AutoCAD Plots & Scripts (The Prequel)
Moviegoers are usually thrilled to hear of new “Plots & Scripts” to prequels or sequels of movies they love. Many would die for having the inside scoop on the upcoming plot twists or get their hands on initial rough drafts of scripts, so they know what to expect next. But for AutoCAD users the phrase “Plots & Scripts” not only have a completely different meaning but may even send chills up their spines.
PLOTTING IN THE BLIND
Before I continue, let me provide a bit of historical background to plotting with AutoCAD. Since the initial release of AutoCAD version 1 back in 1982 through version 11 in 1990, the program would launch and land on this dull, text based, numeric command and keyboard driven page called Main Menu (see Figure 1).
To plot a drawing, you would have to use your keyboard, hit the number 3 for “Plot a drawing”, correctly type in the drawing name and properly respond to a number of plotting parameters. If you mistakenly entered an incorrect parameter at one of these steps, there was no going back. You would have to cancel the plot command and start from number 3 again.
Even after you correctly entered all the plotting parameters, you still have to wait a while for the computer to process the drawing data. Now keep in mind that all these steps were done in the blind without any graphic user interface (GUI) and there was no option to do a preview before output.
But still the plotting procedure is not over. Because now you’ll have to wait for the plotter to receive this data and process the information before finally spitting it out onto a sheet of paper. I recall there were many instances when what came out on paper was not what I wanted so I would have to go back to AutoCAD and start the whole process all over again from number 3.
ANCIENT PLOTTER TECHNOLOGIES
The other impediment that slowed the entire plotting process down was the plotter itself. Back in the mid 80’s to early 90’s there were two major competing types of plotters on the market: Electrostatic and Pen. Electrostatic plotters though fast in output produced very low-quality plots. Pen plotters on the other hand though slower in output produced very high-quality plots. Many offices at the time chose to go with the pen plotter for the higher quality needed to impress their clients.
I remember the first office I worked at in 1988 had such a pen plotter. There would be a pen carousel carriage holding various ink pen sizes (see Figure 2).
Though it was truly mesmerizing watching the plotter magically spin the carousel and automatically swap out pens at will throughout the plot output process, there would be no warning when the ink would suddenly run out. Amazement would instantly turn into horror as you saw the ink dry up and stop drawing on the sheet of paper. Unless you had purposely saved the plot file beforehand as a PLT file (which took up an enormous amount of space and back in those days hard drive space was a precious commodity) you would then have no choice but start the entire lengthy plotting procedure all over again from the top at number 3.
After about a decade from the first release, AutoCAD finally offered some major plotting enhancements. Beginning with Release 12 in 1992 the program at startup would no longer land on the keyboard driven Main Menu text screen. Instead, AutoCAD started up in the graphic drawing area. You now can take full advantage of using your mouse to select commands from the graphic menus, i.e., side screen menus and top dropdown menus (see Figure 3).
Furthermore, AutoCAD developed new commands that would implement the use of dialog boxes as the GUI. The Open command was one of these new commands. For the first time users can now visually see folder and file structures from within AutoCAD’s graphic drawing area. Then with simple mouse clicks users can navigate and easily select a drawing file to open. There was no longer the need to go back to the Main Menu, hit number 2 on the keyboard to “Edit an EXISTING drawing” and tediously type in the entire path and drawing file name (see Figure 4).
Also, many existing commands were literally given a facelift. The Plot command was one of these existing commands. You finally can see all the plot parameters presented in a single GUI for selection. This eliminated the possibility of mistakenly typing in an incorrect response to one of the many plot prompts forcing you to start all over again. To top it all off, there was even a plot Preview feature. Now you no longer need to guess what might come out of the plotter. Instead, you can actually view the result on the screen before sending the file for plotting. Note: Zoom and Pan features from within the Plot Preview window were later added in AutoCAD R14 (see Figure 5).
But unfortunately, from AutoCAD 2000 to 2006 Autodesk revised the Plot GUI to incorporate tabs on the Plot window. These tabs were labeled as Plot Device and Plot Settings separating various plot parameters into two windowpanes (see Figure 6). This caused quite a bit of confusion since not all the parameters could be seen on a single window. Oftentimes users including myself would forget that selecting the parameters on the Plot Device tab is not enough. But there were actually more parameters that needed to be selected on the Plot Settings tab before sending the file to the plotter. In addition, having to select tabs to switch between panels was quite cumbersome to say the least. When you’re on the Plot Device tab you would be thinking: Now what did I select as the paper size? Or when you’re on the Plot Settings tab you would forget what pen settings you chose on the Plot Device tab.
