Systems Collapse: What We Do When Technology Breaks

February 4, 2016 Written by Joe Menth

When a printing studio loses a printer, it’s a significant setback. We are beholden to our technology more than we often acknowledge.

Last week after a typical “bad” print showing some banding, we ran a cleaning on our 8-year-old Epson 9800. Yeah, it’s that old. Ancient in terms of modern technology. But it’s a workhorse.

Of course we have upgraded in the last few years, having added an Epson 9900 about five years ago. Both, really, are workhorses. Considering the abuse they get with various kinds of fibrous papers, casting an array of paper dust every time it cuts another print off the roll, or even worse, the ridiculous materials we’ve thrown at them over the years – including all manner of fabrics with their abundant shedding of fibers…I’m surprised we don’t have to replace them entirely every couple of years.

But it seems that last week our trusty 9800 would not get through a cleaning and come out with a good print on the other end. In fact, there was no ink on the paper at all. None.

Every so often, these large format inkjet printers require what’s termed a “power cleaning”, where quite a bit of ink is pushed through the lines – wasted entirely in attempts to get clogs out of the system – and the print head is essentially squeegeed repeatedly in between ink flushes in order to wipe away any gunk collected on its fragile assortment of thousands of microscopic nozzles. Yes, I said squeegeed. The fancy high-tech cleaning device used to treat a $6000 inkjet printer? Basically it’s like a windshield wiper blade. A thin slice of rubber that literally just scrapes away whatever might have collected on the print head.

When that mechanism stops working, it’s a bigger problem. As in something upstream is clogged up somehow. Something you can’t see or really detect in any reasonable fashion, as it could be anywhere in the works. Most suspect? The actual printhead. The most fragile piece in the entire operation.

Epson 9800 Print my hand...

Epson 9800 Print Head…in my hand…

So naturally I disassembled the outer case, pulled apart the perfectly aligned structure holding everything precisely in place, and ripped the printhead out.

No, I’m not a printer repair mechanic by any means. Nor an engineer type person. I have a very rudimentary understanding of how our magical plastic and metal beasts spit ink onto paper with any kind of precision at all, let alone how the exact distance and slant and speed and all the internal workings of the printhead miraculously spew ink in droplets the size of red blood cells in a chaotic-but-organized pattern onto paper to turn thousands of pixels into hundreds of thousands of ink dots that give the illusion of an orderly beautiful image.

But I am, at times, a realist.

I did the math. Basically, I could pay someone upwards of $500 to diagnose the problem, then another few hundred to come back out (to an island, no less) with parts in hopes they were right, and then pay a few hundred more for parts. Upwards, really, of $1-2000 or so to get this out-of-warranty machine working again.

Or of course we could give in to the breakdown and manifest $6000 we don’t currently have sitting around in the “just in case we need a whole other printer” fund and buy a brand spankin’ new one.

Or I could attempt, with hope against hope, that ripping the guts out of this machine and soaking the print head in a cleaning solution might actually get me somewhere.

So. That’s what I did. Crazy, I know – but I figure that I’m no worse off having tried it, and then having to pay someone to repair something that’s no worse off than when I tried it.

If I could get it all back together, of course.

Hoping the "stolen" service manual actually helped

Hoping the “stolen” service manual actually helped

And so here is a visual diary of the process:


To be honest, it was a process filled with anxiety. Every step of the way, I wondered whether I would be able to put back the parts I had just unscrewed or wrenched free.

Feeling somewhat despondent

Feeling somewhat despondent

Once I had the print head freed from its brackets and screws and clamps, it hung from its control ribbon. The most fragile piece of the printer…just…hanging there. Because my arms were tired from holding it. I didn’t really…have a plan. We had some old Piezoflush cleaning solution from when we’d used a specialized cleaning ink cartridge in another printer to clear out some stubborn clogs. But whether I could use that to rescue this –  for-all-intents-and-purposes –  dead print head was up in the air…

And then there was the question of how to suspend the print head in the solution without touching the actual nozzles…

I realized at that moment we did not have a proper container in which to set the print head.

