Print on demand

Navigationally speaking, we straddle three centuries. Some of us still navigate the 19th century way, with compasses and dividers and sextants, with plotting sheets and paper charts. At the other end of the scale are those outfitted with fully integrated digital navigation systems, this fleet composed of a few leading-edge commercial vessels, some high-tech yachts that simply must have all the latest toys, and an increasing number of naval vessels fitted with navigational gear designed to go to war – clearly 21st century technology.

In between are the majority of us, who use what we can afford and what we understand and therefore trust. We use a GPS for position-finding; we might have a chart plotter and a few chart CDs; and maybe from time to time we log onto the web for tide information and perhaps chart updates. But mostly we still use the paper charts we buy from the store, printed perhaps several years ago, and they still need to be corrected the day you buy them. (In practice, only commercial operators actually do this, because they are required by law to do so. The average recreational boater seldom ventures far from home waters and is usually aware of changes in the local navigational situation by observation and marina scuttlebutt.

But the days of correcting charts may be coming to an end, because print on demand (POD) is here, a new service that provides charts updated to the time of the sale. No longer will it be necessary to buy a chart and plot a bunch of corrections published in the Notice to Mariners in the weeks and months, and sometimes years, since the printing presses ran off many thousands of copies. No longer will those copies sit collecting dust in warehouses. And no longer will it be necessary to trash thousands of old copies when a new edition is printed. Every chart can be updated to the date of the sale. That’s the promise, anyway. So how far along are we toward this goal?

NOAA has been experimenting with this technology since the summer of 1997. (So have the USGS and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.) NOAA offered prototype corrected charts to more than 400 mariners, conducted user surveys, and operated a prototype production site. The studies have shown some important capabilities, and a serious limitation. First, NOAA is able to keep its chart suite up-to-date for all Notice to Mariners corrections. Second, acceptance by professional mariners has been good, and a number of improvements have been suggested and are being studied. And, most important, the existing technology produces a fully usable and legal paper chart, one that exceeds the traditional chart in some respects. The limitation, and it is a big one, is that point-of-sale printing is not yet possible. The charts are printed in Minnesota and shipped overnight express to the sales agent.New features

The new charts offer several features not available with traditional printed charts. Readability both in daylight and at night is improved because, free of the limitations of the standard colors used in ink-based lithographic printing, the plotters can offer distinctive, brighter colors. Lamination is available to make the chart both water and abrasion resistant. The margins can be printed with tidal information, marina information, boatyard and shipyard data, commercial shipping agent data – virtually anything that can be transmitted digitally and processed by the system can be added to the chart. ot’s even possible to customize the margin information for each company, agent, or individual user on request. But the price per chart is higher: $20.00 vs. $16.40 for a traditional chart.

The charts are printed by OceanGrafix of St. Paul, Minn., which receives chart image files from the Coast Survey. They receive chart orders, print them out, and then send the orders by express shipment to the sales agent, who sells to the customer. During the pilot phase of the project, sales agents are adjusting inventories (how many of which chart to order each week), surveying mariner acceptance, and monitoring sales closely. OceanGrafix only prints charts when ordered, so there is no wasted ink or paper. This may save some costs associated with recycling outdated traditional charts.

Charts can be ordered through the sales agents e-commerce web site, where orders for traditional charts can also be placed, speeding up the chart sales agents’ procedures, minimizing mistakes, and increasing the efficiency of their operations.

According to NOAA, when a chart accumulates about 50 corrections, a new edition is called for. Preparation of the new edition takes several weeks, while printing and distribution add a few more. Meanwhile, changes accumulate: shoals develop; channels are dredged; buoys are moved; harbor construction projects proceed; lights are changed; etc. The result: When you walk into the chart sales agent to get the latest edition, it is already out of date by at least the number of weeks it spent in the production/distribution cycle. But wait, it gets worse. NOAA says the time between new editions ranges from six months to 12 years, and averages 43 months. So the average chart has more than three and a half years of corrections to apply before it is considered legally usable for navigation.Correction time eliminated

While this may not be a vital issue for the recreational boater, it’s a big one for the commercial operators, who must have legal charts aboard before getting underway. Legal means corrected. Every second mate in the U.S. seagoing merchant fleet spends hours and hours of off-watch time correcting new editions, hours he or she could better spend on more productive work such as actually navigating.