After more than six years of this Autodesk finally heard the end users outcries and revised the Plot GUI once again. Starting with AutoCAD 2007 to the current version, there would be no more tabs on the Plot window. Instead, a selectable arrow is positioned in the lower right corner of the Plot GUI providing users with the option to click on the arrow to reduce or expand the window. Expanding the Plot window would reveal on the right the Plot style table (pen assignments) column (see Figure 7). I would typically leave the plot window fully expanded. I don’t see any logic with a smaller Plot window nor a need to hide the parameters under the Plot style table column. (Perhaps Autodesk’s programmers wanted to flex their muscles to demonstrate how the window can be easily designed to expand and collapse? FYI: The same unusual expand and collapse feature is also implemented with the Hatch GUI.) Now I can once again see and have the option of selecting all the plot parameters in a single window just like it was back in AutoCAD R12.
Another major plotting enhancement Autodesk implemented started with AutoCAD R14 in 1997. Included in the full install was a little program called Extended Batch Plot Utility. Though Extended Batch Plot Utility can be launched from outside of AutoCAD, it still required AutoCAD to be installed in order for it to function properly. The task it performed was exactly as its name. Extended Batch Plot Utility for the first time gave users the ability to select multiple drawings to send to the plotter all at once without the need to manually open each drawing from the AutoCAD command prompt. But since R14 did not have the ability to save plot settings from within the drawing file, the last plot settings used was the only implementation supported.
Then when AutoCAD 2000 came out there were several plot setup changes. For example, the new PC3 and CTB+STB files replaced the old PC2 & PCP files and Page Settings were added to save plot settings from within the drawing file. To accommodate for all these changes, Extended Batch Plot Utility was redesigned and given a shorter name of Batch Plot Utility. But like the previous version, Batch Plot Utility can only be launched from outside of AutoCAD as a separate program. As was the case with R14, many users were not aware of this little utility gem in 2000 since it wasn’t a command that can be run from inside AutoCAD. They would actually have to go looking for it under AutoCAD’s program window (see Figure 8).
Batch Plot Utility’s GUI conveniently positioned all the controls making everything accessible starting from the top left corner of the window. In addition to dropdown menus, there were also a number of buttons to add drawings and save the current project to be retrieved for batch printing again at a later date (see Figure 9).
But one very important feature offered in R14’s Extended Batch Plot Utility that 2000’s Batch Plot Utility dropped was Plot Stamping. I found the ability to label a plotted sheet with the Plot Stamping information to be very helpful. I can trace back to the user who logged in to create the print job as well as reference the drawing file name where the print job came from. I wonder why Autodesk chose to drop this very important feature from this utility in AutoCAD 2000 (see Figure 10).
Now what I really liked about both Batch Plot utilities was that each offered an option to select certain Layers to not plot before the batch plotting process began. This way I could avoid the laborious task of manually opening each drawing to set the Layers On/Off status first before plotting. But there were two drawbacks to this feature. The first was that you had to select one drawing at a time to review and apply the Layer On/Off controls. The second was there was no option to enter wildcard characters to filter out Layer names to apply the On/Off settings (see Figure 11).
The Batch Plot Utility was such a welcomed addition that Autodesk decided to include this as a new command called Publish that would run from inside AutoCAD 2004. But the Publish command offered a completely different GUI than Batch Plot. Now all the controls moved from the top of the window to the bottom and all the dropdown menus were eliminated (see Figure 12).
Though Publish brought back the Plot Stamping feature, having to learn a whole new GUI was a major setback. But the biggest shock of all was that the Publish command dropped Batch Plot’s Layer control option. I had hoped that Autodesk would have added more Layer control features like support for Layer filtering and the ability to select multiple drawings for Layer On/Off control before plotting. But unfortunately, none of this happened.
