By Ed Avis
AIR Graphics in Boston may be on the leading edge of a trend that will transform reprographics: A large-scale switch from monochrome CAD printing to color CAD printing.
“It’s growing every single day,” says Mike Cully, president of AIR Graphics. “We developed a program called Perfect Plans about three years ago. We’ve gone out to our existing base of clients that we do a lot of CAD printing for and suggested that for a little bit more money we can do color for you. It took a while, but slowly people took the idea and have converted a lot of their black & white CAD printing into color.”
Color CAD printing is not new, and its rise has long been predicted. Factors that are pushing its growing acceptance include a wider range of printers than can affordably print color CAD and a growing understanding of the error-reduction value of color prints of complex BIM drawings. Factors that may still drag down its growth are continued price concerns and accompanying fear of shrinking margins.
Signs of Growth
The first quarter IRgA member survey (click here for more information on the survey) revealed that 84 percent of IRgA members do at least some color CAD printing. Of them, 56 percent report growth in that area.
“We have experienced more demand for color plan printing over the last couple years,” says Tom Taubenheim, president of A/E Graphics in Milwaukee, which uses an Océ ColorWave 650 for its color CAD output. “We see color on life safety prints and mechanical drawings in particular. Also on sequencing drawings (using color to show stages of a project's development), concept drawings that an architect will present to a client, installation plans and construction field sets.”
Cully says AIR Graphics is using a Xerox IJP 2000, which uses a Memjet single-pass inkjet engine, for color CAD output, even though Xerox has promoted the machine as a graphics printer.
“We had a client come in with 180 assessor maps and they were in color and they needed nine sets in color,” he says. “We produced it using the Memjet in probably three hours – that job would’ve taken three days otherwise.”
Reasons for Growth
The rise in color CAD printing is being driven by a number of factors, including a growing appreciation for the value of color; the increasing availability of affordable color printing options; and the fact that the new printers can easily blend color and monochrome prints in one job.
Growing appreciation of the value of color: As Taubenheim notes, a wide variety of CAD drawings are being printed in color, but life safety prints and complex drawings seem to be the most popular candidates for color printing. This plays to one of the touted reasons for printing in color – to make drawings more clear in order to improve collaboration and prevent errors.
A 2010 white paper by Lyra Research estimates that each incremental dollar spent on color CAD printing saves $4 in costs related to change orders, requests for information (RFIs), and estimation contingencies.
Tim Horn, vice president of sales for KIP, which makes the C7800, an LED printer capable of both color and B&W printing, says that an effective color CAD sales tool is to show a client a document printed in monochrome and ask him to pick out certain elements, and then to show him the same document in color and ask the him to find something. Naturally, the second search is much quicker.
Greater availability: Color CAD printing has been possible since the first color inkjet printers were introduced two decades ago, but traditional large-format color printing has been slow and expensive. What has given new life to the idea are three printers that are fast, relatively inexpensive, and can print both color and monochrome, making the creation of combined sets much easier.
- The KIP C7800 was introduced in 2012. It uses LED technology to print up to 4,200 square feet per hour monochrome and 3,500 square feet per hour in color. Horn reports that the operating cost (toner and maintenance) is about 2 cents per square monochrome and 4 cents in color. The machine’s MSRP is about $85,000.
- Memjet is a single-pass, wide-format inkjet engine (click here for more about Memjet). Three companies offer wide-format reprographics printers based on the Memjet engine: RTI offers the Vortex, Océ/Canon sells the ColorWave 900, and Xerox offers the IJP 2000. Memjets can crank out about 9,000 square feet an hour. The equipment retails for a range of $100,000 to $160,000.
- Hewlett-Packard announced in early June that it is introducing a wide-format version of its PageWide single-pass inkjet technology in mid-2015. The company did not provide specifics, but officials at the announcement promised that the machine would be faster and less expensive than comparable models. (Click here to read more about this machine.)
