Printing is unreasonably expensive. I’m sure hardware manufacturers like HP, Samsung, Canon etc lie in bed at night smiling in disbelief that we all seem to happily pay their ridiculous prices and drink their kool-aid.
I recently repaired a HP 2605dn colour laser. Those things are built with a pretty glaring design fault. While I was poking around in the optics box (LASERS!) I had an epiphany. If some well meaning university engineering department designed and built an open source laser printer, they could change the world.
A little bit of context is important. At the moment there are a few big printer hardware manufacturers. At the heart of every laser printer is something called the “Engine”. Only a few of the big guys make engines and you’ll probably find that whoever made the engine also built the printer, regardless of what brand ends up on it. Canon makes HP and Canon, Lexmark make Dell, Samsung and IBM while Xerox is made by Sharp. Who the actual designs belong to is unknown, but I suspect that most of the time the design IP belongs to the manufacturer, regardless of the brand.
It’s also important to know that most of the rollers, bearings etc inside a printer are made by someone else and bought en-masse. So it’s not like you’d have to start fabricating rubber in order to build your own printer.
How a computer talks to a printer is called the command language. At the moment something called PCL (Printer Command Language) (developed by HP) is the de-facto standard in most printers. (Don’t ask why we still need a bajillion printer drivers). The ownership/legalities of PCL is hard to figure out, and since HP will probably accuse any Open Source project that uses PCL of patent infringement it would be wise to develop a new (probably a lot simpler) page description language.
If the big manufacturers sold their cartridges for reasonable prices there would be no market for “compatibles”.
Manufacturers make a fortune from cartridges. They consider the cartridge design and interface to be their intelectual property and therefore anyone who builds a compatible cartridge will incur their wrath and lawyers. In an attempt to make it hard to refill the cartridges they’ve even gone as far as putting microchips directly on the cartridge that track how many pages you’ve printed and then when you reach a magic number, regardless of how much toner is left, stop working. They do this purely to make money. The fact that they do this is clear evidence that they’re ripping you off. If the big manufacturers sold their cartridges for reasonable prices there would be no market for “compatibles”.
And then there’s Asia where the whole idea of intellectual property is kinda-sorta-fuzzy. A good example would be guys like Nanchang who openly sell the microchips for specific printer cartridges to anyone. The printer manufactures lawyers would obviously like to prosecute anyone caught with those chips in the West. They’ll claim that he chips are the manufacturer’s IP and reverse engineering them is considered a breach of the DMCA. How those things live on Amazon is anyone’s guess. I wonder if the manufacturers would react if big retailer (Wallmart etc) sold those kits? (Do any?)
So how cheaply can a cartridge be made? Very cheaply. There is very little on a laser cartridge that actually wears. Toner (powdered ink) is really the only thing that runs out and as you can imagine, toner is cheap.
So there are manufacturers in Asia that can produce “counterfeit” printer cartridges for a fraction of the price of the originals, but due to legalities, those are hard to acquire in the West, and you never know whether you’re dealing with a reputable business or some fly by night that will screw up your printer.
If there was an Open Source printer and reference design for the cartridges, reputable manufacturers could build those printers and cartridges and reputable retailers could import them without fear of legal battles for a fraction of the price. Most importantly, an Open Source designed cartridge would almost certainly be designed from the ground up to be easy to refill at home.
Over time there would be design revisions (bugfixes) and eventually the printers would be as good (probably better) than the built-in-redundancy printers that the big manufacturers currently produce.
Open Source Hardware creates a unique ecosystem. It is naturally competitive, pushing prices down on consumables and making sure that people pay for build and print quality rather than brands.