A Look at an Alternative (Affordable) Print-and-Copy Solution for Education

A perennial problem for many budget-strapped school districts throughout the world has often been obtaining an affordable copy-and-print solution. In the United Kingdom, for instance,  The Guardian recently reported on one politician’s efforts to induce school districts to bridge budget shortfalls with “cheaper photocopiers.”

From The Guardian:

Labour MPs have criticised a Department for Education letter that suggests schools could make up their budget shortfalls by purchasing cheaper photocopiers or switching energy suppliers.

In a letter to the Labour MP John Cryer, who wrote to raise concerns about the funding shortfall for schools in his constituency, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said the government recognised schools “are facing increasing cost pressures” and was advising schools about how to save money.

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Nick Gibb (left)

“Schools could save, on average, up to 10% by making use of our national energy deal and over 40% by using the national deal for printers and photocopiers,” the minister wrote. Other suggestions included following advice on better staff deployment from the Education Endowment Fund and the government’s school buying strategy.

Cryer said the comments showed the department was “living in a fantasy world, utterly divorced from the reality in our schools” and said one school in his constituency was due to lose £960,055 in real terms over the next four years.

Schools in Waltham Forest, part of Cryer’s east London constituency, face real-terms budget cuts of £21m between 2016 and 2020 – based on increased costs of £17m from unfunded new cost pressures, such as the government’s apprenticeship levy in addition to about £4.3m from changes to the national funding formula for schools, according to the local authority’s calculation.

“The government is clearly in complete denial about the impact its policies are having on schools,” Cryer said.

 Following is our recommendation for a “cheap photocopier” solutions – the tried-and-true digital duplicator:

 Digital Duplicator for Classrooms with Electricity, Computers, and 30+ Students

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Ricoh DD 5450 Digital Duplicator

Today, the ultimate solution for “cheaper photocopiers” are digital duplicators that have built-in rolls of stencils with “clean” automatic mounting and disposal. The high-resolution masters are “cut” using either a photocopier-like document feeder or flatbed scanner, or digital “printing” from a PC or USB-flash memory device. They also employ cartridges of relatively common gel ink that are available in over 70 colors that require an interchangeable drum for each ink color. This allows for “spot” colored prints that require swapping out drum and master units and printing with multiple passes as required. However, some digital duplicator models incorporate two drum units and can produce two colors with superior registration in a single pass.

Available from companies such as Ricoh, Riso, and Duplo, digital duplicators come in several configurations, and top-of-the-line models can be as expensive to purchase as a digital copier/MFP. However, regardless of brand they all share a number of strengths and weaknesses when compared to that of traditional toner-based printers and copiers.


  • Low cost per page: Some models can produce copies for as little as 1¢ each. A digital duplicator used for run-lengths of 30+ can produce them significantly cheaper, even prints in color.
  • Low energy consumption: Prints from digital duplicators air dry, so there’s no need for the electrically heated fusing elements.
  • Low cost of maintenance: Digital duplicators require far less maintenance, as they have comparatively simple and robust construction with fewer moving parts and critical tolerances.
  • Ability to handle thick media: Digital duplicators can print on thicker media, as they have a straight and simple paper path, and no fusing element whose heat output must be modulated for different media and different media weights.
  • Ability to handle a variety of media and envelope types and sizes: The simplicity of the paper path, continuously adjustable media trays, a more robust and adjustable feeding system, and lack of fusing unit allows superior feeding and printing on either large or small, or thick or thin media and envelopes.
  • Fast print speeds: Digital duplicators can print at speeds as fast as 150 ppm at a purchase price that’s a fraction of that of a 150-ppm printer or copier.


