December 15, 2008

My printshop is possessed by demons and I’ve been given the job from Hell.

Aside from that, things are going astoundingly well.

devilLet me preface this post with a simple statement of faith. I know that God is still in control and I am firmly convinced that he has a sense of humor. I will not sit in the ashheap in sackcloth and bemoan the situation, because it really is too ridiculous to be serious.

I’ll try to chart the sequence of events.  I think it began when Debra, the service tech who works on our nearly palindromatic digital color machine (begins and ends with an X) was given a week’s vacation by her nearly palindromatic company.  Good for Debra, bad for AlphaGraphics. The nearly palindromatic machine kicked out and backup was sent in.  At 10 am on day one, he had been trained to repair the machine and was fully confident. At 7 pm on day one, he was missing parts and had patched the machine well enough for us to run some critical jobs. At 9:30 am on day two, we had run one critical job and the X___X digital color machine had melted down. Backup showed again on day 3, this time with tenacity, a cell phone, and a full day’s supply of cigarettes. Day 3 and Day 4 went by and backup gave up completely.  Poor Richard calls for reinforcements from the big city.  They show up on Day 5 and we’re up and running . . .

BUT: We’re printing in bright reds and bright blues.

Upstairs . . . the fans won’t go off on the machine that is manufactured by the company whose initials begin with the eighth and sixteenth letters of the alphabet.  The fans are a good thing . . . they cool down the ultraviolent lamps that make the ink stick to whatever it is that you’re running through the machine. It doesn’t take 2 hours for the lamps to cool. Mike, who runs the machine upstairs, decides that two hours is indeed excessive and perhaps he should turn the machine off and on to see if it will reset. He is successful at turning the machine off.

We have a good customer, who, like all of the rest of our good customers, is trying to squeeze blood from turnips. We’ve missed a couple of jobs, but she’s sent us this one. It’s a booklet . . . all ready in Microsoft Publisher. She needs 75 of them. All of the photos and none of the fonts are embedded in the file.  It’s ginormous . . . we could actually see the lump coming over the phone lines as we downloaded it. It has 6,374 photos compressed into 24 pages.  All were taken with the camera in my cell phone and they’re all in RGB mode. She needs 75 books in color and she won’t understand it if we charge her to fix the file. Nor is she particularly excited about fixing the file herself.

Fast forward from last week to today . . . Jamaal, my remaining pressman, is totally unflappable.  What that means is that he can’t be flapped. I am convinced that he could smile through the devastation of a hurricane or the horrors of nuclear war. At 1 PM he prepares our envelope press for a short run of remittance envelopes. Printing these envelopes requires a special feeder. It is a fairly cantankerous beast on a good day. Today, the envelope press will not run . . . it is putting ink where paper should go and paper where ink should go.  Jamaal switches the envelope feeder to another press. It will not feed.  Poor Richard tries to help and makes matters worse . . . much worse. By 4:30, Jamaal is flapped . . . he has managed to accomplish 45 minutes of work in 3.5 hours.

Upstairs, a technician has arrived to fix the machine manufactured by the company whose initials begin with the 8th and 16th letters of the alphabet.  He is fortified with 3 large boxes of parts sent by that company . . . all of the circuitboards needed to fix a wide format printer or put a man on the moon. None of them are working.  Poor Richard is praying that his customers will be patient. Didn’t it take about 10 years after Kennedy’s speech before Neal Armstrong actually played golf on the moon?

Debra has returned from vacation! Hallelujah!  The booklet from hell is still printing in bright reds and blues! Not Hallelujah!

If there is one thing that I have learned after 10 years in this business, it’s that sometimes the best solution is just to go home. The kids have band concerts tonight. What could be better than that?

God is good. Isn’t life grand?


Finesse it with a sledgehammer

August 22, 2008

It’s difficult to describe the exact series of sounds. It started as the usual “kerklunk” rhythm, uniform and predictable as the books are stitched, folded and trimmed. Moments later, the sound had altered. Now a “kerflam,” there was a slight metallic echo after each cycle. An undertone swelled up from deep in the bowels of the machine; a grey and forbidding rumbling foreshadowing some dire sequence of events. With a crescendo and a roar the machine was momentarily quiet, then emitted a last staccato series of clicks a loud metallic “klang!” and fell silent.

I knew we were pushing the limit. The book we were working on had started as 36 pages, well within the capabilities of our trusty bookletmaker. But in a short week it had grown to 68 pages of gloss text and a cover . . . just a little more than the machine is actually rated to do. The hardy machine actually made it through about 600 books before the audible complaints began. It spit out another 30 or so in its death throes, leaving us only 370 to put together by hand at 5:00 on Thursday, for an event that was to take place the next morning.

