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The Future of Printers

written by: Steve McFarlane•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 2/3/2010

Predicting the future is always plagued with miscalculations and unexpected twists but the development of cheaper 3D printers, inkless printing and cheaper cartridges give us an indication to things to come.

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    There seems to have been a slowing in the pace of innovations in the printer market. This could be an indication that the market is maturing or that manufacturers are focusing their resources on developing more advanced printing technologies; we can only wait to see. However, one can’t help but wonder and fantasize about what printers of the future might be like.

    Consumers have long dreamed of having super-fast, high quality printing at low costs and they do so with little desire to understand the underlying technology. And why should they, all consumers want are cost effective printing solutions that work well. Here are a few innovations and burgeoning technologies that could shape the future of printers.

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    3d Printing

    Designing your dream house and printing a tangible 3D mockup, of its complex design, is possible today but only if you have at least $20,000 to spend on a 3D printer. 3D printers create tangible and true-to-life models of CAD (computer aided drawings) by layering composite plastic powder until a complete model is formed. In most cases, 3D models will replicate the functionality of the real thing; e.g. a 3D prototype of a car would have spinning wheels and doors that can be opened.

    I foresee a future where we buy a design online and print it out ourselves. There will be no need to pay expensive shipping costs or commissions to the middleman, just order the design online and print it out. If you can’t wait for a commercially available 3D printer, you can head on over to and learn how to build your own $2,300 three dimensional printer, or you could wait a little longer for Desktop Factory’s $5,000 3D printer.

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    Cheap Refills

    Pound for pound, printer ink is more expensive than oil, perfume and even gold. It is no secret that the major manufacturers make the bulk of their profits from the replacement ink business. In some cases it is cheaper to buy a new printer than to purchase the replacement ink cartridges. Printer manufacturers know that if they can get consumers to buy cheap printers, they will have them coming back to buy their high margin replacement print cartridges.

    While printer manufacturers have integrated microchips and used lawsuits to keep consumers from using cheaper refill alternatives, it’s only a matter of time before the use of cheaper refills become the standard.

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    Inkless and Re-Printable Technology

    Zink Imaging has developed the world's first inkless printer. It uses a special paper that’s made of micro-thin layers containing three types of color forming dye crystals: yellow on top, magenta in the middle and cyan on the bottom. Zink has this technology in at least four devices, including the Wasabi PZ310 portable inkless printer that is sold by Dell.

    The Wasabi PZ310 is a pocket-sized printer that produces full-color photos wirelessly from bluetooth-enabled devices such as your camera phone. The printer can handle resolutions of up to 640x960 pixels and can also be configure to work via a USB port. Look for similar devices in the future, especially as the inkless paper technology is improved upon and made cheaper to manufacture.

    Toshiba has developed a re-printable paper technology and incorporated it into their B-SX8R printer. The B-SX8R printer can erase and reprint, on a single sheet of paper up to 500 times. The printer uses thermal paper, similar to that used in early fax machines but the re-printable paper used in the B-SX8R is more durable. When the paper is heated to 180 degrees the pigments inside the paper react to the heat to create an image. However, when the B-SX8R heats the paper between 130 and 170 degrees, the pigments revert to white making the paper blank and ready for a reprint.

    The technology is revolutionary but expensive. When this printer was first released in 2006 it was priced at over £5,000 and each re-printable sheet over £5, no wonder this printer is no longer on sale. The idea was a great one that should inspire the development of similar products in the future, if the costs can be brought down.

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    Green Printing

    It’s estimated that over 50,000 tons of petroleum-based products are needed to make the toner cartridges that are used in the US alone. Therefore, using eco-friendly petroleum free alternatives, such as soy ink, would offer huge environmental benefits but the use of soy ink is not a new concept. In fact, more than 90 percent of the newspapers in the US use soy ink and about a quarter of the commercial printers use the product.

    One company that currently offers an eco-friendly alternative to today’s laser printers is SoyPrint. The company sells laser print cartridges that are compatible with some more popular lasers printer. Expect to see more eco-friendly solutions in consumer printers in the near future.

    Predicting the future is always plagued with miscalculations and unexpected twists but the development of these technologies give us some insight into the future of printers. While we all hope to see higher print speeds, better print quality and lower cost; there is no doubt that some new technology will pleasantly surprise us.