Large format printers: Presenting the big picture

Large format printers: Presenting the big picture

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Putting high quality geospatial information literally in the hands of the users, large format printers are becoming integral in the changing geospatial work environment as it becomes more mobile and collaborative

Geospatial information is fast becoming ubiquitous and emerging as a key decision support system across a wide range of applications. The visual representation of this information allows users to see patterns, understand trends and make informed decisions based on scientific analysis. Technologies like GIS, remote sensing, photogrammetry and BIM are enabling effective analysis of the geographic information and are being adopted worldwide.

Visualisation and publishing of this geoinformation is one of the key steps in exploiting the potential of the information. It is often essential to present complex spatial and design data in a simple, attractive and effective way. Effective printing solutions for geospatial information are available to users in the form of large format printers.

Quality matters
Large format printers help produce high-quality prints of complex and detailed images like aerial or satellite imagery, and are an effective medium to get the big picture without missing out on details. Ramon Pastor, Vice President and General Manager, Large Format Printing Business, Hewlett-Packard Company, elaborates that this working tool lets users see both the large picture and the details in the same print, allowing them to analyse, discuss and discover the meaning and information contained in the data, fostering creativity and enabling collective decision making.

Large format printers enable fast and accurate geospatial information to support quick and accurate decisions, says Kazuto Akane, Senior Manager, WFP Product Marketing Department, Regional Wide Format Printer Products Division, Canon Singapore. When it comes to time and accuracy, large format printers such as those provided by Canon benefit geospatial industry professionals by providing highly accurate, precision imaging solution or print quality in large format size, he adds.

Technology developments are enabling integrated use of multiple data types like highresolution satellite and aerial imagery, 3D data. Also, with the growing capabilities and sophistication of design software, geospatial files are increasingly getting larger and more complex. Large format printers allow for powerful file processing, fast speeds, increased flexibility and high quality colour that cannot be achieved with small format printers available in the market. HP’s PostScript Printer series, for example, effectively supports the GIS environment. By submitting many files at a time, directly to the printer, without having to wait to open an application, users can significantly cut down on time required to create a print, says Pastor. Featuring 8-ink printing system, users can also get accurate colours fast, easily and cost effectively, as the embedded spectrometer enables automatic calibration and profiling, minimising expensive trial-and-error printing. The system also enables processing of large files quickly and easily with a 160GB hard disk drive and users can achieve high-quality results on a wide range of applications with builtin PostScript support for PS/PDF files.

With a print speed of up to 46 seconds for A0-sized output and the ability to print technical documents with resolutions up to 2400 x 1200 dots-per-inch with precise lines, Canon’s image- PROGRAF series printers are suitable for professionals who need speedy, precise and high-quality print output, says Akane. Designed to handle high resolution and large-size files with complex images, these printers are also equipped with a 250GB hard drive, of which 32GB is dedicated solely to file processing memory, he adds. The increased hard drive capacity streamlines the workflow by bearing the processing workload on the printer to increase overall print processing times, significantly increasing user efficiency.

In tune with evolving work processes
Beyond dots per inch (dpi), large format printers are emerging as crucial tools to support the evolving work processes in the geospatial community. Geospatial work environments are increasingly becoming distributed, mobile and collaborative. The need to share, view and print geospatial documents from multiple information hubs at distributed sites is growing. Increasingly, more and more users of geospatial information are non-GIS professionals. They need to view and share data at multiple locations via different devices which can be a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone.

Web-connected large format printers, such as HP’s ePrinters with ePrint and Share software solution, make large format printing an easy, intuitive experience, making it easy for non- GIS experts too to print large format documents. It’s direct, hassle-free printing directly from the laptop or even straight from a USB drive, without the need for printer drivers, applications or servers. With touchscreen navigation, users can have accurate previews before printing from the intuitive colour touchscreen. In case the users are away from office, they can print remotely too from a computer or a smartphone to a Web-connected printer, informs Pastor. One can also easily access, preview and share files and track the team’s access to project documents. These printing solutions also let users save their content online to the cloud so that they can access, share, print and re-print their content when they need to. Canon’s in-built software facilitates real-time sharing of geospatial information through cloud, enhancing users’ workflow, shares Akane.

Hosting information in the cloud and leveraging on the ability of large format printing solutions to access, update and print geospatial documents in the field can yield significant benefits for companies. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Case Study

Transport Department issues permits faster with LFP

Engineer technician Thaddeus Stephenson at the District 1 Permits Office of the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), US, takes customer service seriously. His office is charged with reviewing and approving road construction permits, a job that requires him to work with engineers, contractors and various government agencies to ensure that each project follows state regulations. At peak times, his office receives 120 permit applications per month.

