Why Aren’t We Building Our Own Printers?

We’ll ask it again, why aren’t we building our own printers? We’re building 3d printers, CNC mills, and hacking the ink cartridges on commercial printers. What does it really take to build say a 300 dpi black and white printer? Something that lets you clean and service the print head rather than throwing it out when the ink reservoir is empty?

Someone has set out to answer these question with the Openprinter project. If this interests you, join up and start the revolution. RepRap had simple beginnings and maybe it’s time to take the army of self-replicating 3D printers and use them to print parts for 2D printers that don’t drive us crazy.

[Photo credit]

[via LostScrews]

58 thoughts on “Why Aren’t We Building Our Own Printers?

  1. Because inkjet printers are just so damn cheap. Commercial CNC mills and 3d printers cost tens of thousands of dollars. It’s easy to reduce the cost of that. On the other hand you can pick up a decent Inkjet printer for $25 on sale.

    There is also usually no other option to using a 3D printer or a CNC mill. Well, you could make things by hand or make molds, but practically, if you need one you need one. And once you have one your capability increases dramatically.

    On the other hand, an inkjet printer just prints on paper and that’s becoming less useful every day. If you don’t have a printer (I know a lot of people who don’t) you can just take it to the office or the Kinkos or to a friend’s or wherever to print something quickly and cheaply. If Kinkos had 3d printers, laser cutters and CNC mills available for cheap 24 hours a day, I wouldn’t need to build one either.

    1. I was searching for a direct-to-wall printer when i found this post

      Direct-to-wall printing is quite expensive, like CNCs and 3D printers.

      I think the real challenge here would be to build would be building a printer to print directly on walls (that would make decoration a real blast!)

  2. (cont)
    But don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting project. Not because I need yet another way to put ink on paper, but because a) making stuff is fun, and b) there are lots of interesting fabing possibilities with putting tiny droplets of liquid on a surface. Just abut every week I read a science article about how they’re using inkjet technology to print solar cells or skin grafts or toxin detectors and other cool stuff. One that’s made from scratch and fully open would be a great platform for exploring and spreading these cool technologies.

  3. Um… printeres are like $30. You throw them away when they break and buy a new one. Way cheaper than the parts/labour it would take to build one, and probably better quality also.

  4. Yes, but most hackers are sort of like modern hippies minus the drugs, in that the idea of paying “the man” for something when you can build it yourself is absurd to a hacker.

  5. Yeah, printers are cheap, but the consumables are so incredibly expensive that it’s cheaper to buy a new printer than a new set of cartridges. If you have any ecological sense at all, it’s just painful.

    My wife’s a professor, and I she has to print stuff out. I finally ended up buying a very old HP 4000 series laserjet (4050N specifically). It’s built like a tank, rebuilt/refilled cartridges last forever, and it was about a hundred bucks.

    This project sounds great. I’d love to see a new printer startup address the fact that people will pay more, probably a lot more, for a reliable, well built printer that lasts forever and uses inexpensive, environmentally sound consumables.

    Hell, maybe it should just use old coffee.

  6. Don’t throw away a printer – not only is that not environmentally friendly, but there’s all kinds of useful parts in there – I pulled out 4 motors with rotary encoders, a micropump, a couple cathode tubes, and all other kinds of fun stuff from a printer a few days ago.

  7. I’ve been salvaging parts from printers and scanners of various ages for a number of months. To date I have broken down and 12 scanners and 15 printers.

    The quality of the parts varies, with the more recent HP models (All in 1 and standalone) using very cheap DC motors and optical encoders with a high resolution encoding wheel.

    You are more likely to get optical encoders in HP machines, and older scanners seem to produce steppers. I’ve got a bucket full of Mitsumi steppers that are great for little projects. Anything starting with M35 in the list: http://www.mitsumi.co.jp/latest/Catalog/compo/motor/index_e.html

    The older models have some very nice stepper motors, not likely to push a router around cutting through thick bits of MDF, but enough to push a Dremmel or something higher up (Proxxon) maybe.

    It is shocking to see how cheaply made the newer pieces are, but unsurprising since they cost less than a new xbox360 game.

    I’ve taken ownership of a LOT of these for free using a local freecycle service, and the number of times the resevoir(??) drops its guts and shits ink everywhere, or it stops working because they shifted to Vista, let ink dry etc is shocking and very wasteful.

    I’ll be very keen to see what happens with the open printer project. Thanks for sharing.

  8. @Gordunk: That as it may be, wouldn’t this just be paying “the man” *more* for the parts? For instance, the budget for the project in question is many times that of an equivalent OTS printer (though this alone should make it clear money is not why this guy is doing the project.)

