Scratching The Surface Part 3 - The Online Magazine for the Sign Trade.
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Estimate Software- Printing software that helps you find the hidden treasure in your business.

Scratching The Surface Part 3

Digital printing and the advantages of using a network with RIPs and your digital printers

By Daniel A. Keegan

Digital printing via a network has many advantages for the digital printers of today. Read on to better understand the rewards to using a network in your shop.

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  • When it comes to digital printing, a network can be your best asset! Unlike vinyl cutting and printing from your desktop printer, the large and grand format digital printers have different environmental needs. A clean, dust free, working area is at the top of the list. Most inkjet technology printers require room temperatures that can range from 68 to 85 degrees with low humidity. Drying time is affected by humidity. Aqueous or water based inkjet materials have a micro thin coating on top of the base material which has a tendency to absorb moisture, as do paper based materials, which in turn affects the drying time and project turn-a-round times. Suppose you have or are looking into a solvent based inkjet system. Ventilation is very important with this type of system. It's not so much for the inks or materials, but rather the people trying to operate the equipment. The fumes can be somewhat hazardous. All in all, with these requirements, the placement of equipment may not be as easy as it sounds in your office. This may result in the equipment to be placed at the far end of the building. How do you get information or data to that system? A network!

    Let's look at the alternatives. You could use the ol "sneaker net" which means that data is copied to a disk (floppy, zip, jazz, cd, dvd, etc...). Then hand carried to the digital system and copied onto its hard drive for processing. This method is fine if you are only dealing with vector artwork, because the files are small, but people are more creative these days and want to incorporate scanned images and add special effects. Now, you're dealing with huge amounts of information and it may take a lot of time to copy files from one machine to another. What's your time worth at this point? Do you really want to pay an employee to sit there and stare at the monitor as the files are copying? How much money did you spend copying that 10MB file to a zip disk in 5 minutes when it could have be sent through the network in less than one minute? "Time is money" and of course, everybody needs a finished product...NOW!

    How does the digital printer understand what to do with a file once it's in the computer? No matter what the scenario, some form of RIP (Raster Image Processor) is used. There are two basic types of RIPs, one is known as a "Hardware RIP" and the other a "Software RIP". The following is a generalized description of each:

    The hardware RIP is basically a stand-alone processor or computer that can process the data you send it into data the digital printer can understand. It is generally a form of custom computer system running custom software to control the printer. From the graphics workstation a special printer driver is used to tell the RIP how to handle the file being sent. This RIP is either built into the printer or what appears to be a box setting beside the printer. For instance, the HP 2500 and 3500 series large format printers have the RIP hardware built into it, which is then hard wired directly to the printer. Appearing to be a one piece unit. All you have to worry about is getting the information to it. From a processing speed standpoint, this type of configuration may not be a speed demon, but it does get the job done.

    The software RIP is essentially a software program that can process the data you send it into data the digital printer can understand. It is usually run from a stand-alone computer of your choice acting as a "server" or from a workstation which then controls the printer. The "server" version can receive files sent to it, manipulate the file, and then send it on to the printer. The "workstation" version can basically do the same thing as the "server", but it is not stand-alone or dedicated to the one task. This is by far the most common scenario. For example, the Vutek grand format printers use a software RIP on a workstation or server which then sends the processed data, in the form of a file, to a computer system that is hard wired (built-in) to the printer, which communicates only via a network to talk to other workstations. The software on the built-in computer is a form of the RIP software itself. It, in simple terms, tells the printer what to do with the file, such as how many to print, rotation or to crop out an area for testing the color.

    There are so many variations that can be used these days, it is mind boggling! Is one better than the other? Not necessarily! Most of it will all depend upon the experience and comfort level of the end user.

    Where does this all come into play with a network? Communication and speed! Getting the file from the design station at point "A" to the RIP at point "B" and then eventually to the printer at point "C". Then the question fast can I get it there? Remember that you may not always have the option of locating everything into one area.

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    The older generation large format printers typically communicated with the RIP through the use of a parallel/printer cable. These older printers may have been printing 300 to 600 dpi, but the printing speed was much slower than today's standards. The parallel/printer cable communication was adequate at the time, but then came the new generation printers that double or triple the printing speeds and print at higher resolutions. Now you have to deal with sending larger amounts of data to the printer at much higher speeds otherwise the printer will print a few lines and then hesitate until it receives enough information to continue. If this happens, what good was the investment into the speedy printer?

    Don't get too worked up about it though, because there is generally a solution for the problem and that solution is typically a network. Communication speed though a network cable far exceeds that of any serial or parallel cable could ever produce. That is why the majority of printer manufacturers now have built-in network capabilities. If a network port is not built-in, at least there is an option to add it down the road. Even some of the older generation printers have an option to add a network card into the printer. The advantage to having the network capabilities in the printer is that it can be placed anywhere you want it versus a location next to the RIP or workstation.

    Sounds good, but what if my printer does not have an option for a network card? Not to worry! Technology comes through again in the form of a little device called a "Print Server"! One brand that comes to mind is AXIS (and there are several others), which has several different configurations available. Some look similar to an A-B switch box, in which a network cable is plugged into this device (information going IN) and converts the signal over to a parallel/printer cable (information going OUT) that is then connected to the printer. This type of device can allow you to connect one or more printers depending upon how fancy you want to get. The other device plugs directly into the printer and the network cable plugs into it. There is no parallel/printer cable involved and the device is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. To give you an idea on price, the single printer units range from $100 to $150.

    A network can be a great asset and unless you have tried it, you will never know. Yes, you have to make the investment! Though, how much did you save by not having to purchase a printer (or some other device) for each computer system and how much time have you or will you save? Over a period of one year, those saved minutes every day can add up fast!

    OK, what about mixed operating system environments, you ask? If you have multiple workstations in which some are PCs and some are MACs, the network can be your common ground for both. It's possible that a PC and MAC can share the same device or printer. Both MAC and PC files can be stored in the same location and shared with each other.

    There are always solutions to problems and sometimes it's just a matter of asking the right question. The purpose of this three part article, which was fairly generalized, was to give you an idea of what the possibilities are, what could be done and what lies ahead in the future. What works for one person may not work for another, so there is a need to ask questions. The best advice that I could offer is to ask a lot of questions and try to plan ahead. Don't get frustrated if things don't work out at the first attempt. Try again and don't be afraid to seek the advice or services of others, because it will pay off in the long run!

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