Cutting and finishing have always been a major part of the overall production process for sign shops and print service providers (PSPs). With the vast array of digital printing equipment and media choices currently available over the past decade, many print providers are now finding that cutting and finishing options are no longer a one-size-fits-all solution.
Depending on the project and substrate being used, shops can now choose from a range of routers and flatbed cutters with various cutting heads. In addition, automation and physical handling of the final product is also being looked at more closely since each product and system provides a different set of workflow possibilities.
In the past, CNC routers clearly dominated this category but now other digital cutting solutions are coming to the forefront. “The flatbed router/cutter segment is becoming an important new growth area in the wide-format printing market,” writes Steve Urmano, director of InfoTrends’ Wide Format Printing Consulting Service, in a recent white paper on wide-format cutting devices.
Urmano reports that InfoTrends expects this trend to continue well into the future, largely due to the growing population of wide-format UV flatbed printers. “Today’s board printing devices enable the user to continually feed boards to the flatbed cutter/router without waiting to queue up the next board.”
Beatrice Drury, director of marketing and communications, Zünd America Inc., Franklin, Wisconsin, says there are many different applications and unique products being made by their customers worldwide with Zünd flatbed cutters.
“Some projects include Honeycomb/corrugated display board applications, soft signage and textile applications,” she says. “The sky’s truly the limit. There also appears to be a growing demand for greater productivity, through-put, customization, and just-in-time production.”
More Substrate Choices
Steve Aranoff, MCT Digital’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, with offices in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Pebble Beach, California; says there are more and more materials that can be effectively printed on, due to newer ink formulations and to increased use of coating and composite materials increasing the number of products that need to be finished. “These materials are ideal for digital cutters. For example, both acrylics and fabric, which are handily cut by laser, are growth areas. Aluminum is also a critical material now for signs.”
Aranoff points out that many print service providers don’t have the room or the budget to purchase multiple finishing solutions that are aimed at only one of these opportunities. “Our MCT VersaTech unit can handle virtually all of the finishing a print shop might need. When asked about what their next job will entail, most PSPs answer that they don’t know," he says. "So, having the finishing equipment for virtually every option is a powerful marketing tool and allows them to gain more of their clients’ business.”
Aranoff says that more PSPs are also making the decision to print big, both with 10-foot wide roll-to-roll capabilities and/or with 10-foot wide rigid capabilities. “Given the trends in materials, there are now sufficient current or future opportunities for that cutter to also do a better job with textiles if a system that has or can have a laser added is purchased.
"Why? Because textile printing is becoming less and less rectangular, requiring more capability than can be had from just a driven-wheel knife cutter. With a laser there is almost no cut pattern that cannot be cut/finished and the fabric gets a sealed edge that will not fray. While driven-wheel capabilities can also handle fabric, they lack the ability to handle even uncomplicated shapes that have tight corners, such as some flags and even tabs.”
Aranoff adds that choosing to finish patterns that can be easily mechanically cut becomes an issue both on jobs a PSP can accomplish, and the driven-wheel does not seal the edge. “Even for fabric going into frames, having a fraying edge makes the mounting process harder.”
Producing Perfect Results
Greg Stewart is product marketing and strategy manager for Esko's Digital Finishing Business in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He points out that brand owners are struggling to design and produce signs and displays quickly and correctly, especially when personalized items are being produced geographically on a global scale. “This means that new display roll-outs must be produced perfectly. A good cutter will eliminate distortions between printed graphics and contour cut.
"It can also eliminate the need for endless trial-and-error test runs to adjust cutting depth to the substrate. It also requires control—control to make sure the workflow has created the correct graphics and coordinated cutting instructions for the table with the printing instructions for the digital press,” he says.
He adds another trend is moving towards even faster delivery times. “It helps if you can spend as little time as possible to get your files print ready by automating all typical prepress jobs like pre-flighting, layouts, and creating cutting paths. Of course, the other challenge is that digital technology has made mundane two-dimensional signs less impactful on the store aisles. They are also commodity items. Printers tend to get into a price war for them, which obviously means less margins (and profit).”
Stewart points out that three-dimensional displays grab consumer attention. “Using three-dimensional tools such as ArtiosCAD structural design and Esko Studio for graphics, brand owners are able to create truly powerful displays that provide higher margins. Premium services allow you to charge more per printed piece.”
Meeting a Wide Variety of Needs
Maureen Damato, sales dealer account manager at Colex Finishing Inc., Elmwood Park, New Jersey, reports that the big trend she is seeing is the need for versatility, size and speed. “To meet these needs Colex introduced the Sharpcut SXC3232 super wide flatbed cutter 10.5" (3.2m) with cutting surface for the graphic and textile industries and automatic roll feeder and board loader option. This allows sign shop users to utilize the full width of the master rolls. As a result, there is less material waste, allowing for a lower operating cost.”
Digital Cutters vs. CNC Routers
There are a number of major differences between CNC routers (X/Y/Z) and flatbed X/Y digital cutters. Aranoff says a full-on CNC router is not generally necessary in the digital printer's world. “Clearly vertical Z-axis control is necessary when routing complex shapes such as kitchen cabinets and door frames, but most digital print only requires an X/Y cut at a specific depth. Even then, by utilizing multiple layers in the design, a certain amount of Z-axis control can be accommodated, although not a full 3D pattern.”
