By Melissa Donovan
Customization is common for finishing tables—there are endless combinations when it comes to table size, tooling, and media handling. For example, one vendor may offer ten distinct configurations based on five standard cutting table widths, while another allows customers to personalize length with table extensions. Optional features include roll-off, sheetfed systems, full conveyors, and various tool heads that meet unique cutting demands.
Print service providers (PSPs) consider customization as they look to outfit production floors with flatbed cutters and/or routers that truly meet their individualized needs. Driving this trend, the print industry’s infusion into other markets and by association the introduction of numerous applications that require digital finishing.
Above: The Zünd Q-Line with BHS180 is a fully automated, high-volume, pallet-to-pallet digital finishing system.
Driven to Succeed
Demand for customized automated finishing tables is growing.
Especially over the last ten years, notes Caroline Bell, marketing coordinator, Elitron. “Customers are more aware of the available features, and understand the benefits and savings of opting for digital, automatic finishing systems. Demand is mostly driven by the need for increased personalization and the lower job runs as a result. Time to market and just-in-time production add to the demand as customers require orders immediately. In many cases there is a short turnaround, especially for web to print models. In the past, there was a long lead time to produce physical dies whereas with digital dies this is eliminated.”
“The demand for automated finishing tables has increased in the last ten years due to PSPs’ needs in regards to improving productivity and the growing challenge of hiring employees,” agrees Keith Verkem, product manager, Colex Finishing, Inc.
Melody Thompson, sales and marketing manager, Hasler Solutions USA, believes many factors drive the demand for customized, automated finishing tables. In addition to efficiency and productivity, she cites “reduction in labor costs as well as other cost reductions, quality control, product differentiation, regulatory compliance—especially in label manufacturing for healthcare and food label manufacturing, environmental considerations, and market trends—personalized goods are on the rise and these finishing tables make it easy to produce one-off or short-run jobs on the fly.”
The variety of substrates cut is another important feature, according to Christina Lefebvre, area sales manager, North America, eurolaser. “Every machine installed cannot be configured the same way because PSPs all have different needs, productivity targets, and budgets. In the past, machines were more cookie cutter, where every shop had the same functions and features whether they were in the printing or automotive industry. Nowadays, equipment is tailored for each industry, with different functionalities and features—and is customized for each end user’s needs.”
There is an ever-expanding range of available print substrates and thanks to convergence of the printing industry with other industries, e.g. packaging, “these all come with their own specific requirements and the ever-growing pressure to produce more, faster and cheaper. This ultimately translates into more and better automation. To some extent, all of these trends were further accelerated by the disruptions of the pandemic, causing many PSPs to pivot to other areas of application, which again required equipment that could be easily adapted as the demand for pandemic-related products waxed and waned and supply chain issues and labor shortages arose everywhere,” shares Martin Thornton, business segment manager, Zund America, Inc.
Echoing comments from Lefebvre and Thornton about the print industry touching other industries, more so than ever before, “PSPs that have found niche products or services to produce at a high volume, usually require a customized automated finishing table. They need a dedicated machine that repeatedly cuts a specific application accurately and consistently over a long period,” says Mark de Guzman, marketing manager, Vision Engraving & Routing Systems.
Attractive to a Tee
Customization is attractive to PSPs because many cut more than one type of material, with jobs that are different sizes, dimensions, and require multiple tools to achieve success.
In times of market volatility and other uncertainties—combined with higher interest rates—the ability to customize cutting/finishing tables as well as modularly update that table when needs change, helps PSPs save money now as well as into future. “It ensures their initial investment in high-quality equipment will provide many years and even decades of reliable returns,” continues Thornton.
“Customizing a machine means that they have a piece of equipment tailored specifically for their needs, with options they will use, without paying for features they do not need,” says Lefebvre.
It allows PSPs to work outside their comfort zone. “Customers can have a crazy idea of what they want to fabricate and the PSP can say ‘yes’ to take on the work, even if it falls outside their norm. Customization is important for automated finishing tables because PSPs can add new capabilities as they take on new applications. New tools are added anytime, as the PSP’s applications expand to new avenues with new materials,” explains Thompson.
“PSPs can offer a greater selection of finishing processes to their customers, and it enables them to add automation and different features when required and/or their budget allows,” shares Bell.
While many finishing tables are able to cut more than one type of substrate—and this may be what makes customization so attractive—the PSP that uses its machine for one specific material and shape also benefits. “A custom finishing table provides a precision cut multiple times over a long period consistently. It is a quality many print providers are attracted to. The added customization of either a router, engraving head, or oscillating knife can tailor its capabilities to a specific use needed by the PSP,” explains de Guzman.
Custom Feature Sets
Customization involves mixing and matching cutting table widths and lengths, optional features like sheet feeders and conveyors, or various tool heads.
Customization, according to Lefebvre, is “important to help the customer achieve their goals—not all of them cut the same materials or have the same productivity targets, or budget.”
It’s important to understand the end user’s cutting requirements when customizing a table. Asking questions is crucial to figure out the best configuration for the customer’s needs, states Lefebvre. What material are they cutting? What dimensions does this material come in? Is it in roll form or sheets? Do they cut multiple types of materials? Is it printed with graphics?
Customization effects many parts of the finishing device, some of the more obvious include cutting table width and media handling to tools.