When applicants bring their drawings to the office, Stephenson sits down with them and shows them where they need to make changes to comply with regulations. But out-of-state applicants usually can’t come to his office. In the past, this meant that Stephenson would receive plans by FedEx, mark them up, and mail them back. This process often included several rounds before the permit was approved, delaying the application by weeks. Stephenson knew that, from a customer service standpoint, NDOT had to do better.

In 2011, Stephenson advised NDOT to purchase the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP. The ability to quickly scan and print quality colour drawings and collaborate via HP ePrint & Share,1 plus additional user-friendly features, convinced Stephenson that the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP would provide good value for NDOT. A year later, that investment is still paying off.

Convenient colour printing
Before purchasing the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP from California Surveying & Drafting Supply, NDOT only had a black-and-white plotter. When it needed colour prints, NDOT outsourced the work or went through the cumbersome process of manually tracing the coloured lines with highlighters.

With the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP, NDOT can conveniently print quality colour drawings and aerial photos in resolutions up to 2400 x 1200 optimised dpi. At colour image speeds of up to 549 sq ft (51 m2) per hour, NDOT can get accurate colour prints in minutes. And when clients bring files in on a thumb drive, all Stephenson needs to do to print TIFF, JPEG, or PDF2 files is plug it into the printer’s USB port.

Saving time and money
NDOT bought the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP not only for its ability to print high-quality colour drawings, but also for the ways HP ePrint & Share helps NDOT speed up the permitting process. With HP ePrint & Share, Stephenson can easily upload files and share them with applicants and colleagues. When he prints using HP ePrint & Share, a copy of the file is saved to the cloud, allowing him to access and track different versions of the same file.

Stephenson has begun encouraging out-of-state applicants to sign up for HP ePrint & Share, which provides up to 5 GB of cloud storage for free, because “it allows you to get what you need in real time.” With the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP, Stephenson is able to print technical drawings, consult with colleagues, mark up the plans and then scan them directly to HP ePrint & Share. Applicants can then review comments and make changes. At a time when state budgets are thin and small businesses are struggling, the time and shipping costs saved by NDOT and its business applicants are significant.

Stephenson is also discovering that HP technology is great for working on the go. He says that having the HP ePrint & Share app downloaded to his Android™ device allows him to go to work sites, where he can collect data and mark up drawings on his phone and then print the files at his office using the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP.

A good value
Before NDOT purchased the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP, it rarely produced prints for other state agencies, other than occasionally helping the attorney general’s office with cases that involved state roadways. Now that it has a powerful new colour printer, NDOT is in high demand. Stephenson recalls one court case where the attorney general needed a letter-size aerial photograph blown up to 6 x 6 ft (1.8 x 1.8 m). Stephenson scanned the image, and, using editing software, he split the image in half. Then he printed each half and put the images together on foam board.

Stephenson recalls, “When she came to pick it up, she could read the arrows and the words painted on the street. She just couldn’t believe the resolution of the photo.”

Stephenson estimates that, over 5 years, his office spent nearly $100,000 leasing and operating its old black-and-white plotter and scanner. With the HP Designjet T2300 eMFP, NDOT adds colour printing, Web connectivity and features such as the intuitive colour touchscreen and the ability to print directly from a USB thumb drive—at a lower cost. According to Stephenson, “The HP Designjet T2300 eMFP has already paid for itself.” That value is helping the Nevada state government become more efficient and is one more way Stephenson feels he is able to better serve his customers.

1 Internet connection to printer is required.
2 PDF files only available with Adobe® PostScript® accessory (optional accessory to be purchased separately) or by buying PostScript versions

Key users
Segments with significant volume of geospatial data at the core of their activities are perceiving these benefits and incorporating this tool into their activities. The benefits of large format printers are highly relevant to the segments that rely most on geospatial information. Printer makers observe that users in areas like e-governance, disaster management, energy, military, mapping, municipalities, land records modernisation, construction and engineering, 3D visualisation, urban planning etc can share critical information from various locations for greater effi- ciency and quick decision making.

National mapping organisations:
The national mapping organisations (NMO) of various countries constitute a big user base of large format printers. As the NMO of South Africa, National Geo-spatial Information (NGI), prints maps and imagery, including topographical maps, aeronautical charts, thematic maps, orthophotos and aerial imagery. Chief Director Dr Derek Clarke informs that in the past, all the maps were printed using lithographic off-set printing and the imagery using photographic processes. With all these products now available in digital format, NGI has moved to using large format digital printers. Elaborating on the advantages, Clarke says the large format printers facilitate printing on demand and they require minimal set-up and are cost-effective for small print runs. With litho off-set printing, the process of making printing plates and the cost thereof, requires a minimum print run of 600 while the plate-making process is also time consuming. The large format printers provide the advantage of quicker turn-around in printing and are cheaper for smaller print runs, he adds.