“For typical printed materials, with relatively small depths, typically not over ½ inch, it is more important for a router to run at very high speed (60,000 rpm for MCT’s VersaTech) then at typical woodworking router speeds of 18,000 to 24,000 rpm. And while thicker materials may be more efficiently cut with high power at lower revolution speed, printed graphics need the revolution speed at lower power to create the cleanest and fastest cut.”
Different Printing Formats
In addition, Aranoff explains that full-on routers are typically run by operators who understand the routing process and normally input files in the CAD format. “On the other hand, printers and PSPs are used to running in a Postscript environment with nested files coming directly from a printer RIP and having standard methodologies for cutting based upon the material, rather than the finishing pattern. We have seen that full-on routers used in a print environment make for a major training exercise in comparison to adding even a different flatbed cutter with good routing that may work somewhat differently than another brand of cutter, but yet still similarly.”
Aranoff says that there are also major differences between routing and tangential cutting that make full routers less useful as a cutting system, except for occasional use.
“Overall, understanding print workflow and the PSP’s knowledgebase make it hard for full-on routers to do the same kind of work that most PSPs require of a single system,” he says. “However, if a PSP is doing a majority of heavily 3D wooden signs compared to more traditional thinner printed materials, a full-on router might be the best solution.”
Versatile Cutting Solutions
Stewart says a full-on CNC router does offer more power for that type of function than a finishing table. “However, that is only helpful for very demanding substrates, and for only one step of a project. The best part of a flatbed digital cutter is that it is extremely versatile. It will work on just about any material—from light papers and foams to acrylics and aluminum composite materials—and will perform most functions that any sign and display shop would ever need. This includes not only milling and routing, but cutting, partial cutting, V-cutting, creasing, milling, polishing, engraving, among others.”
He adds that from the smallest odd-shaped countertop display to the largest display piece, a flatbed finishing table allows users to tackle a wide range of applications. “Outsourcing all highly specialized finishing jobs is a waste of money. With the right cutting table you can do these jobs in-house without hurting your margins.”
Advantages of Flatbed Cutters
Drury says the some of the strengths/advantages particularly of a Zünd flatbed X/Y digital cutter over traditional CNC routers include versatility, digital cutting workflow and productivity.
“Zünd offers a versatile range of tool, size, and automation options that to date, no CNC router can match. Our cutters are also used in so many different applications and types of production scenarios. A user-friendly end-to-end digital cutting workflow that’s productive, automated, and adaptable is critical and one of the biggest advantages we offer. Maximizing productivity with a Zünd flatbed cutter includes tandem operation, touchless/QR code-based file retrieval, automatic tool setup/initialization and an automatic tool/router bit changer,” she adds.
Colex Sharpcut Flatbed Cutter
Damato says a full-on CNC router will also typically have a larger router/spindle, allowing for larger cuts on thicker materials. A CNC router typically is not capable of cutting thinner material or roll media. The larger router also limits the linear speed of the machine because of its weight.
“For example, our Sharpcut is a knife cutter first and router second. With this mentality, Colex designed the Sharpcut to be as fast as other X/Y digital cutters and with the robustness of a CNC router. It bridges the gap by offering a router and knife system,” she says “The Triple Interchangeable Tool Head includes a Router and capability of installing two fixed knives. These fixed knives can be anything from a creasing wheel to a driven oscillating knife. The optional tools selection allows the sign shop user to customize their cutter for their specific workflow,” she explains.
Tool Head Options
Aranoff says that tool head options are also a key to providing versatility and that the MCT VersaTech comes with both a heavy-duty tool position and two tangential drop-in tool positions, meaning that three tools may be utilized at any time. “In the heavy duty position, there can be a 100-watt liquid-cooled CO2 laser, a 3 HP 60,000 RPM router or a heavy duty driven-wheel cutter that is self-sharpening. The two tangential tool positions are able to accommodate a straight knife, kiss cutting knife, electric oscillating knife, two sizes of creasing wheels, a variable v-notch cutter, and a space age pen system.”
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Stewart adds an Esko Kongsberg table can cut a wide variety of materials. “It’s Powerhead is used for heavy duty corrugated material, the Foam Head for foam materials and a separate Milling Unit (3KW), to mention a few.”
Stewart explains that if you want to talk about specific materials, “for example, foam board requires high force cutting tools, although it’s a pretty standard material for any cutting application. A rigid knife is sufficient.”
Cutting Paper and Plastic
He says that paper is relatively easy for cutting, using standard cutting and creasing tools. “Some of the high fiber boards can be more challenging and tooling can vary depending upon the abrasiveness of the material. They could require more hardened or carbon-type tools to hold up under the strength of the materials.”
Stewart points out that, as a general rule, plastic is difficult because there are so many densities and ranges of type. “Tools, from a standard hardened knife to vibration knives or routing tools are all possibilities depending on the type, density and thickness of the plastic.”
Aluminum and Other Materials
“A thinner grade of aluminum or aluminum composite materials can be cut on a standard digital finishing unit, if it has a 1-3 kilowatt router. Harder and thicker aluminum may require the use of heavier duty-CNC routers,” explains Stewart.
He adds that wood is processed with more routing tools than anything else. “Glass requires more abrasive tooling; for example, diamond tip tools with abrasive covers. These are used more for etching glass than truly cutting the material.”
“All in all, with a good finishing table and structural design program, one’s creativity is the only limit. For starters, Esko offers its users access to a library of designs that can be customized for their own use,” Stewart says.