Advanced Color-printing Technologies Improve GIS and CAD Workflows

by Dave Diable and Penny Holland

GIS and CAD plot files have been increasing exponentially in complexity and size, thanks to the growing use of high-resolution and satellite imagery, detailed vector data, 3Ddata, and the sophisticated modeling capabilities of design software. On the one hand, this means better maps that can support better decision making by clients—from transportation companies to government agencies to oil and gas companies. On the other hand, the inkjet printing and plotting technology traditionally used in the industry is proving no match for these larger files.  Frequent bottlenecks, slow print speed, extended drying time, pricey media requirements, and labor-intensive project management often impede workflow and drive up costs. 

As a result, to accelerate productivity, improve client service, and minimize expenses, we—the GIS/CAD professionals at Pittsburgh-based Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc. (CEC)—have embraced a new generation of advanced, wide-format, color-printing solutions that offer powerful file processing, faster print speeds, increased flexibility, and higher-quality output. 


Signs of Strain

Although CEC adopted color technology when the company was formed more than two decades ago, we were no stranger to the limitations and drawbacks of legacy inkjet technology,including long wait times for processing and printing complex documents, only to discover that the project jammed halfway through printing—if it started at all.  

Firms that still rely on traditional inkjet technology may face additional restrictions.  With little to no processing status visibility, users typically try to bypass the bottleneck by resending the file, scaling back layers, or half-sizing the plot. In addition, once processing has started, most legacy plotters do not allow users to change scaling and color output or add information without canceling the job and starting over. This frustrating, time-consuming, and wasteful process can make it challenging to meet project deadlines.

Other drawbacks of inkjet plotters include the lack of built-in intelligence to optimize both image quality and print speed, therefore sacrificing one or the other.  Most cannot accommodate multiple media sizes or types, requiring time-intensive manual roll changing or the waste that comes from trimming when printing on a larger-than-needed media roll. Without the ability to communicate problems to the sender or remotely monitor the plotter, time and paper are wasted and backlogs can build up.  Firms may end up adding extra plotters simply to maintain workflow.


New Route to Productivity

CEC was quick to incorporate next-generation, wide-format, color-printing technology as it became available. As a result, we found that this technology could address many of our workflow-disrupting concerns as well as take our color output to the next level. For us:

  • More robust file processing and printing power eliminates long wait times. 
  • Concurrent processing capability boosts project turnaround time by enabling the system to begin processing another job while it prints the first one.
  • We can copy or scan without stopping production.
  • Advanced queue management makes it easy to prioritize rush jobs, place jobs on hold, or change the settings on jobs already processed, thus better controlling workflow and helping to meet our clients’ deadlines.

In the consulting world, CEC—like many firms—is faced with last-minute deadlines from our clients.  We have found that we no longer have to compromise design and analysis due to worries about how long a project will take to print.  In fact, we can now print four times as fast as before, meaning our CAD tech scans print jobs in an afternoon that would have taken more than a day.


Pinpoint Quality, Speed,and Savings

CEC uses an advanced, solid-toner-based, wide-format color system that optimizes print quality and speed settings for every file.  Now, there’s no need for our CAD operators to view the content of the file to determine the optimal print mode. That’s all done automatically. The system also delivers media savings because specially coated inkjet paper is no longer required, and crisp, high-quality documents can be printed with a semi-gloss finish on less expensive plain or recycled paper.

Advanced technology also makes it easy to keep projects on the fast track. A high-speed controller minimizes processing bottlenecks, while substantial toner and media capacity allow long, unattended print runs. See-through cartridges allow users to keep tabs on how much toner is left, but switching out empty cartridges mid-job poses no problems. With the ability to hold multiple rolls of media, it’s easy to create mixed size sets on one plotter, minimizing waste and print costs by avoiding printing on wrong or oversized media that then needs to be trimmed.  And systems that use solid toner rather than water-based ink create prints that dry instantly, meaning they can be handled, stacked or folded immediately.

CEC has found the benefits of our advanced printing technology extend beyond the office—literally. The solid toner crystallization adheres well to any media, including Mylar and Tyvek, creating water-fast prints that can be used outdoors. “The technology has really evolved.  When we take drawings into the field, they are able to stand up to the weather—no smearing in the rain,” said Rob Sinclair, senior civil designer at CEC. And though our crews on the survey side don’t relish working in wet conditions, these plots definitely come in handy out in the field.

For a growing number of GIS/CAD professionals, the flexibility and high-quality output coupled with tangible time and dollar savings more than justifies investment in advanced plotting solutions, especially as color output becomes increasingly expected—and appreciated—in client presentations. Color makes it much easier to visualize a lot of information with greater clarity and accuracy. CEC has also been able to cut down the number of hours we bill clients for plotting time as well as save them money by keeping complex color printing in-house—at a fraction of the cost of outsourced printing.

In addition to helping GIS/CAD professionals work more efficiently and more economically, today’s advanced, wide-format printing systems are more environmentally friendly,featuring ultra-low emissions and non-toxic toner that can be easily disposed of with regular office waste. 

The business process improvements CEC has experienced are impressive: Our firm has cut printing time by 25 to 30%, enabling us to invest more quality into thoughtful design for our clients.  And, at the end of the day, it’s this core function that clients are paying for.

Dave Diable is CADD manager at Civil Environmental Consultants, Inc., headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA. For this article he received research input from Penny Holland, director of business development for the wide format printing systems division of Océ North America.

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