HP explains why printer ink is so expensive

"There's a perception that ink is one of the most expensive substances in the world," says Thom Brown, marketing manager at HP.

Well, yeah.

One might get that feeling walking out of a store having spent $35 for a single ink cartridge that appears to contain fewer fluid ounces of product than a Heinz ketchup packet.

Brown was ready to explain. His presentation included a series of PowerPoint slides aptly titled "Why is printer ink so expensive?" I was ready for answers.

Robert L. Mitchell on

The cost of printer ink

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  • 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," Brown says, adding that users concerned about cost per page can buy "XL" ink cartridges from HP that last two to three times longer. (Competitors offer similar cartridges).

    The message: You get value for the money. No getting around it though: Ink is still expensive, particularly if you have to use that Photosmart ink jet printer for black and white text pages.

    Competing claims

    Then the discussion diverged a bit to slam the competition in the ink market which competes, of course, on price. Refill products aren't as reliable, produce inferior print quality and generate fewer pages per cartridge than HP products, he says. He backed up those assertions with an HP-sponsored Qualitylogic study showing that its cartridges last longer than refilled ink cartridges (no study of cost per page, however) and an HP focus group of 17 people, half of whom Brown says were unhappy with "bargain ink."

    While HP's biggest brand name competitors in the ink jet space are Lexmark, Epson and Canon, Brown didn't mention them. Instead he repeatedly hammered Kodak, the upstart printer vendor that, since entering this market three years ago, has built a marketing campaign promoting the idea that HP and everyone else is ripping off the consumer with high ink prices while Kodak sells it for much less.

    Brown asserts that Kodak has been playing fast and loose with its cost per page measurements, that users (in HP's focus group at least) must change cartridges much more often than with HP products (HP uses individual color ink cartridges; Kodak does not) and that Kodak's products are less reliable. "Twelve of 17 people [in the focus group] didn't think Kodak lowered cost," he says.

    As to measurements, there are ISO standards (ISO 24711 and 24712) for determining text and graphics page yields for ink jet printer cartridges, but none for photographic images. Brown seemed to imply that Kodak was fudging on its cost per page specs. "Where did they cut corners to get those claims?" he asks.

    Ink as technology: The argument for HP Ink

    As to value, Brown talked up the value of HP ink cartridges, which may seem to have a price per milliliter on par with liquid gold but also cost HP a fortune to develop. Brown says HP spends $1 billion a year on ink research and development (The total revenue for the printing division  was $24 billion last year). Inks must be formulated to withstand heating to 300 degrees, vaporization, and being squirted at 30 miles per hour, at a rate of 36,000 drops per second, through a nozzle one third the size of a human hair. After all that it must dry almost instantly on the paper.

    HP has come a long way since its first ink jet printer came out in 1985. At that time that state-of-the-art unit had 12 nozzles in the print head and fired droplets at a rate of 10,000 per second. The technology in today's Photosmart 8250 uses 3,900 nozzles to deliver 122 million drops per second onto the paper. You can see the difference in results here:

    HP Ink Jet Image Quality Over Time

    Image: Click for larger version. Improvement in ink jet image quality, 1985 - 2008. The reason for the improvement: Smaller dot sizes due to smaller nozzles/drops, the development of light cyan and magenta inks (lighter colors look smaller to the eye), the ability to deliver two different drop sizes (as small as 1.3 pico-liters. You can fit 4 billion pico-liters in a teaspoon). Source: HP.

    Full disclosure: How much ink do you get?

    Moving from value to cost, why doesn't HP - or other ink manufacturers for that matter - disclose the volume of liquid in each cartridge so users can compare the per-unit costs? You can get that for a bottle of Coke, a gallon of gas, or a tube of toothpaste - but not for ink.

    That, says Brown, would just confuse the consumer. "Each system has a different way it uses ink or the drop size is different. If you looked strictly at volume you wouldn't see those differences and it would be confusing to the customers."

    Why is it that, whenever a vendor opposes disclosure of information on a product or service it always claims to be doing so to protect the consumer? I don't think marketing gives consumers enough credit. Customers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions when presented with all of the facts - and should be trusted to do so

    Perhaps the real reason why fluid volume isn't disclosed is because there's so little in a cartridge. By my research a cartridge holds somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 20 milliliters. The Heinz ketchup packet? About 27. (But that's for the new, larger, dipping style packets. The original foil package held 9 milliliters.)

    HP's marketing team probably worries that the disclosure of such tiny volumes will make it look miserly, no matter how many pages users actually get from the product

    Which brings me to my next point: Page yields as an alternative to volume measurements. Brown says HP is the only company to include a generic maximum page yield right on its ink cartridges. But based on what? He admits that industry methods for measuring page yield are confusing to consumers, and claims that some vendors (but not HP, he says) fudge those test numbers. Furthermore, there are no photo page yield standards at all. "Manufacturers have to police themselves," Brown says.

    All the more reason to fully disclose the unit volume of ink cartridges. Assuming the average number of picoliters per drop for a given ink jet print head, the cost per page should be relatively easy to figure from there.

    More information is always better. By not disclosing ink volumes on cartridges it looks like HP -- and other vendors -- have something to hide.

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