Scratching the surface Part II
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SignLab from CADlink


Scratching the surface Part II

The network and vinyl cutting

By Daniel A. Keegan

Besides making the typical day to day office tasks a little bit easier by using a network, there are also those advantages on the production side of things too! Most of us make due with what we have to work with and there are times that the smallest changes can make a world of difference in our working environment. "Space" seams to be one of the biggest issues that small, medium and large companies are faced with. Do you have enough space? Probably not! Are you utilizing what you do have in the most efficient manor? Maybe! Sometimes all it takes to make a situation better is an idea, a suggestion or a comment to get the gears turning.

Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

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  • Lets take a look at the typical small sign shop scenario. The average small sign shop occupies somewhere between 1500 to 2000 square feet of office space and has 2 to 4 employees to share that space. It may consist of one large room or two to three rooms. This space is filled with desks, a production table, computers, file cabinets, shelves, a vinyl cutter, materials, etc. Sounds like a lot in a small space, but it works! One annoyance in a limited space environment is when you are trying to talk to a client on the telephone. Maybe someone else is on the other line talking to their client in close proximity. Maybe the vinyl cutter is running in the background or a saw is being used. Either way, it can get difficult to hear the person on the opposite end of the telephone.

    Solution..."divide and conquer"! No! This does not mean boot it or them out the door or even stop production. Noise in general is a huge distraction. A little rearranging of the office can be a good thing for all those involved. Take a good look at how the office is setup. Think about the ways that would make the best improvements. Get feedback from the employees on what they think about what needs to be changed or improved upon. Moving the noisy stuff away from where you intend to have a telephone conversation or conduct business in general might very well be a benefit. If it is possible to relocate the vinyl cutter and supplies into another room would be helpful. Some may not have that option though. A partition makes a pretty good sound barrier, but rather than having to spend your hard earned money for partitions, one solution may be to use some of the existing office furniture to do the job. Standup shelves, file cabinets, storage cabinets and vinyl racks can make a fairly decent sound barrier wall. Chances are that you have some roll stock banner material in the shop. It's possible to create temporary walls from the banner stock and if the plain look is not to your liking, you can spice it up with some vinyl logos or whatever you please. Whatever you do to improve the situation, don't forget about how everything is going to affect the lighting or the availability of power (wall plugs) for the equipment.

    Let's not forget about the computer system that runs the vinyl cutter. The typical vinyl cutter communicates with the computer through a serial cable. These serial cables usually have a length somewhere between 10' to 20' and as long as you can locate the computer system within that cable length you're safe. If you have decided to setup a network, as discussed in "Part 1", then the network does not care where the computer is located from the others. A network cable can be as long as 500' from the computer to the network hub without having to take into account special requirements in hardware. On average, it is not likely that you will exceed 100' in length.

    What if you do not want to move the workstation (computer) closer to the vinyl cutter? This is where it starts getting technical! First, we will discuss the vinyl cutting software. Chances are that whatever software that you use has more flexibility and capability than what you realize. Most of us will use a "basic" setup which works fine, but there are generally more "advanced" features available in that software than we have ever had the need to use or just don't know about. For years the software manufacturers have put a great deal of thought into their programs while looking into the future of the sign industry and knowing that "the network" is eventually the wave of the future for both large and small companies alike. So, chances are pretty good that your software has some type of networking feature built into it.

    There are two types of software to drive your vinyl cutter. The first being a "stand-alone" software program and the second being a "driver". Remember that a vinyl cutter is dumb, it needs instructions from software to be able to operate.

    A "stand-alone" software program gives you the ability to design within itself and control the vinyl cutters' speed, knife pressure and material size. This type of software usually has a means of networking capability either through a queue ("Q") and/or manager module. A little research into the software manuals or a phone call to tech support may be necessary to find the documentation needed. The drawback to this is that more than one copy of the software program is needed, which means spending more money. Virtually all of the stand-alone software packages use a security device known as a dongle, hardware lock or key, that only allows you to run the software if it is plugged into the computer system. Thus, the need for multiple copies of the software. The dongle is either plugged into a parallel port, which is the predominant configuration, or some software manufacturers now have a USB dongle available. What happens when you run the software is that the program sends a special code/signal to the port that the dongle is attached to and the dongle then returns a code/signal that says "I am here". Without the return code/signal, the software will not run. As you are using the software, it randomly continues to check for the dongle in the background. The parallel port version of the dongle has given some users a headache through computer lockups, printing problems and hesitations. Most manufacturers will recommend not to plug anything into the dongle such as a printer. A quick fix for this is to add a second parallel port to the computer just for printing purposes. The USB dongle seems to create less of a problem.

    How does a queue work? First you must have the software installed on the computer and the vinyl cutter connected to this computer. Then a specific directory or folder on the hard drive is designated as the "queue" and "shared" for others on the network to access. When a computer, with the same software, is ready to send a job to the vinyl cutter. That software is configured to send the job to the queue or shared folder which acts somewhat as a server. Depending upon the options available when the "queue" computer was configured, the file will sit there in hold until you manually tell it to start or it may automatically start.

    The second type of software is the "driver" version which is very similar to installing a printer driver. This is not a stand-alone software program. It utilizes your existing software, such as Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator, as the design program and rarely has a dongle to worry about. Like when printing, when you are ready to output the file, a dialog box pops up to ask the details of how to control the vinyl cutter before sending the data. Some forms of this type of software may not have all of the control features that a stand-alone program has and some of the control settings may have to be set manually at the vinyl cutter. This will depend mainly on the type of software and vinyl cutter.

    Since this type of software/program is configured similar to that of a printer, this means that it can be shared though a network. Similar to sharing a printer on a network, the driver can be installed on other computer systems and directed to the computer that is attached to the vinyl cutter. Instead of sending the file to a folder, as in the stand-alone software, it is sent to a shared port. So the data is being sent directly to the vinyl cutter.

    Sometimes we fail to use what we have. Maybe you have an old computer that is retired and sitting in storage. If it meets the requirements to run the software and a network card can be thrown in it...guess what! That old computer can now be the vinyl cutting server. It does not have to be used as a design station or anything else for that matter. Just having the ability to feed data to the vinyl cutter(s) might be enough.

    What if you have more than one vinyl cutter and not enough serial ports on the computer? Not a problem! Besides having add-on printer/parallel cards available, you can also find add-on serial cards at a local computer store for less than $100. So from one computer multiple vinyl cutters can be run.

    The ADVANTAGES:

    1. By sending data to another computer/server, the design station(s) are free to move on to the next job.
    2. Multiple design stations can send data at the same time.
    3. The vinyl server and cutters can be placed anywhere on the network.
    4. The efficiency of production can be increased.

    Chances are that you will find many other advantages from the above list that only you can determine.

    The DISADVANTAGES:

    1. May have to spend some money.
    2. May have to learn more about networking.
    3. May have to do some research.

    Keep in mind that a network, a computer, a vinyl cutter and software programs are all tools. The more that is learned to utilize those tools efficiently, the more production improves and along with that comes more profits. Don't be afraid to experiment or enlist the help of others, because the use of networks at home and in business are growing rapidly and I believe that you will find the advantages far out weigh the disavantages.

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