In terms of table dimensions there are many options. eurolaser for example offers ten different sizes of machines. Customers can choose the width and length that best fits their production.
There are also features to ensure sheets are handled and loaded with care to avoid damage and scratching of printed boards during loading and unloading, shares Bell.
Another option related to media handling is an automatic sheet turner, like the Reversa from Elitron. This is a standalone or integrated system that turns printed sheets so that they can be cut and creased with the print side facing downwards.
For tools, customizable items include things like multiple router heads—1, 3, or 5 kW options; kiss cutting; through cutting; V-notch; and routing thick substrates like acrylic or Dibond. Even crease tools are added for folding carton and/or corrugated packaging work, cites Thompson, when discussing Hasler’s customization capabilities.
Other options that fall under the heading of customization at Vision Engraving are an Auto Raster Braille inserter for creating ADA Braille Signs and a vacuum table to hold down material for easy job setup, shares de Guzman.
Power is another example. “Offering customization means that the customer could choose the power strength they need by having a lower or higher wattage of a laser source. This would mean cutting through thicker materials, or increasing speed on easier to cut substrates,” explains Lefebvre.
While “modularity has always been the cornerstone of Zünd digital cutting systems and includes every component—from machine size and format to tooling, automated material handling options, and digital workflow automation, the latter is increasingly important during the past several years, with more customers looking to comprehensive digitalization to make their production more efficient, transparent, and cost effective,” adds Thornton.
“PSPs request production automation software with quick response codes and material libraries to avoid operator error when selecting cut files,” shares Verkem. This is in addition to inline solutions—board loaders and inline extension tables.
Thinking of Cost
More features, higher cost. That’s the general rule of thumb for customized products, however vendors agree that the return on investment (ROI) is achieved fairly quickly if the correct configuration is built for the PSP in question.
“Automated conveyor finishing tables cost more than the static models, however, Colex offers a Conveyor Ready option to static models for a minor up charge with extra components added during manufacturing so customers can upgrade to a conveyor model in the field,” explains Verkem.
Another example, at eurolaser, pricing starts with a basic machine and customers add the features they need. The more features added, the more expensive the machine.
In the case of Zünd cutting systems, each and every machine that goes to a customer is customized and/or bespoke, since all systems are configured according to individual needs. As soon as a customer places an order for a Zünd cutter, the order is assigned a serial number and the unit goes through production and final assembly according to the configuration as specified, explains Thornton.
Customized, automated finishing tables are usually designed to be modular. Modular devices offer a host of benefits—the most notable being the ability to grow with the PSP.
“Modular means the automated finishing table has interchangeable modules—in the Hasler cutter case, this mainly refers to the tools, however it can also refer to roll feeders and conveyor systems for more automated cutting. However, customers usually purchase the conveyor system with the machine upfront and add new tools later on when the need arises. New tooling can be added anytime in order to cut different materials,” explains Thompson.
In most cases, de Guzman says modularity is ideal “as the table can be customized for different materials and application sizes making it highly versatile.”
Lefebvre provides one example of a PSP that prints on textiles, but has a precise budget and chooses a less expensive 60W laser source. Once productivity increases, eurolaser is able to upgrade that laser source to 125W to increase the speed—without having to purchase a new machine or add a second unit.
By definition, many finishing tables that tailor to individual applications and needs are to some extent modular. The real question to ask, according to Thornton, is just how modular are they? “With Zünd systems, this is true for all components, which means—with the exception of the machine size—literally everything can be changed or added at a later date.”
“The benefits of this modularity is that the customer only has to purchase equipment that meets their immediate or most essential needs, which reduces the cost of purchase. They can adapt the system any time to accommodate changes without having to purchase another, separate system, which again saves cost; and with this adaptability, they can significantly extend the useful life and long-term ROI of the cutting system,” adds Thornton.
Another way to explain the advantages of modularity, it “protects the investment for the customer.” Verkem shares the Colex Sharpcut offers configurations that allow for easy upgrades and configuration changes if the customer’s workflow changes or if they need to pivot into a different market.
When it Isn’t a Fit
There a few scenarios where a customized finishing table would not be the right choice for a PSP.
During the exploratory period, if the PSP doesn’t see ROI over a set amount of time, de Guzman says investing in a customized automated finishing table might not be the right choice.
“If print providers have a limited budget, they may opt to purchase a static model with the option to upgrade to a conveyor model in the future,” suggests Verkem.
For PSPs currently outsourcing or only using a compact finishing system in house, a customized solution may not be a great fit, shares Bell.
“The only time it would make sense to go with a non-modular, non-customizable cutting system is if the customer really only has the need for a very specific application,” explains Thornton.
This could happen on either end of the production spectrum. “On the lower end, the customer may not require multiple tools or different kinds of material handling or workflow automation—and anticipates no changes in his production requirements or market demands in the foreseeable future. On the opposite end, they may be in need of a fully automated, high-volume, pallet-to-pallet digital finishing system like the recently launched Zünd Q-Line with BHS180. To benefit from this system’s speed as well as level and quality of the throughput, all components are a necessity so the modularity or customizability is limited mostly to tool options,” shares Thornton.
Factoring in Needs
Customization is a favorable feature in automated finishing tables, but a print provider must identify its current and future needs before taking advantage of the benefits.
Jan2024, Digital Output