Collaborate – via your printer

Hewlett-Packard has rarely featured in – which is hardly surprising as HP is mainly known in architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) circles as a provider of print hardware solutions, not collaborative software applications. Indeed, I learned last week that there are now around 1.5 million HP DesignJet large format printers in use, and that it has about 65% of the EMEA market for such devices. But reflecting recent trends in AEC professionals’ working methods, HP has begun to think about how its printing solutions can meet the needs of those who need to share design information in an increasingly mobile and collaborative world. And the printer itself can now become part of that collaborative enterprise.

EMEA launch

Along with a handful of other bloggers and a lot of journalists, I was invited to the Copenhagen press launch (see also news release) of two new HP large format printers and – of most interest to me – its HP ePrint & Share service.

The HP premise, conveyed in some flashy videos (like this), is that despite advances in electronic communication design teams still need to print out and to sketch and write upon printed paper drawings. According to HP research, design projects typically take up to two years, involve around 30 people, feature three design reviews a week, require three PDFs to be shared a week, with around 500 plans created per project. Around 80% of large format prints come from PDFs sent through email or over the web, we were told, but now most sites (60%) have wireless internet and can receive drawings by email (no mention of online construction collaboration platforms).

However, professionals also want to be able to share design information simply by means other than a desktop such as smartphones or tablet computers, without some of the multi-step conversion processes related to PDF creation (“publishing PDFs can be a nightmare” said one HP person), and simplifying the digital-to-paper then paper-to-digital transmission processes.

As a result HP has begun to look at how its hardware might incorporate ways to help those professionals, and simplify the sharing process. The result, said Santiago Morera (HP’s VP and general manager for HP DesignJet Worldwide), is a new generation of printers that are currently ‘web-enabled’, and which, from next year, will be ‘Web connected’. We saw HP’s new T2300 eMFP – already dubbed “the world’s most collaborative printer” – a multi-function printer with scanner capabilities including vectorisation (using Autodesk Raster Design), that has been in development for three years. It incorporates a user-friendly touchscreen interface (similar to smartphone screens – see video), and prints can be shared with team members with just a few taps of the touchscreen. Importantly, that touchscreen does more than manage the device – it can also be used to access files stored on the web, so users wouldn’t always have to use their PC.

Free online storage

Currently, sharing is accomplished via conventional network folders, but in Spring 2011 HP will open its HP ePrint & Share service (“the world’s most collaborative printing solution” – video), offering free storage of files “in the cloud”. Iolanda Monserrat-Siles, product manager for ePrint & Share, explained that users would get up to 5GB of free storage space (adequate for most users, she said; pressed on this, she admitted there were no plans on how much extra space might be available – and at what price – if users needed more than 5GB).

Using Copenhagen-based BIG Architects‘ Shanghai Pavilion as an example, she demonstrated how a HP plug-in for AutoCAD enabled one-click PDF creation locally, and then showed how the PDF could be saved to HP’s cloud storage service. In the meantime, the recipient in Shanghai would receive an email containing a link to that file which they could then print out, review, mark-up and then scan back into the ‘conversation’ as another PDF.

Along with a couple of other attendees, I was curious as to whether this development meant HP was going to be going into competition with existing vendors of online collaboration platforms (I talked about BIW, Aconex and 4Projects, for example, while Berlin-based Eric Sturm – who I met for the first time at the event – wondered the same about Conject). HP said that once the service went live, they didn’t want such vendors to see HP as a competitor; instead they envisaged opening up dialogues with such third party vendors and other planroom providers about enabling HP printer users to be able to upload, scan and share drawings direct to their preferred platform provider, perhaps creating new gateways to these platforms via an application programming interface (API).

The storage space is effectively a single library folder and as dozens of files are uploaded it could become difficult for one to find particular files. To help identify files relating to different projects, the HP service allows users to ‘tag’ each file – but this is still a “basic” service only capable of holding a single tag.

Other questions concerned the AutoCAD plug-in. Clearly AutoCAD was selected for its dominant position in the AEC design market, but HP anticipated that customer demand would also prompt other CAD vendors (eg: Bentley, Graphisoft) to work with HP to create a similar plug-in.

(I will be writing a further post giving a little more detail about HP ePrint & Share after I have received some responses to some questions I asked Iolande.)

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