By Melissa Donovan
Space is at a premium in many a sign shop. With the recent recognition and subsequent push into automating the finishing end of the print production process, many print service providers (PSPs) find themselves in a jam when it comes to identifying room on the shop floor for modern finishing equipment.
Luckily, automated flatbed cutters are available in smaller configurations just for this reason. For the purposes of this article, we’re considering compact flatbed cutters around 52 inches in width and 48 inches in length. These tables offer knife, laser, and/or router features, depending on the user’s needs. It is important to note that the size of the flatbed does not mean the quality and speed of a more compact device is compromised.
Above: Smaller CNC routers like Vision Engraving’s 2550 Series can free up larger systems for bigger applications.
Compact flatbed cutters aren’t new to the market, smaller-sized automated finishing equipment has been available for some time. However, it seems there has been a recent resurgence in interest when it comes to these devices.
One reason, according to Mark de Guzman, marketing, Vision Engraving and Routing Systems, is that businesses are searching for ways to rebuild after the COVID-19 pandemic. “Workshops are looking to streamline their workflow, eliminating waste and increasing turnaround times. Smaller devices can free up larger systems for larger applications. Giving smaller jobs a separate pipeline will reduce bottlenecks, alleviating workload on larger systems.”
Besides improving production efficiency, smaller finishing systems like dedicated laser devices can offer versatility. “This broadens product lines to meet new market needs—improvements that could be crucial to remaining profitable in an uncertain business environment. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from 2020, it’s to have a plan but remain flexible,” notes David Stevens, industrial applications manager, Trotec Laser.
PSPs may already have wider format or larger scale systems and are looking to add something more compact to their arsenal of tools, suggests James Stanaway, director of marketing, Epilog Laser. “Smaller format, compact laser cutters are in high demand because they allow PSPs to cut three-dimensional components from a variety of substrates to create layered, dimensional pieces.”
“Compact finishing systems are ideal entry models for businesses that want to extend their application portfolio or enter new markets,” adds Daphne Mertens, marketing and communication, Summa.
Smaller automated finishing systems are also more attractive financially—another reason for peaked interest. PSPs are continually looking for ways to spend less while updating their equipment portfolio. “A smaller CNC machine can cost much less than a larger machine and still offer professional-grade precision, quality, and durability. A faster turnaround time and a better process can increase profit margins, quickly allowing businesses to recoup the initial investment on a smaller, low-cost CNC router,” explains de Guzman.
“Experts focus on compact products, suitable for many industries, giving the possibility to make unlimited products. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many enterprises are thinking about reducing expenses while still investing—without sacrificing quality, efficiency, and accuracy,” comments Matteo Muto, sales and marketing assistant, Valiani SRL.
Multiple environments find a need for smaller format compact finishing systems. “We know that industrial manufacturers, as well as small sign shops, require a high-speed cutting table to keep up with the manufacturing process, but floor space comes at a premium. The high cost of owning or renting space has been a serious problem for many in the sign and display market,” shares Stuart Fox, president, Kongsberg Precision Cutting Systems.
“The demand for compact finishing systems is coming from research and development shops, colleges/universities, job shops, and smaller mom and pop shops that do not typically have the available footprint in their shops for large systems. These businesses still want access to the functionality and efficiencies of the larger systems, but need something that can fit their space,” explains Derek Kern, president, Kern Laser Systems.
According to Beatrice Drury, marketing manager, Zund America, Inc., “the demand for smaller machines in the Zünd product offering has generally been tied to narrow-web printing applications, primarily for folding carton and sample making, as well as small format graphics such as decals and labels.”
Stanaway finds users of compact laser systems creating intricate work on all types of paper for invitations and wedding cards. With more customized applications from these businesses, customers look for a more upscale product.
While demand has always been in place from customers with less available space and those producing samples, Caroline Bell, marketing coordinator, Elitron, says this has expanded with “the high costs of rent and property ownership, especially in large cities, with space at a premium and some of the large format cutting systems simply won’t fit.”
Small but Mighty
There is a misconception that if something is physically smaller, there has to be other compromises. That is not the case when it comes to compact flatbed cutters. These tables often offer the same features and specifications as their larger size counterparts without compromising on quality and speed.
At Zünd, its systems’ modular design means there are no significant differences in features, specifications, or versatility. “On the contrary, the smaller S3 line of machines is built for speed and generally allows for quicker acceleration than is possible with heavier duty applications,” says Drury.
“A smaller working area does not necessarily indicate lower quality or slower speeds. Many compact, flatbed lasers are designed for maximizing productivity and are offered in higher wattage options, as dual-source laser systems, and with pass-through capabilities,” explains Stevens.
When it comes to quality, “the same quality parts and materials used on larger machines are used on smaller systems as well,” notes de Guzman.
For example, Maureen Damato, partner, account manager, Colex Finishing, Inc., says the company’s smaller Sharpcut flatbeds are manufactured with the same “robust construction” as its full-size models. “They offer a one-piece steel welded frame guaranteeing cutting of roll material and rigid board to deliver clean, smooth edge quality.”
The same can be said of Elitron’s smaller multi-functional cutting system—Spark. According to Bell, its construction and the materials used are the same as those used in all of Elitron’s systems—the highest quality is always guaranteed.
