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Why printer ink is so expensive

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Despite the calls that the inkjet market stifles competition, there are still many alternatives available. One of the easiest ways to save a few dollars on the cost of cartridges is through generic brands.

"About 10 years ago, there were only about four places for a small company to buy generic printer ink," says Tim Molhoek, owner of O-ink, a small chain of printer supply stores in Michigan. "Now, there about 100 worldwide – the vast majority are in Asia."

These off-brand outfits often collect used tanks, pump them full of new ink, and sell them at a discount.

Another avenue to consider is refilling your own spent cartridges. Plenty of shops, from big-box stores such as Walgreens to smaller outfits like Mr. Molhoek's, run their own, in-house refill programs, with prices ranging widely.

For the do-it-yourself crowd, there are even take-home kits that let you squeeze new life into old printer cartridges. But this option is only for the adventurous.

"I tried one of the home kits," says Mr. Merritt. "But it just turned into a sloppy mess. I'll probably not use them again."

Similarly, the whole category of third-party inks comes with a big disclaimer. While the vessel is often identical to the name-brands, the ink inside ranges widely in quality.

Technology in every drop

Hewlett-Packard alone spends $1 billion a year on printing and ink research – a figure that no generic vendor could easily match.

This heavy investment is why ink costs thousands of dollars per gallon, printermakers say, and why they think consumers will stick to high-quality brands.

There's a lot of technology that goes into each ink drop.

"Typical ink development might have five PhD chemists working on it for several years, and of course an army of technicians," says Nils Miller, an ink and media senior scientist for HP. "And that was just to develop it."

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