Monday, October 30, 2006

Refill or Replace? Alternatives to Expensive Ink Cartridges

Nobody bothers to deny that inkjet cartridges are expensive - at least most of the ones sold by OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) to fit their own inkjet printers.

The high cost of ink versus the low cost of many inkjet printers, fax machines and increasingly popular MFC's (multi-function machines which commonly combine the functions of a printer, copier, scanner and frequently a fax machine in one desktop unit) has spawned a multi-billion replacement industry, producing generic ink cartridges, remanufactured replacement cartridges and various self or store-centered "refill" alternatives.

In a 2005 article by author Drew Robb published on SmallBusinessComputing.com ReInk Technologies Inc. (owner and operator of Vibrant Ink and its online store at www.vibrantink.com) Vice President Jeremy Shulman explained the most common alternatives to expensive OEM inkjet cartridges for inkjet printing.

"Replacement (also known as generic) ink cartridges are cartridges that are manufactured by a company other than the original manufacturer," says Shulman. "A remanufactured ink cartridge is the original OEM cartridge that has been professionally cleaned, refilled with quality ink that is made in the USA and tested prior to leaving the factory."

What about home refill kits? For people with some technical dexterity, refill kits can prove a cost-effective alternative.

With so much money being poured into ink cartridges, it's no surprise that hundreds of companies have sprung up offering refill kits for ink jets and laser printers. They work for some people, but many find them too much trouble. Most people have blackened their hands, injected the yellow ink into the red receptacle or ruined the carpet with refill kits, according to author Drew Robb.

"You cannot beat the cost of many refill kits," said Shulman. "However, you must be careful to purchase a kit which uses an ink specific to the printer family that you are refilling. Different companies use different types of formulations. So-called universal inks may only work for certain printers and cartridges. In addition, you have to deal with cartridges that cannot be refilled - as many as 50% - and you must be comfortable with the refill process." Shulman does not offer refill kits on his website. He sees them as very customer service intensive and a potential source of customer dissatisfaction, citing the many calls he has received from people who purchased refill kits and ended up throwing them out.

"It is hard to beat the quality of a new manufactured generic replacement ink cartridge produced under ISO 9001 quality conditions in a state-of-the art factory," said Shulman. He cited his popular Vibrant Ink generic cartridges for most popular Epson, Brother, Canon and some HP printers. "We rarely get returns or complaints on those products," he said. "The quality is very comparable to the OEM, at a fraction of the cost," he said, "although using different inks can require adjustments of your printer and many computer programs."

"The one place you see refills for those cartridges," said Shulman, "are cartridges designed for refill and CIS (continuous ink) systems." These refillable cartridges are sold at a premium, for a few dollars apiece, but are designed to be refilled with special needles from convenient 4 oz to 12 oz bottles. CIS systems are sold at various price points and are designed to fill printers from attached bottles. They are used by high volume users such as graphics arts professionals and people who print on fabric.

Replacement and remanufactured cartridges are widely available for inkjet printers. But the success rate is sporadic to say the least. According to Recharger Magazine, a major industry publication, you simply cannot refill every inkjet cartridge. The actual numbers are more like 20 percent of black inkjet cartridges and 50 percent of colors can't be refilled or reused.

"The reject rate is much less of a problem with a professional remanufacturer," explained Shulman. "They have equipment to test for defects, both prior to and after refill, and to replace some defective parts." It is hard to replicate that equipment at home. The quality of popular storefront refill centers is as good as the empty cartridge that goes in, the equipment and ink used and the skill of the individual operator. Storefronts sell their finished product at or above the cost of factory remanufactured.

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