: This session is specifically dedicated to tactile diagrams, and Robert Jaquiss is our first speaker. We will start with discussing different methods of printing tactile diagrams and how they can be used in different settings, but also, Robert, maybe you can say a few words on the latest, state of the art methods in tactile printing.
Thank you, Dr. Levent. My area of expertise is tactile graphics. I also, of course, as do my colleagues, have familiarity with various screen readers and optical character-recognition systems, and Braille displays and Braille embossers.
There are a number of ways to produce tactile graphics. I will kind of hit some of them, going from the least expensive to the most expensive. Probably the least expensive and one of the most time-consuming is what I would call the “collage method.” Somebody takes a piece of Braille paper or tag board and glues on whatever junk they can find. That may be j-u-n-q-u-e “junk,” but it does amount to people gluing on embossed, heavy craft foil, sandpaper, pieces of Braille paper, cardboard, strings, pasta products. I’ve even seen people use seeds. I even saw one person use…they wanted some heart-shaped symbols and they used heart-shaped soda crackers. This whole mess is then put inside a machine called a thermoform machine. A piece of plastic is put on top [the collage]. Heat is applied, vacuum is applied, and you have a plastic copy. That is probably … and you can keep doing this until the master wears out.
Some people actually make a collage and use it directly for blind people. Some of the things my parents made … my mother glued stuff together, and I looked at it and that was done, and that was probably the oldest system that there is.
The thermoform machine came around in the early Sixties, and it made it possible to reproduce peoples’ creations in textbooks. The disadvantage of this collage method is all this different kinds of stuff: sometimes it doesn’t glue, and especially when people use food products. People love spaghetti because you can get it wet, and you can lay it down on a page and you can make it … you can get it wet so it’s kind of flexible. You can make it into really beautiful curves and stuff, and of course it would be slightly sticky so it would stick down when it dried. Of course the mice and the rats just loved it. It was breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So I advocate people stay away from food products when making this stuff.
Probably the next area as far as technology goes is what I would use; it’s called swell paper. A piece of very special paper is put into an ink jet printer or sometimes a photocopy machine, if you’re brave, and an image is copied on it with carbon-based ink, or carbon copy toner. The result is that when you put this page through a special heater, a raised image, the black image, raises up. Basically the paper is coated with microcapsule solutions and when this stuff gets hot, where the carbon ink is, it raises up, so you have a nice raised image. You can do nice things with that. It’s kind of either raised or not. You can get a little bit of texturing with it. Depending upon how clever you are, you can get fairly nice graphics out of it. It takes practice to make that work. One advantage is that it’s fairly quick. If you have computer files you can generate, you can make repeated copies.
The machine to process the paper is about $1,000. I personally like the Retrotronics Machine the best. The others I don’t think are as safe. The downside of the process is that the paper costs like 85 cents for 8 ½- by 11- inch sheets; you can get 11- by 17-inch pieces of it, but you’re talking $1.50 per piece, so you can’t make lots of copies unless you do have a large budget.
Probably the next expensive device would be the Tiger printer. The Tiger printer is an impact printer; it makes raised dots on paper. The prices of these machines go from $6,000 to $10,000, and they are pretty good. They can do some textures. They can do about four different heights of embossing, but the lines are all dots. For some things it works. If you want an outline map, it’ll work. If you want simple shapes, it’s a good process. You can do some interesting things with it. You can actually do pie charts and stuff with the Tiger printer and it works well. It will make Braille for you. For a certain set of applications a Tiger printer is great.
The nice thing about the Tiger printer is that it uses paper. You can use plastic in it, but it uses paper, and the Braille paper is pretty inexpensive, three, four, five cents a sheet. You can run off fifty sheets and it’s no big deal – you haven’t broken the bank. One of the things I think people have to understand is when you’re making these tactile graphics, when you’re learning how, and even when you’re trying things with different students –different folks like different strokes – it will take practicing and experimenting. I kind of like systems that I don’t have to spend a dollar for every experiment that I try.
The next technology out there, which I don’t have equipment for, I have only looked at equipment and looked at the results, is a thing called an engraver. Roland D. G. produces a machine called the EZ 600/400. We’re talking $12,000 roughly with all the options. The machine will carve a fifteen- by twenty-five-inch image about an inch high. So you can do an inch high bas relief. It will carve it in wood, plastic, and soft metal like brass and aluminum, but it’s kind of intended for wood and plastic. The neat thing about it is that it’s all computer controlled. You use a computer to design your image, your whatever it is you wanted carved. You put your piece of raw material in, turn it loose, and go out for a long lunch. It can take two or three hours, depending on how complex [your design] and how fine a carving tool you use.