Upstairs, the wide format printer was spewing cyan ink in places that it was not intended to spew. The company that manufactured this machine has recently been purchased by a company whose initials are comprised of the eighth and sixteenth letters of the alphabet. I think they’re having some difficulties digesting their acquisition. I’m tempted to say that the machine is a lemon, but every moving part in the thing has been replaced so it seems more likely that the whole concept is flawed and the new manufacturer doesn’t have a clue how to fix it.

The technician who comes to make repair attempts is a very nice fellow who sincerely tries his best to keep us running. In Poor Richard’s experience, there are two kinds of technicians. The first is tidy, organized and efficient. Bob Jordan, who works on our presses, falls into this category. He has magnetic hands . . . the right tool always just seems to be there.

The tech for the wide format machine is of the second variety. Brian calls him Pigpen and begins humming the theme from Peanuts (Linus and Lucy) as he approaches the door. You can see the dustcloud from 100 yards away. He is neither efficient nor organized. Tools and screws vanish in his presence. Seemingly minor repairs can lead to catastrophe and major component failures.

In this case, it was disaster in absentia. Printheads had been replaced the previous week, leading to vacuum problems, leading to a new part which we installed, leading to more extreme vacuum problems, culminating in cyan ink spewing in places where it should never spew.

My dad was in the blue jean business for a time, operating a sewing plant only a block away from Alphagraphics. I remember his mechanic very well.  I guess Frederick was an aberration.  I don’t recall him being either neat or organized, but he had Bob’s innate sense of how things run. He worked very well with a hangover. Frederick was acquainted with wrenches and screwdrivers, but his favorite tool was a ball peen hammer.  He could actually occasionally get sewing machines to run by striking them a solid blow at some strategic point only revealed by God to Frederick.  Or maybe it was like zen . . . he was one with the machine. He called it “finessing with a sledgehammer.”

Some days what I really need is Frederick and the ball peen hammer, or  a minor miracle, or maybe a whole 55 gallon drum full of pixie dust. What I’ve got is customers who only want booklets and wide format. Isn’t life grand?

If I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.

May 21, 2008

Prerequisite to success in the printing business is a deep and abiding love for gadgetry. Most of us just can’t resist the urge to buy a new machine from time to time. We do intensive study prior to each purchase, calculating the ROI (Return on investment for you non-business types) at least a dozen different ways until we concoct a way to reach the conclusion we need to justify the purchase.

We listen carefully to the claims of the salesperson, promises of enhanced productivity, low maintenance and capabilities beyond our wildest dreams . . . and we believe them all for at least a week after the machine arrives. And then reality sets in . . .

We have a large digital color machine manufactured by a company whose name begins and ends with “X.” It employs fancy electrostatic devices called “charge coretrons” that have something to do with getting the toner to adhere to a belt that ultimately transfers it to paper where it is finally fused into a semi-permanent state of um . . . printedness. We have, over the course of our ownership of this machine, noticed certain problems that occur when these grandiloquent devices malfunction; problems that generally are ameliorated when the component is replaced.

There are two authorized means of obtaining the “charge coretron.” One may call either the “parts” or “supplies” department of the palindromatic company. Contact with both departments is enabled by toll free numbers that connect the caller to specially trained customer service personnel located either in Islamadehli or Pakalaysia (see my former diatribe Outsourcing). At either number, one may reach a helpful person named Dan who, after receiving the part number, will search his database for 10 minutes and then tell you that you have called the wrong department, and that you should spend an equal or greater amount of time with the other department in order that another Dan might tell you to call the first department once again.

Brian, our production manager, was actually brave enough to call the first Dan a second time. He carefully repeated the part number (alpha delta bravo zed seven niner nought dash C3PO) seventeen times until Dan had it down correctly (and could sing it in A minor). We waited as Dan conducted a super-extensive search for our critical part. We were put on hold briefly and listened to The Mamas and the Papas accompanied by a sitar on Islamadehli’s light rock station. And then we received the authoritative answer.

“Your machine does not use that part,” said Dan. “It is not required. The machine will run perfectly well without it.”

Unfortunately, this did not play out well in our actual experience. Trusting in Dan’s confident response, we removed all of the charge coretron devices from the machine, toggled the machine on and submitted a file for printing. It didn’t.