For The Netherlands’ Cadastre, Land Registry and Mapping Agency (Kadaster), large format printers offer fast delivery time, quality, economical unit price, minimisation of paper waste and less use of ink, says A.A. Mohamedhoesein (Aslam), Ordercoördinator, Kadaster/Geoinformatie.

Malaysia’s Department of Survey and Mapping (JUPEM) uses large format printer for proofing and map printing. In addition, it also serves the agency’s on-demand printing needs such as backdrop printing for departmental events, publication needs, and others. The fact that it can be used for various purposes (and not only map printing), helps the department to save cost and time, according to the Map Printing Section of JUPEM.

Clarke concurs that when maps are stored in the cloud, they can be printed at any location where a large format printer is available. The map producer only needs to put the print-ready map in the cloud and it can be shared. Mohamedhoesein says Kadaster has integrated its HP printers into its workflow made possible by software developed by the printer company.

Energy: Energy companies often have projects spread out over geographies. A hydro power company finds large printouts of site maps and other drawings an effective communication tool between the central office and field office. While this ensures that the field office works on the latest version of the file, the field office is also able to make modifications to the files on the same printout based on ground situation, and the communication flows back to the central office. Prior to large format printers, the central office had to use smaller print sizes and attach them together. This not only was cumbersome and time taking, there was also the risk of the set of papers not reaching the field office in original shape. With large size printouts, the offices not only have overcome these inconveniences, but have also been able to enhance their work efficiency and decision making. Officials can view large amount of details about the project in one document.

Oil and gas: Similarly in an oil and gas exploration and production, more than 80% information is geospatial information which is the starting point for almost all activities. Eko Darminto, GIS, Topo and Carto Engineer, New Ventures Division, Total E&P Indonesie, shares that geoscientists in the organisation are more comfortable working with large size paper printouts to arrive at various decisions.

Architecture, engineering & construction (AEC): Typically, a construction site operates out of a set of maps that are hosted in multiple repositories. Effectiveness in the construction industry means managing the inevitable changes on a building project, be it a commercial or residential job, on a daily basis.

Charlie Byrd of Middleburg, Virginia-based construction firm IntelliStructures says construction firms often have to quickly communicate, approve and enact design or blueprint changes with a variety of individuals and teams — from architects and engineers to subcontractors and clients. A Web-connected printer gives construction firm owners control over exactly what and when they print. As a critical business tool, Byrd observes that a large format printer with such features enhances professional collaboration. He says he can print directly from his computer or USB drive without installing drivers, or use the colour touchscreen to print directly from the Web. He can share and access files among not only his own team, but with colleagues in the building industry as well. The AEC segment can also benefit from a host of features developed by printer makers for this segment. HP for example, offers inkjet printing at LED speed at breakthrough TCO (total cost of ownership) — saving time and expense. Users can enjoy high-speed, unattended printing, radically simplify and speed up their entire workflow, produce monochrome CAD drawings for the same paper cost as their current LED prints — and even use laser paper. They can even load different media on three different rolls. In addition, such a printing solution also seamlessly integrates with any IT environment.

Utilities: Similar benefits can be seen in other segments with highly mobile workforces, like public utilities. The field office can access the latest version of the file from the central office, using Web, scanner and printer, to ensure that the modifications they make, like those to water pipes, are accurate. They can also make changes, if any. Since these changes are in the cloud, the central office is up-to-date on any changes. This way the organisation can also identify if there were any errors in their plan or GIS system. Large format printers therefore not just provide the big picture but are also a low-cost tool for access to information in the field, says Pastor.

3D printing
Geospatial users are also working with 3D data a lot more than ever before. Advances in instrumentation and software are ensuring that there is a growing ability to collect and present vast quantities of 3D data. Using 3D landscape/cityscape models for education, situational analysis and communication requires the timely conversion of GIS data to physical form. Unfortunately, the traditional processes for building models — handmade, CNC, or molded — are slow and expensive. Turnaround can take weeks and the process can be very expensive. Printers are coming at the forefront to address this issue as well. 3D printers enable users to output high-quality maps in hours at very low cost, according to 3D Systems, maker of 3D printers. The technology is poised to fundamentally improve the way people use GIS data to communicate, while enabling them to analyse critical elements with quick, inexpensive, and easily reproducible 3D models. The advantages of 3D printers include quick sophisticated cartography at very low cost; taking hours instead of days or weeks; costs being limited to tens or hundreds of dollars instead of thousands and clearer communication with clients, co-workers and public audiences, informs the company.

