Thursday, August 26, 2010

Open Source in Meatspace

I have been thinking about printer designs lately.

Inkjet, laser, whatever. The companies that make them (HP, Kodak, Canon, Lexmark, Brother) rely on the following basic business model:
  • Sell customers the printer, earn $60-$300
  • Sell customers proprietary ink cartridge refills, earn $25 every other month
  • Printer breaks down after 2-3 years, repeat
In short, they are happy to make money on the initial investment, but the real cash cow is the returning business for the ink. It beats the old business model of selling defective products that need more frequent replacement, but the ink business is still an artificially-induced demand market. Ink cartridges could be standardized and ink could cost a whole lot less money, but that is how these companies stay afloat. It's either this or pay ten times more up front for the printer.

It got me thinking.

The expertise for a more intelligent design of printers is out there. Engineers and manufacturers already have interest in such designs. In a parallel world, the software industry has found an incredible resource in the open-source community for putting together large coding projects that would be altogether too big for a single tinkerer (which is what they mostly are -- software developers with real jobs and tinkering on open source projects on the side). Their capacity for creation seems almost limitless for them, except for the limit of the computer screen.

The advantage that software developers have is that it really just comes down to expertise. That's what you pay for in a computer program: the smarts of the people creating it.

In manufacturing a meatspace product, however, on top of expertise you have:
  • Raw materials
  • Fabrication facilities (machines that cut, mold, weld, form, etc.)
  • Quality assurance, safety, insurance (meatspace products have more of a tendency to injure than raw code does)
  • Distribution (I long for the days of replicating and emailing pieces of plastic and steel)
I am rather confident that engineers working together en masse in their spare time could eventually design a much better printer than we now have. It would last longer, require less ink maintenance and would be entirely open-source for iterations and improvements from other tinkerers.

It's just the manufacturing that's got me puzzled.

Any ideas?


MidSpeck said...

Genius idea.
Perhaps the manufacturing could be simplified by making the printer modular. e.g., this is where the paper tray and feeder get plugged in. Who makes it or how many sheets of paper it holds, how fast it goes doesn't really matter. As long as it fits within the given specifications.

The old IBM-compatible idea was similar... it didn't really matter what the add-on cards did, the just had to physically fit and communicate within certain constraints.

That spec must be well-thought out though... because once it's set, they need to stay around for a long, long time.

Steve said...

I bought some printer ink yesterday. I told Jodie
Printer Ink = Ink in plastic ($30)
Bic Pen = Ink in plastic ($.10)

MidSpeck said...

Steve, about the same amount of ink too. =)