On many smaller vessels, the master performs the chart correction task. Or not. The promise of POD is that now, not only can commercial operators be freed from worrying about correcting new editions, recreational boaters will be assured that the charts they buy are corrected as of the date of purchase.

But will they really meet legal requirements of the Coast Guard? Yes. A statement on each chart will state that the chart meets all requirements of law, even citing the applicable statutes. The Coast Guard has already used these charts and approved them. That should satisfy the admiralty courts and legal staffs.

The thing that makes POD possible, of course, is digital data, charts in the form of digital information. That makes it possible to transmit the information over wires or via radio waves, so it really doesn’t matter where in the world the printer is, as long as the system can handle the data flow. One might think all this digital data would make at least a dent in the paper chart market. Not so, says NOAA. Raster-formatted charts on CD-ROM have been available since May of 1995, and there has been no letup in the demand for paper charts.

Recreational boaters tend to purchase a chart only once every couple of years or more, or perhaps whenever a new edition comes out. Professionals, because they have to obey the law and have a greater stake in maritime safety, will usually buy every new edition that comes along, and are also better about keeping them corrected. In fact, sales agents sometimes keep portfolio lists for large clients, and buy and ship charts automatically. (In eight years of professional boating, I never knew a yacht skipper who corrected his charts from the Notice each week. Usually the yacht club scuttlebutt and local knowledge keep everyone informed, and most corrections are less critical to small craft than to oceangoing ships.

By now some of you are thinking, why can’t they just post the charts on a web site so I can download and print them myself? Actually, this concept is in use by the military, where a secure Internet system allows users to access a number of products virtually anywhere in the world. But NOAA’s job is slightly different. They don’t just distribute data; they are responsible for distributing charts. And a chart is a legal document. These charts must be printed according to certain specifications as to print size, resolution, color, and data integrity. A chart printed on a home printer is unlikely to have the right specs to be usable for navigation. The exception is fully digital charts, where the display can be controlled to some extent, but no chart plotter can be considered a legal chart system. That designation is reserved for fully IMO-compliant Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS), which can cost more than a luxury car.

Eight minutes a chart

NOAA has been using a Hewlett-Packard DesignJet 2500CP 36-inch inkjet plotter in their POD trials. A variety of papers are used, but 24-pound paper is standard right now. Traditional charts are printed on 50-pound paper, and the difference is immediately noticeable. It takes about eight minutes to print a 36-inch-by-42-inch chart at 300 dots per inch. NOAA has found that point-of-sale plotting is not yet possible due to the complexities of files transfers, formatting, file maintenance, and bandwidth limitations.

At eight minutes per chart, a dealer could only print 60 charts per day. That’s a fair number, but if someone wanted to order charts for, say, a trip from Newport to Miami, or New York to Antwerp, the plotter would be tied up for a few days just on that one order. Pretty soon the dealer needs a large-scale color copy machine. This would be an expensive proposition for most chart dealers. In fact, for what it might cost to have a complete point-of-sale setup, you could buy a decent small yacht (including charts!).

So, for now, we’re stuck with having charts printed by NOAA’s partner, OceanGrafix, and shipped to the dealer the next day. In fact, any order received by 10:00 a.m. will be shipped the next business day so as to arrive at the sales agent the second day after placing the order. That’s excellent service, when you think about the amount of work you’re saving in corrections.

POD charts are a little more expensive than traditional ones, but count your blessings. In France they pay $34 to $39 per chart, in Britain $26.50 to $35, and in Australia $30 to $33. Norway, Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand range from $23 to $30. North of the border our Canadian friends pay $16 to $17, while the price for NIMA and NOAA charts is $16.50. (Variations in foreign prices are due to currency fluctuations.) And different countries subsidize their hydrographic operations in different ways, so the numbers don’t necessarily reflect actual costs.

POD charts played a prominent role in the International Naval Review and Opsail 2000 in New York, where the Secretary of Defense used them to brief the President aboard the USS Hue City.

I suspect that the success of this project is assured due to of several factors. First, the bottom line is the bottom line. Cost. If a ship operator can save a bunch of second mate overtime by ordering corrected charts for a couple of bucks more than uncorrected ones, he will certainly do so. So perhaps POD can be considered another step in the continuing evolution of digital charts. Until we all have legal electronic charts print on demand is the next best thing.

The print-on-demand web site URL is:

By Ocean Navigator