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Canon mg3620 Setup

Editor’s note: As our Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Eclipse Ventures, Ben brings a founder’s perspective and his passion for hardware design to our discussions. Here, he continues his smashingly popular product-teardown series.
There’s a single product category that is universally despised by nearly every technology-using human on Earth: the printer. While I’ve certainly had my fair share of disagreements with printers over the years, I’ve come to be increasingly curious about a set of intersecting qualities that don’t seem to exist anywhere else: Canon mg3620 Setup
Technology. Printers are surprisingly complex machines. Manipulating 70 micron thick pieces of paper and accurately applying permanent ink is among the most sophisticated pieces of physical technology in the average home.
Cost. Consumer inkjet printers (even ones with scanners and copiers) are dirt cheap. Like sub-$50 cheap. For context, shipping them is usually more expensive than buying them. 🤯
Hatred. I’m pretty forgiving of technology but even MY heart rate rises the second I realize something needs to be printed. In my anecdotal conversations, this is true for approximately 10 out 10 humans.
As with any product that doesn’t quite make sense, the best way to understand is to take it apart. With my startup hat on, I’m always wondering why a small company hasn’t yet been able to unseat the big players in the printer space (Canon, Brother, HP, Epson, etc.). This post makes it clear why that is so very difficult.
Shopping for a Popular Inkjet
Whenever I tear down a product (I have a bit of an addiction), I start with scouring eBay for broken versions on the cheap. But this time, I ran into a curious problem.
I started with looking at popular, low-cost color inkjet printers with good reviews on the various tech-review sites. I landed on the Canon PIXMA MG3620. MSRP is $79.99 but retailers (even Canon’s own site) sell it for $49.99. Not bad. Off to eBay to save a few bucks on a broken one!
On first pass, the used/open-box PIXMAs are as cheap as expected ($10–25) but I started noticing a curious pattern:
 
This is not necessarily an earth-shattering revelation, but it begins to reinforce the picture of a very bizarre set of economics where the printer itself is significantly cheaper than the cost to ship it. Whelp, off to Amazon for a brand new printer for half the cost thanks to free Prime shipping.
Teardown
The new printer arrived in all its glory. Right off the bat there’s a handful of (sometimes) costly items that products in this price point don’t always have to contend with:
Large, full color corrugated box
Six large, molded polystyrene shipping bumpers and other sheets of shipping material
Two inkjet cartridges (one color and one black)
Accessories: USB cable, CD-ROM (can’t believe they still include these), several bound manuals, power cord
Lots and lots of packaging trinkets (little molded and die-cut pieces of plastic, wire ties, etc.)
While it’s always hard to estimate BOM (bill of materials) costs here, it would shock me if these items were less than $10 (25 percent of price I paid).
 
One thing of note from just the packaging: There are an INCREDIBLE number of features this product has to have just to be competitive. Print/copy/scan, wireless connection, full-bleed/full-color printing, USB, modem/fax, software system to manage remotely, web interface, and connections to a pile of cloud software platforms.
After cracking open the covers, the plethora of components required to make these little machines tick is even more shocking than expected:
 
Left side with the primary feed motor for the paper rollers. Right image shows the control panel buttons and LEDs.
It’s important to remember that each of these complex plastic parts has a multi-part injection mold tool, some have pad-printed components (i.e. the green logo on the Start button), and nearly all must interface with: LEDs, electrical components (like wires and PBCs) and of course TONS of mechanical parts (springs, gears, bearings, etc.).
Turning the printer around and going after the power supply, we see the first clue of how the economics can possibly make sense:
 
Power supply module being removed from printer (left) and disassembled (right)
Nearly all printers take in 120v-240v AC mains power to avoid the yucky power bricks sitting on the floor. In normal hardware startup operations, this is hard and expensive due to the safety and certification risk of dealing with dangerous high-voltage AC power. This is why nearly all products from small companies have those dreaded “wall warts” that step down dangerous AC to safe DC power (nearly all of these are bought off the shelf).
Even in big companies, Underwriters Laboratory (UL) and other safety agencies require any product that deals with the dark arts of AC power to be carefully tested. This is expensive and time consuming. So Canon (and most other manufacturers) have come up with a neat trick to save cost/time: build a single internal “power supply” module that is shared across a ton of SKUs, then certify the module itself and reuse over and over again. This saves cost versus buying off-the-shelf wall warts and saves time by avoiding slow regulatory testing for each unique printer SKU. Very smart and something we’ll see over and over again with this product.
 
Removing the left-side cover, we get our first glimpse of the control board and gear train for the paper handling system. Parts, parts, and more parts! In addition to the number of complex, injection-molded plastic parts, which I expected, there’s a surprising number of stamped and die-cut metal parts. One example is the stamped/molded tray that holds the printed circuit boards (PCBs). This sub-assembly is likely inside nearly all Canon inkjet printers, even if certain features (like scanning) aren’t. Similarly, with the WiFi module: if the product has WiFi capabilities, that part is populated; otherwise, it’s the same sub-assembly missing that component.
I’m starting to build a thesis that nearly all of Canon’s inkjet printers reuse identical components (both between printer SKUs but also over some multi-year period of time). Only certain exterior plastic parts are tweaked to differentiate between price points, geographies and performance. canon Pixma mg3600 setup
The pattern of modularity continues to get more apparent, especially when looking at the PCBs:
 

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