Floppy disks are still used in a surprising range of industries, including embroidery and aviation. But the supply is now actually diminishing.
At a rodeo in Mississippi in February, Mark Necaise realized that he was down to his final four floppy disks and began to panic.
In addition to providing custom embroidery on jackets and vests, Necaise travels to horse events throughout the state. “All of the winners would get a jacket and we’d put the name of the farm or the name of the horse or whatever on it,” he says..
A used machine made in 2004 by the Japanese embroidery equipment expert Tajima cost him $18,000 five years ago. Floppy disks were the sole device that could be used to transmit the designs from his computer to the device.
We initially had eight disks, but four of them stopped operating, which gave him pause. “I attempted to convert them to get them to function correctly, but it didn’t work. It worried me that I wouldn’t be able to finish the needlework.
Floppy disks were still being produced in large quantities when Necaise’s Tajima machine was created; they were particularly well-liked in Japan, where they were utilized for official government procedures up until last year. Despite the fact that the last significant producer of floppy disks stopped producing them in 2010, the machinery that rely on them—from embroidery machines to plastic molding machines, medical equipment to aircraft—continue to operate despite the finite number of disks that are available.
In 2009, as a reflection on Hollywood’s war on digital piracy, writer and director Florian Cramer reduced every Oscar-nominated film from that year to animated GIFs on two floppy drives. “I personally think that the floppy disk should die,” he says. “In all honesty, it’s a poisonous medium. Essentially, it is plastic garbage. Really, it’s something that ought to be extinct.
Small firms or margin-constrained organizations make up the majority of those still using floppy disks. These businesses either never got around to updating their equipment or thought it would be too expensive.
Two 36-year-old 747-200s that were initially delivered to British Airways in 1987 are still receiving vital updates from maintenance manager Davit Nashville of Tbilisi, Georgia-based Goosy: “We have to download updates on two 3.5-inch floppy disks when they are available. We had to find an external floppy drive because there are no longer any PCs with built-in ones, according to Nashville. “We then update the flight management system on the aircraft using the disks. The procedure lasts roughly an hour.
The updates are provided every 28 days in accordance with a set global timetable that has previously been set through 2029 and contain crucial information such as modifications to runways and navigational aids.
Floppy disks are quite difficult to come by these days. We actually purchase them from Amazon, according to Nashville. “Since they are incredibly delicate and prone to malfunction, we may only utilize each one for a maximum of three times before discarding it. But we must take action. It is not a concern. We’re content as long as floppy disks are still readily available.
Only 20 Boeing 747-200s, all configured for cargo or the military, are still in use today. Six are used by the US Air Force, with two serving as Air Force One. The US military used the even more dated 8-inch floppy disks in its nuclear weapons up until 2019. It is unknown if they still do.
Floppy disks are also used by a number of other commercial aircraft, including more recent versions of the 747 and 767, vintage Airbus A320s, and several business jets like Gulfstreams constructed up until the 1990s. Floppy disks can be upgraded to USB sticks, SD cards, or even wireless transfer, but doing so may cost thousands of dollars and require changing an outdated yet well-tested technology.
“There are some other strange evolutionary dead ends we find ourselves tied to because everything has to bow to the gods of reliability in aviation,” says Brian Ford of ACI Jet, an aircraft repair firm with headquarters in California. “We still use PCMCIA cards, which are getting harder to get, and Zip disks. Although it seems like our much lengthier design cycles are falling further and further behind consumer products, we are actually catching up.
After the rodeo incident, Necaise made the decision to upgrade at last, but not to a brand-new computer, simply to a floppy-to-USB emulator. Each of these customized gadgets costs roughly $275 and substitutes a straightforward USB connector for the floppy drive.
According to Joshua Paschal of Texas-based PLR Electronics, a firm that offers emulators, “Embroidery and CNC [computer-operated industrial tools for cutting materials like metal or wood] are usually our biggest buyers.”
PLR developed a few fundamental models that can be set up to run on close to 600 different devices. They list looms, stage lighting consoles, circuit board printers, oscilloscopes, digital printers, electrocardiographs, vector signal analyzers, injection molding machines, pipe and tube benders, dicing saws, wire cutters, plasma cutters, metal presses, sounds samplers, musical instruments like pianos and keyboards, and computer floppy drives from manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic, and NEC—as well as dozens of embroidery and CNC machines.
Owners will want to preserve them for as long as possible because most of these cost thousands of dollars and some aren’t even that old: Even after USB was widely used, a lot of this equipment was never updated to USB, according to Paschal. “They continue to use floppy drives, particularly with embroidery machines. That created a significant commercial potential to improve these folks..”
Not simply because they can’t find disks, but also because they can’t get their hands on replacement drives, people turn to PLR for upgrades. Floppy drives were growing difficult to get even when we first started selling these devices, so Paschal adds, “I can’t imagine now.” Despite a decline in sales, according to Paschal, the company still sells between 2,000 and 3,000 units annually.
Perhaps the floppy disk will always exist. “It’s really hard for me to believe that the floppy disk is just going to utterly disappear,” says Lori Emerson, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the creator of the Media Archaeology Lab. “There are people in the world who are still busy finding, fixing up, and maintaining phonograph players from 1910.”
Tom Persky, the owner of Floppydisk.com, a website dedicated to finding and selling floppy disks in various formats, claims that some industrial units that use floppy disks have a lifespan of 30 to 40 years while many are only 20 years old.
From a supply of hundreds of thousands in a California warehouse, Persky sells around 1,000 disks per day—mostly 3.5-inch ones, many of which are brand new. He claims that a container of disks could be purchased for as cheap as $0.07 apiece 20 or 25 years ago. He currently charges $1 for each of the most popular sizes, the 3.5-inch..
Prices rise as a result of supply restrictions most of the time, but as this pattern develops, the supply will become so tight that the economy will push more and more consumers to upgrade or replace their equipment, causing the market to collapse in on itself.
The obsolete 8-inch floppy disk, which IBM first released in 1971, appears to be going extinct, at least one type of them. There aren’t any left, and the ones we do have are sold for $5 [each] in boxes of ten, according to Persky. He is unable to estimate how many additional 3.5-inch floppy disks are available.
There is a global supply of disks that were produced 10, 20, or 30 years ago, according to Persky. “That stock has been corrected. Day by day, we’re just blowing past it. I have no notion how big it is at all. It is likely incredibly large yet dispersed. There are half a million people with a 10-pack, but nobody has half a million disks.
Persky doesn’t intend to hold off until the singularity happens. He claims he will only work for another five years at age 73. He doesn’t believe somebody “foolish enough” to succeed him in running the business exists. “I’m 50
I’ve run out of petrol in an airplane miles from the airport,” he declares. “Landing the plane is what I do.”