Nancy ran to the grocery store to pick up a small plexiglass container, just larger than the head itself.

And then there was the question on how to set it in there…without touching the base of the print head to the container.

Chapstick. Yes. It was a sudden suggestion by Stan (Nancy’s husband who happened to stop by…also my stepdad). He was sitting at one of our production desks and reached out and said, “would this work?”…and popped the cap off of the Chapstick tube. It was the perfect size and shape to wedge in the frame of the printhead. We needed two. Luckily we had two.

Preparing to soak the Epson 9800 print head in Piezoflush cleaning solution

Preparing to soak the Epson 9800 print head in Piezoflush cleaning solution

And so it sat, suspended from chapstick tube caps, swimming in blood red cleaning solution overnight.

The next morning I came in with more anxiety than the day before. The print head had sat overnight in cleaning solution, but I had no idea whether it would have actually wicked it up, or if it just sat there without actually dissolving any clogs. No idea at all until I put it all back together and turned it on. If it would even turn on.

I began by wiping the printhead of any extra cleaning solution. I realized that, fragile as they might be, the recommended step (before ripping apart the printer) was to simply run the print head over folded paper towels soaked in warm water and Windex, of all things. Which means I could touch it – gently – after all.

I wiped it down, and as I tilted it this way and that, a flood of black gooey ink ran out the sides. After squirting a bit more cleaning solution over the print head surface, I wiped it clean one final time with a damp paper towel and attempted to put it back into its enclosure.

After a half hour, my arms were weak and shaking.

After an hour I needed a break.

For some reason, I simply could not get it at the right angle to wedge back in to the position it needed to be in order to screw everything back together.

Almost got the Epson 9800 print head reinstalled

Almost got the Epson 9800 print head reinstalled

Rhiannon stopped by to see how it was going. She suggested offhand that I try elevating the angle at which I was approaching the casing. Something I thought I’d done.

Apparently I hadn’t. Because it snapped right in…with a little extra effort.

I then proceeded to screw in the parts, piece by piece, until I was at the point where I could tape the front access door in a closed position to trick the printer into thinking it was all back together as it should have been. It was far from being all back together. But I figured it was safer to leave its parts exposed while testing, rather than have to pull it all apart again if the “fix” hadn’t worked.

But it did. We ran a nozzle check, while the control panel was hanging off the side suspended by blue painters tape.

It printed something. Which was…something. Considering there had been no ink on paper in over a week.

Success! The print head still needs cleaning but our Epson 9800 is back from the dead

Success! The print head still needs cleaning but our Epson 9800 is back from the dead

A few more cleanings and it seemed to be printing better nozzle checks. Still missing quite a few.

Rather than running that high-tech wiper blade over the print head some more, I elected to push ink through the system by blowing through a few feet of paper, printing heavily saturated blocks of color…hopefully clearing out the last of the stuck nozzles.

Our Epson 9800 is actually printing again!

Our Epson 9800 is actually printing again!

And it worked.

It works.

We saved it.

It worked. It actually worked.

It worked. It actually worked.

Mind you…we’re not printer repair technicians… On most days, we send images we’ve worked up through the magical software that somehow translates all of the bits and bytes into tangible pieces of paper with perfectly placed microscopic dots of ink on them…and that’s as far as we think about the inner workings of the printers.

But after having gotten my hands dirty (literally – that ink stains your skin pretty badly! as does the dyed cleaning solution…), I realized that sometimes…just sometimes…taking the big leap of faith and just pulling apart these miracle machines and putting them back together…well…it can actually work to fix what’s broken.

Last week, our printer stopped printing entirely. Faced with exorbitant repair expenses or even higher costs of buying a new one, we took a risk to fix it ourselves.

I lost over two full days of production time because of it.

I don’t consider myself the mechanical type, but…

Sometimes we surprise ourselves with what we’re capable of.