Also initially, Autodesk wanted to push their own digital portable document format (PDF) called Design Web Format (DWF) as a standard for distribution of plotted files. So, in addition to sending batch print jobs to the plotter the Publish command was purposely designed to facilitate the creation of DWF files. To try and get everyone to jump on board the DWF bandwagon Autodesk even offered a free viewer called Design Review which you still can download today: Download Design Review | DWF Viewer | Autodesk. But in the end Autodesk’s efforts proved ineffective. The popularity of Adobe’s PDF had spread rapidly to the design and construction industry. Everyone preferred PDF over DWF. So, Autodesk eventually built into AutoCAD a number of PDF output devices and again reworked the Publish command GUI to support not only DWF, but PDF output as can be seen in the current Publish command in AutoCAD 2022 (see Figure 13).
NEW AND IMPROVED PLOTTERS
As the AutoCAD software provided improved plotting enhancements, technological advancements appeared on the plotting equipment as well. Pen plotters were soon replaced with faster and more affordable ink jet plotters that matched the pen plotters’ quality. The first ink jet plotters I used were the HP Designjet 600 (monochrome) along with the companion 650c (color).
These were not only faster but they offered additional intelligence such as detecting ink cartridge settings. The DesignJet plotter is equipped with the ability to detect when ink is not spraying out properly from an ink cartridge and would prompt you with a Service Pens message. This is especially helpful when ink cartridges approached empty and needed to be replaced (see Figure 14). Now you won’t have to deal with ink running out in the middle of a print job.
Also by the late 90’s another even faster monochrome plotter began to hit the market. This technology was based on the implementation of Light Emitting Diode (LED) toners which is similar to a copy machine. The Xerox 8825 was such a plotter the office I worked at acquired at the time (see Figure 15). Though the Xerox 8825 footprint was extremely small, it offered two metal drawers that each held a roll of paper up to 36” in width. There was even a model called 8830 that offered three metal drawers. To speed up the plot data processing, this also came with a companion computer which ripped the data received for each print job. The documentation even claimed that it was 5 times faster than the ink jet and I saw this unbelievable plotting speed happen before my eyes. Instead of standing there waiting for the HP DesignJet to spray the ink cartridges back and forth across the width of the sheet till the length of the print job is completed, the Xerox LED plotter would process the print job received in seconds and then the entire sheet would just “ooze” out completely done.
STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH
Even with all these software enhancements and hardware advancements increasing the speed of the plotting process, generating output from drawing (DWG) to a hardcopy set whether for internal office review or as required by the client is still extremely time consuming. The process always relied heavily on human intervention. I recall many times when there would be a team meeting early Friday morning. The project manager would set a deadline for a plot set for review by 3pm that afternoon.
Immediately everyone would scramble and go into panic mode. Because not only would the staff need time to complete the task of many drawing revisions, but now they’ve been given the extra laborious task of plotting. Since AutoCAD’s Publish command lacks the capability of adjusting Layer settings prior to sending drawings to the plotter, the only option was for each AutoCAD user to manually open the drawings they worked on, make sure Layer settings appeared correctly, create the plot file while they’re in the drawing and then hope for the best that it’ll come out looking perfect – which rarely happens. Usually when the clock struck 3pm there was still not a single sheet successfully printed for review.
SCRIPTS & PLOTS
So you may ask: What do Scripts have anything to do with Plots? Can Scripts help improve the plotting process? Are Scripts the holy grail for today’s Plot conundrum? What are Scripts anyways? Well to find out, you’ll just have to wait to read “the sequel” that will appear on next month’s issue of AUGIWORLD.
TO BE CONTINUED (I hope)...
Mr. Paul Li graduated in 1988 from the University of Southern California with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. He worked in the Architectural field for small to midsize global firms for over 33 years. Throughout his tenure in Architecture, he has mastered the use and customization of AutoCAD. Using AutoLISP/Visual Lisp combined with Dialog Control Language (DCL) programming he has developed a number of Apps that enhance the effectiveness of AutoCAD in his profession. All the Apps actually came out of meeting challenging needs that occurred while he worked in the various offices. He has made all the Apps available for free and can be downloaded from the Autodesk App Store. Though he recently retired from the Architectural profession, Paul continues to write articles depicting his past work experience. Some of these articles can be found in AUGIWORLD Magazine where he shares his knowledge learned. Paul can be reached for comments or questions at PaulLi_apa@hotmail.com.