Hey, What's the Deal with Printers?

Printing at Createscape may be an easy, streamlined process since we use the cloud-based ezeep app, but have you ever wondered why home printers and so many other printers are extraordinarily bad at what they do? Think of all those times you hit ctrl+P and stood in front of a printer waiting for, ultimately … nothing good to happen. Now consider all the cool things we can do in 2019: make video phone calls from a wristwatch; saute poultry, cook pasta, or bake a cake -- all in one small Instant Pot; and command a smart speaker to perform thousands of tasks, from finding a lost phone to ordering groceries for delivery. But try to print a Word document and suddenly it can sometimes feel like we’re living in the pre-internet 80s.

This weekend I was listening to the Gimlet podcast, Reply All, and a listener called in to ask why printers suck so bad. Just a few days earlier, I had one of those nightmare printing experiences. I needed a nine page PDF for a meeting in less than an hour. My printer didn’t seem very interested in processing my job at all. It took an aggravating 30 minutes for the machine to squirt ink onto a single page and deliver it into my waiting hands. So I sent the job to a different printer. When that didn’t work I tried printing from my tablet. Still nothing.

After some digging, I found an error message that said my seven gigabyte document was too large. That makes sense. Seven gigabytes is enormous. For context, one gigabyte is about 65,000 Microsoft Word files, or nearly 166,000 Excel files, or more than 15,000 image files. Who would blame a humble office printer for saying “uncle” in response to a request to print several thousand pages? But the PDF I was trying to print was just nine. Not nine files -- nine pages! It was less than 1,000KB. 

So I was kind of curious why printers suck so bad.

Reply All, Episode #146, Summer Hotline

Podcast hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman invited the ideas editor from NewYorker.com to come on the show and talk about printers. Joshua Rothman reports on all sorts of fascinating topics, like social media, privacy, and artificial intelligence. HIs interest in printers began with a jam. From there, he went down “a Google-Scholar rabbit hole.” Rothman says, “I found that there's an entire engineering subfield organized around jams. In the world of printers, there are people who just spend their whole lives obsessing over how to stop a printer from jamming.” 

Some of the first laser printers in the late 1950s were the size of a small car. Printer technology only became mainstream in the 1990s and has made enormous strides over the last decades and still continues to improve. One of the biggest challenges is their decreasing size. The technology continues to get more advanced while at the same time the machines get increasingly smaller. So there’s less room for all the parts and the process to occur. In order for paper to advance through the guts of a printer, it relies on fans, a vacuum, and several sets of rollers. “This blew my mind,” said Rothman. “Fans and a vacuum!” 

Xerox 1200 printer

Xerox 1200 printer

That sound you hear coming from a working printer are the vacuum and fan that help guide a single page from the feed tray, around a couple hairpin turns, to the image-transfer drum, and the paper tray at the end. Inside the machine, paper moves with help from four types of rollers, each operated by its own motor. After the toner is applied to the page, a set of rollers are heated to about 390-degrees F, which is almost twice as hot as boiling water. The scalding rollers melt and affixes the toner to the page. The final set of rollers sends the toasty printed page out to the paper tray. 

IBM 1403

IBM 1403

Organic chemistry lesson

We all know that paper is made from trees. To the naked eye, a single page appears to be a pretty solid material, but under a microscope, it’s just a giant mass of fuzzy fibers. The printing process described above can be traumatic for those delicate, organic fibers. At some points it causes shrinkage and at other points, the fibers swell. According to Rothman, paper can “expand more in one dimension than in another, or it might curl. It’s an organic material and it’s going through the ringer.” 

Also to consider, it takes about eight trees to produce up to 2,000 sheets of paper, and unless you’re particular about where your paper comes from, you have no way of knowing whether the pulp derives from spruce, pine, fir, or any number of other trees. Not all pulp has the same reaction to the printing process. In fact, the fibers in paper can have different reactions depending on where the pulp was positioned while it was being processed. 

Ultimately, Rothman and Vogt agree that “printers are an incredible human achievement,” even though it doesn’t always feel that way. In his research, Rothman found that the jam rate continues to get lower and lower, but because we’re printing more pages in less time, it can be difficult to recognize that jams are occurring with less frequency. 

Article by Riki Markowitz