  9. I initiated the project. Thank you too much for mentioning this. The more eyes, the more experts, the more open this can be. the 3d printer project experts have much knowledge to contribute, and I’ll certainly welcome them!

    A few responses:

    @Steve Holder: yes, ink cost is a primary motivating factor. Refill kits are available, but manufacturers are already producing cartridge / printer combos that auto-disable to prevent refilling. In order to create third party
    replacement cartridges, you have to deal with the IP / legal departments of each

    You might be able to find an old printer that suits your needs, and you might

    @gene and gordunk:

    When you buy things, there are people who get a cut of your expenditures. Taxes, plastic industries, petroleum engineers, tree cutters for the paper…you can’t entirely avoid it. Ink expenditures are a primary motivator (maybe the only one for many or most people) but others are in it for the hack, for intellectual stimulation, a chance to beat gremlins, whatever. It’s not a
    failure if there’s not a market ready appliance within six months (I’m not buying any parts before June). But there will be improvements, and maybe some big manufacturers will see a threat and change their ways.

    So everyone, come contribute, and thanks, Mike, for the write-up!

  10. Don’t modern inkjet printers use very very tiny piezoelectric pumps in the cartridges to deliver small amounts of ink where needed as they fly over the paper? I could be wrong, but that sounds difficult to reproduce!
    Good luck :) It’ll certainly be cool if/when it works.
    <3 open source

  11. i think the same as shadyman, the head is the main reason why we are not doing printers, but we could make easily a vectorial plotter; the printer head makers have clean rooms, and some rare equipment i don’t know about to make a matrix of very tiny holes, i just have no idea of how we could make a printer head in our homes.

    anyway, the only reason i have a laser printer is to make PCBs, i bought for that, and i just use it for that(printing on the back part of contact paper, i can get 10mil tracks)

  12. I’m pretty disappointed to see all the “this is pointless printers are so cheap” posts here. Sure, printers are cheap these days, but they’re, y’know, cheap. This isn’t DIY as a means to save cash. It’s DIYing as a means to circumnavigate Epson’s razor-and-blade and planned obsolescence strategies. I’d happily pay a couple hundred bucks for a printer if I knew for sure it would last several years, or at least could be repaired when it breaks down.

    That said, both the wikia and reddit sites seem to be mostly idle speculation at this point. As someone on the reddit points out, it’d a pretty intense undertaking to make your own inkjet print heads, and its pretty pointless to discuss stepper motors or networking options before this problem is solved.

  13. You CAN buy a long lasting printer for a few hundred dollars: a laser printer.

    An inkjet printer and consumables is the right price if someone only uses it a few times per month, which seems about average these days.

    Open design and maintainability are certainly high-sounding ideals for mouthing, but in reality hacking comes down to seeing a need and using what you have to make it happen; sometimes you use things outside their intended purpose. Other times you just use a tool.

    Why aren’t we building our own mice?
    Why aren’t we building our own monitors?
    Why aren’t we building our own toasters?
    Why aren’t we making our own toilet paper?

    I’m not saying I’ll never build a printer, but if I do, it’ll be for either educational gain or for a specific purpose that normal printers can’t handle.

  14. +1 on macegr

    Here’s my blog post from about 3 years ago:


    A $40 laser printer, and despite what I posted, a reputable re-manufactured cartridge will set you back < $40 and seems to lasts me over 2 years.

    Let's see what else he wants:

    [blockquote]In some future iteration, I want an integrated print server and a driverless network connection: Let it be capable of direct network connectivity, with a host OS, driver, and network stack on the printer itself. An authorized user can send documents, and statistics can be served or sent to a repository. [/blockquote]

    How 'bout a wrt54g and a X-10 switch to power-up and shut down the printer so you don't burn half a kilowatt a day to keep the printer idling? You will have to do some coding, but it will be far easier than building a laser printer from scratch.

  15. I for one would be rather interested in this as this would be cool if you could make any size prints on anything..

    Like how now ways they have flatbed printers for t-shirts, how they print graphics on buses, imagine painting a house with a printer !??

    Now that would Be awesome ?? no ??
    Do a primer coat and than hook this printer up load ink and chose any of your backgrounds on your pc and print it in giant size on your wall .. IMAGINE !!!

    AWSOME !!!!

  16. Paper is now not economical or eco-friendly, so hardly anyone prints stuff anymore unless they’re forced to.

    Personally, if a person can’t accept my document in any of 10 different digital means(USB drive, disc, cd, download, email attachment, etc) then they really don’t need it that badly.

    Even my taxes and W-2 form are 100% digital now. Why would we be working to go backward toward inefficiency by building printers?

