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Using Large-Format Printers and Scanners

Canon ImagePROGRAPH

Wide-format printers like the Canon ImagePROGRAPH have the performance to print large numbers of documents quickly, enabling collaboration with those who need printed output. Image courtesy of Canon.

In an era where seemingly every document and detail is digitized and stored for posterity, many engineering plans and drawings are still printed out and maintained in printed form, with comments and changes written directly on the document. While most groups have CAD and similar software, there are still filing drawers full of paper plans and schematics that may be referred to more frequently than their electronic counterparts.

There are good reasons for relying on printed documentation, even today. Documents can easily be shared in meetings. Engineers can make ad hoc changes, mark up designs and write comments. Digital files and storage can be more easily protected against someone who is a partner today, but may be a competitor on a different project tomorrow. Paper documents may also have to be delivered to the customer at different points in time in a project.

However, the documents always have to be maintained electronically. If a document is updated or altered by hand, it is in a single location on a perishable medium. Many documents have to be scanned periodically and versioned so that the most current one is identified and readily available.

Rare is the engineering office that doesn’t have a large-format printer and scanner. Large-format is generally defined between 18 and 100 in., so there is a great deal of variation in size, volume and performance. But they all share one thing in common: They are essential in collaborating to produce designs for electronics, consumer products, buildings and more.

How should these devices be used in the design process? Printing and scanning documents is a way to share information and capture changes and feedback. Given the investment in this equipment, it is essential to set up a system for managing documents. This can typically be more challenging because it encompasses a broad array of possible activities — from storage to workflow to annotation to organization. But printers and scanners work together to distribute and capture changes in information, respectively.

Print to Collaborate

The primary reason to print documents is to communicate and collaborate. Engineering groups almost always need multiple hard copies of drawings, specifications, block diagrams, schematics and similar documents. Often, the number of documents can be in the hundreds or thousands for complex projects.

While many design software packages will let users share engineering drawings and other documents electronically, it may not be feasible to do this with all stakeholders. They may not have licenses for the software, or they may have clients or partners without electronic access to those files.

For large projects, or if you’re printing frequently, performance is an important consideration. Fast and dedicated printers will pay for themselves in productivity.

Print at Major Milestones

Whether or not these documents are shared, engineering teams should also print at major milestones, such as critical design reviews and design freeze, so that there is a paper record of the state of the project at that point. This is especially true if the client is requesting deliverables.

If one copy goes to the client, a second copy should be part of the project record. It represents a snapshot of the state of the project at that time, rather than an ongoing status. A snapshot gives project participants an idea of how much work has been done, and how much more needs to be accomplished.

Printing at milestones also provides a convenient look back for engineers to recall why certain decisions were made. While some of that can be done online, the value of a printed copy lets engineers quickly check a detail or comment from a past document. You may also want to print paper copies to store off-site as a disaster preparedness activity. Secure storage services such as Iron Mountain can pick up and store documents to keep a hard copy off-site record.

Scanning for Data Capture

Offices should scan project documents as they change. It’s important to capture all changes and annotations as they are made. Many of these are likely to be handwritten on printed copies, especially in the field or by clients or other stakeholders.

With scanned documents, versioning can be problematic. How you manage and store your documents can mean the difference between using the right versions and getting confused by location, version and accuracy of a given document.

The best way to make sure documents and drawings are archived in order and with appropriate dates is to use a document management system or version control system. There are dozens of different commercial document management and versioning systems available, and at least a few free and open source packages. Some, such as Cognidox, are specifically designed for high-tech product development. Others, such as eXo, add social and collaboration features.

Microsoft SharePoint

Document management software such as Microsoft SharePoint can help engineering groups organize and version documents so that both originals and scanned copies can easily be identified. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

In some cases, printers and scanners may already come with document management software. Many groups also use Microsoft SharePoint for document management and other collaboration purposes. Alternatively, do your research and choose a product based on your needs. Among the features you should consider are the ability to categorize and search documents, keep multiple versions of documents and maintain document details such as creator, changes and last change.

For small volumes of work, there are combined printing and scanning solutions that may serve the needs of some groups. However, because only one function can be used at a time, such a solution could create a bottleneck at critical times. It might also be useful as a backup or secondary device on some networks. Also, most of these are at the lower end of the “wide” range, so don’t expect them to work with large-format documents.

Additionally, you should plan to archive documents for reference purposes. It’s possible that the typical project may have hundreds of scanned documents, each with changes marked on the documents. Saving these documents and making them searchable with a document management system creates a comprehensive project record.

When to Print and Scan

Buying and installing a printer and scanner is only the first part of the story. Knowing when to print and scan is the next part. But managing documents, by purpose, date and summary of changes makes it all work.

Printing is especially important when some project participants don’t have software licenses or access to electronic storage where the documents reside. Scanning captures ad hoc comments and handwritten changes, which then have to be incorporated into the design.

To make sure these are captured, scanning and categorizing is required so that the designers can incorporate changes. This means scans have to be put into a document management system and the responsible engineer notified. By using a system that can print, scan and categorize data, engineering and design teams can ensure that their work is available in print and digital formats.

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About Peter Varhol

Contributing Editor Peter Varhol covers the HPC and IT beat for Digital Engineering. His expertise is software development, math systems, and systems management. You can reach him at DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.