Upgrade adventures – a sleek new Mac Pro

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A few weeks ago I decided to take the plunge and get a new computer. I have been using an aluminum Mac Pro tower for many years (I have had two of them). The current machine has eight cores, and all four disk slots are filled with enterprise speed 2TB hard drives. I have been using 14 GB of RAM, and getting along pretty well.

The new machine is one of the snazzy black cylinders that Apple is selling. It has a 3.5 GHz 6-Core Intel Xeon E5 processor, 32 GB of RAM, and I ordered it with 256 GB of SSD memory. I thought this would be fine.

Mac Pro photo 1

This is the plug side of the Mac Pro cylinder. It has room for four USB cables, six Thunderbolt cables, one HDMI outlet, an audio in and an audio out, and two Ethernet plugs. I have filled most of them already.

For hard disk storage I chose a ThunderBay drive from Other World Computing with four 4 TB drives inside. This would give me 16 TB of storage, but I set it up as a RAID5 array, leaving 12 TB for storage. This is only 4 TB more than I have been using, but I think it will last a while. When I fill it up, I will add another one and have 12 more terabytes of storage. The advantage of the RAID5 system is that the drive is (mostly) safe from hardware failures. If one drive fails, I can replace it and not lose any data. If two drives fail, I am sunk.

Mac Pro photo 2

This is the interior of the cylinder. At the top is a cooling fan, and on the internal faces of the machine are the electronics. I upgraded mine to 32GB of RAM, and will soon upgrade the SSD drive to 1TB (I ordered mine with only 256 GB of SSD, which has proved not to be enough space for my work).

At the moment I have no back-up. I have a separate FireWire 800 Time Machine back-up disk array that filled up last month. When that happened, I shut it off. Once I get everything on the new machine settled, I will restart that drive and get back to incremental back-ups for safety.

In addition to these storage devices on the desktop, I have a 16 TB NAS server on the floor. I built this myself two years ago, and it has been a great companion to my day-to-day work. I use it as an archive storage drive. That drive operates over Ethernet, so it’s not as fast as the ThunderBay, which is a Thunderbolt 2 drive system, capable of reading and writing at preposterous speeds.

So now I have lots of storage, lots of RAM, not enough SSD storage, and a wickedly fast new Mac Pro.

It took me five days to transfer my four hard drives to the ThunderBay. I don’t know where they came from, but I have an average of three million files on each of these drives. I don’t think I created 12 million files, but somehow they are there, and I needed to copy them all from one to the next. My computer was tied up for days, and days. Occasionally I got some work done between disk copying sorties.

Once I finished configuring the 12 TB ThunderBay, I migrated my applications to the SSD drive in the new Mac Pro. And it was then that I realized just how short-sighted I had been when I ordered this machine. I have almost 500 GB of applications and support files, and on the new machine I have only 256 GB of storage space available. Once I realized this, I called Apple to see if they would let me send the machine back for an upgrade. I had waited one day too many before making the call. If I had called one day earlier, they would have allowed me to return the machine. Now I’m stuck with “only” 256 GB of storage in SSD PCI-e memory.

This last week, Other World Computing announced two new SSD upgrades for my new Mac Pro. I ordered the 1TB version, which will be shipping in January. Though a little more expensive than it would have been if I had bought the machine with 1TB in it, the new SSD will make my storage larger, and the company sends a small USB drive in which to put the old card when I do the upgrade. That USB drive will become a 256GB SSD portable drive when I’m finished. That might be a nice item to carry around.

The nice thing about the Mac Pro is that it’s compatible with my existing computer displays. I use two 24-inch Cinema Displays with Display Port adapters on the ends. These, conveniently, plug right in to the Thunderbolt receptacles on the back of the new computer and they work fine.

I can also use FireWire 800 with a small adapter, making it possible for me to use my Nikon CoolScan, my Epson desktop printer, and a variety of other FireWire devices I have scattered around my office.

My USB cables plugged in and worked also, so technically I suffered no technology obsolescence by purchasing the new computer. Everything I own still works on the new machine. I remember the time I upgraded to the aluminum Mac Pro and learned that my SCSI externals would never work again. This has been a more pleasant experience.

MacPro with wires

This is my Mac Pro with wires emerging from the back. Behind it is the OWC Thunderbolt RAID5 device with four 4TB drives within. Formatted, that allows 12TB of external storage.

Somehow my desk isn’t as beautiful as the Apple ads. Coming out of the back of the onyx obelisk are a scatter of cables, all heading off to a nearby location to connect to storage, displays, card readers, etc. I also have my external speakers plugged in and working with the new machine. It’s a rat’s nest of cables. But why complain? It’s a very cool computer, and it heralds a new chapter in my long relationship with the Macintosh.

In the months ahead I will certainly appreciate the speed of the new machine. I’m especially interested to see how quickly this new cylinder will stitch 1,500-image GigaPan images. I’ll be making a couple of those in Death Valley in the next few weeks. With processing times of up to 12 hours on the old eight-core Mac Pro, I had to be very patient. The new machine should do that a lot faster. I’ll let you know how much faster.

