KBR Graphics in mid-2016 moved its primary operations into a new modern facility in Laval, Quebec. The move came as the company was celebrating its 40th year in business, as one of Canada’s most respected and important technology distributors.
Jay Mandarino in March 2017 began his largest business venture in what has been a storied printing career that began as CJ Graphic Images – a brokerage proprietorship – 38 years ago in the basement of his parents’ home. Since opening his first press location in downtown Toronto in 1985, Mandarino has been on a steady path of growth toward becoming one Canada’s largest independent commercial printing operations.
Growing through acquisition, as well as by organic sales and technological investments, Mandarino took a major step toward his goal in 2014 with the purchase of a 65,000-square-foot plant, adding to two facilities controlled by what had been renamed as The CJ Group of Companies (CJG) to reflect holding more than 30 businesses. In late 2014, Mandarino pegged CJG as a $30 million operation and described his ambition to reach toward $100 million in annual revenue. Over the past 15 years alone, CJG has made more than 15 acquisitions, including the recent additions of Prime Imaging, Artwords and TPS (2014); publishing entity SBC Media (2015); and Clixx, one of the top mailing facilities in Canada, Artistic Die Cutting and Annan & Sons (2017).
In January of last year, Mandarino concluded the sale of three CJG buildings, accounting for approximately 145,000 square feet of space on 4.5 acres of land in Etobicoke, Ontario. That real-estate deal was reinvested in CJG’s new 240,000-square-foot plant, situated on eight acres, just 10 minutes away in Mississauga. “We had the opportunity to sell our three other buildings for very good money… I could of put the money in the bank and retired, but what am I going to do,” says Mandarino, President and CEO of CJG, who recently turned 57. “Two hundred and twenty people work here now and they have families.”
The move to CJG’s new Hensall Circle location began in March 2017 and ultimately involved more than 200 tractor-trailer loads, not to mention regular runs by the company’s two 5-tonne trucks and two vans. By fall 2017, CJG began operating out of the facility, today easily one of Canada’s largest commercial printing plants. “We are about $45 million right now,” says Mandarino, reaffirming his commitment to continue growing. “And now we have the capacity and the facility to do it.”
Mandarino estimates the capital investment in CJG’s new facility to be more than $30 million. The cost of the building alone was just under $16 million and renovations came in at around $5.5 million, with additional moving costs of approximation $1 million. CJG also made major equipment investments that conservatively reach above $8 million.
Mandarino estimates around a third of CJG’s revenue is generated through 41-inch sheetfed offset presses, which is a relatively low number compared to other lithography-rooted shops – hinting at the diversity of CJG’s current operations. “People are looking for one-stop shopping,” he says, pointing to CJG’s range of services like screen printing, large- and small-format digital, traditional foil stamping and embossing, digital foil stamping and embossing, traditional and laser die cutting, fulfillment and distribution, and mailing and marketing services.
The company is currently in the process of setting up a car-wrap department within a couple of bays at the building’s front-right corner. “We also have an Innovation Division now dealing with holographic displays and virtual readers. We have some very creative people working here and we are very blessed.”
CJG’s lithography was boosted in November 2017 with a new 6-colour Heidelberg XL 106, adding to its existing line-up of two 6-colour XL straight presses and two 20-inch offset machines. “The XLs just produce so much. One XL is like two old CDs,” says Mandarino. CJG’s new XL 106 is equipped with an Anilox AQ coater and Inpress Control, which Mandarino is directing toward Heidelberg’s new Push To Stop operating philosophy. Push To Stop allows a press to initiate a series of print jobs that are properly queued by Prinect software, which also relies on the new Press Center XL 2 console, Intellistart 2 and assistance systems like Intelliguide.
