Basic laser technology has hardly changed in 30 years -- so look for the little things that reduce recurring costs
By Anand Parthasarathy
Bangalore, December1 2014: It is thirty years since Hewlett Packard launched the first laser printer for the mass market, sourcing a print engine from the Japanese company Canon. It churned out 8 pages per minute (PPM), while printing to a density of 300 dots per inch. And it cost nearly $ 3500 -- Rs 2 lakhs in today's money. Now, almost all consumer laser printers print at around 20 PPM and the resolution has improved 4 or 8-fold to 1200 - 2400 DPI. Entry level Black and white laser printers can be had for Rs 4000 - Rs 6000.
That's progress for you -- but is it really?
Laser printing technology actually debuted in the mid 1970s -- when both IBM and Xerox launched models for corporate use. What is surprising is not how the cost of laser printing has dropped -- but how little the basic technology has evolved. There has been no radical innovation these 40 years. Then and now it remains the same process: producing high-quality text and graphics by passing a laser beam back & forth over an electron-charged, cylindrical drum, to define an image, tracing it with electrically charged powdered ink, and transferring the image to paper, under heat.
|When an industry fails to innovate, it is difficult to differentiate its products. But even in this unexciting technology environment, there is room for creating customer value by small hardware and software tweaks. Of the 10 monochrome laser printers launched in India last week by the Japan-based Brother, I selected to try out one that offered two features that most lay users as well as small businesses need today: wireless operation and multi-functions (ie printing, copying and scanning).
The Brother DCP- 1616NW meets both these criteria. It is a 20 PPM A4 size black and white print-scan-copy machine that offers 2400 by 600 DPI quality: this is enough to reproduce even photos quite well. You can use it as a wired printer with its USB connector, or wirelessly, latching on to your home WiFi hotspot. So far there is nothing to really make the 1616 stand apart from competitors -- but wait!
Brother has innovated on the software side to appeal to the thrifty Indian buyer. You can save paper by combining 2 or 4 pages on a single A4 sheet. Even more usefully the makers address a very common use case: You can print two sides of an identity card or Aadhaar card on the same side of a paper using a special ID copy mode, without having to remove and re-insert the sheet.
This is one of very few printers in this category which comes with an auto document feeder. This translates into a small but significant advantage: It allows you to scan documents that are longer than A4 size -- like the foolscap size used by the legal profession.
But I have a feeling the 1616 will really sell itself on the cost of replenishment. Unlike some popular brands, Brother does not integrate the print drum with the toner cartridge. This means you don't pay for a new drum every time you need to add toner. This way they are able to bring down the cost of the standard 1500 page toner cartridge to Rs 1775. Their engineers tell me you would need to install a new drum ( Rs 2775) only after you have changed the toner cartridge at least 4 times... it can add up to a tidy reduction in annual running cost.
A lot of small office printing work and much of home printing can make do without colour. If your needs are likewise, the Brother DCP 1616 NW at Rs 11,650 seems to offer very good bang for your buck. If you don't have home WiFi, the DCP1601, has almost the same features without wireless and costs Rs 9990.