By Olivia Cahoon
Many print shops experience bottlenecks during finishing. To streamline productivity, flatbed routers and cutters are designed to efficiently process a variety of materials.
Above: The Esko Kongsberg C includes a carbon fiber beam to ensure it provides both speed and accuracy over the entire surface.
Rapid changes and advancements to printer technology pressure print service providers (PSPs) to remain competitive by investing in faster, more efficient digital presses. Printer investments are often made without a thorough analysis of how added printing capacity affects the entire production workflow and the need for cutting and finishing, says Heather Roden, strategic account manager, graphics/packaging, Zünd.
This is especially true for jobs that involve routing, which may also require multiple processing steps such as cutting, polishing, and engraving. “These finishing functions are inherently slower than printing—even with the fastest high-powered equipment and most efficient finishing workflows,” explains Roden. “Meanwhile, print provders also realize that the real price point differentiator comes from the complexity of their finished products, not the ink they print on a substrate, which heightens the demand for more complex and time-consuming finishing.”
The introduction of certain applications into the digital print industry further neccesitates flatbed routers and cutters. “Growth in packaging is a perfect example. Keeping up with UV flatbeds runing 60 to 80 boards an hour is a requirement for finishing,” says Mark Packman, product manager, digital finishing, MultiCam Inc.
One advantage of flatbed printing is the variety of compatible materials. However, this creates a challenge for print shops without CNC equipment. “They have to use different tools, techniques, and more manual labor to finish materials such as foams, films, aluminum, and plastics,” shares Lance George, plastics division sales manager, Biesse America.
Robert Marshall, VP of market development, AXYZ International, agrees. “There is growing customer demand for the use of these materials and print shops need to be able to accommodate them in their finishing processes.” Traditional automated finishing equipment isn’t capable of processing thicker materials, resulting in the need for manual operations, which are often time consuming and error prone.
Fabric printing is a segment that presents finishing challenges. Finishing typically requires a considerable amount of space, which puts pressure on PSPs to find devices with multiple capabilities. “We have customers using the same machine for fabric laser cutting, knife cutting, and routing,” admits Steve Aranoff, VP marketing and business development, MCT Digital.
Traditionally, different workflows controlled printing and cutting/routing separately, with finishing requiring a specific knowledge and experience. As printing advanced, finishing became integrated into the print workflow but with added challenges. “While printers linked to graphical bitmap and DTP programs, cutting and routing are 100 percent vector based and more related to CAD programs,” explains Barry Budwit, VP/GM, Summa America LLC.
Transitioning from bitmap to vector is challenging and requires adequate software, experience, and skill. Otherwise, it becomes a time consuming process prone to flaws, which is why manual cutting methods are still used, believes Budwit.
Digital Saves the Day
Today’s flatbed routers and cutters address bottlenecks in accuracy and media handling while speeding up production.
Compared to manual cutters, these devices complete the finishing process at a faster rate, with higher accuracy and less waste, shares Javier Mahmoud, VP of sales and marketing, CET Color. Faster cutting speeds are essential for print shops utilizing high-quality, wide format presses. “They print at higher quality and faster speeds, which can bottle up the finishing process,” he continues.
In addition to faster speeds, flatbed routers and cutters process a variety of materials including different types of wood, plastic, and metal. “Configured with the right software, accessories, and tooling they are well suited for addressing these bottlenecks,” comments Marshall.
Due to increased media handling, Maureen Damato, sales account manager, Colex, believes flatbed routers and cutters are ideal for sign shops producing point of purchase (POP) signage and yard signs. A variety of these devices offer the ability to contour cut designs and cut multiple-up projects printed on 4×8-foot rigid boards of corrugated plastic, foam board, aluminum composite, acrylic, and wood.
According to Aranoff, a flatbed router alone cannot fix today’s high-volume POP bottleneck problems because it cannot address all the materials that need finishing efficiently and quickly. “Today’s flatbed cutters and routers have stronger knife cutting capabilities for a wider assortment of materials and are a great replacement for a traditional flatbed router.”
These devices are also designed to address repeatability and accuracy challenges often found in orders that require large amounts of the same product cut to the same size. This is especially problematic for manual cutting with textiles. “Manual cutting will limit work from large accounts,” cautions Damato. The use of an automated device ensures all products are finished identically.
New Enhancements Offer Automation
Advancements improve the finishing process to the point where it only requires PSPs to load media and press start. “With an automated feeder, conveyorized cutter, automated target detection, automatic cut line correction, and automated cutting, the overall process can be very streamlined and unattended,” admits Dana Goodale, director of product management, Gerber Technology. “With this type of workflow, the parts need to be separated from the waste material and sorted, potentially saving days’ worth of labor.”
At Graphtec America, Inc. some of the newest enhancements the company focuses on include high-resolution cameras for reading registration marks, upgraded belt drives and motors, vacuum tables to hold down smaller substrates, and easy to use software.
