The New Yorker paper jam article
February 10, 2018 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Why Paper Jams Persist...Midway through the printing process, the paper was supposed to cross a gap; flung from the top of a rotating belt, it needed to soar through space until it could be sucked upward by a vacuum pump onto another belt, which was positioned upside down. Unfortunately, the press was in a hot and humid place, and the paper, normally lissome, had become listless. At the apex of its trajectory, at the moment when it was supposed to connect with the conveyor belt, its back corners drooped. They dragged on the platform below, and, like a trapeze flier missing a catch, the paper sank downward. As more sheets rushed into the same space, they created a pile of loops and curlicues—what the jam engineers called a “flower arrangement.”
posted by kingless (44 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because the top side of an airplane wing is curved, while the underside is flat, the air above moves faster than the air below, and the wing rises.

No discussion of fluid dynamics is complete without this incorrect description of how a plane flies.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 2:19 PM on February 10 [56 favorites]


"The employees in Mike Judge’s 1999 film “Office Space” grow so frustrated with their jam-prone printer that they destroy it with a baseball bat in a slow-motion montage set to the Geto Boys’ “Still.” (Office workers around the country routinely reënact this scene, posting the results on YouTube.) According to the Wall Street Journal, printers are among the most in-demand objects in “rage rooms,” where people pay to smash things with sledgehammers; Battle Sports, a rage-room facility in Toronto, goes through fifteen a week. "

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as annoying,” Vicki Warner, who leads a team of printer engineers at Xerox, said of discovering a new kind of paper jam. “I would characterize it as almost exciting.” ... “Printers are essentially paper torture chambers,” Warner said, smiling behind her glasses. “I thought, This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”


Oy. I don't even know.

I speak as someone who literally fixes the paper jam at least once a day.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:22 PM on February 10 [5 favorites]


Because the top side of an airplane wing is curved, while the underside is flat, the air above moves faster than the air below, and the wing rises.
No discussion of fluid dynamics is complete without this incorrect description of how a plane flies.

Huh? It's kinda incomplete (no mention of pressure) but it's not really incorrect, is it?
posted by Frayed Knot at 2:30 PM on February 10 [4 favorites]


FWIW, I wish that the feed-roller in a canon mfd was able to be replaced for less than the price of a new canon mfd.
posted by mikelieman at 2:31 PM on February 10


Chaser:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the shape of airplane wings.

posted by ejs at 2:33 PM on February 10 [13 favorites]


Relevant XKCD

Basically, it has more to do with the angle that air hits the wing (angle of attack) than the shape of the wing itself. Air hits the bottom of a wing more directly, which slows the air down, raises its pressure, and applies some amount of force upwards on the wing. Air flows over top of the wing and is not slowed down. This is another good picture that illustrates what is really going on.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 2:41 PM on February 10 [7 favorites]


I heard a radio interview with Rothman and his encapsulation of the piece was that when you have the organic (paper) coming into contact with the mechanical (printer) you’ll always encounter problems. First of all, that made me think of those automated meat processing plants where animal carcasses are expertly dismembered by machines—do those jam? Or is it that in meat processing plants the machines are brutally dominating the organic materials, whereas in printers you want the paper to come out the other side looking all pretty?

Second, it make me wonder why we’re not all printing on a synthetic, dimensionally stable substrate like Tyvek by now. I blame Big Pencil.
posted by ejs at 2:42 PM on February 10 [3 favorites]


like at this point we might as well accept that paper jams happen and, like babies pooping, someone has to clean up because otherwise unspeakable things will happen

(speaking as someone who's the office printer jam whisperer)
posted by lineofsight at 2:43 PM on February 10 [7 favorites]


Ah, printers. Truly a magical confluence of terrible hardware with terrible software. A wonder of our times.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:45 PM on February 10 [11 favorites]


Am reminded of a comment I made a while back on a discussion about the death of typesetting. Copier machines and laser printers, while amazing, remain distant cousins of their printing press ancestors.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 2:55 PM on February 10


Back in the day, I worked at a firm where there were frequent late afternoon document production crunches requiring all hands on deck to print, collate, punch, bind, pack, etc. Most of the time, we all handled our own printing, but for these regular crises (maybe 2 or three days every week) the administrative staff, who functioned like a fine-tuned machine, would take over and do their graceful document production ballet.