Printers are practical people . . . when our exasperation with a machine surpasses our desire to fool with it, we call the repair folks. Luckily for us, our regional service person, who covers a territory roughly the size of the American West, happened to be within 20 miles of us. Her name begins with a “D.” She is actually very capable, pleasant to deal with, and doesn’t understand her own company any better than we do.

She also has the “magic number” that allows her to speak with people whose names are not Dan and who have actually seen and worked on the machine in question. After a brief but thorough diagnosis of our machine, our technical service person determined that the machine was not running because we had removed the aforementioned critical key components. She replaced them, found one of them faulty and was able to order a replacement by dialing another “magic number.”

Naturally, we did ask if we could obtain the “magic numbers” for our own use in procuring replacement parts for our machine. “D” apologized demurely, explaining that multiple years of training and a high level security clearance were required before such intelligence was authorized; and besides we’d need a special Maxwell Smart shoe phone with an identity chip to tell the folks on the other end that it was OK to answer the phone and talk with us.

“It’s best you don’t break the machine,” she said as she packed up her tool kit to leave.

“So, I replied, “if I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.”

“Right,” she said with a smirk, then turned in the doorway. “But if you get into trouble, call Dan.”

Here’s a video featuring one of my heros, Rube Goldberg. I found the clip on YouTube. It’s almost 70 years old, but it’s still very relevant. It’ll help you understand machines and companies like the palindromatic “X” company that invent them:

The Full Moon

December 7, 2006

Gravity is always bringing me down.

The full moon has an effect on tides, people and machinery! It’s really hard to explain, but things sometimes go badly awry around the printshop as the moon becomes full.

We had two critical projects going into last week. The first was a challenging, but not unusual trifold brochure for one of our best customers. Heavy ink coverage, process color with some color critical builds on a cover stock; it should have turned in two days. The second was a run of 7500 booklets, color cover plus 16 text pages. This one should have taken 3 days in press, plus a couple of days in bindery and another one to mail. That’s what should have been.

But that was before the change in the force of gravity. The full moon doesn’t negate all of Newton’s formulas, it only offsets them a wee, wee bit. Enough to make Rickie, the pressman, decide that he’d work on Thursday morning despite a 102 degree fever. Enough to kill a Xerox color machine. Enough to combine with high humidity and turn our smoothly performing Hamada 452 press into a paper shredder. And just enough to make AlphaGraphics look really bad to a couple of good customers.

I’ve written before about machinery problems. Before I became a printer, I thought that this was just Item #1 in the standard list of printers’ excuses. It’s not. Printing machinery is precisely tuned. When it gets out of tune, the printing becomes . . . imprecise. We don’t do imprecise. Add into that equation a human being with a fever who wants to battle the machinery into submission and the result can be disastrous. What started last Tuesday as a small scratch, stripe, and redo on Project #1 above, ended up with ink problems on Project #2, two days down time and a visit from Bob the Press Magician.

It’s expensive to call in Bob the Press Magician, but it’s even more expensive not to call him in. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to write about Bob. He’s one of the more amazing characters I’ve ever encountered. Bob’s over 50 now, but has retained the energy of a 3 year old on a chocolate high. I am entirely convinced that there is nothing that Bob cannot fix. His sense of machinery is uncanny. He helped me fix a press once by listening to it over the telephone. He’s that good.

Bob came in with his brother Steve. Steve’s just moved in from the West Coast to join his brother’s service company. The two are not really alike in appearance or personality. Bob talks incessantly. Steve eats incessantly. The common heritage seems entirely accidental; they could easily be brothers born of different mothers and fathers. I think Steve’s going to be a real asset, though. If Bob the Press Magician understands the mind of the machine, brother Steve relates to the zen of the monster.

We’ve enjoyed a long run without a major breakdown. This one made up for it. Two days ruined printing plus two days down. It took the Magician and the Zen Master 12 hours to track down all of the problems and fix them. We were back up and running this morning, but basically 4 days behind.

We’ve been in communication with the customers. Customer #1 (the color piece) is OK. She would have liked the trifold last week, but they’re still on schedule. Projects for Customer #2 are always on a tight timetable. The due date is usually the day before we get the order. We had set a tentative timetable with them last week when the problems looked minor (and recoverable). Then we discovered a problem on one of the sheets that had already been printed. We talked again on Friday, when we thought we’d be up and running on Monday. The project finally came off press today. It should have gone into the mail today. We talked again this morning. They’re not happy with us.