Depending on ink lay-down and imposition, print jobs can run consistently without operator intervention. The technology platform can leverage colour management tools to reach specified Delta levels and tagging systems in the press delivery. “The new technology is unbelievable, Push To Stop – the ability to set inline spectrophotometry and recalibrate sheets, how it is done automatically at 18,000 sheets an hour. The press operators love it,” says Mandarino. “It is the way the industry is going and we do a lot of similar jobs in different industries that we specialize in, so it is not a problem.” CJG also invested in Inpress and Push To Stop controls to retrofit its second XL press, while the third XL is being equipped with UV.
As its new offset press was being added at Hensall Circle, CJG was also installing two fully loaded Xerox iGen 5 presses, as well as an Epic CTi-635 inline coating system equipped with a C.P. Bourg BSFE-x sheet feeder. The new Epic technology allows for spot and overall aqueous and UV coatings, while the iGen 5s can produce matte toner, run 24-point stock, and achieve up to 93 percent of reproducible PMS colours – with orange, blue, green, white dry and clear dry.
“They are very unique machines. They have the newest technology in the sense that they have opaque white, which is amazing especially if you are going to print on black stocks,” says Mandarino. “We have a lot of clients who are still very, very fussy and they want that specific PMS colour and we are so close now. We actually changed over about 20 percent of our clients who were doing traditional litho stationery to digital.” In February, CJG finished upgrading one of its Xerox presses to run gold and silver metallic.
The facility also holds six large-format machines: Fujifilm’s Uvistar, Acuity HS, and Onset X3, as well as investments in Agfa’s Jeti Tauro H2500 LED with ABF, Jeti Ceres RTR3200 LED, and Jeti Titan HS with FTR. In April, CJG was scheduled to add a seventh machine in Agfa’s 10-foot Tauro 3300 with full automation.
The Tauro H2500 is a 100-inch wide hybrid LED UV printer with an integrated roll-to-roll system. It is designed to reach speeds of up to 2,960 square feet per hour and can feed a range of media including corrugated board. The Tauro’s automated board feeder (ABF) can process up to four boards automatically and its white ink capability expands applications to backlit POP or for using white as a spot colour. CJG’s new Jeti Ceres RTR3200 LED, aimed at higher-quality work, reaches speeds of up to 2,002 square feet per hour. The 126-inch-wide, roll-to-roll system provides six colours plus white to enhance the opacity and boost colour contrast.
The Hensall Circle facility also holds one of North America’s most advanced digital finishing departments after CJG in 2015 installed North America’s first Scodix Ultra Pro with Scodix Foil. The system is designed for producing cost-effective foil with run lengths from one up to 10,000, enhancing a range of products like packaging, brochures, business cards, invitations and book covers.
This Scodix purchase came a week after CJG announced its Canada-first acquisition of a Highcon Euclid II+ system, described as the first fully digital cutting and creasing machine for converting paper, labels, folding carton and micro-flute. It incorporates Highcon’s patented Digital Adhesive Rule Technology (DART) and polymers to produce creases, as well as high-speed laser optics to cut a range of substrates.
“It takes a while to build up the market for it, there is no question, but I can tell you we have two major accounts – one out of the U.S. and one out of the UK – because of those machines,” says Mandarino. “We are looking at upgrading to the [Highcon] Beam now, which does, I think, 5,000 sheets an hour – we are doing 1,200 to 1,500 now – to get into some bigger packaging runs.”
The Scodix and Highcon sit across from each other in a dedicated room filled with unique print samples, which are in fact a common sight throughout the entire Hensall Circle facility. “We are very sales driven and we have always invested in technology and it has made us successful,” says Mandarino. “You have to find new stuff all of the time.”
What stands out about the Indigo 20000 in terms of capabilities for digital packaging?
RO: I think what stands out about the Indigo technology, in general, is the one-shot process on the packaging presses, and the same on the label presses. That means all of the colours are built up on rotation on a blanket and transferred in one pass. With most print processes you have multiple passes for the colours and the material may actually be contorting or changing because of temperature or whatever. We transfer all of those colours in one pass.
Why is Pack Ready important for HP’s packaging interests?
RO: We found a way to combine HP ElectroInk and laminate it to a piece of material, without an adhesive, and achieve a really high bond. And by the way, achieve it instantaneously. We call it zero cure time.