The machine is, like most Mac Pro models, stunningly beautiful. It’s utterly silent. It was built in the U.S.A., and it’s made for very intensive computing. I do that once in a while.


Posted in New technology, Panoramic Photography, Photography, Printing and Printing Processes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

100,000 Readers! Thank you

Blognosticator Head It’s actually 101,759 readers.

What started three and a half years ago on July 26, 2011 has now reached a major milestone in blogging for the graphic arts. The Blognosticator has reached and exceed the 100,000 reader mark. 100,000 Readers head I started this blog after three-plus years writing a similar blog for the late Graphic Arts Monthly magazine.

When they abruptly went out of business I wrote the Blognosticator for What They Think for a few months, and then took it private, as they say of projects that don’t do well in the bigger arena of publishing.

I have always maintained my independence, without sponsors (though I have courted one, unsuccessfully), and have maintained a good sense of editorial independence. I call a foul when I see one, and I get all Curmudgeonly occasionally when Mr. Curmudgeon takes his hand at the blog. But recently I haven’t been too curmudgeonly. It is only good news of late.

I have some projects in the works: First, I bought an amazing new Mac Pro cylinder computer, and have now successfully migrated to that machine. Friday afternoon I cut the cord to the old machine when a local mail order house had a failure of a similar aluminum Mac Pro tower.

Our common denominator was the local independent Apple dealer, MacSuperstore. The owner of that company, my good friend Shane Williams, sent me a text and asked if I could part with the old machine to save the company after a momentary power-outage caused something to fry in their older Mac Pro. Within minutes I had pulled the plugs from the back of the machine, removed the four internal hard drives (I’m keeping those for a while longer), and personally delivered it across town to the warehouse where it was needed. My new Mac is very quick, and I have learned a lot in the few weeks that I have owned it. More on that soon!

My other new project is a new Canon 5D Mark III camera, which jumped out of our local photo store and into my hands on Friday afternoon. I have been shooting with a Canon 1ds Mark III camera for about five years (long enough that Canon no longer makes that model).

The new camera has a slightly higher resolution sensor resolution, it has much more advanced analog-to-digital chips inside, and it has the ability to shoot in low light, where the older camera can’t do that so well. I will be testing that (I know it has been done, but I want to do it myself) and reporting on my findings.

And, there is progress on my until-recently stalled new book on graphic arts processes. That, which I started three years ago, will be coming back into the headlines soon. Watch for more on that in the coming weeks and months.

In the meantime, thank you for making up one of my over-100,000 readers. It’s a pleasure to have you with me.

Thank you, Brian P. Lawler

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Quicken 2015 for Mac can no longer pay bills

Mr. Curmudgeon

I have been a Quicken user since 1987 – 27 years. Quicken allows me to keep track of income and expenses, and it has, until now, allowed me to pay any bill to any vendor online.

The convenience of this is impressive. If I want to pay the electric bill, I type the first letter or two of the utility company, and then I hit the tab key and type in the amount. Then I hit return and the bill is put into my payment queue. Later I can post all of my payments to be paid. It takes seconds, and it has been, mostly, flawless all these years.

This week my version of Quicken stopped working for online banking. Not a word from them – which is typical. Quicken is not known for communicating with their customers.

I went online for an arduous text session with a kind young man who tried to help me. After about 30 minutes typing back and forth, he asked if I was a user of Quicken Bill Pay. That was where I thought we had started the conversation, but he was late to the party. Once I told him that I was (for the second time), he indicated that Quicken will no longer support Bill Pay on the Mac.

This happened once before, about five years ago when we Mac users received a rude Dear John letter from Quicken telling us that they would no longer support the Mac platform. Many of us rebelled, and eventually we got a reprieve. Quicken extended the life of its 2007 version, making it compatible with the newer operating systems from Apple. That version held out until this week.

Quicken 2015 for Mac is filled with wonderful features, few of which I care about. And, they don’t actually tell you in their promotional material that is will no longer allow you to pay your bills online. I am pretty unhappy about this.

There are a few critical things I use Quicken for: ledgers of my bank accounts – income, outgo, categories of expenditures, etc. At the end of every quarter I make a report of business income, categorized, and I use that to file and pay my sales taxes. At the end of the year I produce a report of the entire year, categorized, and give it to my accountant for his tax preparation work. It’s very convenient.

I will still be able to use Quicken for that, but not for paying my bills.

Quicken Bill Pay is actually a bank. They have a physical location in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When I request a bill to be paid, they will either print and mail a check or make an electronic funds transfer to the vendor (their decision). It’s very simple. Most of my payments resulted in physical checks being printed and mailed to my vendors, and each month these show up on my bank statement as photocopies of the actual checks. Payments to large organizations – like the electric company – show up in the electronic funds transfer list in the same statement.

