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Why Paper Jams Persist (newyorker.com) 122

A trivial problem reveals the limits of technology. Fascinating story from The New Yorker: Unsurprisingly, the engineers who specialize in paper jams see them differently. Engineers tend to work in narrow subspecialties, but solving a jam requires knowledge of physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, computer programming, and interface design. "It's the ultimate challenge," Ruiz said.

"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." When she graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology, in 2006, her friends took jobs in trendy fields, such as automotive design. During her interview at Xerox, however, another engineer showed her the inside of a printing press. All Xerox printers look basically the same: a million-dollar printing press is like an office copier, but twenty-four feet long and eight feet high. Warner watched as the heavy, pale-gray double doors swung open to reveal a steampunk wonderland of gears, wheels, conveyor belts, and circuit boards. As in an office copier, green plastic handles offer access to the "paper path" -- the winding route, from "feeder" to "stacker," along which sheets of paper are shocked and soaked, curled and decurled, vacuumed and superheated. "Printers are essentially paper torture chambers," Warner said, smiling behind her glasses. "I thought, This is the coolest thing I've ever seen."

Why Paper Jams Persist

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  • So why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 12, 2018 @09:47AM (#56107859)

    This is Slashdot. The title invites a question, and TFS doesn't answer it.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I share your concern. This is Slashdot. We can't be expected to, like, read the actual article.

      • Re:So why? (Score:5, Informative)

        by vtcodger ( 957785 ) on Monday February 12, 2018 @11:37AM (#56108527)

        "I share your concern. This is Slashdot. We can't be expected to, like, read the actual article."

        That's too bad, because it turns out to be a REALLY GOOD article -- informative and very well written.

        The answer turns out to be that paper is awful stuff. Its properties aren't uniform and vary with supplier and climate. And printers are trying to move the stuff precisely and quickly.

        • Re:So why? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by zeugma-amp ( 139862 ) on Monday February 12, 2018 @12:50PM (#56109091) Homepage

          I agree with you. It is a well written, and interesting article. The nerdiness factor is high enough that it's definitely /. fodder. In it, I found my word of the day...

          At a hip Rochester restaurant called Nosh, Viavattine held the menu up to the light to assess its "flocculation" (the degree to which its fibres had clumped infelicitously together).

          Flocculation... just kinda rolls right off the tongue. Most excellent!

          • I worked at a printing supply company and the paper guys could talk endlessly about their products.
            It is nerdy, but the charm wears off during the third hour of that weekly sales meeting.
            The summary talks about a million dollar printing press which is like a big office copier. In the real world a million dollar office copier is just an office copier, and can't compete with a real offset press.
            The cheapest one we sold cost about $5.8 million and if you really specced our top of the line model up you wo
    • by quenda ( 644621 )

      At least they have a nice red swingline icon. Never more appropriate.

    • Re:So why? (Score:4, Funny)

      by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Monday February 12, 2018 @10:23AM (#56108075)

      This is Slashdot. The title invites a question, and TFS doesn't answer it.

      That's easy. Paper jams persist because Xerox has a team of engineers to prevent them. The team designs the printer or copier to prevent most paper jams.

      However, they still let it have a few paper jams. If they would design the machine to have no paper jams . . . their skills would not be needed, and they would get fired.

      So paper jams persist to provide job security for those who are paid to prevent them.

      • Re: So why? (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Correct. Without them, an army of midgets hiding inside would be jobless. And then what would they do? Run under tables and steal your breakfast. Youâ(TM)ll never catch them.

      • Actually, having worked at a Fedinko's for over 10 years, paper jams happen for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is people using cheap-ass paper or paper that was stored in humid conditions.

        And don't even get me started on the folks that brought in paper that they bought at some specialty shop that is clearly not intended for going through a Xerox DocuTech 6115, but hey, they bought the shiny foil paper and damnit, they're going to use it.

