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August 13, 2009: Article, Inkjet - "Want the truth behind the results...?"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Want the truth behind the results?  Then follow the MONEY"
By Allen Luthy, SME
Published February, 2007, Recharger Magazine

What horrible irony.  As I sat down last night to draft a formal response to the recent Wilhelm Imaging Research (WIR) study which had lambasted the image permanence of most aftermarket inkjet inks I ran into a terrible problem. When I went to review my notes all the pages were blank!  They had been printed on an inkjet printer the day before and the ink had just faded away.

Ok, this immediate fading really didn’t occur but according to the results from the WIR study on Display Permanence Ratings you would have expected this very thing to happen.  With incredulous summations that a new OEM cartridge printed image lasts 35X longer than an aftermarket cartridge, why would anyone purchase an aftermarket inkjet cartridge to begin with? (1)   Why are there an increasing number of companies (including Kodak) that disagree with the WIR test protocol and methodologies used in this study?  What is actually prompting the proliferation of these highly-biased “objective” studies like this one?  The answer to all three questions is MONEY.

According to Jim Forrest who edits the Hard Copy Supplies Journal, it is estimated that the world’s inkjet printers are guzzling over $20BB worth of ink each year.  (2)  Lyra Research, a leading imaging industry market research firm, notes that the worldwide aftermarket inkjet market share of the total inkjet cartridge market currently stands at 31% and is expected to continue to grow to a remarkable 36% by 2010. (3) This huge upswing in consumer acceptance of aftermarket cartridges is dramatically affecting the profitability of the large inkjet manufacturers like HP, Lexmark, Canon, and Epson. It is no wonder why these OEM’s sponsor “independent” studies that help them to attempt to influence the over 50% percent of the US population that have never before purchased an aftermarket cartridge. (4)  A consumer swing of even a few percent points equates to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Case in point, HP sponsored a study by Quality Logic in September 2005 which generated the expected results that the print quality of aftermarket inkjets was horribly inferior to a brand new HP cartridge.  Of course, the test pool of cherry picked cartridges included many obscure syringe and internet refillers (household names like Tesco, Wecare, Basix, and Universal), the test protocol used non-empirical subjective evaluations, and it was probably the first time in history that neither a densitometer or spectrophotometer (universally recognized tools for analyzing print quality) were not used in any major inkjet quality study. (5)  The results were not even remotely credible but HP used them for full page advertisements, print media ads, and radio spots to paint the entire aftermarket inkjet industry in a horrible light.  Consumer Reports, who many would consider to be an unbiased product evaluator, noted in their July 2006 issue that several of aftermarket inkjet cartridges matched the photo quality of the printer makers’ cartridges at a reduced price. (6) Certainly there are substandard vendors in every industry but the majority of aftermarket inkjet products generate high-quality finished goods that are comparable to a new OEM cartridge but at an attractive 50% off the new OEM price. 

It is not the qualifications of Henry Wilhelm of WIR (who generated this particular study) that are in question, just his motives.  According to a July 2005 article in PC World, major printer vendors regularly hire WIR to test photo papers, inks, and printers for longevity and apparently they get exactly what they pay for. (7)  This WIR image permanence study appears to be cut from the same template. 

Kodak has previously disputed the WIR testing protocol with regards to light stability — the key element for this study.  (8) Apparently the lumen level in the accelerated glass-filtered fluorescent light stability test that WIR uses (450lux/12 hours per day) is nearly four times higher than Kodak’s’ recommended testing protocol for realistic conditions.  Extrapolating data from wildly unrealistic lighting conditions will generate wildly unrealistic results.  Wilhelm recently stated that, “There are no ISO or ANSI standards for permanence, so our company’s standard has become the de facto industry standard”. (9) No this just means that everyone is entitled to an opinion and that many believe that these tests results are highly exaggerated and unrealistic and therefore are not credible.

Other key comparative results for specific vendors from this particular study were conveniently omitted, there was no differentiation between which cartridges used dye-based inks versus pigmented ones, and the print media used in each case dramatically affected the longevity of the test prints.  For example, the HP Premium Plus Photo paper seemed to increase the image permanence of both the new OEM and aftermarket HP cartridges by over five times longer than other print media tested.(10)  The WIR study conveniently blurred these very relevant distinctions.

Of course, inkjet printing in general has never been noted for its archival quality image permanence.  Thermal inkjet cartridges (primarily HP, Lexmark, and Canon) typically use dye-based inks for their colors which have much lower UV-resistance and water fastness than the traditional pigmented-based black ink which is used in their mated cartridge.  The Piezoelectric type inkjet cartridges (print head located on the printer) generally use pigmented based inks for both their black and color printing (primarily Epson cartridges).  The vast majority of the world does not print their heirloom quality photographs on an inkjet printer---they are produced by a professional film developer who chemically fixes and stabilizes the photo so it truly lasts over 100 years (not just in a simulated full-sun lab setting).  Regardless of the ink type or print media, all colors will eventually fade. 

The WIR study on Image Permanence is truly remarkable in its relevance.  Even if the Wilhelm findings had some validity and image permanence was important to the consumer, why does the aftermarket inkjet market continue to experience ever increasing gains in market share each year?  Evidently the value proposition that an aftermarket inkjet product offers with regards to print quality, page yield, image permanence, and most importantly price is what ultimately drives the rapid growth of these products and no amount of OEM sponsored scare studies will scare consumers away from purchasing them.

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