The advantage: the machine can do a lot of textures, it can do all kinds of heights up to an inch, so you can do a lot of stuff with that. As I said, the machine is about a $12,000 machine so we’re talking about a fairly expensive piece, but hey, if school districts can afford a Tiger, a $10,000 Tiger, these engraving machines aren’t really much more of a stretch.
The material costs can vary. Obviously, if somebody puts in a chunk of brass it’s going to be kind of expensive. You can use, and I have seen used, a structural foam, like you would get at Home Depot. You could use a two-by-six or a two-by-twelve craft board and you would get … the surface quality would vary a bit depending on what you use, but it’s not a bank breaker to experiment with things.
Probably the next step up, and it’s kind of a big step up, is a milling machine. A milling machine is like a wood-carving router, computer controlled, and the Roland MBX 650 is available. This machine, complete with options, starts at about $26,000 to $28,000. If you want to get the full-blown package with the tool changer and the rotating table, you’re looking at close to $40,000. It will carve an object fifteen by twenty-five inches with a six-inch height. It is also possible with this machine to carve smaller objects. You can carve the front side and give it computer commands; it will flip the thing over and carve the back side. For instance, carve a horse on both sides, and then kind of cut it away from the jig that holds it.
It’s a very nice piece of equipment; it’s solid, well built. They, too, can carve in a variety of materials as long as it’s not hard stuff like iron or steel. You can do a lot of really fantastic stuff with these kinds of machines. The material cost is fairly low: wood, plastic, foam, modeling wax, whatever you want to put in it . And you can get some nice shapes for probably a lot of things: a lot of bas relief and some three-dimensional models if you wanted to. It would take a lot of practice, but one could. It has a lot of potential.
Probably the last class of machine, the fastest, the most exotic, are known as a true graphic prototyping machine. These machines are computer-controlled devices that deposit layers of material. Some of these things range from the low $30,000s on up. I think the most expensive one that I think is reasonable to deal with is a $300,000 Stratus Maxim machine. That thing can make a model twenty-three inches square and nineteen inches high, and they are used in the industry for making models.
The advantage of this kind of technology is that you can make an ABS-plastic of a polycarbonate part, or a model. You can make models with moving parts. They may be expensive, but they have the potential of making some very fancy models. If you want to make one or two of something for a museum, the best way is, of course, to go to a service bureau, and there are such places to have this kind of thing done, and then you can have a pretty durable plastic part to look at. And, of course, if you have a plastic part that can be molded with vacuum casting you can make dozens of them.
There is another machine from Israel known as an Objet Quadra. It uses epoxy, which is cured by light. It can make very fine details. The output is pretty durable. You wouldn’t want to drop it because it could break, but you could get some really nice surface finish on it.
There is one other technology and it is kind of exotic. It uses wax and it can make parts of extreme fine detail with wax, and the parts cannot be handled, they have to be used as a master for a mold.
That’s pretty much on all the technology. I would say that I have a couple of core axioms that I would use when thinking about tactile graphics and one of them is there is no such thing as one solution that fits all. You have to think about what you’re doing, what it’s being used for and pick the technology that would be appropriate.
I almost forgot to mention Tactile Vision. They have a very nice process of raised-line images. You can get some very nice raised-line images and textures, and it’s a process you can make lots of copies with. That’s a very nice process.
It occurs to me, that I missed one item. There’s an outfit called Touch Graphics in New York. Steven Landau has a process that he uses a CNC machine to carve in a piece of plastic. He carves a negative mold, and he can then pour silicon into that and make a positive that he uses as his base for a thermoform copy. It makes very beautiful thermoform. It’s very nice and an inexpensive way to duplicate that.There is some really interesting technology out there. One of the things that I think has some real potential is there are some digitizers, so it is possible to digitize an object like a coin or some rare museum artifact. You can digitize them in color, you can digitize them straight, and you can make a plastic copy. So you can make a plastic copy of some Greek coin or an Indian arrowhead or whatever it is that you might have, and then you’ve got a plastic copy that people can handle.