For this, Quicken has charged me about $10 each month for 27 years. And I have paid it with a smile. In a typical month I would have spent that much on postage, envelopes and printed checks if I did it manually. Those charges will now go away.

What will I do without Quicken Bill Pay? My local bank has an online bill payment system. I tried it for the first time today, and it’s easy enough to use. It keeps my vendors in a list, so it will be easy to pay the same vendor next month. I think that will work fine. And, it is free. As I pay these bills online, they will go directly into my bank statement, which might be a bit easier in the long run – no more hand entry of expenditures in the Quicken ledger.

As for my business reports, my local bank will allow me to download my transactions to my computer in a Quicken-compatible file format. That will probably allow me to continue to work with Quicken for my reports and annual statements by importing the bank statements into Quicken. And, if I upgrade to Quicken 2015, it claims that it will download my transactions directly from my bank – I might try that.

I will save $120 per year in fees, and I will have to spend a few more minutes paying my bills than I have in the past. And it will get done, and I will grumble about the slight inconvenience, and I will move on.

Nothing lasts forever. This one lasted for 27 years. Adieu, Quicken Bill Pay!

An addendum: On Sunday, December 14, 2014, Quicken announced a fix to their software that gives a new lease on life for online bill-paying. It took about a month, but they have updated the software so that it will work.



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CNC router owners: meet the quoin

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For centuries printers have been locking-up type inside a frame called a chase, then putting the chase into a printing press to complete letterpress printing projects. The method for doing the lock-up was originally done with wooden wedges which were hammered between the type “form” and the steel (or cast iron) chase. In the 19th century a company called Challenge developed a double-wedge tool called a quoin that expands when you turn a toothed wrench between its two halves.

In the 20th century the same company developed what is known as the high-speed quoin. It’s a modern, steel expansion device that opens and closes about 1/8 inch with a wrench called a quoin key. The benefit of the modern quoins is that the pressure is even across the width of the quoin, and they are fast and easy to install and remove.

Quoin alone 08

This is a high-speed quoin, originally manufactured by Challenge Machinery for the printing industry. The quoin key (wrench) is inserted into the gear on the top. Turning the key caused the quoin to expand or contract.

I happen to own a stack of them, remnants of a graphic arts company I used to own and operate. Mine are clean and in excellent shape, as the most recent use for them was to hold Linotype slugs in place on a Vandercook proofing press. They almost never got ink on them, and they have been in storage for many years, unused, lonely, and waiting for this afternoon.

A few weeks ago I machined a four-foot square board for my CNC router table with T-slots that run the length of the board. T-slots allow various clamps and bolts to be used to hold things down on a machine. On a CNC router, they can be used to hold the work piece (wood, typically) to the table while the router makes its rounds, cutting out and around the pattern I have loaded in software.

Quoins on CNC table 04

Here is my test board held in position by Rockler low-profile stops and three high-speed quoins. The pine board along the bottom is a spacer.

I also bought some low-profile stops from my favorite woodworking tools company – Rockler – to use on the table top. These stops have T-slot bolts built-in, and they slide nicely down the board I machined for the purpose.

The T-slot board sits on top of another board called the spoilboard, which is a piece of MDF designed to get cut (very slightly) by the router as it goes by. The T-slot board is held to the spoilboard with T-bolts, each one recessed into the board so that it is lower than the cutter where it might pass overhead.

Quoin wrench in quoin 05

Here is the quoin key tightening the quoin along the short dimension of my test board. 

Several weeks back I was searching high and low for some kind of clamp to attach to my T-slot board to affix my wood. It was then that I remembered the high-speed quoins in storage, so I went and got them.

And this afternoon I used the quoins to affix a test board to my T-slot board. It worked fine, and I think I have solved a problem that many CNC router owners have in holding their work down to the table.

Router close-up 02

With the stock in place, the router is free to cut without much risk of hitting any of the clamps or stops.

I affixed two of the Rockler low-profile stops on each side of the board, then two more on each opposite side, in the next available T-slot. The gap, which was about 1.375 in. wide, I closed with a strip of pine cut to fit the gap. Between that strip of wood and my low-profile stops I put two of my quoins on one side, and one on the other.

Wrench close-up 03

This is a close-up of the quoin key. Its gear teeth engage a gear inside the high-speed quoin, where a mechanism causes the quoin to expand.

Using the quoin key (wrench), I then tightened the three quoins until the stock was held firmly in place. Quoins are only .75 in. thick, making them about the same height as the low-profile stops, and about the same height as the stock I am cutting. This is good, because I do not ever want the cutter to hit the stops or the quoins. When I get into production in the coming days, I will put thin boards all the way around the stock to put some distance between the live cutting area and the metal stops and clamps.

The printing industry still uses there quoins on foil-stamping, embossing and other relief printing machines. Using them on router tables and other machines is logical and simple.

