Person of the Week

Howard Sheets

Book Machine Technician

I’m always surprised at how excited people get when they get their new book machine. They actually get to make a book. The whole machine has clear panels on it so you can actually see everything happen.

1.  What led you to the mission of being a book machine technician?

I always liked fixing things like working on my own cars. I morphed into fixing the book machine. Howards-Sheets-8It started when I worked for Jeff Marsh who was the inventor of the book machine. (To read more about Jeff, click here.)

I work on the EBM machine.  The Espresso Book Machine (EBM) prints paperback books. There is a block printer that prints the pages and another printer that prints the cover. The machine can glue the book together so that it looks like a regular paperback book you buy at the bookstore.  Here is a video showing how this machine works.


I learned to install book machines and I can do phone support or go out to the location to fix the machines. They are all over the world. The ones I go to are usually in the United States or Canada. I’ve been to Fairbanks, Alaska, and Vermont in the United States and Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal in Canada.

I learned from working with Jeff, the inventor. We worked on each generation of the machines. I did some electronics in college, so I have some background. But most of what I do was learned just from experience by working with Jeff and on the machines.

2.  What does this mission mean to you?

It just happened. I didn’t choose it on purpose. But I was always going in this direction. If something doesn’t work, I’ve always liked trying to figure out why it doesn’t work.

Howards-Sheets-standingtoolsI like this job because I can travel to different places. I see all kinds of different weather. Fairbanks, Alaska was very interesting. When I got there it was the beginning of February and it was minus 35 degrees. I walked out of the airport to get the rental car and I coughed because I could almost not breathe it was so cold.

It is interesting talking to people and finding out what characteristics are peculiar to that area. It is so cold in town because there is no wind. The people have to leave their cars running all the time because it is so cold. They have to plug their cars in at night because it is so cold. One lady lives up out of town and the temperature is about twenty or thirty degrees warmer where she lives and it is only about ten miles away. It is low in town and is a valley and the cold just sits there. The air doesn’t go anywhere in the city so that is very interesting to me.

When I was in Fairbanks, they were doing the Yukon Quest dog race. The race is between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. (Note: The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race is an epic winter sports event that takes place every February. To read more about the Yukon Quest click here.)  Howards-Sheets-4They actually finish the race on the lake in Fairbanks, Alaska. The entire lake is frozen over. It is so cold for so long that the rivers freeze over and people can drive on the river like it is a road. On the race, the sleds go about a hundred miles a day. When I was in Fairbanks working, I was able to watch the news and see how the race was going on. It was interesting.

I’m always surprised at how excited people get when they get their new book machine. They actually get to make a book. The first book that they see come off of the machine makes them get so excited that it is like a magic thing. The whole machine has clear panels on it so you can actually see everything happen. You can watch it making a book inside. The pages get printed. The cover gets printed. The pages get glued together. The book gets trimmed. You see the whole thing. But when the people see it for the first time, it is always fun.  The people who see it for the first time are just so excited.  They see a machine making a book.

When the machine is down and not working they are disappointed. Then when I get the machine working they are almost excited as when they saw it make a book the first time. They first see the book made and then when I fix the machine they see it work again and those are two really good positives.

3.  What was your best day being a book machine technician?

The best day was when we fixed a machine at the University of Utah. All their stepper motors had shorted out. There was a power surge and it shorted out all the brains of the motors — the circuitry that is delicate. The circuit boards were fried. So all the circuit boards had to be replaced and the motors had to be reprogrammed.

Howards-Sheetscircuit-6Stepper motors are smart motors that have programs in them. The program tells them what to do. It is not just a motor that runs but it can actually do things. Like there is a glue pot that has one motor that spins the glue wheel to stir the glue and apply the glue and another motor that actually moves the glue pot in the machine back and forth.  In the machine that broke I think there were eight motors.

This was an expensive deal. The machine was totally down. All the motors had been shot.  I went to fix the machine, but I didn’t get the machine running while I was there. I did what I could with what we had at the time. The motors all have programs in them. You have to put the program into the computer to get the motors to work. There was more that had to be done to finish the job. No one else had been able to do this except for us. But there was a guy there that was actually interested enough that he learned how to program the motors and had a programming cable. After I got back home, he was able to finish the last part, program the rest of the motors, put them in and get the machine working with my help on the phone. They were thinking about replacing the machine but we were able to bring the whole machine back and get all the motors working again. That was pretty cool.

4.  What was your worst day being a book machine technician?

The worst one was almost the exact same situation. I took all the motors out and we were going to send all the motors back to the factory to have all the motors’ circuit boards replaced. I was looking forward to going back and getting the machine running. After I took the motors out we sent them to the factory and the company decided that they didn’t want to spend the money to fix the machine. That was really disappointing. We had done it halfway and taken all the motors out and sent them to the factory to have the circuit boards replaced, but they decided to get rid of the machine. That was really disappointing.

5.  How did you survive your worst day?

I survive by thinking of the next thing. It’s too bad to get rid of a machine, but there are still a lot of machines out there. I still have to take care of all the other machines that are out there. Howards-Sheets-toolsThat is what I do.

Throwing in the towel is not a choice in my mind. You have to do whatever the next thing is. In this situation I don’t have any control over the people who decided to get rid of the machine so I have to think of the other people I can help to keep their machines running. Not throwing in the towel means I don’t have control over what other people are doing.

6.  What advice do you have for someone who is looking for a mission to love like yours?

Nowadays you can Google anything and learn more about it online. You can learn a lot of stuff online.

You can still get a job as a technician or working with books. Howards-Sheets-blackpartI think people still like to hold a book and turn the pages. There are still a lot of bookstores around and they are pretty crowded. A lot of our machines are in bookstores and university stores. I get to see these independent stores that are still viable and doing pretty good. I think for a while people were worried about the ebook killing the paper book. But I don’t think it is going to because I see so many people wanting a paper book. They like to carry them around and read them. I still read regular books. My wife likes to read eBooks. I’m often thinking, “Get the paper book so I can read it.”

If you think you might want to travel, you might think about doing a type of service technician thing. There is a man who used to repair printers. He traveled even more than I do. He travelled all over the United States. He would go to all kinds of “hole in the wall” places. One was in remote Wyoming. There was no big town near it so he had to fly into a big town that had an airport and then fly a little plane into another little town. If he was travelling in the winter, it was really crazy.

Howards-Sheets-motorIf you like to travel or think you might like to travel, a job like this allows you to go places. You are doing a job but you also have a travel aspect to it. You can fly somewhere. Then you might have to take public transportation. You might have to rent a car. There is a lot of problem solving that is involved with a job like mine.

I went to New York a month or two ago. I had to fly to Newark, New Jersey but I was going to a bookstore in Manhattan. I wasn’t going to drive there. I took the train into Manhattan and a cab to the bookstore. Then I had to go to three more bookstores. So I fixed that machine and walked to another bookstore in Manhattan. The next day I had to take a cab back to the train station, go back to the airport, rent a car at the airport, and drive to two more bookstores – one in Jersey and one in Philadelphia — to look at those machines at Barnes and Noble. This job means always having to figure these things out – how to get where you are going and such. I find this really interesting and rewarding to figure that kind of thing out and get there. Just getting there is part of the fun.

You can Google things that you are interested in and see what kinds of things could lead to jobs.