What is a plotter?

What is a plotter?

A plotter is a machine that makes drawings with vector graphics. Plotters either use a pen to make lines on paper or a knife to cut things like vinyl or leather. In the second case, these machines are sometimes called cutting plotters.

In the past, plotters were used for things like the computer-aided design because they could make line drawings much faster and better than regular printers do today. Business graphics were often made on smaller plotters that fit on a desk. In the early 1980s, printers that could print graphics took away some of the market, and when laser printers came out in the mid-1980s, most roles for plotters went away.

Plotters had a niche for making very large drawings for a long time, but now wide-format printers have mostly taken their place. Cutting plotters are still used in a few different fields.

XY-writers, which were used as output devices for measuring tools and analog computers, gave way to plotters that are controlled digitally.

Pen plotters print by moving a pen or other tool across the surface of a piece of paper. This means that plotters are used for vector graphics, not raster graphics like other printers. Pen plotters can draw complex line art, like text, but it takes a long time because the pens move slowly. Most of the time, they can't make a solid area of color but can hatch an area by drawing a number of close, regular lines.

Plotters were the best way to quickly make large drawings or high-resolution, color vector art when computer memory was expensive, processor power was low, and other types of printers couldn't do much with graphics.

Pen plotters are pretty much no longer used. Large-format inkjet printers and printers that use LED toner have taken their place. Some of these devices may still be able to understand vector languages originally made for plotters. This is because vector languages are often more efficient than raster data in many situations.


What Type of Document Would Typically Be Printed on a Plotter?

Any file can be printed on a plotter. Vector graphics, on the other hand, are the best kind of document that a plotter can print. Plotters are used in technical fields like engineering, construction, and making maps because of the high resolution they can make. When these industries print out CAD drawings, architectural drawings, and other kinds of drawings, they have to be very precise. Most of the time, smaller, traditional printers can't make drawings with the same level of detail and clarity.

A plotter can be used to make prints for clothes. But the main use is to print large billboards and other types of advertising boards. There are many other printers who focus on printing on clothes or on different kinds of fabrics. If your business is all about printing on fabric, you might want to think about something other than a plotter printer.


XY plotter

An X–Y plotter is a plotter that moves along two axes ("X" and "Y") to draw vector graphics that are continuous. The term was used to differentiate it from standard plotters, which only let you control the "y" axis. The "x" axis was fed continuously to show how some variables changed over time. Plotters are different from Inkjet and Laser printers because they draw a continuous line, like a pen on paper. Inkjet and laser printers use a very fine matrix of dots to make images, so even though a line may look continuous to the naked eye, it is actually made up of separate points.


Electrostatic plotters

Electrostatic plotters used a method for transferring dry toner that was similar to how many photocopiers did it. They worked faster than pen plotters and came in large sizes, making them good for making copies of engineering drawings. Most of the time, the quality of the image was not as good as it is with pen plotters today. There were both flatbed and drum types of electrostatic plotters. The pixel is how the electrostatic plotter draws, just like a raster graphics display. The plotter head is made up of as many as 21760 tiny styluses that are stuck in it. To make a drawing, this head moves across the width of the paper as it rolls past it. There may be between 100 and 508 dots per inch of resolution. Depending on the resolution of the plotter, an electrostatic plotter can draw at a speed of between 6 and 32 mm/s. 


Cutting plotters

Cutting plotters use knives to cut through a piece of paper, Mylar film, or vinyl film that is lying flat on the plotter's flat surface. The cutting plotter is connected to a computer, which has software programs for cutting designs or drawing. These computer programs are in charge of sending the necessary cutting dimensions or designs to the cutting knife so that it can make the right cuts for the project.

Die-cut machines, which are cutting plotters, have become popular with people who like to do paper crafts at home, like making cards and scrapbooks. With these tools, card and decal shapes can be cut out very precisely and over and over again.


History of plotter

One of the earliest plotters was Konrad Zuse's computer-controlled and transistorized Graphomat Z64 from 1958, which was also shown at the Hannover Messe in 1961.

Early pen plotters, like the Calcomp 565 from 1959, worked by placing the paper over a roller that moved the paper back and forth for X motion, while the pen moved back and forth on a track for Y motion. The paper came on a roll, and the edges were perforated so that sprockets on the rollers could hook onto them.

In another method, such as Computer vision’s Interact I, ball-point pens was attached to drafting pantographs, and stepper motors controlled by the computer moved the machines. This was a bit slow to move and needed as much floor space as the size of the paper, but it could also be used as a digitizer. Later, an electrically controlled clamp was added to hold the pens. This made it possible to switch them out and make output in different colors.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hewlett Packard and Tektronix made small flatbed plotters that fit on a desk. The pens were attached to a moving bar, which moved up and down the length of the bar to represent the y-axis and back and forth across the plotting table to represent the x-axis. Because the bar was so heavy, these plotters moved pretty slowly.

