Technology

What It’s Like to Fix: Postage Meters

A feed roller on a postage meter that has really seen some stuff, man. Photo by Andrew Goldheart.

This is What It’s Like to Fix, an occasional series detailing the different kinds of work, and people, needed to fix the world.

There is the mail you get from people you know. There is the bulk-printed mail you get from companies, like brochures and coupons. And then there is all the in-between mail: appointment reminders, invoices, and fundraising pitches.

Test postage printed out by a mailing machine.
$0 Testing postage (hence the red ink) from a Hasler machine. Photo via Andrew Goldheart.

Most of that medium-scale mail is sorted, stamped, folded, and inserted by direct mail machines (sometimes called postage meters, or, overseas, franking machines). Direct mail gear can be a tabletop postage scale for occasional jobs, or it can take up an entire office wall. Some machines can take whole stacks of paper and envelopes and turn them into folded, sealed, and stamped letters, ready to be dropped at the post office. Podcast aficionados have likely heard ads for Stamps.com, a direct-to-consumer version of a direct mail setup.

All these devices involve ink, paper, moving parts, weights, and circuit boards, so they inevitably break down. When they stop working, bills can’t go out. When bills can’t go out, somebody needs to fix this, quick. For a few years, that somebody, at least in the San Luis Obispo (SLO) area of California, was Andrew Goldheart.

Andrew, now an iFixit product engineer, was a student at Cal Poly in late 2009. His sister answered the phones at CCI Office Technologies in Ventura, Calif. She knew that the two-hour-plus drive to SLO ate the CCI technicians’ time. So Andrew became a contractor, called on to service nearby clients’ mailing machines in-between classes and college life.

It was a good fit for Andrew, a lifelong tinkerer. His childhood backyard was “full of disassembled dishwashers, washing machines, bikes,” he said. But, like most humans, he’d never worked on a direct mailing machine. For his first few jobs, he did some preventative maintenance and simple fixes—“Open it up, clear a jam, clean the rollers, put it back together.” But his real training was a kind of low-budget augmented reality: heading to a client’s office, opening up a machine, then getting on the phone with CCI’s most experienced technician, Matt.

“Matt was the guy in the chair, he’s in the home office in Ventura. I’m describing what I’m seeing, he’s drawing from years of experience and telling me what to try. ‘Do you see the little blue lever up there? Pull that out, then twist this counterclockwise,” Andrew said. “He knew the handful of machines we had inside and out. Once or twice he opened a machine in front of himself, in an ‘Apollo 13’ kinda scene, to coach me through. But generally, he just knew what was wrong from the history and the symptoms.”

Large folder/sorter mailing machine.
The Hasler M8600 folder/inserter, inhabiting a place of pride at the CCI home office in 2011. Photo by Andrew Goldheart.

Postage meters and their attachments are not designed for easy repair. There are lots of screws, many of them uncommon varieties. There’s a specific order for disassembly, and rushing or pulling out the wrong part can lead to disaster. Proof of this came when customers would occasionally find the right screwdriver or learn the diagnostic codes, after which Andrew would often have to un-DIY their unit. But he had his own lessons to learn, too.

On one job, after driving his battle-worn Mercedes 300SD nearly an hour to an office (and hitting a bird on the way), Andrew opened up the machine. Working a little too fast, he broke a connector off the main board by yanking a clipped-in cable too hard. There was nothing for it; Andrew didn’t have the soldering knowledge he would later pick up at iFixit. He had to ship the board to the home office, wait for a replacement, then drive back out to install it.

At the core of each mailing machine is a postage meter. In the machines Goldheart fixed, it was an encrypted, calibrated brick, “like a Super Nintendo cartridge.” After a customer or their vendor obtains a mailing permit from their municipality, they can load money onto the meter, then stamp hundreds or thousands of mail items per hour (depending, sometimes, on what speed they paid to unlock in the firmware.

Profile image of Andrew Goldheart.
Andrew Goldheart, product engineer at iFixit and experienced un-gunker of postage meter rollers.

The meter’s scale requires occasional calibration, lest mail get returned with the wrong postage. On one job, Goldheart lacked the kind of perfect calibration weight needed for the scale. “But I had a bottle of water,” he said. “So I borrowed a cup, weighed out my 16 ounces of water, tared it and set it. It worked.”

Goldheart fixed and maintained mailing machines at medical labs, banks, government buildings, religious communities, and other spots. It was an interesting, varied, and technical job, especially for a college kid. Eventually Andrew graduated from Cal Poly and looked for work. He had completed iFixit’s EDU technical writing project, working on guides to, among other things, replace the LCD on a Microsoft Zune. He applied for a job at iFixit, started in 2012, and has worked here ever since.

I called CCI’s main office to see if any of Andrew’s coworkers could weigh in on his experiences, and see what’s changed. Michelle Harlan, who works in dispatch and customer support, said that postage meters had become, like everything, fully web-connected since Andrew’s time. They can be inspected, calibrated, paid up, and updated, frequently and automatically. But paper is still paper, and there are still service techs driving out to offices. Andrew would likely still recognize today’s machines, Harlan said—the folders, inserters, and sorters are improved, but the basic design is much the same.

Goldheart, meanwhile, only deals with one paper-moving product these days, and it’s the Brother laser printer in his home. It has never needed fixing, he swears. Maybe he’s earned that break.

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