Kern Laser’s OptiFlex series of laser flatbed devices from 52×100 down to 52×25 inches can be equipped with the same laser sources and options. “Many of our machines are designed around a common gantry width allowing the table to be shortened without sacrificing features or performance,” shares Kern.
The Kongsberg C20 features the same robust engineering as the bigger tables in the Kongsberg C series. It utilizes aerospace technology, combining an aluminum composite tabletop, a rack and pinion drive system, and dynamic table mapping.
“It all comes down to the technology, components, and quality of the machine build,” recommends Stanaway.
Speed is a different story, as speed of a device can fluctuate in direct relation with the size of a device and the material being cut. “When compared to larger systems, there may be a slight reduction in cutting speeds. However, the material dictates the ideal settings in most cases. If you go too fast or too slow you can damage your application,” admits de Guzman.
Comparing larger and compact flatbed finishing systems, the obvious difference is size. But besides that, other differentiating features depend on the manufacturer. PSPs should put time into researching what features or options may be missing between a small and large device to avoid any challenges in the future.
With size as a true differentiator, if a PSP is looking to continually process 4×8-foot boards, then a small, compact finishing device isn’t for them. “The ability to accommodate bigger sheets makes a larger bed size more productive and profitable, with less need to interrupt production for material handling purposes,” suggests Drury.
“The only major difference is the size,” asserts Mertens. “For the processing of very large banner material or high-volume jobs, the larger machines may have an advantage over the smaller ones. So an important factor to consider here is the size of the material to be cut as well as the size of the jobs.”
Bell agrees, saying that the only disadvantage to a small format flatbed cutter is that larger formats cannot be cut. Due to the reduced size of the working area, there is less productivity.
“The format of the sheet/media to be cut is always a downside in small flatbed cutters. This aspect scares print providers, for they are sometimes forced to renounce a smaller cutting system as it does not allow them to cut the materials that they printed beforehand,” notes Muto.
For dedicated laser systems, Stevens says the main difference other than physical size is wattage. “With lower wattage options, typically below 200 watts on smaller lasers, PSPs would be limited in terms of cutting capabilities when it comes to material thickness and speed.” He provides an example of cutting through an inch or more of acrylic. Cutting this on a smaller laser system would compromise the edge quality of the material during the cutting process.
Of course that depends on the manufacturer and their capabilities. Kern Laser is able to place any laser up to 700 watts on even its smaller machines.
While there are many compact CNC routers available that offer the same features and options as their larger counterparts, de Guzman says the concern with the smaller machines is build quality.
“What raises concerns with smaller machines is build quality. Because of size, you can build a smaller-size system cheaper, less rigid, and with fewer quality parts. These hobby-grade machines cannot handle the workload of a professional sign shop,” he warns.
Addressing Future Needs
Many times PSPs bring a smaller flatbed cutter in house with the forethought that in time they may need a larger device. Luckily, these machines are designed to grow along with a printer’s business. Many manufacturers offer the capability for their cutters to be retrofit or upgrade paths with modularity options.
One way to upgrade a smaller system is to add accessories. Elitron allows users to add individual tool modules to its compact Spark system. It can even mount a 1kW milling module. In addition, a sheet feeder and/or sheet unloading stacker can be added at any time.
Stevens provides examples of features added to Trotec laser systems like a camera registration system to create clean cuts around printed graphics or a fiber laser source to existing CO2 systems for industrial marking opportunities.
At Vision Engraving, users add on to smaller CNC routers with options like its Auto Raster Braille Inserter. This automatically inserts braille beads into a braille sign. Another popular feature is the oscillating knife option for cutting semi-rigid materials like cardboard and closed-cell foam.
Upgrade paths may be in field on an existing device if the upgrade is something as simple as say adding a higher wattage power source—which speeds up engraving and allows cutting through thicker substrates, notes Stanaway. “If a PSP is growing and needs to increase the size of the materials they are creating or be able to produce a higher volume in one run, a bigger laser bed is necessary and an upgrade will be required,” he adds.
Depending on how high the wattage change is at Kern Laser, it can be as easy as switching the lasers and keeping other things like the existing chiller, power supply, and wiring, according to Kern. Its 100, 150, and 200 watt lasers are all interchangeable. However, if going from 100 to 400 watts, more components need to be upgraded like the chiller, power supplies, electrical panel, and mounting blocks.
“In these cases, we offer customers a trade-in program. So if in a few years down the road the customer moves into a larger facility and if ready for a larger machine, we would give them a trade-in credit for their laser system that they could put towards purchasing one of our larger laser systems,” he continues.
Similarly, Muto says Valiani recognizes that print providers’ needs may change over time, and as such it allows its smaller finishing systems to be upgraded with new tools via trade-in options.
All Zünd cutters are designed to be modular, and that is true for the smaller models as well. “There are upgrade paths available on every single model that allow print providers to adapt their systems to changing needs,” says Drury.
Compact and Powerful
For a PSP short on space, or perhaps someone looking to offset work that is tying up a larger device, a compact flatbed cutter—knife, laser, or router—can be a great addition. Most models are comparable to their larger counterparts in terms of quality and features, while size and sometimes speed may differ. It really depends on the type of material and volume of product that will run through the device to determine whether a smaller format cutter is the right fit.
Sep2021, Digital Output