By Melissa Donovan
As textile printing accelerates, it is important to address finishing. A breadth of cutting options are available for textiles, from automated flatbeds with laser options to semi-automated roll sheet cutters and handheld rotary cutting devices. These are not unfamiliar to the print service provider (PSP), as experience in cutting traditional flexible signage materials can translate to fabric.
An industrial, short-run, or one-off environment thrives when the correct cutting equipment in chosen. Volume dictates the tools required for finishing. Choosing a fabric cutter is also driven by materials and cost. The type of fabric used on a day-to-day basis may determine whether an automated conveyor flatbed system with laser cutting capabilities is necessary in comparison to a semi-automated, entry-level cutting device.
Cut Through the Clutter
Many PSPs may just be entering fabric printing, thus fabric finishing, for the first time. Helping to become quickly up to speed on their operation, they leverage their previous knowledge of finishing banners and vinyl.
“From a finishing standpoint, fabric is really no different than vinyl or banner material,” shares Dan Cantrell, national sales manager, Zünd America, Inc. With many digital cutters, it is as easy as adding a driven rotary tool and cutting the same as any flexible substrate.
Leonard Marano, director, product marketing, Gerber Technology, agrees. “Previous knowledge of fabrics used, banners or vinyl, will do nothing but enhance the cutting experience out of the gate. Understanding the difference in material properties allows setting cutting parameters for automated processes with a minimal learning curve.”
“Experience with cutting vinyl and banners is useful because it gives customers knowledge in regards to the needs of adapting to different materials and challenges, which come with the use of these materials,” shares Martin Sofranko, account manager, Assyst Bullmer Ltd.
While legacy knowledge plays a part in learning how to finish fabric, Steve Aranoff, VP sales and marketing, MCT, Inc., cautions that banner and vinyl materials are in many ways easier to handle than fabric. “They aren’t as soft and stretchable as fabric, and don’t fray the same way, nor do they get dirty in a manual cutting environment.” In essence, fabric actually benefits even more from an automated finishing system.
“Banners and vinyl tend to be more stable and repeatable through the production process than fabrics. Distortion is a common challenge with many fabric processes that can often be avoided, but if not must be accommodated,” explains Robert W. Boyes, senior product line manager, Coherent, Inc.
Slice of Life
Fabric production comes in many volumes. Whether it be industrial, short run, or one off, it’s important to find a finishing device that matches typical output quantities. Different work settings effect the level of automation and tool variability required.
“It really depends on the output needed,” adheres Jen Kester, marketing manager, Foster. “If it’s going to be an all-day, everyday requirement, then the customer might require something automated for a faster output level. If they are doing more short runs or if their budget doesn’t allow them to get something that big, then going with a tabletop cutting solution is a better fit.”
In environments where patternmaking is common, Werner Waden, president, Colex Industries, states that accuracy and repeatability are critical. “When cutting composite fabrics, small differences in the pattern can change the properties of the finished product.” Both semi- and fully-automated flatbed cutters equipped with intelligent software are ideal for this scenario.
“The market trend is toward just-in-time production so I recommend our customers to get in the short-run niche. For this, a conveyor belt driven digital table with roll feeding system is the best option,” explains Erick Rodriguez, territory manager, DGS – Digital Graphic Systems.
Paul White, sales account manager, tables, Esko, believes automated flatbed tables will do a better—and quicker—job for short runs and industrial applications. For one offs, many times these cuts are fine to complete manually.
Michael Cox, SVP, HSGM Heat Cutting Equipment & Machines, Inc., suggests small handheld units for smaller jobs and larger handhelds with a transformer separate from the handle for more continuous production atmospheres. “Large quantities are decision makers because you cannot use a unit designed for small jobs on large jobs with large quantities or you may damage the unit,” he cautions.
Carving Out a Plan
Various factors play into which cutting mechanism is the best fit for a printer. When determining which tool will aid in productivity—and not detract—PSPs should consider the type of fabric they commonly work with, usual dimensions of fabric, pattern/cut shape, and cost.
Material type is important. Having a finishing device that offers a multitude of cutting accessories—from a knife to a laser cutter—provides the print service provider with enough variety to finish any type of material.
“The two types of ways to cut fabric traditionally are with a knife blade or a laser. To determine which is best, the shop needs to look at the technical specifications of the fabric and learn how it is treated—many are sprayed or treated with a chemical to hold the fibers together better,” advises White.
Rick Heath, sales, ez Router, Inc., suggests that tangential knives, water jet, rotary knives, and lasers as all ideal for many fabric types.
