Wide-Format Printers/Plotters

The Print Factor

16 Sep, 2009 By: Penny Holland

When selecting a wide-format printing system to streamline workflows, AEC firms must take market trends and software capabilities into account.

Now more than ever, AEC professionals are striving to streamline operations. At the same time, they face market trends such as increasingly decentralized printing, expanded use of color, and dedication to environmental responsibility, and are grappling with tighter budgets, shorter project deadlines, and stricter standards of accountability.

Such conditions can be daunting for even the most seasoned AEC teams. But the good news is that technology is on your side. Paper-based documentation remains a key part of AEC workflows, and advances in wide-format CAD printing can help alleviate common pain points and automate printing tasks to save time, reduce risk and mistakes, and simplify the print order and submission process. But today's wide-format systems are very different from their predecessors; how do you begin to understand the latest capabilities and determine which wide-format printing solution is right for you? Here, I'll provide some background and tips to help you compare options and ensure you're equipped with the information you need to choose the right system.

Addressing Market Trends
To meet the demands of today's AEC market, consider the following trends and how wide-format printing solutions can support your efforts in these areas.

Increased decentralized printing. As the technology for digitizing and distributing information in digital form has evolved, the AEC industry has transitioned from a print-and-distribute to a distribute-and-print model. Professionals are increasingly printing files at the point of need, including a construction site or the closest reprographics shop. To realize the benefits afforded by this model — reduced waste and print volumes, improved file accessibility, minimized shipping and transportation costs — CAD users and AEC professionals should look for systems that are specifically designed to address this trend.

For example, point-of-need printing requires fast, easy-to-use, reliable printers for lower-volume print demands and specific attention to the unique needs of walk-up users, who require intuitive operation. Recently introduced all-in-one print/copy/scan systems fulfill these needs without sacrificing print quality. When selecting a system for decentralized print needs, users should also take into account the printer's size and durability, examining its ability to fit into tight spaces on the job site; create little in the way of noise, heat, or ozone emissions; and withstand the workload of multiple users.

Adoption of color. Over the past decade, AEC professionals have experienced an increased need for color to accelerate the design and build process, reduce mistakes, and clarify information on more detailed drawings. The expanded use of BIM (building information modeling) and mixed originals (technical information with embedded photos) is also triggering a need for color. Color can more effectively communicate detailed information in fine line drawings used in architectural bids, grading cut and fill diagrams, 3D and GIS drawings, business graphics, and even satellite photos processed in CAD applications for construction.

With the expanded use of color also comes larger files that can be slow to process, view, and print, creating major workflow bottlenecks. Concerns about the perceived costs of color CAD printing (which arose because conventional color wide-format thermal inkjet printers require expensive, specially coated inkjet paper) have also stymied full-color adoption. Thankfully, advances in color CAD printing technology are enabling AEC professionals to overcome these challenges and reap the aforementioned benefits.

When selecting a wide-format system for color CAD work, users should pay close attention to the file processing speed and task concurrency, which enable simultaneous file processing, printing, and scanning. A system that can harness the speed of monochrome printing for complex color CAD files, without compromising output quality, is essential. It must also be capable of printing on multiple media types, including less expensive recycled or uncoated paper.

Also crucial is the system's ability to deliver optimum print quality without sacrificing productivity. Can the system automatically sense lines and text, images, or both, and automatically determine the best print quality and print speed? This is a critical litmus test when selecting a system that can drive color CAD work, especially in a decentralized environment.

Dedication to Environmental Responsibility. Thanks to growing demand for projects that are environmentally friendly and meet the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standards, sustainable design and operating processes have become essential. AEC firms must partner with vendors — including reprographic partners and printing system vendors — who share their sustainability objectives. AEC firms should seek out large-format printers that support responsible paper use, low emissions, energy conservation, and reusable components. Energy Star and RoHS compliance are also important factors. Lastly, print systems that use a modular, upgradeable design will prevent equipment from prematurely entering the waste stream, as they can be upgraded as the user's needs change.

Considering Software Capabilities
When automating CAD printing workflows, AEC firms cannot overlook the importance of the software that supports large-format printing systems. The most valuable software allows users to batch-process multiple file types, preview them exactly as they will be printed, and then submit for printing locally or remotely.

Other necessary features include remote printing capability and support for color CAD files. Software that enables users to submit print job orders to reprographers via the Web is important for a decentralized environment, while also enabling reprographer partners to make real-time changes, resulting in fewer errors and faster turnaround times. Also, as the use of color continues to expand, software must be able to process and preview large color file formats and communicate with reprographic partners to ensure the files are routed in a timely manner to the appropriate color printer in the shop.

In conclusion, selecting the right wide-format printing technology is fundamental to creating a seamless CAD workflow environment. AEC professionals that take into consideration how the printing system and related software address current market trends will be well positioned to streamline their workflow and eliminate costly documentation bottlenecks.

About the Author: Penny Holland

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