To ensure the router/cutter always cuts perfectly, job setup processes are now performed automatically. “This means that whatever material is to be produced is identified and the correct tooling to use for the job is recommended—all automatically,” shares Russell Weller, product manager, digital finishing, Esko. The result is standardized production with any material, and jobs produced correctly the first time. “In other words, you produce the high speed and great output quality every time, regardless of who is operating the table.”
Manually fed machines present a considerable bottleneck, especially in print shops with advanced digital printing capabilities. According to Weller, automation devices address this bottleneck by ensuring the table continues production and is equipped with materials on the bed—offering complete unattended operation. These devices include pallet-to-pallet sheet machines and roll-to-roll devices.
Newer flatbed routers and cutters are also designed with camera registration for accuracy. Materials like PVC expand or shrink according to temperature, which lessens the accuracy of die-cutting graphics as temperatures vary. For example, George says some materials stored in a hot warehouse may need time to normalize. Camera registration software compensates for this skewing and expansion to offer a more accurate cut to the print line. “For very high volumes of digital finishing, automatic sheet loading and pendulum processing should be considered,” he suggests.
Selecting the best type of finishing device depends on the print shop’s most important materials. For PSPs unfamiliar with flatbed routers and cutters, it’s important to consider the application and the printer.
Flatbed size is a critical topic as changing the size of the table is either not possible or costly. In sign making, Budwit says 60 inches is a popular width, in regards to both the printer and material. “Of course, when going wider, large boards could be processed in landscape mode to optimize the media handling workflow.”
Considering the print shop’s most important materials helps to determine table configuration. If considering the ten to 20 most typical materials used in the sign industry, Weller suggests a device that is available in several sizes, is known for its extreme engineering, and provides a solid table compatible with many different materials. “A solid table is key for sign companies that work with many different materials and operators,” he explains.
Router options also depend on the PSP’s specific production scenario. According to Roden, the fastest, most powerful router may not always be the best choice for a customer when a lower cost router delivers the same quality but takes longer to execute. “When investing in routing capacity, always consider what portion of your business offering this application encompasses and invest accordingly,” she offers.
An automatic tool change system is desirable as different materials require different router bits, and changing tools is time consuming. Marshall suggests PSPs select a ten horsepower routing spindle with a seven- or ten-station automatic tool change system. High-power routing spindles are also essential for efficient processing of hard materials. “It’s no good having a lighter duty spindle, which would require multiple cutting passes to cut through a sheet of acrylic or aluminum.”
Selecting a proper flatbed router/cutter also transitions to a higher return on investment. According to Aranoff, MCT customer data indicates the labor savings of replacing manual or semi-automatic cutting is estimated at five to ten hours saved per one hour of machine cutting time. Depending on the machine and lease term, he says the approximate lease cost per hour is $18 to $35. “That is close to the cost of one employee that can do the work of five to ten employees.”
Budwit says it’s essential that flatbed cutters easily integrate into the current print workflow. “The software controlling your table should be able to handle all kinds of file formats—and most importantly—the RIP for printing should have print and cut support with drivers for the system.”
As an alternative to purchasing finishing equipment, Goodale suggests first time buyers engage in a symbiotic relationship by outsourcing to a print shop with a digital cutter/router. “This shop might be able to acquire finishing capabilities without any equipment investment at all,” he explains. “As the need grows, the new PSP will have an idea about capabilities, speed, and price based on their subcontracting experience.”
PSPs just starting out should also consider devices with scalable and modular features such as the ability to add new tools, brands with proven reliability, and productive software.
By investing in scalable/modular equipment, PSPs prepare themselves for the future demands of the sign industry. “As their business changes, instead of walking away from their original investment and purchasing new equipment, they can further build on it and continually tailor the system to their needs, which is a more sustainable strategy,” says Roden.
If possible, Goodale suggests PSPs purchase devices capable of adding new, modular tools. “This allows the system to grow in capabilities as the shop’s needs grow,” he explains. Today’s finishing tools are designed for specific uses including thick materials like cardboard or leather, fabric, carbon fiber, and even fiberglass.
Sometimes, new PSPs get themselves into trouble when it comes to addressing scalability and modularity. For example, if the router is originally configured with only a routing spindle, George says it can be an expensive retrofit to add a camera for registration or a knife cutting system. “This is why knowing the target market is so important.”
Not only is modularity a major topic on the initial budget, but also the knowledge that it’s difficult to predict how the market develops. “Having a modular system makes you ready for the future,” comments Budwit. These systems offer a variety of tools for existing equipment—expanding the PSP’s available services with little investment.
In addition to table size and modular tools, consider finishing software to ensure the workflow runs smoothly throughout production. “A company will want scalability in both the table and workflow solutions,” recommends Weller. “You invest in what you need today and as the business grows, add new modules as needed.”
Flatbed routers and cutters are designed to streamline the entire printing process and eliminate finishing bottlenecks. Advancements in speed, cutting tools, and media handling enable improved efficiency that translates into saved time and cost.
Sep2018, Digital Output