        My hands down "favorite" had to be the guy who brought in

        • Re: So why? (Score:4, Funny)

          by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Monday February 12, 2018 @11:27AM (#56108457)

          My mother, who at 96 still runs a business out of her apartment, insists that computer files are not ârealâ(TM) unless printed out, so she puts more mileage on her low-end laser than the average law office. To save money she re-uses her paper, which is tolerable if you take the trouble to keep your discarded pages in as pristine a state as possible.

          But every so often I get The Call. I have to go over there again and untangle six pages of recycled paper that were put through with a staple left in the corner.

        • I'm sure glad my local Fedinko's has Canon copiers in the self-service area, I print on all sorts of "plain paper" including fancy textured paper and even homemade paper with embedded pressed flowers!

          Most likely though he just needed to set the paper type to 80lb bond and had it set to plain paper!

          The last thing I would do is listen to the workers who have been stuck in that job for years and years. They tell me all sorts of things are "impossible" like printing a two-sided document from two jpgs without fi

        • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

          Pretty much.

          Paper jams don't happen in a high speed press because they are long and the paper rarely has to be bent. The jams happen because of bends - from incompatible paper (like stickers and whatnot) to simply the paper not making it around. So a large printing press, or even a high speed photocopier work because the paper feeds in from one end and it stays flat through the entire process until it shoots out the other end. Double sided printing is handled by two print engines, so it prints the top side

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        Not really though. There are new designs of printer coming out all the time, and a lot of the work these engineers do is on industrial printers for things like newspapers and books anyway. As well as the printers changing the paper changes as we try to make it more environmentally friendly or one particular publication wants a different type for some reason (premium feel, lower cost, etc.)

        Imaging applying this logic to other products. Engineers wouldn't make cars too safe, lest they be out of a job. Nuclear

    • But it does answer it. The engineers that deal with paper jams get off on torture! You don't think it ends at torture of paper do you? ;)

      ["Printers are essentially paper torture chambers," Warner said, smiling behind her glasses. "I thought, This is the coolest thing I've ever seen."]

  • After you and your buddy are fired

  • by msauve ( 701917 )
    The article is jammed in a paywall.
  • I don't use them all that much and some have bizar/abysmal usability, but the machines themselves are a marvel of engineering IMHO. It's amazing how much of them are optimized to the T these days. And the print quality they put out is just as amazing. I remember smelling meth-spirits with purple ink of the repo machines back in primary school and I also remember the Star NL 10 dot-matrix impact printer. Noisy, ugly, dusty. I also remember the Sharp CE-126P -still have it.

    Long story short, I think they are amazing and AFAICT paper jams with them have also gotten measurably less - although I do understand that those will never go away completely.

    • by CastrTroy ( 595695 ) on Monday February 12, 2018 @10:22AM (#56108067) Homepage

      Yeah, I recall thing being much worse when I was dealing with tractor fed dot matrix printers and early inkjets. I have a $50 laser printer from Walmart that is about 5 years old, and it very rarely gets paper jams. Usually only when the paper isn't in good condition or if you try to print double sided and run the same page through twice.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      I agree, laser printers and photocopiers are a pinnacle of engineering achievement. The people that design and optimize these are really impressive.

      I have to say though that I did not have paper-jams for a very long time now. I think the paper in Europe is better quality though and that may be the reason. Or A4 format just jams less. With the complexity of these things, that may be a possibility.

      • Or, the complaints come from the people buying the very cheapest printers from the cheapest big box stores, and your cheapest junk isn't as cheap as our cheapest junk. In that case, people buying a midrange printer would have the exact same experience.

        I print on a wide variety of papers, different sizes, weights, materials. The cheapest cheap discounted paper does jam more, but name-brand cheap paper is usually of high quality in the US. A4 is definitely not going to make a difference, it is only very sligh

        • by gweihir ( 88907 )

          Sounds plausible to me. You can actually not get really cheap/bad paper here in shops. No idea whether you could special order it, but nobody seems to do it. The only exception I know is newspaper paper, but that is not suitable for laser printers at all, too thin and rough.