And, the quoins are still made – a company called Samson, and another company called Bar-Plate both provide these to the printing industry.


Posted in Gadgets, History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

More in my GREPping drama

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In past blogs I have expressed my love for the GREP functions in InDesign. GREP is not only functional, but for me it’s a lot of fun.

I enjoy working with strings of text, manipulating things en masse to cause changes that would otherwise take too long.

An example I have written about in the past is that of reversing names in a list from last name-first to first name-first. I have written a handful of GREP search instructions to do this, and none of them is completely perfect. That is still the case, but I discovered a couple of new GREP commands in InDesign that are very useful, and I want to share my success with you.

The pattern of text that I work with is my class lists, which are sent to me by the university at the beginning of each quarter. These come with an overload of information, and I have to filter-out only the names to make a roll sheet for the first day of class.

The patterns look like this:

7 Bauer, Marcus Desmond mbauer09 GRC Freshman 3 Enrolled No

The numeral is the number of the student in the list, then last name, first name, middle name (or not), e-mail address, the student’s major, class level, the number after that is the units fo the class, and then their enrollment status (always “Enrolled”) and whether the student has flagged his or her information to be kept private. When I look at the text, I look for patterns that I can search for:

String explanation

I only need the second and third elements of all of this data, so GREP can help me accomplish this in two ways: 1, It strips off the unnecessary data, and 2, it reverses the last name and the first name.

The implementation of GREP in InDesign is pretty good, but it varies slightly from the more “pure” GREP that is found in UNIX and in some text editing environments. But, that’s OK with me, because InDesign is where I work most often with text, and it’s very helpful to be able to use it there.

GREP Explanation

This is the anatomy of my GREP search string in InDesign. It uses the commands that are new to me: the at-the-beginning-of-the-paragraph, and “find a word.”

The “new” functions that I have discovered are the “at the beginning of a paragraph” command, which is a simple caret at the beginning of the command string, and the “find a word” command, which I use twice in this search.

\w+ is the command to find a word. Words are defined as characters in any order, in any case, not separated by non-alphabetical characters (which you will see in my example here). Word does find number strings* and the underscore, but no other characters.

So, to find the second and third data elements (both words), I search for (\w+) twice, and I get both words.

They’re separated by a comma and a space in the text, so I put those characters in between, and that works also.

To capture the numbers at the beginning of the paragraph (and no others), I use the command ^(\d+ ) which finds any digit, one or more times, followed by a space. I put this inside of parentheses to pass it to a memory space called $1. Later I will not use that memory space, but I need to capture it for the short term.

I then search for “a word” and pass those words to memory positions $2 and $3 for the last and first names, respectfully.

After the student’s names there is all that other information that I don’t want. I use GREP’s command for finding any character (this includes letters, numbers, figures – anything) followed by a standard carriage return. This gets rid of everything after the student’s first name.

Once I have all that, I put the first and last name back in the opposite order, and I’m done.

Replace with

This is the replace string for the search above. It’s very simple: put the content of Memory 3 followed by the content of Memory 2 back on the line, separated by a space, and followed by a standard carriage return. The comma after the last name is automatically dropped because it was not inside the parentheses in the search string.

In my earlier method for this, my search criteria usually failed when a capital letter showed up in a name, like DuPont. This new method works for those kind of names. But, it doesn’t work for names that have spaces in them, nor for words with hyphens.

In the past I had to fix those names by hand, and I still have to do that, but with fewer names now.

Class list

This is the list as I receive it from the university.

Class list with highlights

…and this is the same list with potential problems highlighted in red. In my previous GREPping dramas, I have had to fix all of the lines marked in red.

By using the new search criteria, I can fix most of these, but not all:

Names after GREP

Notice that only two of the four potential problems were not processed correctly: those with spaces in the last name, and one with a hyphenated last name.

It’s easy to fix those that are not processed by the search string, and it only takes a few seconds.

* An addendum (November 9, 2014): Though it doesn’t make any difference in performance, it is possible to search for three “words” – the first being the serial number, the second being the student’s last name, and the third being his or her first name. The search string looks like this:

^(\w+) (\w+), (\w+) (.+~b)

The result is identical.


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Our night on Mount Wilson with a really big telephoto lens

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On September 26, my wife and I joined a group from the local astronomical society on a field trip to Mount Wilson, just east of Pasadena, California, where we spent the entire night observing objects in the sky. My wife and I didn’t end up spending the entire night in the observatory because I got too cold, and I had to retreat to our vehicle where I was slightly less cold. But, the others – intrepid astronomers all – spent the night there, and looked periodically at stars and binary stars and planetary clusters, and nebulae, and even a galaxy or two. It was very exciting stuff.

100-inch telescope interior 13

This is the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson. Between the years 1917 and 1947, this telescope was the largest in the world. It was superseded by the Mt. Palomar telescope in San Diego County, California. The giant mirror in the telescope is just above the cluster of people standing under the instrument.