On these days, I was banned from the room that housed the big printer... because I was legendary for just walking up to the printer and having it balk and jam, setting off a cascade of faults, all regardless of whether I touched it. I have no idea whether this "talent" of mine was real or an office superstition, but I wondered if perhaps I introduced a lethal dose of static electricity to the system... or something.
posted by carmicha at 2:58 PM on February 10 [3 favorites]


Obligatory
posted by chavenet at 3:00 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]


First of all, that made me think of those automated meat processing plants where animal carcasses are expertly dismembered by machines—do those jam?

They do. When bone meets metal, sometimes bone wins. But really, any material will jam in a machine if it becomes misaligned, somehow -- synthetic or otherwise.
posted by halation at 3:01 PM on February 10 [4 favorites]


I always say to break the copier or printer your first week at a new job, so that people will never go to you to fix them. It's like getting in a fight when you arrive in prison.
posted by thelonius at 3:01 PM on February 10 [42 favorites]


Ah, printers. Truly a magical confluence of terrible hardware with terrible software. A wonder of our times.

You forgot to include the terrible economic model that makes ink or replacement parts more expensive than the printer itself.
posted by peeedro at 3:15 PM on February 10 [7 favorites]


the city’s wintertime indoor beach-volleyball scene.

I would like to know more about this.
posted by mr_stru at 3:26 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]


As a moderately tech-savvy worker at a series of very understaffed, scrappy non-profits, it has fallen to me to fix the printers for about the last ten years or so.

I can re-install drivers, for example when Adobe Reader's auto-update broke pdf printing on all the printers simultaneously. I can remove little bits of jammed paper that hide in the rotors. There is some science to it, certainly, and this article is a fascinating glimpse into the engineering of high-end printers which have to run huge, complex jobs.

But on our second-hand beige Brother MFC, there is also a lot of finesse. You have to really slam the front cover to get the sensors to read it as closed. And sometimes even after you've removed the jammed paper, you have to ritualistically take out the toner cartridge and put it back in, because the machine demands it.

My favorite thing that it did recently was the result of me foolishly attempting to duplex print, which must be done manually. You print one side, then put it back in the tray (face up, feet first) and print the other side. One day it decided to systematically pull all of the pre-printed paper through without printing on the back of it at all, then print the second page on fresh paper. After it did that about three times I gave up and stapled them.
posted by mai at 3:26 PM on February 10 [8 favorites]


Of course, the organization has no financial incentive to buy a nicer printer, because as a salaried employee, the additional time I spend fixing mine and everyone else's jams is not compensated.
posted by mai at 3:28 PM on February 10 [2 favorites]


You print one side, then put it back in the tray (face up, feet first) and print the other side.
My god, I hate this. When you print, it curls the paper. You can't put it back in the tray flat. It just doesn't work. It can't work. I've always suspected that this is a case of the marketing department overruling the engineering department.
posted by klanawa at 3:32 PM on February 10 [3 favorites]


God, I hated having to fix printers back when I was doing warranty repairs for Apple some twenty years ago. Was so happy when Steve Jobs discontinued the LaserWriter.
posted by porn in the woods at 3:40 PM on February 10 [3 favorites]


more importantly; why are we still printing?
posted by judson at 3:42 PM on February 10 [6 favorites]


I've always loved the gimmick and double meaning of Mistabishi - Printer Jam.
posted by glonous keming at 3:58 PM on February 10 [3 favorites]


If you are interested in this, there is a work ethnography of Xerox copier repair technicians by Julian Orr, Talking about Machines - An Ethnography of a Modern Job. The description of the techs in this article echoes Orr's work a lot, I think.
posted by carter at 4:42 PM on February 10 [4 favorites]


more importantly; why are we still printing?