What typically happens in flexible packaging whether you are laminating a water-based or solvent-free or solvent-based sheet, you have a wait time that can be anywhere from a day, a day and a half, all the way up to five days.
How does the 20000 address spot colours and how important is ElectroInk White?
RO: With the Indigo 20000, we had two stations of white ink feeding into one ink tank because there is so much white ink being utilized… As far as ElectroInk and spot colours, it is really no different than any other Indigo digital press model. Most customers will often run orange and or violet on say 20 or 15 percent of their jobs. The great majority runs are on a four-colour process and when there is a need for a specific spot colour we have the ability to mix that and so we can achieve 97 percent of the Pantone book…
The system also has a spectrophotometer – as do all of the Series 4 presses, 12000, 20000 and Indigo 30000 – and we leverage that to make sure we maintain consistency. Most of the time when we have flexo printers come in [to HP’s Atlanta facility] they are blown away by the capabilities… There are just things we can do with photographic images, highlights, drop shadows and things of that nature that are very hard for them to do in flexography.
Can the 20000 leverage HP’s Enhanced Productivity Mode, with CMY printing?
RO: I worked with the narrow-web series at the very first beta site of Enhanced Productivity Mode, going back to an older generation of presses, and 20000 is no different. From my point of view, it is probably a capability that our customers could leverage even more… When you compare three and four colours, it is a 33 percent productivity increase. It is significant and all Series 4 presses have it.
What impact has the Indigo 30000 press already made on the folding-carton sector?
RO: I did the beta-launch agreements on the 30000, so I am familiar with it… We seem to do really well in a couple of areas: health and beauty, and pharmaceutical, so a lot of cartons where you can get at least a 4-up on a B2 press sheet.
And we have also seen a lot of adoption in the speciality-card business, loyalty cards, financial cards. We have a number of customers who have added second units, but in the beginning our customers had to learn a lot. In many cases, these were brand-new customers who were getting their first digital press.
What growth does HP see in the packaging sector when it comes to digital printing?
RO: We typically look at print volumes and I can tell you they are growing rapidly… When you look at the statements that Alon Bar-Shany [VP and GM of HP Indigo] has made, our vision is that label and packaging will become about half of our business and we are on this quest to become a multiple-billion-dollar business unit.
Our investment is deep… and you will see us continue to expand. For instance, I never thought we would be at a point where we could do retortable packaging, which we have been able to achieve now on the Indigo 20000 with specialty coating. It is very demanding flexible packaging.
Our customers see this investment from HP. Our expectations around packaging are high and that goes for all of the packaging markets – corrugated, flexible packaging, folding carton.
Manroland Sheetfed, a subsidiary of privately owned UK engineering group Langley Holdings plc., has been a leader in the paperboard sector of printing for decades. With the growing focus on carton work, because of its stability relative to some eroding commercial markets, Springett spoke with PrintAction about the direction of this sector and its domination by sheetfed offset technologies.
How can commercial printers enter carton?
SS: I would suggest using caution is prudent, especially since the landscape is evolving through consolidation in the packaging segment. I can only speak to how I have seen this transition occur in the past and, at best, the migration to package printing from commercial is a gradual event. A commercial printer must consider their existing niche served and what aptitude and skill-sets they already have that can be put to good work in making a leap, or dipping their proverbial toes in the packaging arena.
Major and medium players in packaging are highly skilled and tooled. If a commercial printer is attempting to compete in the volume business, they need to retool their factory, areas like sheeting, structural engineering, die cutting, gluing, and die making is typically more foreign to commercial applications, at least by scale.
Are commercial printers focused on packaging growth?
SS: I believe a stronger concept in the years prior; the trend was always about complimenting, be it packaging or any number of additional services. We see commercial printers furthering their niches, not often in packaging. I have been amazed at how talented many of the independent commercial operations have been in entrenching themselves with their customers. The evolution of many commercial printers into marketing firms has been a more successful trend in my opinion.
