Open Source Printing Hardware

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.

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”.

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.

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17 thoughts on “Open Source Printing Hardware

  1. Well, there are the mechanical aspects. You are right that they are, if not simple, standard commodity products.

    Then there are the OS drivers, page-description languages (PostScript, PCL), font renderers (True Type, etc), fonts, and raster image processors (color, grayscale, mono, etc).

    Each of these components on its own is subject to the “couldn’t we just” argument of open source simplicity. “Couldn’t we just” use Ghostscript and ImageMagick? Sure.

    But for various reasons these components aren’t real simple to integrate with each other and still get a click-to-clunk time of a few seconds or less. For better or worse people expect this stuff to work flawlessly. Even (especially!) graduate students want their stuff printed out perfectly.

    There is also a bit of patent protection, but the printer business is old enough that the key patents are expiring.

    That’s why the printer vendors and their firmware suppliers (Zoran and Adobe are examples) have a sustainable business. They’ve come up with a business model (cheap razor, expensive blades) that successfully drives make-versus-buy decisions definitively into the buy column.

    In the meantime, doing open source printer work is a good idea. A good entree might be either fine art printing (super high quality, high end) or super cheap developing-country products.

  2. As I understand it the printers themselves are sold at very low profit margins, and the money is made from the ink. The trouble is that any printer produced from an open-source design would probably be more expensive than its closed source counter parts, since it wouldn’t be able to recoup the cost from ink.

    Personally, I would definitely pay a premium for quality printer that would last and had cheap refill ink. I mean seriously how often does printer technology change? But I suspect we may be in the minority of customers with that sort of thinking.

  3. Good idea, but I do have one question:

    > it would be wise to develop a new (probably a lot simpler) page description language.

    Wouldn’t Postscript qualify? I know it was invented by Adobe, but at this point it’s basically a de facto open standard.

    1. I’m no legal expert but I suspect that anything that became a thorn in the side of the mainstream manufacturers better have an absolutely clean legal history. De facto does not mean patent unincumbered.

  4. Well, I think that cheap ink will also lead to more consumption of paper (and ink), and we are already very unsustainable consumers… so there is a double edge here. But anyway, I’m all for not letting this guys ripping off us all.

  5. >*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.*

    Everything up to PCL5 will be out of patent except maybe in the US if there are submarine patents on something in PCL5 that wasn’t disclosed in the original spec. Note the thing needs to be invention and non obvious.

  6. The printer company execs have already sent the hitmen for you. 🙂

    In all seriousness, an open-source printer is a very good idea, but you’d still have to get ink for it somewhere… Maybe there are cheap, low-end printers whose cartridges you could use/break open, that don’t cost more than human blood?

  7. I have just quickly speed read this on my mobile. Have you guys heard of the kick starter project lasersaurus? Its supposed to be an open source project to build a laser cutter.

  8. I worked 5 years for Ricoh, not as part of the engin team so I can’t talk with 100% knowledge but I still had occasions to see some stuffs. Sure you could have some open source engine that could work in a easonnable time, the problem is
    – how fast?
    – how reliable? (i had to make the printers jam for some of my tests, not always that easy)
    – which quality? (toner research is high-tech research to get the good size/shape/stickiness…)
    – how easy/cost efficient/clean to build? (a lot of research in Ricoh was going into making the build process clean/ecological/safe/cheaper… sure you could buy some cheaper parts made from whichever chinese manufacturer, you’d get what you pay for and that company workers and the environment would get it too…)

  9. It’s not quite correct to state “There is very little on a laser cartridge that actually wears,” or to state that the _only_ reason manufacturers limit cartridge life is “to make money.” Here’s some engineering and marketing perspective:

    Wear and aging occurs on every gear, roller, belt, and bearing. Plastic gears, belts and bearings have definite life limits. The photosensitive drum surface exhibits aging which (slowly) reduces print quality. All of those mechanical components, including the high voltage wire and fuser heater collect dust, toner, and carrier particles due to ongoing presence of high voltages inside the printer housing. Manufacturing engineers will tell you that those parts are design-limited to a particular lifespan, based on cost limits imposed by management. They’ll also say that to run them beyond their rated life will gradually degrade print quality (print density(drum, fuser), edge-to-edge consistency(rollers), light-to-dark contrast(drum), speckling, etc.), below that desired by the manufacturer.

