Monday, March 26, 2007

Man and Machine

It sits in the corner of the office, a hulking presence that will undoubtedly be, at one point, your undoing.

No matter that our technology has transformed out practice of architecture, there is one place where technology has seemingly cast a blind eye. And, despite our growing savvy in the use of all things computer related, we are ultimately stopped dead in our tracks by any failure of this single mechanical beast. You know which one I’m talking about.

Funny how we can develop programs to model the exact reflection of light rays on complex surfaces or animate the motion of leaves, and yet be stumped by the loading of a roll of paper into a plotter. Yes, while we can create with ease, producing it still is fraught with pitfalls.

So many things confound me with plotters. Questions like, if we can design a plotter to tell us that the paper is misaligned, why haven’t we gotten to around to making it able to align itself? And loading paper? Could it be any more convoluted? Pull down a lever, put up a hood, insert the edge one way but not another, leave a lot of slack only to tighten the roll later on. It’s like an intricate dance where your partner, while looking for you to take the lead, often refuses to follow suit. And you know what happens after one awkward dance. You become hesitant to step back out on the floor.

I know I am not the only one. All of my co-workers look upon the plotters with hesitancy, even fear. The first time I asked how to change the plotter? I went to four different people before I could find someone had changed it themselves. I’ve only been there a couple of months, but I’ve already replaced the paper in both plotters more times than half the office.

It seems odd to overlook such a crucial aspect of our technological march forward. After all, as I mentioned before, our projects are only as good as our tools of communication. If others can’t understand what you’ve imagined, either because they cannot understand your drawings, or, as the case sometimes is, you can’t get the drawings out onto paper in the first place, then what is the point of all those hours spend waiting for the rendering timer to show complete?

There is, of course, projecting the images somewhere. But powerpoint slideshows can be the death of any salesman, so you take a gamble in pursuing that route. In school, especially at my masters programme, you’d be scoffed at immediately if powerpoint was your mode of communication. Too generic, too business, too corporate. If you were a true “creative type”, then flash would be your answer. Many an AA project presentation will attest to the abilities of selling through an interactive onscreen presentation. But, ultimately, in the office place, we still work with lines on paper, though these days it is shot out through a process of hot ink and lasers.

Somehow, it’s the last thing we think about. The time it takes to print. The possible problems we’ll inevitably have. Paper running out. Ink running out. Color matching not matching. Paper Jams. Large files unable to be processed. Drying time. These are all little things with very big consequences. Like failing to make it to your presentation on time, which not one, not two, but while I was working at my alma mater, dozens of students would flirt with doing come final reviews. Note to you all out there. Because the plotter is located at school, on site and not off at some Kinko’s somewhere, does not mean that you can plot twenty minutes before you plan to present.

An office environment seems to feed the temptation to push the limits of time. Maybe because, unlike school, where the cost for additional prints comes from your own pocket, you’ll be charging the client, for at least some portion of the printing costs. And, in an office, if you have a deadline, your project gets priority. In school, everyone’s deadlines are priorities.

So you get complacent. After all, what’s one more print? One more change? It just means that, where you thought you were leaving the office at six, you will now find yourself leaving at ten. It happens. All the time. I shutter to think the number of trees that have given themselves up in the name of getting the perfect aqua blue. At least we recycle.

And in the end, when you final get approval, get the all clear for that final print, well, that’s when the real countdown begins, when you really notice how long it takes to get everything out. So you stand in front of the plotter, watch the inkheads spread their glorious mixes, line by line, and wait for the plot to finish. Just so you can cancel the extra 40 seconds of drying time, and catch the print before it falls down into the drawing tray, where it would most likely get creased in the process. Because, somehow, 40 seconds makes such a difference to the 4 hours of overtime you’ve just put in.

So, if someone at HP, or some other wonderful company, could come up with a solution to any of my plotting problems, I would be forever grateful. Well, except that, in sorting out my current problems, you’d probably give my boss new reasons to think they can push a deadline. I guess, either way, I’ll be staying late.


Blogger flanthrower said...

Oh I venture to guess that a small forest was cleared on my behalf in just my law school career alone. Your post makes me think of all the other ways that we advance technologically but not in some ways that seem very pressing or obvious? E.g. The fact that we have THREE erectile dysfunction pills on the market and we sitll don't have reliable malaria medicine or a cure for AIDS?

Well, I guess that's largely profit driven, but you get the idea...

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HP plotters are popular because they are inexpensive and you can purchase them on the internet and do the install yourself. Of course, then you probably won't have a service contract or anyone to help you if you can't even figure out how to set the thing up properly. And if the unit that arrives doesn't work properly? You'll be probably be wrangling for months to get the problem sorted out with the company that sold you the plotter.

Both Kip and Oce make some great machines well-suited to architects' and engineers' needs. Your firm should be able to get them through a local distributor, probably the reprographics company that does all of your big copying jobs. You will probably find these can solve some of the problems you have - but you will still have to load your own paper. Even that should be easier, though.

I probably sound like a salesman, but I have had the odd career path to start out working as an intern architect and now have worked at a reprographics company for three years. From this side, you cannot imagine how frustrating it is that your points about architects and engineers not planning for print times are almost universally true. It seems like 95% of the work that comes through our door is a rush job with turnaround times that are almost physically impossible by the time you calculate how long it takes to get the documents in the door, scan them (or convert digital files from the ubiquitous PDF format to an actual printable TIF file), print, bind, roll and then deliver them back to the architect or their list of recipients.

Another widespread change in the system is that we do a lot more digital work than ever before. Clients frequently don't even own a plotter, or at best use it for check plots and the final drawings which, at least in this state, still have to have a wet seal and not a digitized seal. The rest of their stuff is emailed or uploaded via FTP sites (which all takes time for transfer, and of course this is not planned for either), then the files have to be downloaded on our end, converted, collated, and then printed for delivery. Most of our customers simply have no idea of how long this process takes. What's more, we have to bend space and time because they are often still working up to the last minute - often sending us jobs a mere couple of hours before everything has to be returned to their office for a client meeting, or delivered to the city planning department before they close at 5:00 (which is really 4:45 - it's a government office) on the submittal date. It's maddening, and no one ever seems to learn.

It goes back to your other posts about deadlines. Somehow, it almost seems a requirement that achitects, who are supposed to be the master planners, cannot plan their own work loads and schedules. Everyone looks to when their part is done, without actually figuring in all the other things that still have to be done before the job can go out - plotting, coordinating drawings with consultants and engineers, having copies made, delivery times to clients or plan rooms. Is there really any solution out there?

I don't see it changing anytime soon. Our society is increasingly moving at a breakneck pace; principals want to meet unreasonable client deadline requests and perpetuate the belief that they are actually doable; and architects are constantly working right up until the pin-up time, just as if the little "charrette" cart was being pushed around the studio, ever nearing their desk as they frantically draft just one more line. It would take some major systemic changes before the current way of doing things changes significantly - despite the desparate need for it to change in order to allow us better, more thoroughly completed project work.

12:07 PM  
Blogger the silent observer said...


Nice to know that I am not alone in my observation. Alas, I too, don't see change coming anytime soon. And so, for now, as an underling, I must meet the impossible deadlines as well. Good luck to you.

9:03 AM  

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