Greater flexibility
With such benefits, large format printing solutions are therefore aiding the geospatial workforces by providing greater flexibility in to their workflow through the ability to access, update and print geospatial documents as per their requirement and giving the quality of print they require. These solutions benefit not just any one category in the workforce chain various links. Akane elaborates that these solutions address technical staff that requires accuracy as well as management office that needs high-quality imaging solutions and printing in line drawing and colour. Offerings like Canon’s imagePrograf cloud solution aims to enhance their productivity by shortening their workflows.

Large format printers are also designed to print on a number of materials like canvas and vinyl, an option that can be handy for geospatial users. JUPEM, for example, often prints on different materials, specifically for banners, posters and backdrops. Eko too says that his organisation at times prints on other media like canvass and plastic.

Challenges
While these printers are finding their way as a significant tool in the geospatial ecosystem, they still have to long way to go. For instance, users find that they could do with a bit more speed in printing maps. Clarke says the printers his organisation uses only have a production capacity of 10 prints per hour. There are also issues with colours sometimes. Eko says when the colour on the computer monitor is too complex or gradual colour, the resultant printout is not the exact colour as seen on the monitor even if the printer is an 8-ink one.

In printing high-resolution large format map mosaic, colour consistency for each sheet is extremely important. The Map Printing Section, JUPEM has experienced instances where certain large format printers do not have the ‘colour management’ feature. This feature is very important to ensure the quality of prints of its documents.

Prospects ahead
Geospatial information is increasingly getting democratised. While earlier it was mainly the governments that had access to geospatial information, there are a host of players now with access to this information. More and more SMEs (small & medium enterprises) are entering the fray with geospatial solutions and services. A widening base of GIS and geospatial solutions spell greater avenues for large format printers, observes Pastor.

Is increasing digitisation a threat to the paper world? He does not think so. The company’s management team was quite apprehensive with the evolution of digital technology, speculating what it would bring to their existence, he adds. However, a market research revealed that despite the digital technology, the customers were still using the print format in processes like representation and discussion. A small construction project might get by with a small print, but for large infrastructure or GIS projects, all major discussions are based around a large print. Ramon says the company has not witnessed reduced demand because of these factors.

Printed information is still necessary during presentations or during discussion meetings while on-site, mobile meetings, says Akane. Additionally, quality print data on different types of media can suit users requirements compared to digital viewing of information.

To maximise gains from these opportunities, Pastor says the driving factors would be ease of use, mobility and affordability of the solution. According to Akane, print industry would need to constantly provide quality innovative solutions for geospatial industry.

Some of these solutions would be to address the anticipations of users. Mohamedhoesein, for example, expects a higher rate per minute in terms of printing, more efficient use of full colour ink toners as well as higher lightfastness for full colour toners (longer endurance to daylight before discolouration) at reasonable cost. Clarke observes that connecting the printers to an intelligent map printing management system, which then allocates a map for printing to the next available printer, will increase the total print production of the grouped printers. In addition, he says that the inks used by the printers are also critical. Organisations like his need fast drying inks, that still meet all other requirements, to increase the production rate. JUPEM too would like to see large format printers with higher speed performance. Currently, printing 10 AO size maps take almost an hour. With the latest cutting-edge printing technology, printing time should also be reduced. JUPEM also looks forward to better image quality with improved light fastness for indoor/outdoor and enhanced sharpness.

The printing industry is putting forth a range of solutions that have potential to take an organisation’s business to the next level. HP, for example, offers Indigo Digital Press the SRA3+ format digital sheetfed press that prints four million colour pages per month with higher profitability. Using the Enhanced Productivity Mode, throughput increases 33% to 160 colour ppm, increasing volume significantly. Such options can be explored by organisations publishing large volumes of geospatial data, like mapping organisations.

Conclusion
The power of physical form of maps and other geospatial information cannot be denied. Printing in geospatial applications can greatly impact a company’s efficiency in performing the job. Large format printers, with their ability to output this information in high quality, as well as their critical supporting role in enabling the increasingly mobility in the geospatial environment, are making their presence strongly felt in the geospatial ecosystem. Given the current low levels of penetration, along with growing awareness about benefits and a widening base of prospective users, opportunities are aplenty for large format printers.