Sellen and Harper talk about this in another work ethnography, The Myth of the Paperless Office. Paper is as much a way to get things done in an office, as it is the thing that needs to be done, if that makes sense.
posted by carter at 4:46 PM on February 10 [6 favorites]


more importantly; why are we still printing?

It's best practice, when reviewing code, to print out the code on paper and read it. You spot things you'll never see on a screen.

I figure that if digital computer instructions are better on paper than on a screen, there's no hope for the paperless office.
posted by Merus at 5:02 PM on February 10 [3 favorites]


He paused. “Two out of three defendants were gone—walking out the door—because of paper jams!”

Given that this is the CPD and Chicago prosecutors we're talking about here, I'm a little worried that fixing this would actually be a bad thing.
posted by protocoach at 5:47 PM on February 10 [4 favorites]


Thought this was about the cardboard amps. Disappointed.
posted by bongo_x at 5:57 PM on February 10


You forgot to include the terrible economic model that makes ink or replacement parts more expensive than the printer itself.

It's not necessarily bad. It works pretty well in most cases.

Let's say that the printer company needs to collect $1000 to make a profit on a printer. It can get that $1000 by charging you $1000 for the printer and give you ink for free or it can give you a free printer and charge you $1000 for ink, or any combination between. Either way it costs you $1000.

For someone who prints a lot, they sell a model that is expensive but has cheaper ink. For someone who prints a little, they sell a model that is cheap but has expensive ink. Different strokes for different folks.

That's why they use proprietary cartridges that are difficult to refill. They have given you a printer at a discount that is a loss to them unless they can make it back eventually on ink.

Assuming the market for printers is competitive, nobody is really being cheated.
posted by JackFlash at 7:22 PM on February 10 [1 favorite]


Oh paper jams and printer weirdnesses, how many have I seen?
  • the middle manager so impatient that he pulled pages out as soon as they appeared out the feed. Bottom of the pages weren't fused right, so most of the toner wiped off on him.
  • the “paper's out — but I'll just load enough for my job” guy. FUCK THAT GUY!
  • the printer that mysteriously developed blanks on the page in a curiously regular pattern. Seems we had someone who thought we could save money by just using inkjet labels in the hideously expensive document centre, and the labels wrapped themselves round the toner drum. That was a fun afternoon with a plastic knife and some rubbing alcohol, peeling the labels off the drum …
posted by scruss at 7:34 PM on February 10 [4 favorites]


Injection moulding plastic machine ls can also develop jams and you sometimes get gorgeous frozen waterfalls of plastic as a result. I wish I had kept some of the acrylic (?) ones that were clear plastic shaded with swirls of machine oil. They were gorgeous, like jellyfish or blobs of amber.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:44 PM on February 10 [4 favorites]


> Assuming the market for printers is competitive, nobody is really being cheated.

I liked how the analysis of price per page versus total pages managed to completely eclipse any consideration of quality or reliability.
posted by Phssthpok at 9:58 PM on February 10 [2 favorites]


Steve Jobs (for all his well-documented, profound flaws) is justly lauded as the visionary who brought Apple back from the dead, successfully dominating, reinvigorating, or even defining the market of all-in-ones, handheld media players, and eventually the mobile phone-slash-computer.

Some days, I wonder if he hadn't accidentally killed himself with egotistic stupidity whether Jobs would've set his eyes on the ultimate prize... making printers "just work."
posted by tclark at 9:58 PM on February 10 [2 favorites]


That's ironical, do you remember what printing was like before the "desktop publishing" was a thing? The combination of a Macintosh, Aldus Pagemaker, and an Apple LaserWriter was revolutionary.
posted by peeedro at 10:56 PM on February 10 [6 favorites]


Well at least it's only paper. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUj6e022Xjo

I have a domestic Canon inkjet and occasionally have to do print runs that take multiple hours to complete. I know there have been paper jams in the past but I can't remember when the last one was. I have the option to buy ink from Canon but I never do because it is large multiples of the price of the third-party ink I use, which seems more than adequate for my purposes. So it seems to me that Canon, at least, have got the pricing balance about right - they presumably make enough profit on the printer alone, though it seems ridiculously cheap to me, and I imagine that we're about on the knee of the jam-frequency/price curve - reducing the number of jams any further would probably push the price way outside my budget.
posted by merlynkline at 1:17 AM on February 11


That's why they use proprietary cartridges that are difficult to refill. They have given you a printer at a discount that is a loss to them unless they can make it back eventually.

