Like many businesses, law son Products, of Des Plaines, Ill., relies on fax machines for everyday commerce. But the hardware distributor uses lots of them: some 800 are leased to independent sales agents in the field to process complex orders; another 30 machines stay home to receive those orders. To keep the faxes functioning, the company relies on remote diagnostics, a method devised by NASA to straighten out misbehaving space-shuttle computers.

At Pitney-Bowes's 11-year-old National Diagnostics Center (NDC; 407-255-8897), in Melbourne, Fla. (the first and so far only enterprise to develop the technique commercially), technicians claim to be able to correct 75% of fax failures within 20 minutes -- over the phone. The faulty fax executes a self-examination software program and relays the output back to NDC. As with an EEG, the patterns are searched for an anomaly -- perhaps insufficient output, which might cause receiving faxes to jumble weak signals -- and corrective instructions are then downloaded electronically back to the fax over the same phone line. It's not uncommon for Lawson Products' reps to cure balky machines from hotel rooms.

Increasingly, office-machine breakdowns are likely to be software-induced. Scanners in modern faxes have no moving parts and rarely break; paper paths now are direct and seldom clog. Indeed, claims Pitney-Bowes vice-president of marketing Meredith Fischer, the fix rate would be even higher among NDC's 30,000 responses per month if some of the callers weren't novices feeding documents wrong side up.

The catch is that for service by remote diagnostics, you have to get your fax direct from Pitney-Bowes, which deals in high-end machines at an average rental price of $100 per month. That tenure may be ending: competitors such as Panafax, Canon, Xerox, and Hewlett-Packard are dabbling in phone-fixing support not only for faxes but for computers and copiers as well. -- Robert A. Mamis