Print-on-demand plan treats charts as data

  From Ocean Navigator #135
January/February 2004
For hundreds of years nautical charts meant paper. Then electronic charts came along, and we seemed to have two types of charts: paper and electronic. The latest development in distributing paper charts, however, makes it abundantly clear that the real way to think of a nautical chart is not in terms of paper or pixels, but data.

Just as the first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed but only change form, nautical chart data can also take different forms: electronic raster, electronic vector and paper (and don’t forget those laminated nautical chart placemats – I love those!). The chart data is the same; only its presentation changes.

Image Credit: Courtesy OceanGrafix

A large-format printer renders chart data into the more useable form of a paper chart. NOAA and its industry partner OceanGrafix have developed a print-on-demand service for paper charts that is expanding nationwide. West Marine stores recently agreed to participate in the program.

This concept of chart as data is borne out in the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s continuing development of its print-on-demand (POD) paper-chart distribution program. In August, NOAA and its private industry partner, OceanGrafix of St. Paul, Minn., initiated the latest step in a possible national POD system. Two NOAA chart agents in New Orleans, McCurnin Nautical and Baker Lyman, have been testing a remote POD capability. Starting August of 2003, both chart agents were equipped with a large-format printer and a high-speed connection to OceanGrafix. Not only have the New Orleans chart agents been able to conveniently print charts to fill out their inventory, but when customers come in needing a particular chart, the chart agent can print it. The process works like this: When a customer requests a chart, the agent requests the chart data from OceanGrafix’s computer in St. Paul. Roughly 18 minutes elapse – during which time the server at OceanGrafix composes the data file and sends it across the wires to New Orleans – and the file begins printing on the agent’s large-format printer. After a few minutes of getting the ink on paper, the up-to-date chart, with the latest corrections, is ready for the customer.

This beta test was successful according to Richard Sillcox, NOAA’s print-on-demand project manager, “It’s going well, and it’s moving out of the beta test mode.” So well, in fact, that the number of these remote POD printing agents will likely expand. “We have plans for one more on the East Coast and West Coast,” Sillcox said. “The West Coast printing office will allow for easier delivery to West Coast ports, since they will all be in the same time zone.”

This first expansion of the system certainly helps West Coast users in terms of the time-zone issues, but having an East Coast site in, say, New York City, doesn’t provide much advantage for mariners if they are using an overnight shipping service. If you are in Wilmington, N.C., it still requires one business day, whether the chart is coming from St. Paul or New York.

The next stage of the POD system, however, should help with that. “By the mid to the end of next year, we plan to have 10 to 15 agents POD-equipped,” said Larry Kocon, print-on-demand business manager for OceanGrafix. “Our goal is to get it as fast and as easy to use as possible.”

For the local user who happens to live near a POD-equipped chart agent and wants an up-to-date paper chart, they can walk into a chart dealer and walk out about a half-hour later with a corrected chart. This capability is certainly attractive, and one wonders why all, or at least most, chart agents shouldn’t be equipped with this type of service. The biggest reason, of course, is cost. Each chart agent would need to have a large-format printer and a dedicated PC. (OceanGrafix has set up a plan that will allow chart agents to lease the necessary hardware and software.) Chart agents will also need a high-speed connection to the Internet. For those agents only selling a few charts a year, the expense of such a system would be prohibitive. “I don’t believe it would be cost effective for all chart agents to have them,” Kocon said.

The expense for such a setup, however, should decline over time. This means that the possibility of using POD charts could, in fact, become adopted by many chart agents in the not-too-distant future. For those chart agents whose chart sales don’t justify their own POD setup, there is the possibility of entering onto an arrangement with a nearby POD agent to supply charts.

In a development that suggests POD charts will be widely available, in October 2003 OceanGrafix signed a deal with West Marine. The chain of marine retail stores will install POD equipment at several locations around the country and will print and distribute charts to all its stores.

Even now, NOAA and OceanGrafix are planning on making the process even faster. Rather than having the agent request all the data files from the OceanGrafix computer in St. Paul, chart agents would have more of the chart data on the chart agent’s own computer. This data would be updated with daily corrections from OceanGrafix in St. Paul, so the charts remain ready to use. By having more of the data reside on an agent’s local machine, the longest part of the process becomes the time required to print the chart; there would be no delay for downloading what are typically large graphic files. In this system, chart users would get their charts even faster. “The agent at the remote site calls up the file, and it begins printing immediately,” Sillcox said. Using such a system, charts are always available and fast. That combination would seem to promote walk-in buyers.

The prime customers for these POD charts are commercial users on ships, tugs and fishing vessels. Professionals are required by law to keep their charts up to date with the latest corrections. By buying POD charts, professional mariners can save considerable time not having to correct charts by hand. Recreational mariners don’t have such a legal requirement, but they are (or should be) interested in using correct charts. Because of this, OceanGrafix is evaluating the nonprofessional market. “We are now looking at the recreational user,” Kocon said. “We think they ought to have a current chart at the beginning of each boating season.”

Even though electronic charts have become widely used by mariners, it still makes sense to have paper charts aboard, should electronic systems experience problems. And the idea of getting a corrected chart printed for you on the spot is compelling. If the program continues to do well, POD charts may well prove beneficial to recreational mariners by providing them with an up-to-date paper chart with a minimum of fuss.

By Ocean Navigator