    When I took the A+ certification course, the instructor was kind enough to explain:
    If you work on computers in an office, never admit you know how printers function or you will forever be “that guy who knows how to fix the printer”. You will be called on at every inopportune moment to come press a button or something equally as tedious to clear up their boneheaded mistakes.

  17. How are you going to build the inkjet head or photo-drum in the case of a laser printer? Who is going to formulate the ink and/or toner and then distribute it? This is crazy. Buy a laser printer for less than $100 and get the toner refilled for next to nothing. You can get printing costs down to a penny or two a page less the cost of paper which in and of itself is still pretty lame – but a custom built solution isn’t going to do any better.

  18. Disposable inkjet printers are stupid and irresponsible, so why not just buy a durable B/W laser printer and forego all of this stupid argument over ink cartridges?
    Just get a laser printer. Cheaper, more reliable, and more responsible than either inkjets or trying to build one.

    I have an ancient Laserjet 5, designed for a commercial duty cycle, that may well outlive us all.

    There just is no justification whatsoever in trying to build a printer. Hacking is about filling a need or solving a problem, and there is no need here to be filled.

  19. For the detractors..
    The money doesn’t really come into this. DIY and hacking are all about getting EXACTLY what you want from the thing. Not what the manufacturer wants to sell to you.

    Certainly, you can pick up a disposable printer and extortionate ink.. Very cheaply. I paid £150 for my first inkjet. I paid £40 for my current one, and it is better quality and is a far better design. Cheap third party ink means I can have a full set for under £3.


    Can it print directly onto a sheet of icing to decorate a cake With edible ink?

    Can it print directly onto a tee shirt with washer safe ink?

    Can it print etch resistant material directly onto a PCB ready for a ferric chloride bath? Or even better. Lay down some kind of conductive base tracks that could be electroplated on? No more dangerous chemicals to use and dispose of.

    And those are just a few ideas off the top of my head.

    My of the shelf printer can print CDs and DVDs. Very useful feature, but I wish it could do more.

    Your $25 junk after empty printer still only prints on paper, and contributes to the landfill problem… A scratch built open printer could do so much more so cheaply.
    And why stop there. Haven’t you ever wished you could print directly onto non flat non paper objects? Make massive wall covering prints?

    A DIY desktop printer is a tool. And if the tool can be made better, or more versatile with a few modifications, isn’t that worth the effort?

    The only real barrier is the print head. And once someone figures that out, the sky is the limit.

  20. Um, crappy disposable inkjets vs. DIY are NOT the only two options.

    All I see here so far are fallacious strawman arguments about how building a new printer is necessary to avoid evil corporate schemes to steal our money due to ink costs or planned obsolescence.

    Sorry to burst your fragile, ill-constructed bubble, but a laser printer is cheaper, more reliable, more capable, and more environmentally friendly than -ANY- DIY inkjet project could even theoretically be.

    The only thing a DIY printer actually accomplishes is sating the egos of those who need to constuct artificial ways to feel morally and mentally superior to others – usually the kind of douchebag that must use “sheeple” and “corporate” in every sentence.

  21. I think the griefers are missing the point. Sure, it makes no economic sense to build a printer, but as a hobby, why not?

    There are people who build their own cars. Sure, they could buy a car cheaper, but dude, THEY BUILT THEIR OWN CAR. Sometimes the experience of doing something and the skills you develop doing it is reason enough. No need to rationalize it further.

  22. I thought this site was full of forward thinking hackers, but apparently the number is pretty low. If people only focused on building 100% practical things, we wouldn’t have personal computers. Reproducing ink on paper is only a starting point. As others have pointed out above, inkjets are used to print everything from solar cells to skin grafts. Who knows what other potential uses they might have?

  23. @urg

    that’s what i’m thinking. i doubt i’d consider buying/building an ‘open’ printer. there are just too many questions to consider that nearly all will be answered favoring the ‘closed’ printer. i wonder what the true cost of ownership of the ‘open’ printer will be. i can understand doing an ‘open’ printer as a fun personal project, but that’s about it.

    i have tried ‘opensource bagels’ and haven’t been consistently impressed with my experience, but that hasn’t turned me away from my 4+ year experimentation.

  24. @John – “and it is better quality and is a far better design.” Not true. Simply not true. The older printers are built like fucking tanks, weigh about the same as a tank, and actually use serious pieces of hardware to drive the thing. They are more robust, last longer and are probably easier to maintain if you can deal with the ink/ribbon sourcing issues. Capabilities wise, newer can do more, higher resolution plus extra bells and whistles, such as a little LCD screen slapped on to tell you its printing :S

    @Stunmonkey – love it. Its a fairly direct attack, well written and I like how you ensured you maintained the capitalisation of DIY. Top marks.