So I'm acquainted with one of those super-genius types that often does things that make little to no sense. When printers were first a mass consumer item, I went to his studio (he was a very talented artist, even at one point having gone to prison for cutting his own plates to print money, and even the Secret Service guys who arrested him expressed some admiration for how good his stuff looked) and one room was floor to ceiling printers. I asked him what was going on, and he told me that the ink was so expensive that you were practically getting the printer for free, so he wanted the printers too. I asked him what he was going to do with all the inkless printers...he hadn't gotten that far yet, but he'd figure something out.

Later on he defrauded a bunch of people in a business making furniture out of old military parts. I still wonder what happened to all the brand new printers, still in the boxes.
posted by nevercalm at 4:11 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


I’m convinced that printer technology is seeded into cultures by colonialist aliens who know full well that printers will eventually drive any species into a paroxysm of self-destructive rage. Every time I try to print mailing labels, I’m reminded how lucky the world is that I do not yet possess nuclear armaments.
posted by sonascope at 5:46 AM on February 11


And notably, my traction feed MX-80 never, ever jammed.
posted by sonascope at 5:47 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


I used to be an IE at a plant that made check/remittance processing machines. For us, it was all about a finding rubber supplier who could maintain consistent product over the years, without the benefit of any real engineering specifications other than durometer. (When all the employees switched their paychecks to direct deposit, I kind of knew the writing was on the wall for the company.)
posted by klarck at 5:53 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


But on our second-hand beige Brother MFC, there is also a lot of finesse. You have to really slam the front cover to get the sensors to read it as closed. And sometimes even after you've removed the jammed paper, you have to ritualistically take out the toner cartridge and put it back in, because the machine demands it.

We replaced our dishwasher last year, but before that my wife used to make fun of how particular I was about how the old one was loaded. Certain dishes would just Not Get Clean if loaded in certain ways and I developed a similar set of habits for loading the dishwasher with its Maximum Practical Density to work around the weird dead spots in its cleaning pattern. The new one is a Bosch and I think the total number of dishes that have come out with stuff stuck to them over the past ten months is still in the single digits.

That guy who says he'd get bored doing another job could always work for a dishwasher manufacturer. I wonder if copier people and the dishwasher people ever get to go to the same conferences and hang out together.
posted by fedward at 9:27 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Later on he defrauded a bunch of people in a business making furniture out of old military parts. I still wonder what happened to all the brand new printers, still in the boxes.

No fraud involved, but we used to have a bunch of refurb HL-1440s in a warehouse because it was cheaper to buy them with their included toner/drum cartridge than even the reasonably priced cartridges we were getting for them at the time. Plus, spares. Also, built in drivers for every OS since Windows 2000 or so. ;)

Loved those things. It's been a long time since printers that do less than 15 pages a minute or so really have any jamming issues until the rollers and other rubber(ish) parts degrade over time.
posted by wierdo at 9:55 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


More expensive paper is more cleanly split, and its straighter edges have less dust-generating surface area. (They are also more likely to cause paper cuts.)

So fewer paper jams=more paper cuts? There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Paper jams are a species within a larger genus. Traffic jams, too; so do tape decks, guns, and sewing machines. On humid days, voting machines jam, leading to recounts; over the aeons, tectonic plates jam, resulting in earthquakes. Ice floating down a river makes an ice jam; floating logs join up into logjams.