Ability to mix color and monochrome: Another advantage of the new equipment is the ability to print color and monochrome on the same machine, which makes mixed sets – some color and some monochrome – much easier. Rather than printing some color docs on an inkjet and then hand collating with monochrome docs printed on another machine, all of the printers mentioned above can easily print both in the same run. And having one machine that does both eliminates the need for one of the machines, and the space it consumes.
Pricing Issues Remain
Perhaps the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of color CAD is cost/price. The three printers mentioned above address this issue to varying degrees – they all make color output close enough to monochrome to make it a much smaller concern – but the perception of color as more expensive remains.
“There has to be market education on both sides,” Horn notes. “The reprographics shop employees, all the way up to the owner, think that color is expensive. And that impression extends to the clients – they also think color is expensive.”
Clearly dropping the prices would eventually increase adoption of color, just by force of economics. However, a related issue is margin erosion. Today color output is priced significantly higher than monochrome, especially compared to the painfully low price many shops charge for monochrome output. Repro shops that are accustomed to earning 10 times as much for a color print may be reluctant to drop the color price, unless they are confident they will get enough volume in return to make up for that.
Naturally, color printer vendors make the argument that lower costs mean margins can be preserved even if prices drop.
“On a complex CAD drawing with heavy use of color we can produce prints that are going to be 2 to 3 cents per square foot excluding the paper,” says Erik Norman, vice president of sales for RTI. “Add a nickel for the paper, call it 8 cents square a foot. A lot of repro shops are selling black & white at 15 cents, so they could still make money [selling color at that price]. Some are selling color at a buck a square foot, so there’s an enormous margin. Our belief is there is margin in there to push this conversion and still make more profit.”
A question in many shop owners’ minds, however, is “What will my competition do?” If the shop owner down the street gets a printer capable of printing CAD in color at a low cost, will he drop the price to near the monochrome price to grab marketshare? That price spiral occurred in many markets when plain paper copiers became affordable.
There are ways to avoid that problem. Cully notes that AIR Graphics has successfully kept strong margins, despite the price battles for monochrome printing work, by positioning itself as a top-quality provider rather than a low-price provider. “Over the years we’ve had this philosophy that we walk away from a lot of business because we can’t afford it,” he says. “We’re not the cheapest by far.”
Nevertheless, the struggle to maintain margins in color printing, while trying to grow or maintain marketshare, is an issue the industry will surely face as the cost of color printing drops.
Comparisons are frequently made to Europe, where color adoption is much higher. However, in Europe monochrome prices never suffered the same erosion as they did in the U.S., so color prices can be priced closer to monochrome and still be profitable.
“In Europe they never allowed the prices between color and black and white to separate so much – they were just 25 percent different,” notes Kevin Howes, director of wide format solutions for RTI. “Here you have such a chasm because black & white was driven so low, so the economics are such that I’m not willing to pay so much more for color when black & white is so cheap.”
Lower prices will certainly help drive adoption of color CAD, but customers will still need to be educated. Some efforts in this regard have been directed at the market as a whole, and some one-on-one.
“We need to educate the masses through marketing materials, and one at a time,” says Jamie Sirois, an HP DesignJet segment manager. On the mass marketing side, Sirois notes that she has evangelized the value of color through a presentation to the AIA, advertisements in key magazines, flyers, webinars, and connections with ReproMAX and RSA.
For an individual reprographics shop, marketing the value of color can take many forms. Cully says one effective method AIR Graphics has employed is to print one sheet from a monchrome set in color, and send it along with a note to the client when the order is delivered. “That stimulates a lot of discussion,” he says. “They say, ‘This is great!’”
Another possible way to stimulate color CAD consumption is to press for municipal regulations that require color in documents created for those municipalities. Sirois notes that in Brazil 85 percent of CAD output is in color, a statistic that is driven by the fact that the federal government in Brazil requires that all final documents for government projects be produced in color.
Conclusion: CAD Color is Here to Stay
Reprographics shops will struggle with the margin issue, but eventually the inherent advantages of color printing will push the market to color.
“The market will transition to color,” Horn says. “There will be a tipping point, just like there was in diazo and blueprints, there will be a tipping point, and we’re not far from that. Because people have color in every other place in their life, now they want it in large-format printing, too.”