    • The really weird thing is that the basic claim "paper jams are a trivial problem" goes unchallenged. The author doesn't understand the word "trivial" in engineering. It doesn't mean the use case is unimportant, for example. ;) You can find out if it is trivial by just trying to look it up; is it just a matter of looking up a known formula or algorithm, and applying it to some data, or is it actually a complicated thing with a mix of moving parts and software, where the correct action depends on a wide varie

  • by Anonymous Coward

    As a former tester, I recall spending days trying to understand how and where jams occurred. My favorite paper jam issue was not one my team suffered, but another team that was working on a small laser jet printer.

    One of the media ('paper types') that was suppose to be supported was transparencies. HP Printers allow you to specify the type of paper (to items like 'plain', 'cardstock', etc.), but many people would leave it at default. If the default was left, the printer needed to at least survive the pri

    • by AvitarX ( 172628 )

      Interesting.

      I'd think you'd just have the transparency jam before the fuser.

      If it's not in transparency mode, the clear should trigger a jam (that's how it works in printers I've used).

  • by taustin ( 171655 ) on Monday February 12, 2018 @10:03AM (#56107953) Homepage Journal

    which is probably not representative, paper jams persist because my employer buys the cheapest paper they can find. The kind that clumps and sticks to itself, that sheds paper dust like it's snowing, that has uneven edges, etc.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      add on, the fact that you have users who still don't know how to operate a computer, let alone a printer.

      My favorite jam was on our copier. The lower media drawer has two side by side 8 1/2 x 11 spots, with no separation between them. Even though the signage in the drawer shows you how to load paper, and says the proper size to use, people can't be bothered. So some schmuck puts 11x17 paper in the drawer (even had to remove the existing paper in it as I had filled it that morning), and jams the copier. Had

    • by XxtraLarGe ( 551297 ) on Monday February 12, 2018 @10:25AM (#56108083) Journal

      which is probably not representative, paper jams persist because my employer buys the cheapest paper they can find. The kind that clumps and sticks to itself, that sheds paper dust like it's snowing, that has uneven edges, etc.

      In a former life, I was a "key-operator" at a local Kinko's. Paper quality is just one of several factors. There's also the way you load it into the printer. Paper has a natural curl from being cut from rolls. IIRC, the curl is downward, so if you load paper from a ream, make sure to put the paper in the same orientation you got it out of the ream. Don't flip it. Then there's also humidity. It's a huge culprit. If it's too low, the sheets will cling together due to static electricity. If it's too high, the sheets will cling together because they're damp.Other reasons that exist are dirty fusers, worn or dirty rollers, bad toner cartridges, etc.

      • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

        And don't forget poorly made printers in that list. Sometimes, manufacturers cut corners on the strength of their motors, and those printers jam constantly when a better printer would have been able to push the paper through. And sometimes, manufacturers have poorly designed paper guides that don't stay tight against the paper, causing the paper to be slightly turned as it goes in. If the printer doesn't have a lot of tolerance on both sides of the paper path, it will jam.

        But my all-time favorite printe

    • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Monday February 12, 2018 @10:29AM (#56108107)

      Having done printer repair, I am not proud of it but I needed the money.
      However the most common causes are the following.
      1. Worn out feet: Those rubber wheels that pull up the paper, get warn out over time and has a hard time grabbing the paper, when it does it is past the timeout period on the sensor.
      2. Warn out fuser: The fuser is a heated roller they have a plastic/silicon covering on it, to prevent burning the paper. over time with heating and cooling the covering gets warped so the paper will not always fit in.
      3. Bad Paper: Cheap paper that just sticks and doesn't flow properly.
      4. A previous jam: There was a jam previously that wasn't as cleared out as people expected.
      5. Bad ink (for solid ink printers): Cheap ink has a slightly different melting and cooling point then devices specification, causing ink to gum up the pathway.
      6. Bad solenoid: over time they get sluggish or stuck.
      7. Warn out gear. Those plastic gear if handing paper a bit too much for them ware out.
      8. Blocked or malfunctioning sensor: a bad sensor says there is a problem when there isn't really anything.
      9. Non-Paper blockage: Staples, Paperclips, bubble gum, rodents, bugs, hair, fingernails... causes blockage.
      10. Abuse: Just smacking bending parts breaking pins....

