Scott's Column
Digital Printing Goes to Production

September 1, 2002
By Scott Lewis

I am a little short on time and subject matter this month. I have been consumed with getting the digital printing system running smoothly in production.

Digital Printing Goes Into Production

As I write this paragraph it is August 8th and we have run a full day of production digital printing without any errors. Keep in mind that we only have one of many products running on the new Digital system. That provides about 1-2 hours of production from the Xerox 4635 monster printer.

We missed the original July 1 deadline by over a month. However, let's take a quick recap and see why we missed an unreasonable deadline. First, the controller for the printer didn't arrive until the second half of June, about two weeks before our deadline. It took a few days to get the controller/printer to print anything... 6 business days before our deadline. That would leave only six days to do any kind of printing and testing. Even with our unreasonable 90 day plan (this was far to large a project to really do in 90 days) we had three weeks set aside just for testing to make sure we caught everything.

Next, our Oracle server crashed. This was the same week the controller/printer started printing. So we saw a couple of printouts then I spent two weeks doing Oracle DBA tasks as we completely reconfigured our clustered server with its RAID drive array setup. This put us about two weeks behind schedule when I was able to start working on the digital printing project again.

Next, Xerox loaded the latest version of the software on the controller and we were not printing for another week. That put us to the end of July. We were finally printing and should have been in production on August 1st.

It turns out there was a problem with our stock. The base stock we print on was flawed. This escaped detection until our QA people were examining output before shipping to customers. We had to switch to another stock... while I was taking some much needed vacation time.

Finally I had some problems with translating special characters that took a couple of days to straighten out. This was discovered when we were trying to fix a barcode printing issue. The issue was minor, and we initially were going to let it wait to be fixed until after we were in production. However, as soon as I tried to fix it it turned out to be a problem with all special characters... some of which could be in our data and needed immediate attention. We held the orders that were being printed incorrectly due to special characters until I had all the cases worked out.

And that put us to August 8th. I am sure I would have been able to handle the special characters in time had I been printing for three weeks prior to our original July 1st deadline.

All the above was written in early August. Now for the last of the update as it is very near the end of August.

I have completed a number of enhancements to the system. I am able to reprint single pages from massive runs... something our sister company is still unable to do. Our sister company sold us the Xerox printer. (I am being my usual vague here so I don't let you know who I work for or what I really do... just in case.) Trust me when I say it is not easy to "extract" a single page to reprint in a 245 page job, just because a sheet wrinkled in the printer. We are doing it. This is a huge improvement over having to setup a printing press to print one sheet, so I have made a major enhancement to our system overall.

Performance is much improved. In the old system we had a value called Time Per Run (TPR). This was the amount of time it took the old printing program to gather all the data from the Oracle database and finish building all the files necessary for the Unix server to generate our Postscript output. We typically get TPRs around 30 - 70 seconds. About 40-45 second on average.

My TPRs are in the 8-14 second range with 11-12 being about average. I tried as I could to keep teh TPRs to single digit numbers, but we were just writing too much data across the network, and opening a file with Datalogic's API that took about 1-2 seconds. It is now rare that I get a single digit TPR. But on average I am about 4 or 5 time faster than the old system. Very nice, if I do say so myself.

I even wrote a program to allow us to switch our products into and out of the digital printing. This has come in very handy as we have been dealing with stock issues that have required us to run products on the old system on the old stock for short periods of time. My program makes it very easy to move between printing press and digital printing.

I have a few more enhancements that I want to add. Although I have a rudimentary preview setup, it requires me to do a lot of manual stuff with the files on the server. Easy for a programmer, not so easy for the people that will run the machine, or the people that will maintain the templates. I need to fully automate the preview process... to even know when the job on the server has completed generating the Postscript output.


That about covers it this month. I couldn't think of anything else to talk about. I did get a 5% raise after finishing the big project. Now I need to figure out how to save up for the transmission in my 67 Camaro.

I am working on getting my wife to let me upgrade my computer. She offered to let me get a whole new computer if I waited until March (when we have income tax refund money). I may wait until then. That would mean that my current computer will probably go to my sons. I had planned on using spare parts from my old computer to build a server. If I have to give the old computer to the kids, I will try to get just enough extra parts for the new computer to build a stripped server. I will look into how much all that will cost. Then I need to see what kind of budget I will have for all this computing stuff. Now that's fun.

Until next time...