There are a few ways of providing output that doesn’t involve paper. In this video, you’ll learn about printing to both virtual and 3D printers.
With virtual printers, there’s no physical output. There’s no pieces of paper to collect from the printer. When we’re printing to a virtual printer, we’re creating a digital document instead of a printed piece of paper. This means that we don’t need a physical printer, we don’t need paper, we don’t need ink, and we don’t need toner. Instead, we’ll create this output digitally, which means we can then email it to someone, we can save it on our hard drive, or send it across the network.
One type of virtual printing would be done through a print to file function. Here’s the print to file option inside of a print dialog box in Windows. This is commonly done when you’re working at home or away from work, but you want to be able to create output that you can then print out on the printer that might exist somewhere else. This means that you need to save this file into a format that that printer can understand. And to do that, we’ll simply use the print to file option, save the file locally on our computer. Once it’s printed to a file, though, you’re not able to use that file like you would a normal word processing document or spreadsheet. It’s an output file that can only be used and understood by the printer that was specified during the printing process. Once you get to work where that printer is located, you can then copy that file to the printer. You can commonly do this from the command line by copying the file name, and then specify the print interface on your computer. Commonly that’s LPT1 with a colon. The printer will then receive the file, interpret the information within that file, and create the output on that printer.
Another type of virtual output is printing to PDF format. PDF is a specific format type created by Adobe, and it stands for Portable Document Format. This allows you to take a document, a spreadsheet, or any other output, and put it into a form that almost anyone else would be able to read as long as they have a PDF reader. This is a proprietary format of output that’s very specific to Adobe. Fortunately, there are PDF readers available for almost any type of operating system on any platform. And many of today’s browsers already have PDF readers built into them, making it that much easier to read PDFs that you would download from the internet. Adobe makes software that allows you to print to this PDF format. There are many third-party tools available that allow that functionality. And you might even find some software that allows you to print to a PDF format from inside the software itself.
A virtual printer that allows you to print to PDF will show up as a separate printer in your Printers and Faxes inside of Windows. And when you print to that printer, you’ll get a dialog box that allows you to configure different settings for that PDF file. Once you click OK, it will ask for a file name, and you’ll now have that PDF file that you can email or store in your local drive. Microsoft has a virtual output type called Microsoft XPS that stands for XML Paper Specification. This is a very similar use case to PDF, but instead of being in the Adobe PDF format, this is printing to the Microsoft XPS format. This XPS format is available in Windows versions all the way back to Windows XP, so you can print to this XPS file and then read it in any operating system that has an XPS reader.
Another option for virtual printing is to create the output as an image file. This means the output would be a picture, and you’d be able to view that in any program that understood that image format. This is not a functionality that’s commonly integrated into your operating system, but sometimes the application itself may have an export function or print function to an image file. You might also find some third-party software that allows you to install printer drivers that would print to an image file type. But more often you’ll find this capability built into the application that you’re using, and it will be an export or print option within that software.
One of the newest kinds of printing is 3D printing. This allows you to take an electronic model that’s inside of your computer and create a physical version of it. You’ll sometimes hear this referred to as additive manufacturing. That means you start with nothing and you melt some filament, layer by layer, to create the object in the 3D printer. This is a little different than a manufacturing process that starts with a block of raw material and machines away the material until you’re left with the final product. The ease of this printing process also means that you could do rapid prototyping. You could design an object, print it out in the real world, see if it really fits your needs, go back to your electronic version, make a few changes, and simply 3D print it again.
Because these designs for these 3D print models are electronic, we can send them anywhere in the world and print them on any 3D printer. We even have a 3D printer on the International Space Station, so if the astronauts need a part that’s not currently on board, we can send them the file and have them print it out locally on the space station. Here’s a 3D printer in use. You can see the filament behind the printer that’s going up and going into the print head, and here is the physical object that’s being created layer by layer based on the digital model.