By Cassandra Balentine
Print service providers (PSPs) looking to invest in a cutting system have a lot to consider. Options range from digital flatbed cutting machines to XYZ cutters; computerized numerical control (CNC) cutters, routers, and plotters; laster cutters; and traditional rotary die cutters—available in different sizes and configurations as well as varying levels of automation.
For more traditional cutting, rotary die cutters rely on physical dies to create a shape and are well suited for high-volume, static runs. These machines cut and process material between two rotating cylinders for the desired effect.
On the other hand, digital cutters utilize a knife, blade, or other tools that follow a computer generated cutting path. Flatbed digital cutters feature a bed and cutting arm with various attachments. These systems also enable unique and custom cuts.
With a flatbed digital cutter, PSPs differentiate themselves with the ability to handle a range of intricate cuts in house, just in time.
Above: Vision Engraving’s VR48 CNC router/engraver features a 4×8-foot work area.
Automated, flatbed cutters are popular in wide format print environments. The ability to control turnaround times and quality are a driving factor.
Digital cutting goes hand in hand with digital printing and offers similar advantages. “Any print provider whose production workflow is such that it could be made easier and more productive with any of the following should consider investing in a digital flatbed cutter,” says Beatrice Drury, marketing manager, Zund America, Inc. She lists production flexibility, easy switchovers, tooling versatility, integration and automation options, and cut-to-print matching as notable attributes offered by digital flatbed cutters.
Matteo Muto, sales and marketing manager, Valiani, suggests the same rules apply when searching for finishing equipment to complement a wide format printer. Many features and factors determine which to buy, including material compatibility. “These cutting machines are characterized by different features and are available in several formats. The choice of the machine size will then go along with the size of the material to be processed and, if it is printed, with the capacity and maximum print size that can be achieved.”
Rick Salinas, VP of marketing, Duplo USA, points out that mounted wide format and direct to board is gaining popularity. “The cost of the printers to do this type of work has also become more affordable,” he shares, noting that printing on a larger size is not enough of a differentiator to add significantly to the profit margin. “Utilizing a digital die cutter with these print devices allows users to create an unlimited amount of high-value items. Some of these items can include on demand custom boxes, totally freeform shape signage, or point of purchase displays. This gives PSPs the ability to create high-value items by eliminating the commodity pricing that comes with flat, square printing.”
The ability to control the quality and turnaround time allows those with a router/cutter to meet the most stringent demands. “So, while the industry has shown that most PSPs purchase flatbed printers first, a strong case can be made to start with a cutter,” suggests Mark Packman, digital finishing product manager, MultiCam Inc.
Caroline Bell, marketing coordinator, Elitron, sees many PSPs look to flatbed digital cutters when they want to upgrade from a standard flatbed cutter to a fully automated system.
In many cases, Mark de Guzman, marketing, Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, suggests consumer demand dictates the acquisition of new equipment. “If there is an influx of jobs requiring one-offs or small-run cutting applications, purchasing a flatbed cutter would be ideal,” he suggests, adding that a flatbed cutter can produce a clean, accurate cut and is cheaper than die cutting because it is not required to machine a die. “With an automated cutting system, you will save time and money when compared with manual finishing. A flatbed cutter will allow you to cut a variety of materials, including medium density foam, rubber, fiberboard, and other semi-rigid materials.”
Summing up the benefits of digital flatbed cutters, Raum DiVarco, GM, Cutworx USA, notes configurability and versatility. “At the base, flatbed cutters are ideal for designers and prototyping in offset printing, digital printing, the packaging industry, roadway safety signage, and various other market segments,” he notes. A variety of machines and tooling include plotter and tangential drag knife tools, electronic and pneumatic oscillating options, electric and pneumatic rotary options, creasing options, router capabilities, and specialty modules.
In addition to knife cutting solutions, laser die cutting is a digital process that enables the cost-effective production of small volumes. Therefore, David Stevens, technical development manager, Trotec Laser, says print providers processing smaller quantity jobs might consider investing in a flatbed laser cutter.
“In contrast to rotary die cutting, laser die cutting enables a reliable and clean process as well as consistent results without wear. If the main function of the business involves any textile, film, or foil cutting they might be better suited to a laser flatbed cutter since processing is contactless and there is no warping or movement of the material,” he suggests.
