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August 13, 2009: Article, Inkjet - "Damn the Torpedoes,..."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

“Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead”
By Allen Luthy, SME, Inc. (CBR-SME)

Published September 2005, Imaging Spectrum Magazine

On August 5, 1864, Rear Admiral David Farragut, bravely sailed with his fleet of 18 ships into battle to attempt to capture the heavily-guarded port of Mobile, Ala., the Confederacy’s last major seaport which was open on the Gulf of Mexico. During the heated exchange of cannon fire between the ships and the batteries onshore, one of Farragut’s ships exploded after encountering a tethered naval mine (at the time these were called “torpedoes”).   Immediately, several ships of the small fleet began to turn back for fear of meeting the same fate, and the attack appeared to stall. At that critical moment, one of America’s most underrated naval heroes, Admiral Farragut, shouted the order, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” With that, the fleet pressed on with the attack, and eventually all 17 of the remaining ships sailed through the channel. Shortly thereafter, Mobile Bay’s forts fell.

Waging an All-out Battle

Currently there is an all-out battle between the OEMs and the inkjet remanufacturing industry for the hearts and minds of the consumer, and Admiral Farragut’s immortal words are just as relevant for our industry today as they were 141 years ago. Earlier this year, Hewlett-Packard (HP) commissioned Quality Logic (an independent test laboratory in Moorpark, Calif.) to compare new HP inkjet cartridges to cartridges that were refilled by two inkjet refill chains in California. The Quality Logic report’s “objective” results were clearly predictable: New HP OEM cartridges were far superior to the “unreliable” remanufactured inkjet cartridges. (See the article “False Assumptions, Faulty Logic Pervade New HP Environmental Report” in the February 2004 issue of Imaging Spectrum.)

This was not the first shot fired across the bow of the remanufacturing industry. Lexmark’s over-reaching, soap opera, litigation frenzy, RadioShack’s in-store displays that inaccurately portrayed that printer warranties “will be voided by using remanufactured cartridges”—in clear violation of the Magnussun Moss Warranty Act—(See The Last Word in the October 2004 and December 2004 issues of Imaging Spectrum for details on the RadioShack display), and HP’s product differentiation advertisements highlighting its nearly century-long, archival-quality Vivera inks are just a few of the vehicles that the OEMs are using to influence consumer purchasing behaviors.

Wild-fire Inkjet Expansion

During the 1990s, the total share of aftermarket inkjet cartridges was relatively insignificant in relation to the total number of cartridges shipped. However, today that number is 18 percent of the total inkjet market and, according to Lyra Research’s second half of 2004 report, is expected to continue to rise over the course of the next several years.

This tremendous growth is especially prevalent in the retail store-front arena where customers are really attracted to a local brick-and-mortar establishment. One large retail cartridge franchise chain claims a new store opening every 17 hours, another trumpets a 600 percent growth in 2004-2005, while yet a third actually had to stop selling franchises altogether while its infrastructure rushed to keep up with the demand. This nearly exponential growth is a significant cause for concern for the OEMs. With more than 56 percent of the U.S. population that have never even purchased a remanufactured cartridge, now is the critical time to define our industry. 

Inconsistent Quality, Negative Reports

Although many of the worldwide inkjet remanufacturers use reliable multi-step processes, sophisticated professional cleaning and filling equipment, and adhere to rigorous quality standards, unfortunately there are a handful of others that purvey substandard products which negatively impact the entire industry. Some of the major culprits are the messy and unreliable home inkjet refill kits, “compatible” cartridges that use substandard inks and shady Internet opportunists that prey on the naïve consumer. All have historically offered marginal results at best and, in many cases, have contributed to a long-standing negative perception of cartridge remanufacturing in general. Consumer Reports analyzed some of these product offerings in 2004 and rated them poorly.

The traditional method of refilling of inkjet cartridges by hand (using a syringe to inject ink into the cartridge) worked effectively several years ago, but not today. Most of the new inkjet cartridges that entered the market after 2001 use polyurethane foams to help to meter the ink inside the cartridge. If these foam cartridges are filled by syringe and not in a true vacuum chamber (just as the OEM fills the cartridge), a high percentage of these cartridges will suffer from ink starvation and will fail prematurely. Unfortunately, many of the early industry pioneers neglected to keep current with the ever-changing requirements for processing the more advanced and sophisticated cartridges entering the market. 

Apparently selling $150K+ franchises is easy in this “gold rush” environment, but ensuring uniformly high success rates throughout the entire organization is not. Although some franchisers offer excellent turnkey solutions and world-class support, at least one large franchise chain still uses syringes for refilling in many locations. Was it purely coincidence that this particular franchiser was one of two that were targeted specifically by HP and Quality Logic for their cartridge comparison testing? Hardly. These results were used to paint the entire industry in a negative light.

The same situation applies to the highly-skewed testing protocol that Quality Logic used to compare new HP cartridges to remanufactured ones. Most consumers are willing to accept minor print flaws (most of which are not even visible to the naked eye), in order to save $15 or more per cartridge. If there is a nozzle failure, and customers are printing photographs, they can mask most print flaws by merely changing the default print setting on their printer to “best” print quality, which is usually the preferred mode for photos anyway. The complex dithering algorithms of the print cartridge overlap ink droplets that saturate the printing area to deliver a rich and vibrant print. However, the consumer will not know this without some written or verbal consumer education.

