What's next for office printing: 3D's got the sex appeal, but inkjets have a bright future

3D printing might steal all the headlines but there are still some interesting developments ahead for the office printer, too.

The future looks bright for the humble inkjet printer. Image: iStock

The most dramatic development in printing technology in recent years is undoubtedly the emergence of 3D printing, which looks set to be the kind of 'disruptive' technology that genuinely changes the way many industries work.

In contrast, conventional office printing might seem like a rather staid affair, a routine task handled by a grey box that sits in a corner of the office and pumps out pages on demand.

But that's a little unfair: while there have been few major developments in either inkjet or laser printing technology in recent years, the gradual refinements in inkjet technology have produced a new generation of high-performance inkjet printers that can now rival the performance of laser printers.

That trend looks set to continue, and the greater versatility of inkjet printers - particularly their ability to produce high-quality photographic images - means that more and more businesses may now consider inkjet printers as an alternative to the traditional office laser printer (although inkjet is a bigger market, the momentum seems to be with colour laser printers right now).

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Some of the more interesting developments involve new ways of accessing print services - for example, printing from mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, and also using printers connected via the cloud. Despite a plethora of new devices, the enterprise appetite for the printed document continues.

Meanwhile, there's another change going on in the inkjet market that may have major benefits for business users. It's a well-known fact - and an often-voiced criticism - that inkjet printers are sold very cheaply, while the manufacturers make their profits on the cost of replacement ink cartridges.

The standard size ink cartridges provided with many printers often only last for a couple of hundred pages before they need to be replaced. Many current printers now offer the option of buying larger 'high-yield' cartridges that can help to reduce the cost-per-page, but the cost of printing is still inextricably tied to the high prices of those replacement cartridges.

However, new developments in the inkjet printer market have begun to alter that business model. For example, printer companies are experimenting with monthly subscription fees for consumers that cover a fixed number of pages, regardless of the amount of ink used. In the future, higher volume versions of these programmes could be of interest to business users.

There are also third-party suppliers who are experimenting with their own subscription plans that work like a rental scheme, providing both a printer and regular ink replacements for a fixed monthly fee.

But are the days of the cartridge numbered anyway? One recent innovation being tested out is replacing ink cartridges altogether with large refillable ink tanks: when the ink tanks run dry, you simply fill them up again using bottles of ink that are far less expensive than traditional ink cartridges.

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