Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In search of the perfect plotter

About two years ago I decided to digitize my patterns.
I'd been drafting patterns for decades. But I decided I wanted to create them by computer myself. Until 2009, the wise and capable Meg Okies had been digitizing them for me. Then she got a job with a local apparel company and no longer had the time.
So upon her advice, I bought Optitex. It's the same computer pattern system used by Nike and many independent designers. The software is great and so much easier to use than Gerber and Lectra -- the systems used by other major apparel companies. We used Gerber at Art Institute.
The problem was the plotter. I asked the makers of Optitex and they sold me an Ioline Studiojet. Their pitch: It links well with Optitex and it prints four times faster than other plotters.
Ioline StudioJet -- a nightmare waste of $$
But instead the Ioline was a nightmare. The plotter cost $6000. What I received came in a box and needed assembly. Ikea has better instructions and more solid construction. The plotter felt like a Lego toy when it was set up.
And it took half a day on line working with Optitex and Ioline to get the program to communicate with the plotter. It wasn't even on the Optitex list of plotters, even though Optitex recommended it.
After two months of trying, I couldn't produce a successful plot:
-- The paper constantly jammed. Even with me standing on the back and Owen standing on the front, holding the edges, the sweep arm clipped and dragged the paper. The plotter then stalled. We had to start the plot over again -- and again without completing the plot. What a waste of paper.
-- While it printed, the line was thin and wobbly. It did not produce a clean, straight, legible line.
To meet my deadlines, I had to send my files out to others for plotting -- for a hefty fee.
After seven months of haggling and a trip to Ioline headquarters in Woodinville, Wash., I finally got a refund. But it was just $4800. And this was while the plotter was still under warranty.
My next step was to talk to Pacific Office Automation in Beaverton. They sold us a duplex unit that allows us to print color and two-sided copies.
After many conversations about the best plotter for the Optitex program, they sold me an HP510 for $3150. Compared to the $6000 for the Ioline, that seemed that a good deal. Plus it looked and felt like a plotter:
-- It was solid and well-built.
-- It produced clean, legible lines.
-- It cut the paper automatically after each plot. On the Ioline, I had to use a pair of scissors.
But it took 2 hours to get the program to talk to the plotter. And there was a 15 minute lag between sending the pattern to the plotter and the plotter starting to print. I could only plot one pattern at a time. Each plot took another 15 minutes. When I asked why, all they could say is "that's just the way it is."
It could take hours to produce eight patterns. And when we have as many as 40 students taking a class and needing a pattern -- well, you can do the math. It could take all week just printing patterns. Argh!
To the rescue came Alyson Clair, former student now colleague and owner of Clair Vintage Inspired.
She recommended Mike Isaac and A&E Imaging in Beaverton. And I have met the love of my life. No, not Mike -- although he's a great guy -- but my new HP T1200.
For $5028, it does what I had expected a plotter to do:
-- It took him about 30 minutes to make the program communicate with the plotter.
-- The plots print instantly. A typical plot takes 30 seconds to print.
-- The T1200 plots multiple copies.
-- It cuts automatically after each plot.
-- The line is strong and clear. And, wow, I can now plot in color!
-- Further, it holds two rolls of paper and senses which width it needs to use based on the width of the plot. And it has a memory. You can reprint past plots directly from the plotter without using the computer.
HP T1200 -- the new love of my life
It's like having a two-year headache, then waking up one day to find it gone. The sun is out. The birds are singing. And it's a wonderful day.

If you have your own plotter sagas to share, please send them my way!

Portland Sewing's new pattern classes start July 25 with our summer camps. We'll offer computer patternmaking again this Fall. Send me note if you want on the mail list.

Song of the day: Baby Lee by Teenage Fanclub

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