In the 1980s, the small and light HP 7470 came out with a "grit wheel" mechanism. This was different from the Calcomp plotters from 20 years earlier, which had perforations along the edges. The grit wheels on opposite sides of the sheet press against flexible polyurethane-coated rollers to make tiny dents in the sheet. As the sheet is moved back and forth, the grit wheels keep the sheet in the right place because the grit particles fall into the indentations made earlier, which is similar to how the teeth of two gears mesh. The pen is on a carriage that moves back and forth between the grit wheels along a line that represents the orthogonal axis. These smaller "home-use" plotters became popular for business graphics on desktops and in engineering labs, but because of their slow speed, they couldn't be used for general printing. For that, a regular printer would have to be used instead. Hewlett-MultiPlot Packard's for the HP 2647 added the "word chart" category, in which the plotter was used to draw big letters on a transparency. This was the first version of the PowerPoint chart we use today. Pen plotters are almost obsolete now that high-resolution inkjet and laser printers are widely available, memory is cheap, and computers are fast enough to rasterize color images. But the grit wheel is still used in large format engineering plotters that use inkjets.

The HP 7475 six-pen plotter was also used in the Create-A-Card kiosks that were for a while in the greeting card section of supermarkets.

Plotters are mostly used in technical drawing and CAD programs because they can work on very large pieces of paper while keeping a high resolution. By replacing the pen with a cutter, plotters can be used for something else. In this form, plotters can be found in many clothing and sign shops.

To change a line's color or width, the plotter had to switch pens. On small plotters, this could be done by hand, but most plotters had a magazine with four or more pens that could be mounted automatically.

Plotters have a niche use of making tactile images on special thermal cell paper for people who can't see.

In contrast to other types of printers, the speed of a pen plotter is not measured by how fast it prints pages, but by how fast the pen moves. The type of pen used is the main thing that limits the speed of a pen plotter, so the choice of pen is a key factor in how fast a pen plotter can work. In fact, most modern pen plotters let you control the speed of slewing based on the type of pen you are using.

There are many different kinds of plotter pens, and some of them aren't made anymore. People often use technical pen tips, and many of them can be fixed with parts and tools for manual drafting pens. In the early days of HP flatbed and grit wheel plotters, small disposable pens with a fiber tip or plastic nib were used.

One type of plotter pen has a sharpened cone-shaped tip on the end of a cellulose fiber rod that is put through a circular foam tube filled with ink. Capillary wicking pulls the ink from the foam, down the rod, and onto the paper as the pen moves across the surface of the paper. As the ink in the foam runs out, the ink starts to move more slowly to the tip, making lines that aren't as dark. If you slow down the plotting speed, a worn-out pen's lines will stay dark, but they will keep getting lighter until the foam is gone. Also, as the fiber tip pen is used, the tip gradually wears down on the plotting medium, producing a progressively wider, smudged line.

There are plotter pens with clear plastic ink reservoirs that can be refilled. They don't fade or wear down as fiber pens do, but they are usually more expensive and hard to find. Also, most pen plotters can be made to work with regular ball-point pens if they are changed.


Vinyl cutter

A vinyl cutter, which is sometimes called a "cutting plotter," is used to make posters, billboards, signs, logos for T-shirts, and other designs that can stand up to the weather. The vinyl can also be put on sailboat transoms, car bodies, and windows to make big, bright company ads. Tinted vinyl for car windows is cut in a way that is similar.

The colors are limited by the vinyl that is already in stock. The material is kept in rolls to keep it from getting creased. Vinyl rolls usually come in widths of 15 inches, 24 inches, 36 inches, and 48 inches, and they have a material on the back that keeps all the design elements in their right places.

Vinyl cutter hardware is similar to a traditional plotter, but instead of an ink pen, it uses a very sharp knife to outline each shape. There may be a pressure control to change how hard the knife presses into the vinyl film, which keeps the cuts from going all the way through to the backing. Aside from losing the order of the different parts of the design, loose pieces of the backing material that were cut out may fall out and jam the plotter roll feed or the cutter head. After cutting, the vinyl around the design is peeled away. This leaves the design on the backing material, which can be stuck on with glue, a heat press, or by itself.

The vinyl knife is usually shaped like a plotter pen and has a swivel head. This way, as the plotter’s head moves, the knife edge automatically turns to face the right way.

Most of the time, vinyl cutters are used to make single-color line art and lettering. For designs with more than two colors, you have to cut out separate pieces of vinyl and put them on top of each other. This is easy to do with just a couple of colors, but it gets hard to do with more than that.

Wide-format inkjet printers that use solvent-based inks to print directly onto a variety of materials are replacing sign-cutting plotters in applications like general billboard design. Cutting plotters are still used to make precise cuts around the edges of graphics made by wide-format inkjet printers. For example, they are used to make stickers or graphics for windows or cars.

Large-format inkjet printers are being used more and more to print on heat-shrink plastic sheets. These sheets are then used to cover the surface of a vehicle and are shrunk to fit with a heat gun. This process is called a vehicle wrap.


Pros and cons of using plotters

Some of the benefits of using a plotter are as follows:

  • Specialized applications - Plotters can make high-resolution line drawings, images, graphics, and text for specific uses, like printing on large pieces of paper on a flatbed printer.
  • Variety of material – Plotters can also print on cardboard, fabrics, plastic, plywood, and aluminum, in addition to paper.
  • Repetition – They can do the same pattern over and over again, and the quality of the image won't change.
  • Quality – Traditional printers can make images that are similar to those made by plotter printers, but they usually don't have as much clarity, especially when it comes to line drawings with many lines.

Some problems that come with plotters are as follows:

  • Size – Most of the time, they are bigger than regular printers.
  • Cost - Most of the time, they cost more than regular printers.
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