Web Exclusive: Plotters for Surveyors and Engineers

November 5, 2001
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Inkjet technology dominates market.

Plotters. The last step in a surveyor’s reporting the results of his or her work. Let’s think about the subject for a minute. One of the surveyor’s primary concerns is locating and measuring land parcels and the non-transitory objects situated upon those parcels, and depicting those findings on a map or plat. There is a vigorous discussion about the best tools—hardware, software, processes—to use for those functions. That’s what your POB magazine does, right? Provide a forum to discuss those tools? “OK, then,” one might reply, “I see articles pertaining to the front end of the surveying process—the collection of the field data, the coordination of those collected points into usable form, the calculations necessary to arrange those points to fit the purpose for which they were originally gathered. But...why so few articles about equipment to finalize the product? Why isn’t there more discussion about that final step—the plotting of the map or plat?”

Good question. Simple answer: inkjet plotters. This technology has overwhelmed the plotter marketplace for now. There’s just not much room for the kind of discussion you’d find with, say, field data collection software. And, to narrow the discussion range even more, the brand of inkjet plotter we would likely find in the surveyor’s office is Hewlett-Packard, specifically their DesignJet series. Wait, now, I didn’t say there aren’t other manufacturers building good equipment to fit the purpose. Canon’s BubbleJet technology is still a player on this field, and Encad, utilizing an inkjet engine from Lexmark, can also provide plotters. It’s just that if a surveyor needs a plotter and goes to his usual sources, he will most likely end up with an inkjet plotter made by Hewlett-Packard.

Why Inkjet?

So whatever happened to the carousel/pen plotter? You’d probably know the answer to that if you’ve tried to sell one lately. Rarely has a methodology died as fast as the pen plotter. Understandably so; pens were unreliable, prone to skipping, and a hassle in general to keep fresh. I believe our old pen plotter is now a combination doorstop/bookshelf. Inkjet cartridges, on the contrary, are convenient and dependable. Let’s be clear about the technology: inkjet plotters work in very similar fashion to inkjet printers. They use ink cartridges, like the ubiquitous desktop printers, but with larger media, of course. There are several media-handling options for inkjet plotters: single sheet, roll feed, etc. They come in all sizes up to E-size and larger, can reach speeds of around a plot a minute, can affordably provide color, and are priced right. If you can live with two minutes per plot draft quality and four minutes per plot finished quality, a Hewlett-Packard Designjet 750C can be had for under $4,000. More money, up to, say, twice that, gets you more speed and more memory. Going the other direction and foregoing plot speed and memory, a monochrome HP 500 in 24" maximum width runs less than $2,000.

To return to the cartridges themselves, one might ask, “Convenient, to be sure. But are they economical?” There have been attempts, to be sure, at alternative solutions to buying new, factory-issued cartridges. For instance, some entrepreneurs have come up with bottles of ink that you inject into your old empty cardridges to give them new life. But just ordering a new cartridge is so easy.

Have you ever had the notion creep up on you that those individual bills for $39.95 are adding up? With respect to that issue, I found interesting a quote from Allan Sloan, Newsweek’s Wall Street editor, in a column about HP CEO Carly Fiorina. Sloan, a respected business analyst, flatly states that “HP’s big profit center is printers and especially, replacement ink cartridges.” Sloan offers this assertion as one reason for HP’s buying Compaq computer. That reasoning holds that by investing in the PC market, HP contributes to the health of the industry, thereby creating more demand for printers. He’s talking, of course, about desktop printers as well as plotters, but still—I found it astounding that a major business journalist would characterize the profit-center philosophy of such a huge corporation in that way. Hmmm. Let’s see, now... from whose wallet would those HP dollars be coming?

But truth be known, we’ve never minded that somebody made a profit, as long as the product worked for us, right? It’s almost the American way. If, however, your inkjet cartridge costs and your plot volume, are starting to get high enough to look for an alternate technology, be aware of another possibility on the horizon: LED.

Enter LED

LED plotters may be thought of in this way: as laser desktop printers are to inkjet desktop printers, so are LED plotters to inkjet plotters. You could substitute “laser” for “LED” and get it right most of the time. Current technology, plotter-wise, doesn’t use actual lasers any longer, but the technology is nonetheless a drum/toner process like laser printers. If you’ve ever visited a high-volume custom plot operation, you’ve likely seen LED plotters in action. They are workhorses when it comes to black-and-white prints. A $15,000 LED plotter can churn out four pages a minute all day long. As for costs of consumables, toner and drum replacement costs would replace the cost of inkjet cartridges. The major manufacturers of LED plotters are Oce, KIP and Xerox. Those and other manufacturers also make bigger and more powerful plotters, often adding scanning capabilities so the “document center” can also function as a large-format copier.

A Word About Scanners

Common in business offices are multifunction, or all-in-one, machines. These desktop units can combine inkjet printing, scanning (image or optical character recognition), copying (a combination of scanning and printing), fax send and receive, and a microwave oven. Hold it—delete the microwave oven from the list. But these versatile machines take advantage of the similarities among fax sending, copying and scanning, and among copying, fax receiving and printing to build a combination that costs less than the sum of the individual versions. One might think that similar combinations could be successful in the larger formats, and they can, as mentioned in the previous paragraph about the LED-based “document center.” But such realizations are priced way beyond what the typical surveyor’s needs would warrant. Back in the inkjet world, there are large-format scanners available that can hook up with a garden-variety HP Designjet to effectively function as a large-format copier. Again, cost rears its ugly head; such scanners are usually priced higher than the plotter. Add to the cost the fact that scanned images are raster only (we deal in vectors, right?) and the large-format scanner sort of fades from the surveyor’s picture. Bottom line: although scanning fits in well with smaller formats, it is not a major consideration in the larger formats in which we are interested.

It remains to be seen whether LED technology, or something even newer, can make inroads into the dominance of the inkjet plotter for the small-to-medium sized surveying or engineering firm. Even now the call might be closer than one would think. For instance, it is easy to be dazzled by the beauty of an elaborate color plot used to demonstrate an inexpensive inkjet plotter. And equally easy to forget that the vast majority of a surveyor’s output works just fine in black and white. And it would take some patient analysis to compare, over time, inkjet cartridge replacement costs to toner and drum costs along with an up-front cost differential. It wouldn’t surprise me if the nuts and bolts of such an analysis/comparison were already available from, perhaps a determined LED plotter salesman on a manufacturer’s website.

Meanwhile, the inkjet solution is so easy, so available, and works so well, that it’s difficult to argue with. I don’t have time to argue anyway; I have to go order some cartridges for my HP DesignJet plotter.

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