The technology advances in IT, the ideology of print being a compliment versus the single primary export of a commercial printer, is intriguing. Many have evolved into a more savvy business model with multiple revenue streams. Couple this with the marriage of sheetfed offset and digital. Whereas digital has crept into what was considered traditional offset, the newest sheetfed offset technology is creeping into what was always regarded as short-run digital.
What is the complexion of today’s short-run carton market?
SS: The ideology of volume versus short run is almost dismissive in regards to larger packaging firms. Many of them, whether global, national or an independent viscerally defend the market space regardless of run specifics. The larger firms equip themselves to handle the shorter runs but often struggle with big business problems where some of the smaller independents shine in this arena. This is the space a smaller independent packaging house or a commercial printer can capitalize on.
What type of automation do you need to focus on short-run carton?
SS: It is less about the individual process of the equipment and more about the overall operation of a system. In today’s terms, it’s about transparent productivity. The ability to measure the performance of the asset, being a sheetfed offset press and determine how to optimize the performance... the ability to provide the information is less important compared to being able to disseminate it and help the printer improve productivity and fully utilize the asset.
What market activities are driving folding-carton work?
SS: Predominately food products for the folding-carton market, with increased demand for convenience-oriented products for the volume side of the business. Increased demand for bespoke-oriented products such as cosmetics and specialty products has caused the B1 format to see an increase in sales.
Are packaging press sales growing or is it more a decline in commercial press sales?
SS: When new offset high-performance equipment becomes operational, optioned and equipped to the highest automation level, I believe we will see a little more offset in the digital sphere. At the same token, new offset and new digital can do the work of two or three of its predecessors. By sheer economics, press sales will decline regardless; I favour the opinion that our market is far more variable in nature.
How far off is inkjet from making an impact on short-run carton?
SS: Speed is the Achilles’ heel of inkjet. In order for inkjet to gain a more mainstream focus, it will need to increase the sheets per hour and continue to economize the ink costs.
Mitchell Leiman joined Cimpress more than a year ago to lead the company’s global development. PrintAction spoke with Leiman, Vice President of Strategy and Corporate Development, to better understand Cimpress’ new operating structure and its powerful printing platform.
Why did Cimpress decentralize and how did this affect last year’s operating loss?
ML: The decentralization and reorganization was a really a no-brainer for us. We saw the benefits of these changes to allow us to be even more entrepreneurial, innovative, customer-focused, agile. Even though in the short term it impacted financial results we felt it was so much better for the company and our customers in the long run.
Another big factor that drove the reported loss, a bigger factor than restructuring, was our investments. We had historically high levels of investment in the business and that’s been a multi-year trend, because of the huge opportunities we see in the markets where we play... That was a big part of what led to the reported loss in our fiscal year 17.
Why was the acquisition of National Pen an important investment?
ML: National Pen [acquired for approximately US$218 million in December 2016] relates to our desire to accelerate efforts in promotional products. For many years, we have started selling more and more promotional products and it is a great opportunity for the mass customization concept to really take hold in how we approach the business, both from selling and manufacturing... But most of our investments are organic, essentially investing in the current operations.
Where has Cimpress made most of its organic investments recently?
ML: We continue to of ourselves as a technology company, whether it is on the frontend of our business, the selling, the Website, the experience of the customer in designing on the Website, whether it is in Vistaprint or some of our other brands… a lot of technology is facilitating the manufacturing of our goods. Windsor is really the crown jewel of our manufacturing and there is a tremendous amount of technology investment related to production and more recently software that drives our business... to specific machinery and automation. Technology is a big part of our investment.
We continue to invest in new business models and [infrastructure] in countries like Brazil, India, China and Japan, so this is another area of organic investment. We have investments in what we call Vistaprint Corporate, working with larger customers and helping them to set up dedicated Websites that have their own branding and templates preconfigured. And maybe the last area is in new products. The breadth of products that we are trying to play in is ever expanding. Our strength is the mass customization capabilities both in selling and helping customers design, as well as making transactions.