      Most of the Jamming problems can be fixed with regular maintenance. As unlike other computers moving parts (such as a hard drive, or DVD or floppy drives) there is a lot of torque and energy evolved with a lot of parts exposed to the elements.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        We solved a lot of those problems decades ago with tractor feed paper. No need for all the complex paper handling stuff modern printers have when the paper itself has a built in system for pulling it through straight and without relying on friction rollers.

        I guess people don't like the tractor holes. Maybe if the people who made ring binders got together with the printer people and agreed to make the tractor paper fit in the folders without needing to punch extra holes or use a plastic bag... Then again the

        • We still have one printer at work that uses continuous feed for triplicate forms. The paper is getting more expensive, though. Never jams, but getting the driver to work on a new computer is always exciting. I remember one program that you could make banners with that would just keep printing on multiple sheets of continuous feed paper. You can't do that with a DeskJet.
          • almost every office printer other than the very cheapest model has an optional attachment for rolls of paper for continuous printing.

            You don't even have to get a professional grade printer for that, much less go to a tractor.

      • Add to the list worn out ribbons for ribbon printers, tired/damaged drums for laser printers, plugged cartridges for inkjets, and broken pins for dot matrix.

      • 10. Abuse: Just smacking bending parts breaking pins....

        This is caused by frustration over 1 thru 9. Smack-repair appears to work on the Millennium Falcon, and real-life in RC robot sports fighting* ("Battlebots"), so people keep doing it.

        * I've seen several instances where a "dead" bot comes to life when the competitor whacks it again. One driver kept shouting "please hit me, please hit me!" It's usually best to leave stopped bots alone. Of course, whacking may make something temporarily work, but is not a

      • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

        rubber wheels that pull up the paper, get warn out over time and has a hard time grabbing the paper

        They got that memo ordering them to stop grabbing stuff.

      • by g01d4 ( 888748 )

        Having done printer repair, I am not proud of it

        If, as seems likely, you were good at your job you should be. Personally I've got a lot respect for repair people who rapidly resolve issues and share information with their customers. Sharing information can result in fewer service calls being made and when they are they contain more useful specifics.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Proponents of A.I. keep telling us that the job of feeding individual sheets of paper from the paper tray to the printer will soon be automated.

  • by SirMasterboy ( 872152 ) on Monday February 12, 2018 @10:06AM (#56107967) Homepage

    Couldn't this be solved by simply putting an extra strong paper roller into the printer that simply feeds into some sort of paper shredder?

    Is there no market for peopel willing to spend more on a paper jam-less printer?

    • Just like car tires, whatever the endurance, someone will try to run them longer. It soon becomes extra extra strong. there is no limit to the desire for longevity of parts, and in most printers (not those in TFA which are worth getting preventative maintenance to avoid $$$$$ downtime) they are run till they break - then the complaints begin.

  • Better than getting the "lp0 on fire!" message.
  • They could at least have answered the age old question: "PC load letter? What the fuck does that mean?"
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Paper Cassette - load letter sized (8.5" x 11") paper

      It means you are out of letter sized paper in the holder.

      "Load paper" would likely have been better from a UI stand point.

      • "Load paper" would likely have been better from a UI stand point.

        Unless you're in a legal office getting that error because you have 8.5x14 loaded.

    • It would have been slightly clearer in Europe as PC LOAD A4. Europe uses "A4" size paper, which doesn't share a name with a word that also generically means "document". Given the tech of the time, it might have been better to flash between two messages ADD PAPER and LETTER SIZE (or A4 SIZE for Europe).

