Xerox takes wasteful cartridges out of print picture

ColorQube ink-stick technology yields significant environmental and cost advantages over laser printing

Both cost-conscious and environmentally conscious organizations are striving to do more with less these days. The rationale is simple: Investing in more energy-efficient hardware, for example, means lower energy bills and a smaller carbon footprint. Adjusting delivery routes to be more efficient means less fuel consumption, which again saves money while reducing an organization's environmental impact.

The printer room is by no means immune to the benefits of green tech. We're seeing more Energy Star-compliant printers that consume fewer watts. Most, if not all, print vendors let admins set machines to print dual-sided copies by default, which can effectively cut paper bills nearly in half. Moreover, software companies such as Equitrac and GreenPrint offer solutions to help reduce printouts of superfluous pages that, at best, would end up in the recycling bin.

Now Xerox has raised the green-printing bar another level for the business world by eliminating one of the most wasteful aspects of printing: the ink cartridge. With the introduction of its ColorQube 9200 series of A3-size MFPs, Xerox delivers a less expensive -- and a far more environmentally friendly -- alternative to laser printing.

[ Learn how 2009 InfoWorld Green 15 winner Aramark sliced printing costs by moving to MFPs. | Subscribe to InfoWorld's free weekly Green Tech newsletter. ]

The concept behind the ColorQube is pretty straightforward: The ink comes in the form of small sticks, resembling fat pieces of chalk. You pop the sticks into the printer, and they're melted into the printhead, which jets the ink onto the print drum. Paper is passed between a roller and the print drum under pressure, and the image is transferred to the paper. Once an ink stick is exhausted, you pop in a new one -- there's nothing to throw away or recycle.

Compare that to laser printing, which is the industry standard. This form of printing requires ink contained in plastic and metal cartridges. Once a cartridge is exhausted, it's shipped back to the vendor for recycling -- perhaps. This takes not only time, but there's the associated costs and environmental resources consumed from packaging and shipping. ColorQube has a clear advantage.

The ColorQube eco-friendly pluses don't end there. In a report about the line, InfoTrends notes the following:

Usually, any discussion of the consumable supplies for an office MFP leads to a detailed list of components ranging from toner cartridges, to drum units, cleaning units, and waste cartridges, to name just a few. With Xerox's ColorQube MFPs, however, that is not the case. In fact, apart from the ink sticks used in the machine there is only one other consumable supply item: a cleaning unit that has a life of 200,000 pages and a list price of $140.

The ink sticks also require far less packaging -- seven times less -- than ink cartridges, according to Xerox. That doesn't just mean less paper and plastic waste; it also means more sticks can fit in a single truck, which in turn means less fuel is burned transporting the solid ink. Chalk that up as another environmental benefit.

[ HP earned recognition for developing eco-friendlier, money-saving packaging for its Pavilion dv6929wm line of notebooks. ]

Just how substantial an environmental advantage does solid ink have over laser? By Xerox's account, solid ink has a 9 percent lower lifecycle energy demand and 10 percent lower global warming impact than laser. More impressive, the post-consumer solid waste generated by the solid ink MFD is 90 percent less than that of laser. (Xerox says its study was peer reviewed by the Rochester Institute of Technology to confirm that it adhered to generally accepted LCA methodologies.)

As a more detailed point of comparison, Jim Rise, vice president and general manager of Xerox's Solid Ink Business, said that printing 1 million pages on a laser printer would require the manufacturing of 965 pounds of various materials, including cartridges, fusers, and drums. Printing 1 million pages with ink sticks would require 272 pounds of materials.

Also of note: Xerox says it's worked on making its ColorQube MFPs more energy efficient, which hasn't been a strong suit for the company's previous models, according to Rise. The ink has a lower melting point, for example, and the machines are designed to enter a low-power mode when not in use. He says the new line meets the forthcoming Energy Star specs for MFPs, due out in July.

The ColorQube's environmental benefits over laser jet printing are indeed compelling to green-minded organizations -- but in these tough economic times, eco-friendliness alone isn't necessarily a selling point. There's also the question of cost; if Xerox is, indeed, enjoying savings on packaging, shipping, and the like, are those savings being passed on to customers?

By both Xerox's and InfoTrends' account, the answer is yes. With the release of the ColorQube 9200 line, Xerox is offering tiered pricing for prints. Normally, companies pay for printing on a per-page basis. Black and white pages are 1 cent each; any page with even a trace of color (say, a blue hyperlink or a company logo) costs 8 cents.

By contrast, Xerox says it will charge 1 cent both for black and white pages, as well as pages with minimal amounts of color. Pages with an "intermediate level" of color -- such as a chart or an image -- would cost 3 cents. Only pages containing a large quantity of color would cost 8 cents.

There are certainly other considerations when MFP shopping, including speed, print quality, and features, but given the nature of my blog, I've chosen to hone in on the environmental considerations of the ColorQube line. From that perspective, Xerox has come up with a remarkable technology, one that demonstrates how even seemingly small changes to a product component and its packaging can have significant environmental -- and economical -- benefits.

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