I wish I really could blame it all on the full moon. Maybe we could just take a couple of days off each month or something. Unfortunately, printing problems are far more unpredictable than the phases of the moon. We try our best. We do our best. We pray a lot. Maybe we’ll take a cue from the Zen Master and talk to the machines.

“Shall we print something now, grasshopper?”

Of Bindery Machines and Dishwashers

November 26, 2006

Maytag Dishwasher

What is it that makes machinery so diabolically fascinating?

There is something in the psychological makeup of anyone in the printing business that makes them inherently susceptable to the mechanical addiction. To us, machines are just damnably intriguing.

One of my friendly competitors has disassembled cars in his printshop. He says that they are therapy for him. When the printing machinery gets the better of him, he goes and tinkers with the cars. I doubt that the level of frustration is any less, but sometimes you just need a change of machine.

Much of Friday after Thanksgiving was spent tinkering with our Bell and Howell Mailstar 5000. With a name like that, you’d think that this machine would be able to send mail via light waves . . . something like the transformer in the old Star Trek series. The actual function is much more humble. The Mailstar stuffs envelopes. I’m convinced that it was invented by Rube Goldberg . . . you know him from the Mousetrap game you played as a kid. This machine has more moving parts than a submarine, and they all need perpetual adjustment.

It ran great for me for about 3 hours. I was even able to set it at low speed and walk away for a minute or so. Then, after successfully stuffing about 4000 envelopes, the Mailstar quit working. Actually, it just worked in a different way. Instead of stuffing the invitations into the envelopes, it began crumpling them and ripping the envelopes to shreds. I tinkered for a while, then gave up in frustration and went home.

It’s called the “Fixit Theorum.” It goes like this:

  1. All machines break.
  2. All machines can be fixed.
  3. Therefore I can fix this machine.
  4. Right now
  5. And it won’t take too long.

So much for theory.

On Saturday, the dishwasher broke right after lunch. We have a large family (9 with oldest daughter at home from college), and the dishwasher is an integral part of the smooth operation of our household. Beautiful wife informed me of the disaster. I came in from the yard to take a look.

I could tell that the problem had something to do with the latch. When you jiggled it, the lights went off and on (the “jiggle” corollary to the Fixit Theorum). It’s a Maytag, I reasoned. They don’t even have repairmen anymore . . . the lazy guy on television must be in his 90s by now. I’ll just dig into it and see what makes it tick.

It was easy enough to get into. Simply unscrew seventeen allen screws and the door falls off. There were two limit switches in the handle. Cleverly engineered for multiple redundancy, I figured. I pulled the finely crafted plastic latch into pieces and clicked the limit switches a couple of times. Sure enough, the dishwasher started up, splashing about 3 gallons of soapy water into my face.

Reasoning that soapy water and electricity were probably not a great combination, I asked beautiful wife to unscrew the fuses until the flashing lights went off. She did her usual efficient job and we managed to turn off every appliance in the house before finding that the last fuse in the box controlled the circuit for the dishwasher. With success in view, I reassembled switches, and reinserted 16 of the 17 allen screws. One was eaten by the cat.

I reactivated the circuit, closed the door of the dishwasher, and expected it to begin the task of cleaning the lunch dishes. Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. No lights, no whistles, no whirring noises. Nothing. I slammed the door a couple of times. No results.

I reassured myself that I must have missed some little something in the handle. Another corollary to the Fixit Theorum goes as follows:

  • If you take something apart and put it back together and it doesn’t work; sometimes it will work if you do it all over again.

So I removed 16 allen screws, reassembled the limit switches and the finely crafted plastic handle , and put it all back together again.

No success.

About this time, son Wil and second daughter informed me that the internet router was on the fritz. This constitutes a real crisis at our house. We just don’t function well without internet. It may be more important than the dishwasher, even.

The problem was obvious in this case. During our search for the correct circuit to disable the dishwasher, we obviously rescrambled the configuration of our Linksys Wireless Router, thus illustrating how a simple switch on a dishwasher can destroy the nerve center of an entire operation. If the terrorists ever find out about this, Washington D.C. could be in real trouble!

Fifteen minutes later, the router has been reconfigurated and we’re ready for a test. After rebooting my trusty Powerbook, I’m waiting for the network icon to appear when from the kitchen comes a familiar whirring sound. It’s the Maytag, back in service (at least temporarily).

This brings us to the final corollary of the Fixit Theorum:

  • Sometimes you can fix a problem with one machine by solving an altogether unrelated problem on another one.

Maybe the Mailstar 5000 will work again when I get back to work tomorrow morning!