The Current

You're not alone: Engineers explain why paper jams are such an impossible puzzle to solve

Everything from how many words on the page to the weather outside affect what engineers call the "torture chamber" of printing. Is there an end to paper jams in sight? The jury is split.
At Toronto’s Battle Sports, Meghan Brown and John Doolittle take out their printer frustrations. They are not an anomaly. (Karin Marley)

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In the "rage room" at Toronto's Battle Sports, people pay to get their frustrations out by smashing things to smithereens.

Among their most popular items? Printers.

They go through 48 of them a week as people vent their rage at this ubiquitous piece of technology — and the paper jams it creates.

To most of us, paper jams seem like a mechanical problem we should have solved by now.

Can we beat paper jams? The jury is split. (Karin Marley )

But for a group of engineers at Xerox, whose job it is to get rid of them, paper jams can be a complicated — yet delicious — puzzle.

"New paper jams are particularly exciting, especially for us engineers," says Vicki Warner, a manager of product development and design at Xerox in Rochester, NY. "We love the challenge of a difficult problem."

Paper jams are tricky to eliminate because of the complexity of the machine, but also because of all the factors that make each trip through the printer or photocopier different, such as climate conditions — and even the paper itself.

"Paper jams are very hard to solve because of the variations of the actual paper," says Erwin Ruiz, a manager of design and development solutions at Xerox in Rochester, NY.

"The media itself is organic, not manufactured. And so much variation is coming from different trees."

Engineers Vicki Warner and Erwin Ruiz work on printers and paper jams at the Xerox plant in Rochester, NY. (Dave Sluberski )

Josh Rothman, a writer for The New Yorker who spent time embedded with Xerox's paper jam engineers for his story "Why Paper Jams Persist," adds that paper's organic nature means it can get floppy, soggy or curled, depending on weather and how it's handled.

"There's a seasonality to jams," Rothman tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "It's really driven by what's called the 'paper condition'."

Rothman describes the printing process as being like an obstacle course for the paper. The engineers, on the other hand, joke about a printer or photocopier being a "torture chamber" for paper. The smaller the machine, the tougher the path for the paper, which has to bend and turn under extreme forces. And every piece of paper has a slightly different road to travel.

"If I print more [text] on a sheet of paper...that means I spray more ink onto the paper, which means that it's heavier and wetter," says Rothman. "And that means it has to get dried more in a press the way you'd wring water out of a shirt. So literally every single sheet of paper that goes through the printer is subtly different than every previous sheet."

The quality of paper matters too.

"If you buy cheap paper, it's very likely you'll have more jams," says Rothman. "In the rage room, it should be the cheap paper you're destroying, not the printer."

Paper jams are only one example of the wider field of jamming where the biological and the mechanical come together.

"Eventually the malleability of the biological material gums up the works of the mechanical system," says Rothman. "Eventually biology wins."

And that's the big lesson Rothman learned — machines are mortal too.

"You can't build a machine that lasts forever," says Rothman. "As soon as it starts interaction with the is going to start down that path towards failure."

Paper jams also fit into a different category, says Marshall Brain, the founder of the website How Stuff Works: seemingly-simple mechanical problems that tick us off, from zippers that stick, to cables that tangle, to rust, to traffic.

Brain points to two different factors that prevent these problems being solved.

Erwin Ruiz (Dave Sluberski )

"There's lots of solutions, but they all cost money, or they bump into human habits that are immovable," Brain tells Tremonti.

He points to traffic, where the solution is wider roads — which cost money that we choose not to spend — or changing people's schedules so that fewer people leave work at 5 pm.

"So there we sit, we're in traffic and there's not a lot we can do about it without either money or changing all of humanity," he says.

Will paper jams ever be solved?

Xerox's Erwin Ruiz says yes — engineers just need to think differently, looking, for example, at something like synthetic paper.

But his colleague Vicki Warner disagrees. Right now the stumbling block is the variability of paper. But if alternatives are found for paper, they're not likely to be cheap.

"What it comes down to is, it all adds cost," says Warner. "At some point, the cost is what would become the impractical part of designing a jamless paper path."

Josh Rothman has his own conclusion — even if we move to a paperless world, there will be some other piece of technology that jams, like a 3D printer for example.

"I think it's going to be the year 3000, we're going to be travelling between the stars on space ships, and we're still going to have machines that jam."

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This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley .