Johnson's World: The Copier Repairman

If digital is ever to capture significant print volume, regular breakdowns must be eliminated – not tolerated.

April 1, 2017
Steve Johnson 2015 55e6019d76d0e
Printing News columnist Steve Johnson.

We threw George a retirement party, with pizza for everyone, speeches, handshakes, and hugs. We were all gathered in the lunchroom to formally acknowledge George and to wish him well in his upcoming leisure.

George had faithfully shown up for work at Copresco each day, five days a week, month in and month out for many years. He was one of the first to arrive in the morning and, often as not, one of the last people to leave in the evening.

When he wasn’t performing his primary duties of maintaining machinery in the press room, he could be found at his desk in the back of the shop, ordering parts and updating inventory.

He was a dedicated worker, and he will be sorely missed.

Fear not, I shan’t begin singing kumbaya. The description of the scene above, which really happened last month and sounds so warm and fuzzy, belies a serious problem that plagues all modern printing plants.

My company, Copresco, is an all-digital printer of books, publications, manuals, and texts. Short runs, lots of pages, high quality, extremely fast turnaround. Print on demand. We have many important tools in our arsenal to make this happen. One of them is a printing plant equipped with six massive digital presses.  

George wasn’t employed by Copresco. He was an employee of our digital press vendor.

Building on an old model

In 1959, the model 914 copier debuted. It was rented rather than purchased and came with a maintenance plan for the repairs which were frequently needed. It also came with a fire extinguisher, as it had a tendency to overheat and burst into flames.

The copier literally changed the way offices functioned, so people took the constant breakdowns in stride. Nobody wanted to go back to carbon paper, which seemed to be the only alternative.

This led to endless jokes about the copier repairman having his own parking space, being part of the family, etc. Except it isn’t a joke, and no one is laughing.

Sixty years later, the printing industry has fully integrated the same technology that made office copiers run. Either toner particles attached to paper with an electrical charge from a laser or LED (electrophotography), or drops of ink fired at a sheet of paper (inkjet) are the basis for digital printing.

Serious digital printing organizations like Copresco use the big iron to print. These aren’t the fast plastic machines you find in office cubicles. These are heavy-duty presses built for constant production at high volumes, or so the manufacturers tell us, and their prices reflect this. Yet manufacturers still build them with the old copier business model in mind: It will break often, but we’ll repair it.

A worthy heir

Before forming my digital-only organization, I spent a decade working in commercial, in-plant, and specialty printing plants. A press repairman was rarely, if ever, called in. The offset and letterpresses were built like tanks, and ran like them too.

Some of you reading this magazine work for digital press companies. You are thinking, “Steve’s talking about our competitors, whereas our brand hardly needs any service at all!” Wrong. I can think of no digital press from any manufacturer that has surmounted this problem.

Let me clarify that if even if your digital press needs service every few weeks instead of every day this is not good enough, not nearly! All vendors talk about uptime in terms of service between hundreds of thousands or even millions of impressions. If digital is ever to capture significant print volume, regular breakdowns must be eliminated – not tolerated. Right now almost every shop has digital presses, but the lion’s share of total print volume still belongs to offset.

As inkjet strives to become serious competition for toner, manufacturers are once again claiming significantly reduced downtime. So far, I’m not impressed.

If I had a car that broke down regularly (and I’ve had them) it wouldn’t matter if it needed repairs every week or every month. Either way, I’d call that car a lemon.

C’mon, digital press manufacturers don’t make lemons, don’t make lemonade. Just make us presses that run. Only then will digital imaging prove a worthy heir to king offset.