How is technology investment enhancing Cimpress’ customer experience?
ML: One example is, if you upload a picture, we are getting better and better at instantaneously telling you that maybe the picture isn’t of good enough quality. Or better yet, we will automatically just fix it for you and you may not even know it as a consumer... we want to have technology to make the customer experience that much better, as well as improve the efficiency of how we are able to do things.
Why is Cimpress still a unique company in the printing world after 20-plus years?
ML: The way we think about competition is not necessarily [with regard to] another big player like Cimpress. It is the thousands of smaller companies that are very focused on a particular customer segment or geography... There are a lot of great companies and certainly many have tried to integrate – and a lot with great successes – some of the things we do well. A concept like ganging, for example, was very innovative when we were first doing it and now it is more common practice. [Print] is a very competitive space and they push us hard.
What keeps us successful and unique is the decentralization that has allowed us to stay small as we get big. The benefit is that we are somewhat able to emulate those smaller companies in a way where we try to keep our businesses manageable and focused… On the other hand, we are able to leverage our scale and do business in a way that is really hard to replicate for all sorts of reasons.
One example is our mass customization platform and that really allows our businesses to have distinct identities to work very seamlessly together... There are ways when it is very advantageous for us to still operate as a single entity. Even if we are trying to fight off being too big of a fish now, we are a school of fish that swims together.
Scott Gray joined Mitchell Press in mid-2017 to help the historic web offset facility move toward digital printing, as the company installed a new Kodak NexPress ZX3300. Led by its third generation of family ownership, Mitchell Press, based in Burnaby, British Columbia, operates out of a 64,000-square-foot facility as the largest commercial heatset web printer in Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest, outputting an average of more than two billion printed pages per year for a range of clients.
PrintAction spoke with Gray, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, about the transformation of what has been a quiet Canadian printing power.
Why does Mitchell have a unique market position?
SG: I have only been here about a month now but I’ve always known Mitchell to be one of Canada’s leading high-quality heatset operations. The have a 16-page configuration, two full-size webs, 4/4, 5/5, and the 4/4 has a coater as well. They have been going after high-end publication work for the last, I will call it, 88 years.
They started out as a financial printer. Nine years ago was a big moment for them when they sold their old factory, which was actually an old cookie factory, kind of a disjointed building. They created a new purpose-built facility and then put in a brand new Komori 1000 at the time and that was basically setting them off on a brand new foot. The building is really large, with lots of room to move into.
At that time, there wasn’t a lot of competition in the Vancouver market. There was Teldon, which five years ago Mitchell ended up buying and they absorbed the cream of the crop of the staff and brought some of the presses over. And then just kept pushing in that direction.
They outlasted all of their competition, but the web market is reducing a little bit. Run lengths are getting a little bit smaller and these guys are really looking forward to what is the future of the company and they are not afraid to spend a little bit of money to do that.
Where is Mitchell investing for the future?
SG: They want to go in a completely new digital direction with the size of the company and they have other expansion plans down the road that we will reveal a little bit later. But immediately they have now built probably one of the coolest digital rooms that I have ever seen.
The prepress workflow is getting so buttoned down with these guys. They are doing a turnaround of 25,000 on web magazines in 24 to 48 hours. The are so slick from that point of view and so we want to take that mentality and put it into the digital world. So they have installed a Kodak NexPress ZX3300, a beautiful machine with amazing capabilities – oversized sheet, it does metallic gold, opaque whites, dimensional, and I think next quarter we are getting into the heavyweight substrate expansion kit so we will go up to 530 gsm. For digital it has a lot of horsepower.
How difficult will it be for a web offset shop to go digital?
SG: We are getting competitive at 3,000 runs on the web with how fast these guys are making ready and turning around jobs so it is not much of stretch of the imagination to [produce] a couple thousand digital. Now maybe the gap is a thousand copies between digital and web.