I took lots of camera equipment because I am always interested in taking star photos, and photos of people watching stars. I like the telescopes and the observatory as much as I like looking at distant stellar objects. I had planned to do a time-lapse movie of the observatory (didn’t work), and many interior photos of the telescope with one or more of my very wide angle lenses. The most recent acquisition on that front is a Canon 8-15mm fisheye zoom lens that I bought just a few days before the observatory visit. With this lens you can point the camera at the horizon and get your own toes in the photo (I admit this isn’t something one normally wants in his photos). But it did allow me to take some grand images of the telescope we were using.

60-inch telescope in use 21

This is the interior of the 60-inch telescope dome with the telescope pointed out into space. The 60-inch instrument is used exclusively for public all-night astronomical sessions by trained docents who operate the device and explain the sights to visitors.

The telescope in question is the medium size 60-inch reflector that was built at the beginning of the 20th century by Mr. George Ellery Hale (the Hale-Bopp Comet is named after him). The funds came from Andrew Carnegie who entrusted a considerable sum to the young astronomer who wanted to study the sun and the stars. Hale did not disappoint. With the funds he built the largest solar telescope in history at the top of Mount Wilson, and then the 60-inch reflector telescope on the same peak. For years it was the largest optical telescope in the world. Several years later John D. Hooker endowed the construction of Mount Wilson’s 100-inch telescope, which took the honor of being the largest until it, too, was supplanted by a Hale-built telescope in San Diego County, California, atop Mount Palomar. That telescope, a 200-inch design, was unchallenged for many years until the bigger telescopes on Mauna Kea were built.

100-inch telescope interior 09

This is the 180-degree view of the Hooker 100-inch telescope. The dome was closed when the group toured the facility.

We started the evening with a tour of the facility, walking up to the base of the 150-foot solar telescope, around the 60-inch telescope, then we got an interior tour of the 100-inch optical telescope on Mount Wilson. Also on the mountain is a modern optical telescope array called CHARA, which is owned and operated by the Georgia State University. CHARA is made up of six separate 40-inch reflector telescopes that each feed their optical product down light tubes that converge in an amazing building that adjusts the timing of those optical images by bouncing them around on long tables with stationary mirrors, then focusing the converged result onto a digital sensor in a digital astronomical device. The effect of these six telescopes looking at an object in the universe is the equivalent of having a single mirror that is over 1000 feet in diameter.


In the foreground is one of the six CHARA telescopes owned and operated by Georgia State University. These 40-inch optical telescopes are used as an array to do deep-space astronomy. Immediately behind the CHARA unit is the 60-inch telescope enclosure, and behind that is the vertical solar telescope. To the left of the 60-inch building is another of the six CHARA telescopes.

Here is what the Mount Wilson web site says about CHARA:
The Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) of Georgia State University has built the highest resolution interferometric telescope array in the world for the study of objects in visible and infrared wavelengths. With six 40-inch telescopes at distances of up to 330-meters apart (almost 1/4 mile), the CHARA Array can detect much finer detail on distant objects than ever before. Fully operational since 2005, the CHARA array is being used to measure sizes, shapes, temperatures, distances, masses and luminosities of stars. In 2007, it produced the first image ever made of the surface of a sun-like star. More recently, CHARA successfully imaged the once-every-27-years eclipse of the previously mysterious binary star system Epsilon Aurigae as well as the famous eclipsing binary star Algol (beta Persei).

While were were on the mountain, and our astronomer guide was pointing our celestial objects, we were treated to the same views that Albert Einstein once made in the same structures. His image is found in photos around the observatory and adjacent buildings. On the first floor of the 60-inch telescope building is a locker with Edwin Hubble’s name on it. The locker stands next to others with the names of George E. Hale and other storied astronomers who worked on the telescopes at Mount Wilson.

Solar Observatory 01

This is the 150-foot solar telescope on Mount Wilson. It was used until recently to measure sunspots on our sun. It is still operated by volunteers, but has lost its funding from its owners, the University of California, Los Angeles.

The 60-inch telescope is now used exclusively for public tours and all-night astronomical sessions. Groups like ours can reserve the instrument, and gather for the night with the assistance of a professional astronomer who will operate the huge telescope, and allow each person to climb the stairs and look through the eyepiece at distant celestial objects. It is apparently the only telescope of its size in the world devoted exclusively to public use. The 100-inch Hooker telescope is still used for science, and can be reserved for experimentation by anyone in the scientific community for astronomical studies.

Even though I got too cold and chickened-out in the middle of the night, I still enjoyed the experience, and treasure the images that I took of the telescope being used to see distant galaxies and stars. Next time I will take warmer clothes and be better prepared for the temperature extremes.

Posted in Adventures, Education, People, Photography, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Another Blognosticator milestone

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Greetings, dear readers,

With your continued interest, The Blognosticator has now passed the 90,000 reader mark.

The blog is read by more than 200 people every day, and it continues to grow at an impressive rate.