  • by Anonymous Coward

    1) The jammed paper tray
    2) The blinking red light
    3) The manual in Chinese

  • I can just imagine the printer in the year 2500.
      The print button doesnt work well because of a bad electrical contact and you have to press 15 times to get it working. Then the paper jams and you have to get it out.
    And then you get 7 copies because it actually did work part of the time but was just slow on the uptake.

  • HP Jam Paper? What the fuck does that mean?

    • by Anonymous Coward
      "PC LOAD LETTER? What the fuck does that mean?"

      Turn in your geek card right now.
  • "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."

    Well some people do get aroused by pain. Not my particular brand of vodka but to each their own.

    I suppose we should be glad that people exist who find that sort of problem interesting. I certainly am not among them.

  • So many customers have been on the quest for the "paperless office" only to find after they discard all the paper controls and security workflow, putting it all on some database, that they end up printing even more paper. Why, because everyone just prints "the current report" without regard to whether they need to keep it or not.

    It used to be with paper controls (signatures, checklists, etc) that the paper document was valuable, guarded, and stored. With paperless offices, people print like crazy without re

    • Paperless office ?

      an anecdote:

      Years ago I was at a meeting where I was told by a member of another organisation that "we are supposed to have a blame free culture" to which I responded with a completely off the cuff remark that "a blame free culture is about as likely as a paperless office".

      Fast forward about 8 months and at a presentation by a member of that organisation to a group of us working in a multi company team and my words appeared almost verbatim on a PowerPoint slide covering "real world viewp

      • by bigmacx ( 135216 )

        When I was a corporate lowly weenie a long time ago, a group of IT peeps got together with purchasing dept on a kaizen project for switching to recycled toner.

        After months of huge research, diagrams, tables, and presentations, they got approval. And we were a large company with almost 100k employees.

        In the years that followed, the recycled toner started tearing up printers everywhere. Turns out the increase in maintenance costs (we tracked those prior and after for other reasons before the switch) outweighe

      • by mspohr ( 589790 )

        Paperless bathroom?

  • The reason that paper jams persist is because we persist in using paper in the first place.

    While I apologize for how cheeky that might sound (can't help it, I'm Canadian), that doesn't mean it isn't true.

    That's like the classic joke of a patient coming to a doctor and then raising one of their arms high over their head, says "Doc, it hurts when I do this!" and all the doctor says to him is "Well, don't do that!"

  • ...by storing the paper in a small climate-controlled room.

    It's moisture that makes the paper jam.

    • by mspohr ( 589790 )

      What does paper jam taste like?
      Is it good on toast?

    • Amongst many jobs, I fixed copiers for a few years. You dont need a climate controlled room, for those customers who had paper dampness issues, a 20w incandscent globe in the paper cupboard worked fine keeping it dry.
      The main problem was with coloured paper, where a partially used ream would be stored for some time, the standard white was used quickly enough to not have a problem. Most copy paper is in a wax lined outer wrapper to prevent moisture from getting to it.
      Dampness caused the static charge used in

  • by ledow ( 319597 )

    I hate printers, and photocopiers.

    It doesn't help that people expect them to do EVERYTHING - colour, fold, staple, multiple sizes, collation, bookleting, etc. all in the same job.

    If we could remove them, about 10-25% of my job would disappear and I wouldn't be sad at all. To be honest, few things that we print out are actually necessary at all. It's people who can't work on the screen who propagate the problem.

    I'm a mathematician. I'll give you handwriting/paper for mathematical formulae. For everything

  • I've had experience with 3 major brands of large floor standing copiers, Xerox, IBM, and Ricoh.

    Xerox copiers were the fastest but would jam 1 out of every 500 pages. Fanning the paper before loading the paper trays would help minimize the frequency of jams.

    IBM copiers were the worst but this was due to some extent as the result of administrative assistants not following instructions. Fanning the paper was mandatory otherwise the copier would jam within the first 50 pages (this was with IBM brand copier pape

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