We can do advanced copies for our clients to go around and pitch advertising. They can check out new artwork. They can do variable data image covers and that is just strictly on the publication side, not to mention the extra at least 30 percent of possible business opportunity that rests with existing clients that we are not even touching.
What is your initial push at Mitchell?
SG: Right now it is digital… One of the reasons they brought me on is that I have a lot of experience with digital – digital storefronts. I am leading the sales team. I am not here to retrain anyone because they are all very seasoned. They know what they are doing, but I want to show them new opportunities and I can kind of lead by example with the digital stuff because I have of a lot of experience with it.
I have already brought in a few very cool, very high-level design projects that really push the limitations of the machines and it has knocked it out. So everybody has kind of caught a buzz on it and now they are looking to their existing client base.
How important are online storefronts for print?
SG: I think it is huge. I honestly think that is the future of print. We will be pushing that very quickly. We are going live with our Monarch update in a month and we are already putting together our storefront team and I believe that is going to be the next part of it. We will be doing both offset and digital through it.
I personally think it is the future of print. If the industry in five years is not doing 30, 40 percent of our work through storefronts then I will give my head a shake.
What are you most excited about by joining Mitchell?
SG: To me it is the ability to help rewrite an almost 90-year-old story. They have been very quiet and I can reintroduce them to design community. They have been really focused on the publication community and we have so much to offer for what people need, but they do not know who we are here.
I just really want to shine a light on Mitchell and give them the attention that they deserve. I am really excited about the growth potential and the fact that they have embraced this change.
The concept is to have the press initiate a series of print jobs that are properly queued up by Heidelberg’s Prinect software, depending on ink layout down and imposition, and then run consistently without operator intervention. Ultimately, the technology platform can also leverage colour management tools to reach pre-specified Delta e levels and a tagging system in the press delivery. PrintAction spoke with Heidelberg’s Ray Fagan about Push to Stop and automation in the printing industry.
What is the state of automation in the printing industry?
RF: I would say in general print shops are behind other industries in automating their processes. There is a trend toward getting away from the craft of printing more toward the manufacturing of printing. And that is a bitter pill to swallow for a lot of printers, more so for the commercial companies than in packaging. Packaging companies have been in a manufacturing mindset for a longer period of time, because of the nature of what they print.
Are printers ready for Push to Stop?
RF: We are learning very quickly that most companies are not in a position to take advantage of Push to Stop automation. The press ends up waiting. There is a fellow who has joined Heidelberg by the name of Anthony Thirlby and he is head of Prinect now, driving some of these processes... He estimates 55 percent of the time a job is in a printing company is before it even gets to the CTP. It’s in estimating, job costing and prepress – 55 percent of the time before it is even plated and on the press. So if an average job time takes three days to get out the door, one and a half of those days is spent just getting the job ready to be plated.
How does Push to Stop look beyond just the printing component?
RF: Push to Stop is part of what we call the Smart Print Shop, which is more holistic in the approach, where Push to Stop is the print processing element of it. To have a Smart Print Shop, you need to think about how do I align my jobs so that I can truly manufacture at an acceptable operating equipment efficiency or an OEE number for a new press? How do I justify putting this piece of equipment on the floor?
What is Heidelberg’s answer for creating an OEE number for a capital investment?
RF: You should only think in terms of throughput and you should only measure, in our opinion, cost per thousand sheets. What is the cost of running a thousand sheets for my company?
Why has Heidelberg focused on cost-per-thousand-sheet manufacturing?
RF: We are launching a big data platform this year in a couple of satellite plants as a beta test. We are going to be collecting every single piece of information from the press and any other automation that is in front of, or behind, the press that can provide data. Then you can start to do a few things like intensify your colour management, streamline your stock purchasing by big data analysis. You can determine a lot to drive your cost per thousand sheets down. But it is not only based on capacity. If you can make every thousand sheets more profitable, a three-shift printer can become a two-shift printer and be more profitable even if they do not see an increase in print volumes coming.
What is big data telling you about print?