“Some fabrics cut and seal well with laser, and others do not. Cottons, for example, require knife cutting—as do some thicker fabrics. Thinner fabrics, however, even if they can be cut by a driven wheel, are much better cut with a laser because they tend to stretch and pucker,” says Aranoff.
When using a hot cutter, which cuts and seals fabric simultaneously, synthetic fabrics are the best option. “If you try to use it on the something like cotton the material burns or the PVC base melts,” advises Kester.
Fabric size should be considered. Cantrell explains that in the fabric world 3.2-meter or ten-foot is a very common roll size, making width a consideration when choosing the correct finishing device. He points out that length is not so important because automated, conveyorized flatbed cutters allow for endless cutting.
“One of the first questions to ask yourself is what is my widest fabric. This dictates the width of the gantry. You will need a vacuum table to secure your fabric during automated cutting. This table can be as long or as short as needed, but longer tables tend to be more efficient,” advises Thomas Carlson, manager, Carlson Design.
Sofranko encourages customers to make full use of their five-meter wide printing equipment by purchasing the widest fabrics possible. This means a cutting machine must also be prepared to handle material up to five meters in width.
Many manufacturers create finishing devices specifically for the customer. “Systems are configured to meet the customer’s widest material and longest pattern piece that needs to be cut,” explains Elizabeth McGruder, marketing manager, Eastman Machine.
Patterns and types of cuts are another factor. “It depends on the type of material and pattern that needs to be cut. We determine if the customer needs to cut patterns, straight lines, large radius curves, one-of-a-kind patterns, and samples in high or low volumes,” shares McGruder.
For example, Aranoff points out that a semi-automatic roll sheet cutter using knife cutting/slitting would be a good option for handling rolls of mid-length or longer rectangles. Conversely, if PSPs plan on cutting smaller rectangles or other shapes like curves, a fully automated flatbed cutting system is ideal.
“It depends a lot on the upstream process and how the material will be presented to the machine. Flatbed machines with laser cutting options tend to do better with materials that are cut into sheet form, as this allows the material to be presented to the laser in a reduced stress state,” adds Boyes.
Ed Prieto, managing director, Media One Digital Imaging Solutions, LLC, agrees, explaining that since no pressure is placed on the media when cutting with a laser, it provides 100 percent accuracy. “It makes it an effective solution for an efficient workflow in the manufacturing of soft signage.”
Cost analysis is imperative for any large purchase. “Savings in labor and materials should be considered when evaluating your return on investment and selecting a cutter that makes the most sense for your shop,” shares Marano.
With many cutting systems, costs range depending on whether the PSP already owns a solution and simply needs to purchase the correct accessory to cut fabric or they are buying an entirely new cutter.
An automated cutting solution ranges from $20K to $60K at Carlson Design, depending on the model size and how turnkey or custom the user requests.
Laser-based machines vary in cost. For example, Coherent’s newest solution—which is built to handle fabric, film, or foil, lists at just under $100K.
Colex’s Sharpcut Basic Cutter is $80,000, while its Sharpcut Conveyor Cutter with an automatic roll feeder is $100,000.
Conveyor belt, automated roll feeding tables from DGS come in at $65,000 for a 51-inch width and $140,000 for a 120-inch model.
Eastman’s manually operated cutting machines start at $500. Its fully automated systems begin at approximately $70,000.
Esko’s Kongsberg tables, including all of the parts appropriate for cutting fabrics, start from a little more than $100,000.
For a cold cut, semi-automated option like Foster’s Evolution-E2, the cost ranges from $1,360 to $2,195 depending on the size. Looking to hot cut, a print provider can add a heat knife carrier option for an additional $240.
A small handheld heat cutter’s price at HSGM starts at around $150. A larger heat cutter offering more continuous cutting is about $1,500.
For a semi-automated roll sheet cutter, Aranoff cites MCT’s ten-foot systems as priced under $100K.
At Zünd, Cantrell says a new cutter can range anywhere from $110K to $250K because of the modularity of its systems.
Staying a Cut Ahead
Whether familiar with fabric cutting or new to the game, PSPs should realize the importance of transferring prior finishing skills to this service. Understanding the nuances of a specific material, how often it will be cut and quantity levels, type of cut shapes, dimension, and cost are all additional criteria to consider. The result is the appropriate finishing tool in house that allows a PSP to manage customer expectations while offering high-quality fabric services from print to cut. When this is achieved unlimited opportunities are available for fabric-based creations.
Click here to view the Digital Finishing Vendors Target Chart – an all-inclusive information resource!
Jan2016, Digital Output