Feeding the output machines

Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS.com
Lynn Greiner, freelance IT journalist and regular contributor to InsightaaS.com

One thing that's kept inkjet printers out of the enterprise is the simple issue of ink. It's expensive, it's a pain in the neck to keep replacing cartridges as they run out of ink with infuriating regularity, and printing can be slow.

Monster high-speed industrial inkjet systems have long been fuelled not from cartridges, but from giant reservoirs that keep them chugging for a good long time. They get their ink by the barrel, at volume prices. Meanwhile, businesses and consumers have paid practically by the drop, in large part because the manufacturers subsidize the cost of the printer with sky-high supply costs.

A few years ago, printer vendor Epson, whose primary output business is in inkjets, decided to do something about that. No, it wasn't entirely due to altruism. The company found that in some regions, customers were substituting cheaper products for its expensive ink. And that cost the company big bucks.

To address the problem, Epson developed a new concept. Instead of selling inexpensive printers and small amounts of ink in frequently-replaced cartridges, it redesigned the machines and print mechanisms to create what it now calls EcoTank, part of a new peripheral category dubbed Supertank printers.

EcoTank printers come with what's billed as two years' worth of ink at purchase. Instead of ink cartridges, most models have four reservoirs, known as tanks, one for each of the four colours of ink (black, cyan, yellow, and magenta). The ink comes in bottles; you get two sets with each new printer, and refills cost about $16 per colour, or $23 for black. Topping up the ink involves simply pouring more ink into the appropriate tank.

The highest volume device has a slightly different ink delivery mechanism: a set of what strongly resemble the IV bags you'd see in a hospital, again one per colour, that are mounted at one end of the printer. The ink is pumped from the bags into the printer, and fed to the heads. This printer comes with enough ink to produce 20,000 black and 20,000 colour pages of output, the estimated page count for two years of office printing.

There are currently five models announced: four comparatively little guys, including two for consumers (the Expression series) with ink for 4500 black or 6500 colour pages, and two for SOHO (the Workforce ET-4500 and ET-4550) that come with tanks. The smaller SOHO model comes with the same amount of ink as the consumer devices, and the larger with sufficient for 11,000 black and 8500 colour pages. The higher volume office-grade device with the bags, the WorkForce Pro WF-R4640 EcoTank All-in-One, is good for 20,000 black and 20,000 colour pages. None is super-speedy; the three lowest-end devices chug along at 9.2 pages per minute black, or 4.5 colour. The higher-end models print at 13 ppm black/ 7.3 ppm colour, and 20 ppm black, 20 ppm colour, respectively. The consumer models print, copy, and scan, while the business models add fax to the mix. All will be available in September.

You're probably wondering what the catch is. Yes, there is one, and it's a biggie. The printers cost three to five times what a standard printer with similar capabilities does. The equivalent of a nice little $129 printer from another supplier ends up lightening your wallet by $459. However, Epson says you still save money, because the initial ink supply removes the need to spend money on ink cartridges for up to two years. It says, for example, that the ink supplied with the smallest machine is the equivalent of 20 sets of cartridges, costing roughly $50 per set. That does work out to a nice win for the user.

An added bonus is the dearth of waste created. Instead of a pile of packaging and empty cartridges, at the end of two years the only garbage is a few empty plastic bottles. The print heads are permanent, and the tanks are part of the printer.

Lest users worry that the printer will die before all of that nice prepaid ink is used up, Epson offers a two year warranty on all five models – theoretically long enough to exhaust the initial supply. And, the printers have been sold elsewhere in the world for three years, so one would hope that any glitches have been worked out.

One potential worry is the fact that the ink does have an expiry date. Given the length of time between refills, there are concerns that the ink sold in stores may not be as fresh as it could be by the time you buy. One also wonders whether retailers will even bother stocking it for the first couple of years of sales, even if they sell the printers – they won't want to waste shelf space on something that could gather dust. That could be awkward for customers, who will have to order directly from Epson if they happen to blast through the initial supply faster than expected.

The concept of EcoTank printers is solid on numerous fronts. Anyone who produces the minimum amount of output to use up the initial ink supply within two or three years will save quite a bit of money; customers will just have to wrap their brains around the initial higher price. But even Epson says that the devices aren't for everyone. Users who print very little may want to stick with a cheap device, and buy cartridges as required. And, yes, Epson will continue to sell those too.


  1. What are the most likely scenarios (/user profiles) for buyers who will be attracted to EcoTank? And/or for those who will rebel at the higher device cost? #AddYourInsights

    • I see users who print a lot (either at home, or in an office where several people share the printer), and who are tired of buying and installing those overpriced ink cartridges all the time, as being ideal users. Especially if they do the back-of-the-envelope calculation and realize that they will indeed save money in the long run. The catch, as you say, is that they pay up front in higher device cost. Branch offices and SOHOs where there’s no-one to babysit hardware would also find the machines convenient – no continual supplies ordering and installing.

      People with low print volumes shouldn’t bother with EcoTank machines – they’d pay less in aggregate just sticking in cartridges as needed.