  • Cost per page and total cost of ownership is dependent on run lengths: As stated, since masters are the most costly component, the more copies and prints produced per master, the lower the cost per page. Our testing and analysis has shown that optimum run lengths are 30+ copies per page. Take note that the cost per page of traditional inkjet- or toner-based copiers and printers are minimally dependent on run length.
  • No collation or finishing: Since digital duplicators excel at printing as many pages as possible from a stencil master, the technology doesn’t lend itself to collating and finishing. While large banks of mechanical sorters have been employed in the past (remember, its most cost-efficient to print 30+ of each page), they were large, expensive, complex, and drastically affected system reliability and the cost of service.
  • Manual duplex printing: Digital duplicators don’t have automatic duplex printing, which instead must be done manually by changing masters or drum units, reinserting printed pages into the media tray, and then printing on the backside of the page. Although this process is more time-consuming and error prone than that of automatic duplex printing, the low cost per page and high print speeds might mitigate this issue.
  • Slightly inferior image quality: While the promised resolution of up to 600 x 600 dpi is comparable to that of inkjet- and toner-based printers and digital copiers, due to to inherent weaknesses in the technology (gel ink being squeezed out through holes in the stencil master), very close inspection of prints shows signs of slight “fuzziness” of the images. However, it’s not readily apparent unless you compare prints to inkjet- or toner-based prints side-by-side. Moreover, when printing a color pie chart for example, the color registration of digital duplicators is not as accurate as that of single-pass inkjet or toner-based color prints produced by printers and digital copiers, and the use of several masters per page increases the need for higher run lengths. That said, digital duplicators are much more useful for spot color printing at run lengths of 30+ x the number of printed colors per page.
  • Inferior print quality and difficult master creation for printing continuous tones (color photos):  Inkjet- and toner-based color printing technology is a single-pass feeding system that results in superior registration of colors. Moreover, algorithms produce optimal print quality through modulation of the printed dot size, half toning, and the overlap and edge-blending of printed colors. While digital duplicators can print red, green, blue (RGB), albeit in separate passes, the colors are laid side-by-side and even if they almost assuredly overlap due to mis-registration, there is no effective blending of the colors or color-correction algorithms. Moreover, producing the three color masters required for a continuous tone print is an expensive and time-consuming process.

Spirit Duplicators and Mimeograph Machines

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For those wishing to take a trip down memory lane, older solutions for copying in education were the spirit duplicator and memeograph machine.

The spirit duplicator was known as a Ditto machine in North America, Banda machine in the U.K., or Roneo in France and Australia. The term “spirit duplicator” refers to the alcohol/solvent mix that was used as “ink.” Because of their low-cost, spirit duplicators were used mainly by schools, churches, clubs, and other small organizations because of their low output quality and the limited number of copies one could make from a  “spirit master” original. Like all duplicators, the most expensive component was the master and the more prints made from each the lower the cost per page. With spirit duplicators, one well-made master could print about 50 copies before the image quality became illegible, and if fewer copies were produced, the master could be re-used.

After the availability of low-cost xerographic copiers in the 1970s, Spirit duplicator technology gradually fell into disuse. However, the technology still remains useful today, particularly where electrical power is unavailable, or there exists a legacy of “spirit master” documents.

Notably, the faintly sweet aroma of pages fresh off the duplicator was a memorable feature of school life in the spirit-duplicator era.

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Mimeograph machines co-existed with spirit duplicators but used more durable “stencil” masters and actual ink. They were also more expensive and could be hand-cranked but when electrified could print at higher speeds. The stencil master was wrapped around a drum and as the paper passed between the rotating drum and a pressure roller, ink was forced through the holes in the stencil and onto the paper.

Stencil masters were generally created in a typewriter and there were specialized styluses that could be used to render lettering, illustrations, or other artistic features by hand. Mistakes could be corrected by brushing them out with a specially formulated correction fluid and re-cutting the stencil once it had dried. Stencils could also be “cut” with an infrared thermal process using another machine such as the Thermofax. During the declining years of the mimeograph, stencils could even be “cut” with dot-matrix impact printers.

Unlike spirit duplicators with their low-yield masters, a high-quality mimeograph stencil master could produce several hundred copies. As mimeographs used actual ink, they produced a darker, more legible image and was considered “the next step up” in quality.

Last, but not least, back in the day, primitive copying in education was done by slate (which, interestingly, bears an uncanny resemblance to today’s tablet PCs):

Victorian School Slate and Pencil

“In Victorian schools, very young children first learned to write their letters in sand trays using their fingers or a stick. When about seven, they progressed onto writing on slates like the one pictured here.

The board was made from a piece of quarry slate set in a wooden frame. A slate pencil (not chalk) was used to form the letters. This slate pencil was often sharpened on the school wall. The advantage of slates over paper was that they could be wiped clean and used again and again.

Children had to bring a dampened cloth or sponge to school so that they could clean the slate and start again but often they would use their own spit and the cuff of their sleeve! This process is the origin of the phrase ‘to wipe the slate clean’, which we still use to mean to make a new start, or to forget the things that have gone before.” – Objectlessons.org