90000 readers

So, please keep those cards and letters coming! (I have never received a card or a letter.) And, keep those comments coming! I especially love those from people who believe that we should put numbers in parentheses after the number is printed in text. There was one (1) of those today. How does putting the numeral 1 after the word “one” make the previous sentence any clearer?

I will continue to write The Blognosticator, and occasionally I might write something controversial. I sometimes enjoy controversy.

My best wishes to all of you. Thank you.

Brian P. Lawler
October 9, 2014


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The most exciting thing I saw at GraphExpo 2014

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I troll the hallways at GraphExpo, looking at the many booths showing exciting technologies to potential customers. There are people selling software, hardware, firmware, middleware, and usually – pretzels. This year there was no pretzel vendor, nor an ice cream vendor, both sorely missing in the vast space of McCormick Place.

And, I confess that having trolled these halls since the mid-1970s, I have become jaded. It takes something pretty cool to get my attention.

I appreciate the new models of the presses, and the newest expansions of capabilities. Last year at the Print show, I was really excited about the two ink-jet-and-laser label printers from EFI and INX/Komori. Both of those were really cool, and I could see an obvious market for machines like this.

I often envision myself as a younger man, an entrepreneur walking the show floor, looking for the perfect machine or techniques to differentiate my business from my competitors’ businesses. I remember lusting after the Heidelberg DI press a decade ago. I thought often about how a solid small business could be made with one of those, a paper cutter, and a folder. Small, easy to operate, insanely profitable, and a business that could be run entirely by one or two people.

This year I searched for such a technology, for the machine that could be used to set up a solid small business.

I didn’t find it.

But I was directed to a couple of booths where I saw truly exciting technologies that will change the industry. When I say “directed” I mean escorted by my dear friends Craig Kevghas and Elmo Sapwater to the booths of companies they felt I would like to see. These two gentlemen said, “I really think you need to see…” and walked with me to one or the other of several booths.

At the annual shows in Chicago there are a number of technologies or systems that are awarded Must See ’Em status by a secret panel of judges who let us in on the secrets of the show in advance. These folks spend the summer, I am told, evaluating press releases and web sites of the manufacturers who plan to attend Print and GraphExpo with their wares. They scrutinize and evaluate, and finally give their thumbs-up to a number of products they think we should see.

The product I saw in booth 1177 was not a Must See ’Em product. It wasn’t a big, flashy new machine making glossy folded cartons, or putting colored foil onto printed sheets with glitter (more on that in my next blog).

In booth 1177 was BDT, a company from Rottweil, Germany showing the most boring, but exciting machine component that I have seen in many years.

It’s a paper feeder.


This is an illustration of the BDT Tornado feeder module, at almost full size. The device lifts a sheet of paper and feeds it into a printing press. (Image courtesy of BDT)

For anyone who has ever run a sheet-fed printing, folding, or other machine, it is the feeder that causes the most difficulty. Paper feeders are a necessary part of any printing machine that uses sheets of material, and while absolutely necessary, these feeders are also the source of many a headache, and lots of time trouble-shooting problems that come up before the sheets are printed.

Feeders have the tedious but all-important job of picking up one (only one!) sheet of paper, and forwarding it to a pinch-roller where it is tested for thickness (and failed if that’s not right), then pushing or pulling – or otherwise cajoling that sheet of paper along a conveyor to the side-guide and gripper where it begins its journey through the press. Feeders are amazing devices; watching one work is an amusement tantamount to watching a fine mechanical clock work. When feeders work, they work perfectly; when they don’t work, they cause incredible trouble for the press operator.

BDT has developed a feeder so good, so delightfully simple, so wonderfully effective, that it belongs on every sheet-fed press in the world.


Row of BDT feeders

This photo shows a row of the Tornado modules in a feeder on a press. Each one is about 4 inches in width. The green “tractor-tread” belts propel a sheet at amazing speed into a press or other device with tremendous precision.

The company’s small Tornado module lifts a sheet substrate, then forwards it to the next station in a printing or post-press device with what appears to be 100 percent effectiveness. The Tornado device is so clever and effective that I suspect we will start seeing them on many major brands of presses. I was told that new models of the HP Indigo press feature these feeders. I am jealous of the operators of those machines because they will never get to experience feeder jams, doubles, or misfeeds like all of their forebears. Lucky dogs!

To watch the Tornado with an experienced pressman’s eye is like watching a gymnast who is perfect in her execution. This is mechanical poetry in motion. And all it does is pick up a piece of paper and push it to the next station on a printing press!

Heidelberg! Komori! MAN Roland, Mabeg, Mitsubishi, Polar, Müller-Martini, MBO, et al – take a look at this! You’ve never made one this good.

Words like “foolproof” and “unbelievable” and “wow!” were running through my brain as I watched the gentlemen from BDT demonstrate their diminutive mechanism as it picked up sheets of material (and they demonstrated a wide variety of substrates) and shot them out into a corrugated box.

