They Don’t Make Them as They Used To

March 17th, 2016

Long ago, when you bought a black and white laser printer, it was a major purchase. You might spend several thousand dollars even for the entry-level model. But over the years, printers have become cheap commodity devices. Nowadays, replacing consumables and other spare parts can quickly exceed the cost of the printer and then some, and they are the main sources of manufacturer profits.

Unfortunately, printers are built far cheaper, and getting even a few years of service is not something you can always depend on. Stay with me and I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

A close friend, a retired businessperson owns several printers, including an HP LaserJet 8150, one of those huge HP office printers that weighs roughly 112 pounds. It probably dates back to the early 2000s or even older. It’s rated  at 100,000 copies per month, and has received nothing more than routine maintenance over the years. I’m not sure the current HP printer drivers are fully compatible, but it seems to run OK on his iMac, which runs a recent version of OS X.

Well a few years back, I realized I needed to save money on printing, and lots of other things. So I bought a fairly inexpensive black and white laser printer. The plan was to only use the color multifunction printer when I needed to print a color document, send a fax, or copy or scan something. Using a well-rated recycled toner, the per-page cost on that printer is less than a penny a page plus the cost of the paper. If one is judicious about which documents are printed, the monthly cost is negligible.

Until, of course, the printer requires a major repair.

The printer, a Brother HL-5450dn, cost roughly $200-225 at retail when I bought it. It’s still available for that price, although it has mostly been supplanted by later models. Still it promises up to 40 pages a minute print speed, with up to 1200 x 1200 dpi resolution. Print quality of text is first rate, sharp, crisp, even at the default 600 dpi printer setting. Even tiny text is pretty clear, which isn’t always the case on a cheap laser printer. Graphics are decent, nothing to shout home about, but that’s fairly normal for cheap lasers.

The HL-5450dn offers both Ethernet and USB ports, and it supports Apple AirPrint so you can print from an iOS device.

Everything worked just fine until just a few weeks ago, when print quality nosedived. Sometimes small amounts of toner would splatter on a page, and when it didn’t random parts of a text document were blurry. I changed the toner and the drum without success, so I contacted Brother’s chat support for help.

They diagnosed a failed fuser assembly. Technically, the fuser consists of heat rollers. Paper moves though these rollers, the toner melts and is fused with the fiber on the paper. Until it doesn’t, and evidently those rollers wore prematurely. The part is rated for  up to 100,000 copies, but they failed after 28,000 copies.

Now Brother rates this part as dealer installable, although you can buy one yourself. The installation process is of moderate difficulty. But the price doesn’t make sense. Amazon lists one for $189.49 plus shipping. I saw prices of $125-130 at eBay for fuser assemblies labeled as new. Remember, this printer sells, new, for $200-225. So why would anyone pay nearly that amount to replace a single part? At this point, it’s better just to buy a new printer, which may be what Brother prefers.

Clearly Brother support knew something when I told them about my problem. Without a word of protest, they said they’d replace the fuser free and recommended a nearby authorized repair shop to perform the service. Within a few days, the part had arrived, and I dropped off the printer. The next day I took it home, ran some test copies and found everything worked perfectly, as if the printer was brand new.

Now why would Brother be willing to provide such an expensive part free for an out-of-warranty product? Well, the service technician explained to me that the quality control on these parts wasn’t terribly robust. It was common for rough spots and other defects to develop on these fusers well before the rated lifecycle, and that Brother routinely authorized warranty service.

As I said earlier, printer makers earn all or most of their profits from the consumables. Assuming I’d be buying regular supplies of toner and occasional drum replacements (these are rated for 25,000 copies), they’d have enough profit leftover to cover the cost of fuser replacements on a certain percentage of these products.

No doubt the bean counters at Brother have calculated the cost of doing occasional fuser replacements versus the cost of beefing up quality control so the parts don’t fail so quickly. I suppose they expect most customers to simply give up and buy a new printer, hopefully another Brother.

They say you get what you pay for. Expect a laser printer costing $100-300 to be built cheaply, with questionable reliability. Brother is supposed to be one of the best, and it ran great for me until the fuser assembly failed. Maybe it’s a candidate for an extended warranty, because I wouldn’t depend on Brother always agreeing to pay the repair bill after the manufacturer’s warranty expires. SquareTrade is offering a 3-year warranty for $19.32 in the Amazon listing I consulted for the HL-5450dn. That seems to be worth it — and then some.

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