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HP’s brutal testing ground in Boise

HP’s brutal testing ground in Boise

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Drops, shocks, heat, humidity and paper made of grass: Behind the scenes at the lab that makes sure HP printers lead the pack in real-world performance.

This article originally published in The Garage, June 7, 2018
Your HP printer is one of the luckier members of its family.
You seriously have no idea what its sibling had to go through before you were able to bring your printer home.
For starters, it was dropped from three feet off the ground onto a concrete floor, shocked 12,000 times with up to 12,500 volts and had a robot open and shut its paper tray hundreds of thousands of times in a row. It was even driven into a wall.
Why does HP put its new printer designs through such grueling tests before they’re cleared to join the manufacturing line? When you sell 60 printers every minute of every day in every corner of the world, there’s no telling what conditions the device may need to excel in.

Robots and rice paper

Like a Boy Scout, HP printers need to be prepared. To ensure that, the engineers at the company’s testing laboratory in Boise, Idaho, have constructed special robots; a cavernous, multimillion-dollar soundproof chamber; and special tools with high-resolution cameras that analyze whether or not the colored inks are being perfectly placed on the page.
“We have three words to live by,” explains Jim Reppell, a hardware test lab manager at HP, who helps run the Boise test lab. “We want to make sure our products are safe, legal and reliable.”
HP’s reliability tests include analyzing hundreds of brands of paper and running a vast variety of papers through its printers. The test printers gobble up 5 million sheets of paper a month, which, if stacked up, would be twice the height of the Empire State Building, Reppell is quick to explain.
These sheets go far beyond the pulp-based paper we’re used to seeing in North America. In Asia, paper can be made from grass or rice. In India, it may contain talc. All of these popular local variations have to be tested. “If you’re having a printing problem, customers never blame the paper,” Reppell notes with a laugh.

Bringing a dirt road in China back home

The test printers are also subjected to a punishing range of temperatures, from minus 30 degrees Celsius to 60 degrees Celsius. They’re exposed to the bitter, dry cold of Northern Canada and the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. In the cold, static electricity can cause the pages to want to stick together, while in humid environments, printers have to be able to perform even when the paper becomes slightly soggy.
Then there are the vibration and drop tests.
Printers are released onto a concrete floor, mimicking the abuse they might suffer during shipping as they’re thrown into trucks or even onto your front step. A vibration platform then shakes them violently to simulate the ride they might expect in planes and trucks. HP engineers even traveled to particularly punishing dirt roads in China that the company’s shipments need to go down and measured their vibrations. Then they programmed those vibrations into their vibration test platform in Boise.
HP subjects the printers to the kind of debris they might encounter in places like loading docks or other dusty work environments.
“We know the products are going to be handled rather roughly when they leave our hands,” says Reppell. “We definitely keep the delivery guy in mind.”

Playing nice with the wireless spectrum

You probably didn’t know your printer must meet a slew of legal requirements, too, ranging from stability to fire safety. One important requirement is that the printers can’t interfere with other technologies, such as TVs, GPS or mobile broadband, that are running on parallel wireless spectrums.
To measure the printers’ effect on these radio- and television-wave frequencies, HP built a 60-by-45-ft. semi-anechoic chamber — essentially a metal box that isolates an inhabitant from any signal from the outside world. Super-sensitive radio receivers peppered throughout the chamber listen to the printer from a range of radio-wave frequencies to see if any of its components interfere with other wireless spectrums.
Printers also have to be able to handle randomly unusual electromagnetic charges, either from storms or run-of-the-mill surges in the electric grid. They can’t get damaged — or even jam up — if the power suddenly goes out and then comes back on during bad weather or a brownout.

Thank the zap map

Another essential test aims to prevent electrostatic shock — that little shock you might get when you touch something after walking across a rug in winter. HP engineers create what they call a zap map to test where people might be expected to touch the printer to make sure it isn’t seriously affected by the shock.
International standards require companies to test perhaps up to 6,000 volts, but HP tests up to 12,500 volts. “It's intense,” says Reppell. “If you talk to any electrical engineers on site who have spent many hours in the chamber trying to get their product to pass that test, they will tell you that this is a hard test.”
So give your printer a little love. It went through a lot to earn the right to carry the HP name.

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