As I walked away, I thought, “there’s a technology that most people would never appreciate.”

A paper feeder.

I am glad I had a chance to see it, because in its very small way, it will change the world of printing.


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Making things I designed in Illustrator – CNC routing

Blognosticator Head

In previous blogs I have described how I have designed things in Illustrator, then built them out of wood in my shop. The shop in question is located in my friend Jim’s barn. We consolidated shops in 2005 when I moved into a small house where there is no room for large power tools.

Since then we have expanded the shop to include several stationary power tools and a very large work bench and assembly table that has electricity and compressed air delivered to its perimeter. I have added digital micrometers to two of our tools – one to the router table, making it precise to 0.001 in., another to our 12-inch planer, adding the ability to dial-in similar precision to cuts we make on that machine.

Moving deeper into the digital domain, last month we installed a large CNC router table, and we have been learning the ropes of computer-controlled routing since then. The CNC machine is a product of a Washington state company called CNC Router Parts. They sell kits for the do-it-yourselfer to make a CNC machine of your own. The parts are well-made; the precision of the machine seems to be extraordinary.

Making T-slot board 08 This is the CNC router, built from a kit made by CNC Router Parts. At the moment of this photo the router was cutting T-slots in a sheet of 3/4 in. hardwood plywood. That plywood sheet will become a hold-down board for future projects.

Once the machine was assembled, which took the better part of two days, it was ready to run. We entered the learning mode, where we have been for several weeks. We have learned that the machine will do exactly what you tell it to do – even machine right through itself, if you give it the wrong instructions.

It’s a very powerful machine, using four NEMA 34 stepper motors to control the movements and position of a DeWalt 3.5 HP router.

We run the machine with a program called Mach3, which is probably the most common machine control software in the industry. That software can be customized to control a wide variety of CNC devices. Ours is pretty simple – left-right (X), back-forth (Y), and up-down (Z). But within these three seemingly simple axes are a world of complexities: cutting speed, spindle speed, plunge speed, cutting depth, number of passes, step-over settings, tabs, and much more.

CNC machines of all types use a control schema called G-code. G-code is text, thankfully, and it’s pretty easy to interpret. Here is a snippet of G-code:

G0 X0.0000 Y0.0000 Z0.8000
(Closet shelves 3)
(End Mill {0.25 inches})
G0 X9.0267 Y4.7822 Z0.2000
G1   Z-0.2500 F30.0
G1  Y17.5546  F150.0
G1 X9.0767
G1 X9.0765 Y4.7744
G1 X9.0753 Y4.7632
G1 X9.0728 Y4.7555
G1 X9.0666 Y4.7520
G1 X9.0559 Y4.7498
G1 X9.0435 Y4.7503
G1 X9.0345 Y4.7530
G1 X9.0304 Y4.7559
G1 X9.0277 Y4.7663
G1 X9.0267 Y4.7822
G1 X8.9267 Y4.7810

If you study the G-code, you’ll begin to recognize its instructions. The top line tells the machine to go to X0, Y0, and 0.8 Z, which is eight-tenths of an inch above the work surface. This is “home” for the X and Y axes, and a safe margin above the material so it doesn’t start cutting too soon. The T1 is a definition for Tool 1 (some machines have multiple tools). Ours has only one, and in this case, it’s defined as an end-mill (a simple two-flute 1/4 in. diameter router cutter). The next two lines are X and Y cutting speed (150 in. per minute or 2.5 inches per second, which is pretty fast), and a plunge speed of 30 inches per minute, which translates into one-half inch per second, also pretty fast. The S stands for spindle speed, which in this case is 6,000 rpm.

CNC Router 06 The router is controlled by a Windows PC, running two programs: V-Carve Pro and Mach3, both of which are necessary to do CNC design and machine control.

Then the work begins, which an instruction to move 9.0267 inches along the left-right axis, 4.7822 inches along the back-forth (Y) axis, and to hover above the material at 0.2 inches (it will begin cutting there). Following these instructions, we learn that the machine is starting a cutting path at this location because it immediately plunges the cutter .25 inches down (below zero Z), then moves to a new location along the Y axis only (a straight line), then a similar cut along the X axis, and begins a complex “curved” cut described by hundreds of lines of X-Y code positions.

Machines like this don’t really cut curves, they step in both X and Y directions in small increments, making the effect of a curve in the material being machined. It’s equivalent to the effect of applying a raster to a curve in Adobe Photoshop. The curve is converted from a mathematical entity into a series of pixels on an X-Y grid defined by the resolution of the photo. In the CNC software, that raster grid is 0.0001 in., though the resolution of the machine is closer to 0.002 inch. The stepper motors can move in micro-steps, essentially half-steps that can increment the cutter between two poles of the stepper motors.

Print These are parts designed in Adobe Illustrator for a set of interlocking shelves I made for a cabinet in my camper van. I drew them at actual size in Illustrator, imported the file into V-Carve, and machined the parts in Baltic 1/4-inch plywood.