Logjams? Like the Great Raft? (Which I could swear had been the subject of a post here, but I can’t find it.) Anyway, great McPheesian article. I have to share it with my brother in law, a mechanical engineer who works on packaging equipment. Paper handling sounds like it would be right up his alley, if he wants to work on something that will always present a new challenge.
posted by TedW at 11:34 AM on February 11


It's been a long time since printers that do less than 15 pages a minute or so really have any jamming issues until the rollers and other rubber(ish) parts degrade over time.

I wonder if it would make sense for home/small business printers to have an option where you could slow them down to reduce the chance of jamming. Marketing materials make much of how many pages per minute a printer produces, but in my experience, given the ubiquity of networked printers, whenever I print something by the time I walk from the computer to the location of the printer the job is long since done and could have been done at half the speed of the printer and still been ready when I walked down the hall, up the stairs, or whatever. Not a solution for every situation, but that is why I suggested it as an optional setting.
posted by TedW at 11:44 AM on February 11


And notably, my traction feed MX-80 never, ever jammed.
I spent 30 years fixing IBM machines*, including printers, but it was around 20 years before I started working on cut-sheet printers. This led me to the conclusion that if God wanted humans to print on paper, He would have connected in in continuous forms with tractor holes on the sides. Not that fanfold paper doesn't jam, but it's a lot harder to do.
And the speed- the IBM 3800 in 1976 printed 216 letter size pages in landscape per minute. The Xerox 9700 did 120, and I don't think that speed was surpassed until the 1990's. The 914 in the article was 7 ppm.

The article seems to be in the style of an author who takes technology for granted as 'magic' and then meets the 'magicians' who actually have to deal with the reality of a complex machine.

Here are some of my reactions:
-I assume the 'flower arrangement' is what we called 'accordionation'- the paper gets turned into a little paper fan

-“I thought, This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
I had a choice in my career when IBM tried to spin off its printing systems, and I chose printers over mainframes, because mainframes were getting less and less interesting (to fix) while printers would continue to break, and break in ways that mostly made sense. I didn't have to call the engineers to have them send me a patch. Also, a lot of the calls were simple things the operators caused. (although the one where the user saw it was out of toner, and instead of using the correct toner cartridge, poured in toner from another machine, which uses the opposite charging system- that was a biggie.)

-“Printers are essentially paper torture chambers...” - they are also printer torture chambers.
Laser printers by necessity have computers or computer-like electronics, and two things that computers don't like are high temperatures and static electricity, and these are required in laser printers.

-"...the Bullock press, which was fed by a single roll of paper several miles long." That seemed to me an exaggeration, but then I did some calculating and realized the roll-feed rolls I typically ran into were around 12 miles of paper.

And speaking of destroying printers, Chad Vader can do that.

*I just realized that's another example of RAS syndrome
posted by MtDewd at 12:13 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


I have two amusing printer stories. One is when I was the hero of the office back in the mid 1980s. Our boss had rented this super-fancy computer of some kind that was like CP/M compatible, or maybe some off bastard offspring of MS-DOS. Anyway, non standard. But it had a really cool relational database thing that came with it.

(And it really was cool - you could basically do all kinds of SQL-style queries and its twin 8-inch floppy disk drives would spin around for a minute or two and spit out your query results. Exactly like every web site in the world does now, except taking 2 minutes instead of 2 milliseconds.)

Anyway it came with Wordperfect, which as you recall cost about $900/seat back then & was advertised as "works just the same in EVERY POSSIBLE system and every possible printer."

Well it sure did work on this Brand X computer, just fine and dandy, but no one could figure out how to get it to work with the equally off-brand printer we had to work with it.

Can't remember to this day exactly how I got it to work, but it was something like trying every possible printer driver available until one that seemed the most unlikely possible match worked just beautifully.

As mentioned above, becoming the hero of the office for figuring out complicated computer snafus is always a move in the wrong direction.

But a little bit later my buddy & I were kicked out of that office for self-assembling the new $12,000 copy machine just for fun. It all worked just fine, but they didn't like it.

So, in the end it all worked out quite well.
posted by flug at 4:50 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


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