology standpoint.”
“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’ All of that research and development, of course, costs a lot of money—and that's where the price comes in. Apparently, by 2016 no new reasons were available, as the popular How To Geek web site just regurgitated the reason from 7 years earlier.
From the available information, it seems that printer ink companies such as HP and Brother simply send out the standard explanation: that it is the chemical and engineering process that makes printer ink so expensive. But printer ink has been around at least since the evolution of the personal computer back in the 1980’s, when HP was the de facto standard for quality printing of any kind for home or office uses. Are we expected to believe that 40 years later companies cannot find a suitable alternative for printer ink – or at least a comparable alternative? There are some subtleties here that are being communicated to the public about the state of printer ink (and printers for that matter) that are hardly complimentary. The first seems to be the most obvious: the public at large is simply to uneducated or unsophisticated to digest a basic explanation of the chemical and engineering technology that causes the ink prices to remain high. True, Chemistry and Engineering are STEM disciplines which are not only in demand but avoided by many college students who are more interested in an easy degree and a large paycheck than the needs of society at large. But there are still a flock of people who can understand basic concepts – if they are communicated properly. Thus far it seems that the printer ink companies prefer to keep people in the dark using “trade secrets” as a shroud to keep prices higher.
Another message is that the ink companies are much like the pharmaceutical companies. Citing high research and development costs, they explain the high cost of their product by the subliminal suggestion that they are actually losing money; an idea supported by the fact that the physical printer is so cheap but is necessary in order to remain profitable. If you look closely at the standard printer ink manufacturer response, you notice that the message is mimicked because the printer ink competition is very limited. Third party ink manufacturers have fallen into disrepute and printer manufacturers have put microchips on their ink cartridges to stifle competition. If your ink cartridge doesn’t match the printer, it will not work. Then there is the elephant in the room: is there a reasonable alternative for printer ink? Text messaging and email may be fine for communication, but it seems clear that many people and businesses prefer to have something physical in hand when it comes to certain types of media. Smartphones and tablets, as useful and advanced they are for the purposes of communication, have reached their limit in terms of being all-in-one technologies. 40 years ago people were prophesying about the paperless office. Ask anyone who works in an actual office environment if that has come true. Obviously, printer ink companies didn’t stop doing research and development for fear of their products no longer being needed.
Back in the 1990’s when CDs and other high density magnetic storage was being touted as the cost-effective way to store data, a French librarian asked an unsettling question. If the expected life of a CD is about 10 years, and paper has proven itself historically to last more than 500 years, where is the advantage in this new storage method? As long as businesses and people want a permanent record of something that brings with it an undisputable authenticity, printer ink (and any type of paper and ink combination) will always be in demand. Those who cannot afford the “luxury” will just have to trust their banks, businesses, and important documents to the digital medium. More than a few people are already noticing that classic movies are being digitized, but the storyline and the content is nowhere near the same as the original. This is not just to exploit the 20-something who wasn’t around in the days of Bogart and Bergman, but once the conversion has been made the original is destroyed, leaving to source by which to compare the latest version.
Ending with a return to the early days of home and office printing in the 80’s, professional computer consultants had to adhere to a standard when it came to digitized data: for every entry that was stored on a spreadsheet or word processing document that was considered to be critical data, there had to be a physical source document to refer back to. In other words, paper and ink documentation was to be trusted for legal and accounting purposes. Printing out what was on the screen was not considered to be legally valid. Printer ink is expensive because the prices and processes by which it is researched, developed, and marketed are “closely held corporate secrets” that avoid the eyes of public scrutiny. This may not be 100% true, but it certainly weighs in heavily on the price of the end product, which sees no end in sight when being viewed through the eyes of the average consumer. Popular trade publications such as Consumer Reports will only give you tips on how to cut your printing costs.
Written by Garrett Parker
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