    I think it is an interesting challenge, it may not bear the fruit of a fully working inkjet printer, but it beats smoking crack and robbing grannies to fuel the sick addiction.

    1. No.. I’m afraid you are wrong. It all depends on your definition of “old” In this case, old is late 90s, not mid 60s. Long after the disposable era for such things started.

      My first inkjet ( not THE first) printer lasted about a year. Motor burned out. Expensive 3 colour cartridge and black cartridge.
      Slower, bulkier, noisier.

      Current inkjet.. Going on for about 6-7 years old.
      Individual colour cartridges, prints DVDs as well as paper.
      Faster quieter, much more compact. Cheaper to run.
      Cheaper ink too, because I’m not stupid enough to print with manufacturer’s ink.

  25. @ORV – Probably a very bad example, seeing as how I -HAVE- built my own car, among other things.

    You see, I’m not attacking the idea of a printer or anything else, I’m attacking the silly justifications I see here.

    I built a car for the hell of it, to learn, and to have something unique. That’s all. Totally selfish on my part, and it in no way can be considered even close to superior in any real performance metric to a manufactured car. It isn’t. In fact its inefficient and unreliable.
    However, I am not pompous enough to try to justify my builds with inflated and pompous claims about corporatism, opensource, saving the world, oligarchys, or whatever.

    If you want to build a printer for the hell of it, do it. Jut don’t try to pass it off as anything other than a pointless vanity project. Just like my car.
    If its fun, do it. Just don’t try to convince us how the morally superior and open-minded super-enlightened being you are is somehow saving the fucking world. That’s just complete bullshit.

  26. Now that I think about it, the entire underlying justification for projects like this are built almost entirely on hubris, and sustained through the self-justification of the egos involved. Reprap is the prime example of projects like this.

    Most of those people just call the rest of us close-minded, when in fact the reverse is true.
    Because of that close-minded nature, when we oppose one of their ideas for any reason, they just assume we aren’t doing anything at all. Instead, maybe they would find there are groups actually doing what they claim to want to, and simply proving their ideas unviable.

    Perhaps if they were to open up Google and do some looking there are actual Appropriate Technologies groups doing actual work in undeveloped countries, creating what they only wank about things like the RepRap doing.

  27. >Couldn’t you just combine some Xerox type solid ink with a RepRap with a
    >spray function instead of an extrude function?

    Um, only if you wanted to print in inch-high letters that look like they were written in crayon.
    What is the repeatability of a RepRap again?

  28. >Actually I was advocating a pressurized nozzle that prints small bubbles or
    >droplets much like an inkjet printer.

    So, kind of like attaching a scalpel to a backhoe?

    If you could create an accurate picoliter delivery system capable of such fifine resolution, why attach it to a device that can’t hold near those tolerances then?

    In other words, hand a pen to Micheal J. Fox, and whether its a fine point or broad point isn’t much going to matter to the final quality of output.

  29. @tehgringe
    “and it is better quality and is a far better design.” Not true. Simply not true. The older printers are built like fucking tanks, weigh about the same as a tank, and actually use serious pieces of hardware to drive the thing.

    Agreed as far as build quality. Older ones were built to last in many cases. But not what I was referring to. My old printer was lower resolution, used one black and one 3 colour cartrige, slower, and only printed flat sheet media.
    Current printer is higher resolution, has 6 individual ink cartridges, prints disks. In my book, better more capable equipment. And to be honest.. Build quality is about the same. My old one was a domestic grade printer too. And not that old. From about ten years ago, when the first domestic ink jets were coming on the market.

    But something I was wondering.. Does the maker actually need to make the print head from scratch? Why not cannibalise the head from an existing printer? Especially the disposable ones. And if all that is done by any central project is provide the information to do the job, what could the printer manufacturer do? Nobody is stealing the printers. Nobody is selling their product out from under their feet, because the printer is not the profit making product. So no problem really. And I haven’t heard about Epson coming after the people that make that program to reset the cleaning cycle counter yet. Even though it does cut into sales.

  30. “In 1980, Stallman and some other hackers at the AI Lab were refused access to the source code for the software of the first laser printer, the Xerox 9700. Stallman had modified the software on an older printer (the XGP, Xerographic Printer), so it electronically messaged a user when the person’s job was printed, and would message all logged-in users when a printer was jammed. Not being able to add this feature to the Dover printer was a major inconvenience, as the printer was on a different floor from most of the users. This one experience convinced Stallman of people’s need to be free to modify the software they use.” – wikipedia on RMS of GNU Free Software Open Source fame.

  31. When did Epson start making Xeron 9700’s?
    I asked google a few ways, but did not find the secret…Just curious. I just bought a new printer and was thinking, it will do until I can afford a 9700 and an operator to go with it.

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