Educating the Consumer

An interesting dynamic is occurring with the advent of a new generation of in-store cartridge refilling systems. Historically, the paradigm was that most industrial and retail refilling operations refilled inkjet cartridges off-site or in a back room— away from the customer.  Remanufacturing cartridges is a time-consuming, messy business that requires many process steps and numerous pieces of equipment. The consumer would purchase pre-packaged, finished goods, and there was little opportunity to discuss specific cartridge performance characteristics (i.e. full-page print test analysis of the remanufactured cartridge).  

The excitement with these new systems focuses upon their ability to perform quality cartridge remanufacturing in just a matter of minutes, while the customer waits. Certainly there are many consumers that purchase for convenience. They want to purchase a replacement cartridge and leave, while there are others that do not mind waiting a few minutes for their specific cartridge to be refilled. Having the consumer in the store for an extended time is attractive for retailers, because it generally leads to an increased average total sale (customers purchase ancillary products) as well as becoming an excellent venue for both passive and active consumer education to positively influence the purchasing decision.

Common passive consumer media consist of informative labeling, product literature and in-store signage—all of which convey a wealth of information about product, guarantees, recycling, the company, etc.  These tools are valuable but not always effective (not absorbed by the consumer). Active consumer education is probably the most effective tool for influencing both a consumer’s purchase as well as preventing any post-sale cognitive dissonance (buyer’s remorse) issues.

Just Two Minutes

An initial two-minute dialog with a customer is not always feasible, but it has several obvious benefits:

  1. Providing an overview of the remanufacturing process helps to illuminate the value proposition, dispel any perceived risk notions and highlight the benefits of recycling.
  2. This time can be used to help customers better understand simple cartridge dynamics, which is especially helpful for repeat business. Such points include not printing the cartridge dry (thereby burning out the cartridge heating elements), clipping the cartridge during transportation, keeping the print head fresh and so on.
  3. The differences in print media can be reviewed. The print quality of a remanufactured cartridge should be comparable to the OEM on equivalent paper (standard, glossy, photo). In fact, one retailer mentioned that when asked to select which print sample was made using the aftermarket cartridge and which one was printed using the OEM cartridge on the same paper and printer, 50 percent selected the aftermarket cartridge.  This also increases the chances for an up-sell of premium print media concurrent with the refill transaction. In retail situations, the customer’s specific cartridge can be tested in front of the customer in either a full-page printer or print tester.
  4. Finally, this rapport-building time with the customer also may lead to constructive dialog if a cartridge actually does fail prematurely in the field. Often customers do not bother to return a failed cartridge—it is just not worth the time or effort. For example, many people have purchased a home inkjet refill kit once. The experience was usually not positive and the “defective” product was not returned to the store for a refund. Generally, a seller gets only one chance to make a good first impression.

Developing Inkjet Standards

One reason that growth in the inkjet remanufacturing industry remains strong is that many remanufacturers are doing an exemplary job of producing the highest quality products.  However, the most pressing issue that plagues the entire inkjet remanufacturing industry is that there are no established universally-accepted quality standards. Ten years ago, the remanufactured laser and toner industry had many of the same challenges. Over time, standards were established and adopted (for example, the Standardized Test Methods Committee (STMC)), and gradually the cartridge quality and industry reputation improved dramatically. This occurred to such an extent that many large states like California, Texas and New York actually now give preference to remanufactured cartridges over new OEM cartridges because of reliability and cost savings. Finally, the inkjet industry is following the same blue print.

Consumer education regarding inkjet remanufacturing is a critical component in our industry’s success. Industry awareness about our marketplace is still not universal, and we can still shape consumers’ perception about the quality of our products. Without agreeing to adopt recognized industry quality standards, the industry will continue to be plagued by substandard products that will negatively impact our entire industry.

Marcel Kunz, president of Recharge Technologies International and chairman of the STMC Subcommittee for Inkjet, said, “As a collective group, we must press hard to establish and adopt quality standards for inkjet cartridges. The current members of the STMC inkjet subcommittee, representing a diverse group of international remanufacturers and suppliers, is finally doing just that and making good progress. After the standardized testing methods are adopted, guidelines for certification will be established. All vendors will need to conform in order to earn the certification, which will bring the industry a huge step forward. Without these standards, we are like a rudderless ship without direction.”

Spreading the Word about Quality

We should expect that the OEMs will continue to attempt to sway the consumer away from remanufactured cartridges, using misleading reports or negative advertisements. By policing our own industry, providing our customers with a quality product and fighting for our own reputation and legitimacy, we can persevere through adversity—much like Admiral Farragut’s fleet during the Battle of Mobile Bay—and win this consumer education war.

Photo Caption: Clay Cutler of Cartridge Central (2005) holds up comparison photos of an OEM print versus a remanufactured print. Fifty percent of consumers select the aftermarket print instead of the OEM.

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