I suppose, with a bit of practice, one could write G-code by hand; it would be like writing a photo’s pixels with a word processor. The consequences of error are much greater when you are running a multi-horsepower machine with a spinning blade into a block of wood, or worse – part of its own aluminum or steel superstructure. Oops!

Print This is the exploded view of the shelves I drew in Adobe Illustrator. I used the 3D extrude tools in Illustrator to convert 2D art into 3D representations.

To build the G-code, one uses another program. The program we have chosen is a Windows-only application called V-Carve. It’s a very popular CNC design tool for a variety of uses, and it has the ability to import Adobe Illustrator (.ai) files directly. I experimented with a similar program for Macintosh called MESHCam, which is nice, but it lacks many of the capabilities of V-Carve on Windows, and it requires the intermediate step of exporting DXF files from Illustrator (no big deal, but it’s an extra step).

Shelves extreme wide 05 …and these are the finished shelves in the cabinet of my van. They provide easy storage for our clothes when we go out camping in the RV.

The way V-Carve (and similar programs) works is to declare a material size and thickness, and the origin X,Y as one of the corners (three-dimensional space can be reassigned on these CNC machines).

Once the material is defined, then cutting paths can be drawn in V-Carve or imported from Adobe Illustrator. Once those paths have been imported, they can be assigned to cutting tools, with cutting speeds and cutting depths assigned. When complete (and I am glossing over a lot of detail here), V-Carve generates the G-code for the project, and you load the G-code into Mach3, and you make your parts. This, after mounting the material solidly to the cutting table of the machine. You’re in big trouble if you fail to secure your work to the table.

Once it gets going, the CNC machine is a delight to watch. It roars around the material rising and plunging its cutter into the material and making a huge amount of sawdust where there once was solid material. It also makes a lot of noise. In the coming days I will write about some of my projects, and will show examples of how I have been using the machine to make practical things from Adobe Illustrator designs.


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Drawing on the Photoshop side of the brain

Blognosticator Head

A few blogs ago I wrote about how to use AppleScript to crop a Photoshop document with pixel precision. As part of that same project, I needed to add white space to the canvas and trim marks top and bottom along the edges to mark the location of a cut that was made later on a large metal cutting shear.

The resizing of the canvas is easy. The AppleScript code looks like this:

resize canvas _CroppedPano width 11287 height 17700

This, of course, must be placed within the construct of a script, but looking at the syntax of the instruction, it says simply, “make the canvas bigger (or smaller) to these dimensions: 11287 X 17700 pixels.” AppleScript and Photoshop will carry out your instructions without delay and without asking if it’s OK, so be careful to be accurate with any script that makes changes like this.

_CroppedPano is my variable name for the photo on which I am making the changes.

Now let’s look at how the crop marks are drawn. Photoshop, like Illustrator, uses the Cartesian coordinate system for all of its measurements. Upper-left is 0,0 (early versions of Illustrator put that 0,0 at the lower-left). Photoshop measures everything in the current measurement unit, whatever that may be. At the top of my script I tell Photoshop to use the pixel unit of measure:

set ruler units of settings to pixel units

From this moment on, the program is computing values in pixels.

This is the way Cartesian coordinates work in Photoshop (and everywhere else):


The crop marks I want to draw are one pixel wide and 150 pixels tall (in this example, that’s 1/2 inch). I needed one at the top and bottom of each panel, on both the left and right edges, and one-half inch in from the edges (these are crop marks).

Here is the code for the AppleScript to make the first mark at the upper-left of the photo:

set _LineShape to {{150, 0}, {150, 150}, {151, 150}, {151, 0}}
select current document region _LineShape
fill selection of current document with contents {class:RGB color, red:0, green:0, blue:0} opacity 100 without preserving transparency
deselect current document

Parsing those lines of code, the first line lists the Cartesian coordinates of a 1-pixel by 150-pixel rectangle, located 150 pixels from the left edge of the image. The second line of code tells Photoshop to create the variable _LineShape (which is the name of the line I am drawing). The next line fills the shape with black (RGB 000) with 100% opacity and no transparency. The last line deselects the current selection so that I can make another selection.

The other three crop marks are made the same way, but with different coordinates in the x,y positions for all corners.

At the end of the script I return Photoshop to inches units for measure:

set ruler units of settings to inch units

…and then I end the script. The result is a photo with a larger canvas (the background color is used to expand the canvas) and crop marks on the corners:

Running the script – even on multi-gigabyte files – takes just a few seconds. It is absolutely precise and absolutely repeatable.

Here is a photo showing crop marks like those I have described here:

Burning Man at with marks

Notice that it has pairs of one-pixel-wide crop marks top and bottom, left and right. That is exactly what the script does, after it increases the canvas size.

When you need precision, and I often do, using techniques like this can make a job successful where dragging rectangles on screen will not be as accurate.


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