    Also importantly, high performance, high volume laser printers really do require regular maintenance to keep operating in factory original specifications, but end users without maintenance contracts simply won’t do that sort of annual work. Manufacturers don’t want home consumers to _have_ to maintain laser printers, and don’t want to support them doing it. Such maintenance (roller cleaning, high-voltage wire cleaning, gear cleaning and lubrication, lens, glass, and drum cleaning) is a pain, and not something customers are likely to want to do every year. Replacing the whole one-piece drum/toner cartridge almost completely eliminates the regular maintenance problem (barring early failures). Cheaper cartridges without toner stirrers will suffer quality degradation sooner than those with. Imposing an absolute life limit on the cartridge is a way to guarantee both product quality over time, eliminate maintenance, and prevent customer complaints about loss of print quality.

    Of course this doesn’t address the high prices charged for replacement and reconditioned cartridges: that’s purely a matter of bulk economics. The extreme (and in my opinion ridiculous) variety of cartridge casing shapes limits the economic scaling which would be possible for the refill market with fewer cartridge shapes, such as mechanized/fully automated cartridge refilling.

    As a contrasting example, the completely standardized 35mm film cartridge fitted to all 35mm film cameras for decades didn’t limit manufacturers’ ability to improve the the quality and diversity of their film product lines, and allowed consumers to both buy new film in pre-loaded cartridges, or (develop and) refill the cartridges themselves using a bulk reloader device.

    But somehow printer vendors have bought into the belief that cartridge packaging _must_ be unique, and change every year, just like the auto industry.

    Hackers, and back-to-basics-low-impact consumers are the correct audience for hackable, life-extendable printer tech – these are the folks who _will_ take pride of ownership, and do the maintenance, when needed, to keep their printer internally shiny and sweet.

    I completely agree with the idea of an open-hardware, open-software printer platform, including hacking cartridges for infinite life and refillability, and I’m a fan of owner responsibility and owner maintenance of appliances.

    But thanks for providing the opportunity to explain some of the engineering and marketing reasons for how things got to be the way they are…

  10. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to have an open source firmware replacement for the existing hardware? That’s how we reprogram our cell phones…

  11. I would suggest to use latex as page description language so that the advanced latex ecosystem can directly make the best prints available.

  12. Concerning patents, there is a straight way around. By international patent law, the maximum patent duration is 20 years everywhere in the world.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Term_of_patent
    So you can pick any printer older than 20 years and happily copy it. As long as you don’t change the hardware, or just combine hardware from 20+ year old printer, you are perfectly safe.

    If the Community sets about “freeing” old printers, I’ll be happy to send over some money…

    How did printers look like in 1992?

  13. @Scott
    “Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to have an open source firmware replacement for the existing hardware?”
    That would of course be the best way to go, I agree with you Scott and wonder if some work is already under way. Although not a computer specialist, I have been using Linux on my main/professional machine since 2008 and would love to buy a “free” printer that lets me use any type of (cheap) cartridge and would contain no pervert page counters or self-destructive code…

  14. As Lex pointed out many of the things you pointed out as a scam have actual purpose. Believe it or not but just because you run a business doesn’t mean you suddenly start building thrones out of money and cackling at the lower class like you seem to believe. Its easy to take it for granted but the tech inside printers needs to be insanely precise, its not just squeezing ink out of a tube or sprinkling toner on paper.

    There is also no reason that the pricing model needs to be based on the cost to manufacture the cartridge. The demand is high mainly because of businesses that need to print often so the price reflects that, its not a scam it is just basic economics.

    The real problem I think is the outlandish idea that everyone needs to have a personal printer. I suspect most people outside of a school setting actually need to print something less than once a month. If you might actually need to print regularly but that is what school printers are for. Libraries also tend to have printers you can use. I know several people who don’t even have a printer and manage just fine. There will always be people who would benifit from their own printer but I think the vast majority could get buy just fine without them.

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