Traditional Die Cutting
With the availability of automated, digital flatbed cutters, is there a place for rotary die cutting in wide format environments?
According to Bell, the answer is yes, but this depends on the type of production. “If jobs are repetitive and projects don’t tend to vary, then die cutting is a valid solution. If, however the print provider personalizes and varies many different project designs, using smaller- to medium-sized production batches, digital cutting is the way to go, as this offers far greater flexibility.”
Drury agrees, adding that long runs of predictable/repetitive jobs, where cutting an entire sheet at once—rather than each piece individually, as is the case with a flatbed cutter—would result in significant time savings.
The determination to invest in one over the other, or to operate both, comes down to the numbers—production quantities and individual job sizes, and of course, the willingness to invest. “Having a complete finishing department in house gives PSPs more control and flexibility over the production process and allows them to opt for digital finishing for short- to medium-sized production runs, while using the die cutting for the longer, ‘standard’ production runs,” notes Bell.
In any case, having in-house cutting equipment provides the fast turnaround necessary to stay competitive in the marketplace. “If flexibility, reliability, and independence are top priorities of the business owner, it would be wise to have both of these equipment offerings in house as compared to using third parties for either or both processes,” shares Stevens.
Muto adds that flatbed digital cutters and plotters are an effective solution to meet the basic needs of graphic, packaging, and printing companies—including prototyping quickly, outsourcing less work, eliminating startup costs, creating original projects in house, and just-in-time manufacturing. “If you recognize yourself in these types of needs, you should probably carefully consider purchasing a flatbed plotter,” he suggests.
He also points out that this type of machinery, compared to a traditional die cutting machine, is less suitable for cutting large amounts of material. “The reason is that the traditional die cutting machine is able to finish these processes much faster.”
However, Muto feels that comparing flatbed plotter die cutting with traditional die cutting is a mistake to avoid. “This is because the processes are completely different, both in method and concept. When choosing a machine, it is necessary to have in mind what production volumes we want to achieve. It is the quantity that determines the final choice.”
“Our current installations have found that digital die cutters compliment traditional steel rule dies, rotary die cutters, and wide format flatbed cutters to handle any run length and any size of output,” adds Max Allen, director, wide format, packaging, labeling solutions, Graphic Whizard Inc.
Across the board, automation is becoming essential.
Packman points out that many jobs now require multiple knives or router bits. So, the need for automatic knife/router bit changing is critical to automation. He says reducing manual tool changing both increases productivity and reduces labor costs for these jobs.
Many flatbed digital cutters allow operators to switch back and forth between different blades and cutting methods that are more suitable for cutting intricate shapes/fine contours, says Drury. This type of technology is more cost effective than traditional die cutting, where the amount of detail significantly affects production costs. The same is true for small quantity orders, where die making—in addition to die storage, management, and maintenance—becomes prohibitively expensive. With a digital workflow, it is possible to create additional efficiencies with workflow automation such nesting/ganging small jobs together, which makes both the printing and cutting process even more productive and cost effective.
Media handling can also incorporate automation. Bell says stacks and pallets of sheets containing many different smaller quantity cutting jobs can be automatically loaded, cut, and creased, and then unloaded. “This fully automatic, unmanned production process frees up operators and allows production over three shifts—24/7.”
“If you need to automate long and repetitive operations by optimizing working times, an automatic feed die cutting machine is just what you need,” recommends Muto. “With this kind of automatic machine, you only need to set the desired workflow, start the process, and then it will carry out the project independently without the need for an operator for hours. At any stage of the production process these cutting plotters are able to recognize and report errors or malfunctions, stopping to avoid wasting materials.”
Vision camera registration automatically looks for printed registration marks on a printed surface, then proceeds to size, scale, skew, or rotate the cut file to perfectly laser cut the printed design. Without this kind of automation, Stevens warns this process would not be possible.
DiVarco points out that front-end automation is used for advanced prepress workflow integration. “There are options for streamlining processes from preflight, design, prepress, through print, finishing, and into packaging,” he suggests. Enterprise software integration options are also available with modules for ERP and MIS.
Cutting is essential to the wide format production process. An investment in a cutter should take into account volumes and job type. For longer, static runs a traditional die cutter offers productivity gains, while a flatbed digital die cutter offers just-in-time capacities and the ability to handle bespoke work more effectively.
Jun2022, Digital Output