A ‘plotter’ produces vector graphics drawings. Plotters draw lines on paper using a pen. In the past, plotters were used in applications such as computer-aided design, as they were able to produce line drawings much faster and of a higher quality than contemporary conventional printers, and small desktop plotters were often used for business graphics. Although they retained a niche for producing very large drawings for many years, plotters have now largely been replaced by wide-format conventional printers.

Digitally controlled plotters evolved from earlier fully analog XY-writers used as output devices for measurement instruments and analog computers.

Pen plotters print by moving a pen or other instrument across the surface of a piece of paper. This means that plotters are vector graphics devices, rather than raster graphics as with other printers. Pen plotters can draw complex line art, including text, but do so slowly because of the mechanical movement of the pens. They are often incapable of efficiently creating a solid region of color, but can hatch an area by drawing a number of close, regular lines.

Plotters offered the fastest way to efficiently produce very large drawings or color high-resolution vector-based artwork when computer memory was very expensive and processor power was very limited, and other types of printers had limited graphic output capabilities.

Pen plotters have essentially become obsolete, and have been replaced by large-format inkjet printers and LED toner-based printers. Such devices may still understand vector languages originally designed for plotter use, because in many uses, they offer a more efficient alternative to raster data.

Electrostatic plotters used a dry toner transfer process similar to that in many photocopiers. They were faster than pen plotters and were available in large formats, suitable for reproducing engineering drawings. The quality of image was often not as good as contemporary pen plotters. Electrostatic plotters were made in both flat-bed and drum types. The electrostatic plotter uses the pixel as a drawing means, like a raster graphics display device. The plotter head consists of a large number of tiny styluses (as many as 21760) embedded in it. This head traverses over the width of the paper as it rolls past the head to make a drawing. The resolutions available may be 100 to 508 dots per inch. Electrostatic plotters are very fast with plotting speed of 6 to 32 mm/s, depending on the plotter resolution.

Cutting plotters use knives to cut into a piece of material (such as papermylar film, or vinyl film) that is lying on the flat surface area of the plotter. It is achieved because the cutting plotter is connected to a computer, which is equipped with specialized cutting design or drawing computer software programs. Those computer software programs are responsible for sending the necessary cutting dimensions or designs in order to command the cutting knife to produce the correct project cutting needs.

In recent years the use of cutting plotters (generally called die-cut machines) has become popular with home enthusiasts of paper crafts such as cardmaking and scrapbooking. Such tools allow desired card and decal shapes to be cut out very precisely, and repeated perfectly identically.

A vinyl cutter (sometimes known as a cutting plotter) is used to create posters, billboards, signs, T-shirt logos, and other weather-resistant graphical designs. The vinyl can also be applied to car bodies and windows for large, bright company advertising and to sailboat transoms. A similar process is used to cut tinted vinyl for automotive windows.

Colors are limited by the collection of vinyl on hand. To prevent creasing of the material, it is stored in rolls. Typical vinyl roll sizes are 15-inch, 24-inch, 36-inch and 48-inch widths, and have a backing material for maintaining the relative placement of all design elements.

Vinyl cutter hardware is similar to a traditional plotter except that the ink pen is replaced by a very sharp knife to outline each shape, and may have a pressure control to adjust how hard the knife presses down into the vinyl film, preventing the cuts from also penetrating the backing material. Besides losing relative placement of separate design elements, loose pieces cut out of the backing material may fall out and jam the plotter roll feed or the cutter head. After cutting, the vinyl material outside of the design is peeled away, leaving the design on the backing material which can be applied using self-adhesion, glue, lamination, or a heat press.

The vinyl knife is usually shaped like a plotter pen and is also mounted on a swivel head so that the knife edge self-rotates to face the correct direction as the plotter head moves.

Vinyl cutters are primarily used to produce single-color line art and lettering. Multiple color designs require cutting separate sheets of vinyl, then overlaying them during application; but this process quickly becomes cumbersome for more than a couple of hues.

Sign cutting plotters are in decline in applications such as general billboard design, where wide-format inkjet printers that use solvent-based inks are employed to print directly onto a variety of materials. Cutting plotters are still relied upon for precision contour-cutting of graphics produced by wide-format inkjet printers – for example to produce window or car graphics, or shaped stickers.

Large-format inkjet printers are increasingly used to print onto heat-shrink plastic sheeting, which is then applied to cover a vehicle surface and shrunk to fit using a heat gun, known as a vehicle wrap.

A static cutting table is a type of cutting plotter used a large flat vacuum table. It is used for cutting non-rigid and porous material such as textiles, foam, or leather, that may be too difficult or impossible to cut with roll-fed plotters. Static cutters can also cut much thicker and heavier materials than a typical roll-fed or sheet-fed plotter is capable of handling.

The surface of the table has a series of small pinholes drilled in it. Material is placed on the table, and a coversheet of plastic or paper is overlaid onto the material to be cut. A vacuum pump is turned on, and air pressure pushes down on the coversheet to hold the material in place. The table then operates like a normal vector plotter, using various cutting tools to cut holes or slits into the fabric. The coversheet is also cut, which may lead to a slight loss of vacuum around the edges of the coversheet, but this loss is not significant.

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