RF: There are so many decisions now where you can try to remove the emotional element and just focus on what is happening. It is interesting to see the look on a customer’s face when you tell them their overall operating efficiency [OEE] is 18 percent or 23 percent. They have these big pockets of unexplained time.
How common is it for printers to have an OEE number well below 40 percent?
RF: Most are below 40 percent for sure. And in fairness, a lot of people are getting hung up on overall operating efficiency. You can be the most efficient printer in the world but if you are a really short-run printer your [OEE] is not going to reflect how efficient you are just based on your total volume.
Why is Push to Stop a new operating philosophy for printing?
RF: I do not think anybody has ever gone from makeready to good sheet before without having a physical interference. To be able to process multiple jobs in sequence without interruption of a person has never been done before and now we have the capability to do it at a press level.
What is new I would have to say is the ability to queue up multiple jobs from the prepress department into the queue of the press, all ready to go.
Have you ever wondered what it looks like at the top of Mount Everest or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Well, Chris Harding and his colleagues can’t take you there, but thanks to their innovative work and the advancements of 3D printing, you can hold the natural wonders of the world in your hands.
Harding, an Associate Professor of geological and atmospheric sciences, is part of a research team at Iowa State University and together they have created TouchTerrain.
Essentially, TouchTerrain is a Web application that allows users to print 3D models of any place on Earth. So, instead of relying on a flat map or screen, instead of relying on 2D depictions of real terrain (like those lines which get closer together indicating a higher altitude), you can actually study 3D representations of mountains, canyons, the ocean floor and the Canadian Shield, among any geological feature, with a hands-on model.
In the TouchTerrain program, you just select a rectangular section on a map and enter in your 3D printer’s parameters (Harding and his team have used a Makerbot Replicator 2x and Flashforge Creator Pro). Then the server downloads the elevation and terrain data through Google Earth Engine and downloadable STL files of that area are created.
The project started in late 2014, Harding says, when his colleague in the department of geological and atmospheric sciences, Franek Hasiuk, got some experience working with the Makerbot Replicator 2x 3D printer in his lab and mentioned the idea casually.
“I think he said ‘wouldn’t it be cool if everybody could 3D print the landscape they live in and hold it in their hands?’” Harding says.
Harding and Hasiuk launched TouchTerrain with the help of Levi Barber, the IT wiz instrumental in the coding of the project and Alex Renner, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering. Harding says Renner was a “big help” in teaching him how to create 3D models reliably and efficiently on low-cost printers.
Since the program went public in mid-March, Harding says TouchTerrain had over 2000 3D terrain model downloads in the first two weeks. The team has also received a lot of positive feedback and interest from high school teachers, university professors, museum curators and geoscientists.
“They see value in using 3D-printed terrain models in an educational setting,” Harding says.
In addition to producing 3D models of the wonders of our world, Harding has also experimented with those of other worlds, such as the Moon and Mars. He recently received a request from a teacher at a school in California which caters to visually impaired students.
“Besides giving them the ability to touch the shape of the Grand Canyon,” Harding says. “I also hand created a 3D model for the hugely impressive Valles Marineris, which he printed and gave to his students to explore.”
The TouchTerrain team is currently in the process of expanding. The project is growing faster than they can keep up with and Harding says they have already begun to experience issues with scalability when many users are trying to access the system. They are hoping other programmers will provide feedback to improve the codebase and are searching for the funding required to bring a Web programmer in on the project.
“In addition to better scalability, we have a whole list of improvements we would like to see based on user requests,” Harding says.
TouchTerrain is an open source project hosted at GitHub which provides code for the Apache server run at Iowa State and a standalone version. You can access the TouchTerrain code at https://github.com/ChHarding/TouchTerrain_for_CAGEO or check out the server version in action at http://touchterrain.geol.iastate.edu/. Harding and his partners provide the service to educators and the general public free of charge.
“We hope that printing out these models and using them in a teaching context means that ideally more people become aware of 3D printing and how useful and affordable it can be,” Harding says.
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