March 1, 2016
Printers were once highly localized technologies, either relying on a one-to-one connection with a computer or a LAN connection in a facility. Large-format printing and scanning was even more limited, with large equipment stationed at service centers providing prints to engineers that would sometimes take days to turnaround.
Mobility and cloud computing have changed that equation, and enabled new efficiencies for engineers. At the same time, smaller and less expensive all-in-one large-format printers/scanners with onboard computing power have made it easier for design teams to print and share documents.
In the increasingly digital design environment engineers still have to do plenty of printing and scanning. Most paper documents are printed for collaborative purposes, and because not every stakeholder in the process can use the software required to access digital schematics, drawings, specifications and other documents. In fact, many of those documents might be difficult to interpret on a screen given the amount of panning and zooming necessary. And once those documents get marked up in a meeting, they have to be scanned and updated. Scanning also provides a way to retain iterations of changes, which can eliminate confusion down the line.
This is all happening in a highly mobile and faster-paced environment where many more iterations of a design are possible in a shorter amount of time, and users need to be able to print more quickly from a wider variety of devices.
“It’s become more challenging because of the speed at which designers are asked to develop and transition to manufacturing,” says Gregg Kockler, product manager at HP for the PS Design organization. “These tools give them the ability to capture changes, and drive them back via scanning so they can collaborate and maximize communication. That drives workflow efficiencies.”
It also makes it easier to work with customers and get changes approved. “It’s hard to look at a rendering on screen and catch any problems that way,” says Matt Kochanowski, product manager at Epson Professional Imaging. “With the cost of these printers falling, and the fact that they have an internal hard drive, you can actually have a printer at a customer site and output those prints much faster than in the past.”
Mobility and cloud-based services have made it easier to print in multiple locations and to collaborate across departments, within a network of multiple locations, or with clients around the globe. Networkable scanners make it easier and faster to scan drawings and quickly share them with an entire workgroup.
Onboard intelligence, in fact, has made collaboration via a networked scanner much easier as the nature of large-format scanning evolves in engineering firms. “Scanning is much more convenience focused now,” says Steve Blanken, general manager of Contex Americas. “Our customers are really focused on convenience and portability instead of production issues.”
Contex offers software called Nextimage that makes it easier to both share scan on a local network and to scan directly to email. The company’s PageDrop cloud-based scanning functionality leverages smartphones or tablets to send documents to cloud destinations like Dropbox or Google Drive.
“If you are in San Francisco and you have a drawing you need to get to New York, you can scan the drawing and if you don’t have a computer, you can use the phone or tablet to send it to the cloud,” Blanken says. “You are totally independent of a computer to run the scanner.”
That type of mobility integration is also more common in large-format printing and scanning. Rather than requiring a connection to a desktop or laptop PC, users can leverage their phones and tablets to print or scan to and from any location via email or the cloud. In cases where there are concerns about security or intellectual property protection, this type of printing can be secured via PIN protection. HP offers NTLMv2 (Network LAN Manager Version 2), a protocol that authenticates a user on the network and can be controlled via PIN printing
Likewise, users in different locations can also print directly from files housed in the cloud. “Design and manufacturing are often handled by different companies, so this type of collaboration helps bridge the gap between those different organizations as well,” Kockler says.
Canon’s Océ ColorWave 500 printing system is a multi-function unit with cloud connectivity. It also includes a touchscreen interface that lets users view live document previews, check positions and organize files. The printer can also be accessed from any location using a smartphone or tablet. Canon’s imagePROGRAF printers for large workgroups are also available as multi-function units, and include cloud portal software.
“What is important is that this functionality be platform agnostic, and not tied exclusively to any single vendor,” says Andrew Vecci, director of Large Format Solutions for Canon Solutions America. “For example, the Océ PlotWave and ColorWave family of products can integrate into any WebDAV compliant cloud, whether public or private, allowing users to access documents directly at the device’s UI (user interface).”
In addition to mobile device support, users are also able to do more work on the printers/scanners themselves. The Océ ColorWave 500 printing system consolidates output in a single device. Technical users working via project portals or in the cloud can access documents directly at the printer using the Océ ClearConnect touch panel. The unit also supports user authentication, e-shredding and removable hard drives.
HP offers its HP All-in-One (AiO) Printer Remote mobile app that allows users to print or scan from an iOS or Android phone or tablet. The solution includes wireless printer discovery and email printing. The company’s new HP DesignJet T730 Printer and HP DesignJet T830 Multifunction Printer include Wi-Fi Direct, a built-in Wi-Fi network for direct mobile printing.
Another boon to collaboration has been the ability to scan, copy and print large-format documents on a single device. While some high-volume production environments require stand-alone scanners or printers, most companies are upgrading to integrated solutions. In some cases, users can purchase a printer with the option of adding a scanner module later.
“When we talk to customers today about replacing their existing technology, they are very interested in being able to print, scan and copy,” Kockler says. “That’s a very attractive proposition from them in terms of acquisitions cost.”
For Contex, that has meant a shift in the way its products are used by designers that are less interested in stand-alone scanners. “The advent of all-in-one devices has changed the way we make our products,” Blanken says. “We have created scanners that we can connect to any type of large-format printer.”
Contex supports more than 60 printers via its Nextimage Repro scanning software, allowing users to plug a printer into the scanner or the network. It has a built-in Ethernet port, and the option of an internal print server or an Adobe PostScript 3 Hardware Module for PDF and batch printing directly from the printer.
“With the continued trend of decentralization, more and more users generate their prints at the point of need,” Vecci says. “This translates to the need for large-format printers to integrate into office environments much in the same way a cut sheet network copier does.”
Epson’s new SureColor T-Series line of large-format color printers comes in 24-, 36- and 44-in. sizes, with a SureColor Multifunction Module available for the 36- and 44-in. varieties for scanning and copying. “Some of our customers use that scanner to collaborate with their customers by being able to scan a drawing or rendering,” says Epson’s Kochanowski. “We can take any kind of large-format drawing on board the hard drive, scan it to email and send it to somebody. You can do all of that directly from the printer’s control panel.”
Standard drivers have made it easier to print just about any type of file from any computer. “There’s no special rendering needed,” Kochanowski adds. “We have an optional PostScript module for very complex PostScript files so you can move all of the rendering to the printer. It’s much less expensive to do that than in the past, when you would have needed an expensive PC for that type of job.”
Speed is also critical in a more fast-paced design environment. “In a manufacturing render, there will be multiple layers with different design components, and as you build that out you create a very sophisticated print,” says HP’s Kockler. “One thing customer are looking for is not only the speed of the print, but also the transition from the workstation to the print so it can get started faster.”
Faster color printing from these devices has also improved collaboration by allowing engineers to clarify of highlight components of complex drawings to reduce mistakes in the production process. “Making this an even more attractive proposition is that more advanced color devices have such high print quality and can use a wide variety of media types, that the printer’s usage can be extended beyond simple technical drawings to a wider range of graphics applications,” Vecci says. “It is easy to load multiple rolls of media of different sizes simultaneously to use across departments in the organization for a variety of projects.”
Scanning and printing large-format documents will remain a critical part of the way designers collaborate. As the hardware becomes easier to use and support, that collaboration will extend beyond the design and engineering departments.
“I think in general there needs to be more awareness of wide-format printing and what you can do with it,” Kochanowski says. “You can print to different substrates and use the printer to do more than just print plans or renderings. Other departments can leverage the printer, and that improves your ROI.”