When computer printers became more affordable, people started buying printers for home and small office use, which in the past was simply not possible because of the steep price of having one. After a while, these same people incurred the high cost of ink and other consumables that the printer needs. Manufacturers, which allowed printer prices to drop in the hope of recouping their development costs through sales of these consumables, certainly aren’t willing to lower their prices. This precipitated the birth of ink-refilling businesses as enterprising firms started refilling empty ink cartridges. These firms had brisk businesses until questions were raised on the legality of reusing the cartridges.
To avoid legal problems, ink-refillers devised ways to sell their inks and replacement cartridges. Three methods were widely used: selling do-it-yourself refilling kits, remanufacturing (or refurbishing) OEM cartridges, and manufacturing new cartridges that are compatible with existing printers.
In the first method, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) cartridge from the printer brand is reused, not by refilling stores, but by the users themselves. Stores sell do-it-yourself refilling kits, which provide the materials needed to refill the empty cartridges as well as step-by-step instructions. By allowing the cartridge owners to do the refilling, ink suppliers were able to skirt legal questions and still sell their cheaper inks to people intent on reducing printing costs. Usually, OEM cartridges can be reused this way three to five times, coinciding with the expected lifespan of the print head in the cartridge.
The second type is the remanufactured cartridge. Businessmen buy empty OEM cartridges and have these visually-inspected and electronically circuit-tested. After a cartridge passes scrutiny, it is thoroughly cleaned of ink residues, refilled with ink of the same type and then print-tested. After testing, the cartridge is sealed and repackaged under a different brand name. Most cartridges can be remanufactured several times but print quality will decrease with each refurbishing cycle.
The third type is the compatible ink cartridge – this is an ink container that is newly manufactured based on the design of the original cartridge and is devised to perform just as well as the original brand name cartridge. To avoid patent infringement issues, makers commonly make slight alterations in the design (such as an added column or line in the casing that serves no particular purpose but to make it different from the original). The ink-deployment technology inside the cartridge, however, is basically the same: either thermal (uses heat to disperse ink) or piezoelectric (uses electric pulses). Being new, these cartridges have longer lifespan (if refilled after purchase) than re-manufactured ones but just the same, the print head wears out after about five refills. Compatible cartridges are available mostly for Epson, Canon and Brother Printers as these have built-in print heads.
There is another kind of compatible cartridge used in the refilling business – the fake cartridge used in continuous ink systems. This device simulates the usual cartridge but it doesn’t require removal from the printer during the refilling process. A set of tubes is connected to the cartridge from the bottles of ink that are placed near (at the same level) the printer, and ink continually flow into the cartridge as the ink is used during printing.
The proliferation of ink-refilling businesses shows that an ever-growing number of price-conscious buyers appreciate the services these shops provide. The outrageous price of branded inks together with the reduced purchasing power of the dollar forces many people to embrace these cheaper alternatives. Furthermore, the quality of inks used in the refilling business have improved considerably and some brands are at par with the OEM inks, so there is hardly any difference in print quality and stability over time. More importantly, using compatible ink cartridges promotes recycling, thereby reducing plastic waste that would harm the environment.