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Digital Die Cutters: The First Cut is the Deepest

Bill Schiffner is a freelance writer/editor based in Holbrook, N.Y. He has covered the imaging industry for 25 years and has reported on many evolving digital imaging technologies including wide-format printing and newer electronic digital signage. He was the editor for a number of imaging publications and websites. He can be reached at bschiffner@optonline.net.

X/Y table cutters—better known as digital die cutters—have become an essential tool for serious sign shops and commercial graphics print providers. With a number of recent technology improvements, applications for these machines are growing more varied than ever. In order to check the pulse of this booming market, Sign & Digital Graphics spoke with some suppliers and end users to discuss some of the latest advancements as well as the many projects that are possible with theses versatile machines.

“Over the past few years, this category is helping to change the landscape of the finishing market,” reports Steve Aranoff, vice president of business development and marketing for MCT Digital, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “By continuing to advance in technology, flatbed cutters are able to keep up with an onslaught of new printable materials requiring finishing, through enhanced, faster motion control, as well as adding new cutting modes, such as laser cutting, plus workflow enhancements that improve both efficiency and ease of use,” he says.

Meeting a Variety Finishing Options

Heather Roden, strategic account manager for Zünd America in Franklin, Wisconsin, says as the lines between print market segments continue to blur, the new normal is for print service providers (PSPs) to offer a full spectrum of print offerings ranging from retail promotional graphics, decals and banners, to all types of displays, folding cartons and corrugated packaging. “To meet this incredibly diverse range of finishing demands efficiently and therefore profitably," she says, "PSPs need specialized tooling and automated workflows that encompass all phases of production—no matter the specific finishing process or application.”

Roden says that it is precisely for this reason that Zünd continues to focus on adding capabilities and workflow automation to its modular systems. “For example, a user can take the original digital cutting system they purchased for processing output from their flatbed printing device and adapt it to meet increased demand in textile applications by adding a cradle feeder and Zünd's Cut & Seal Laser Module. Another user may want to expand on their routing capabilities with the powerful 3.6kW router and automatic tool changer. All of these components can easily be added, thereby eliminating the need for purchasing additional equipment and maximizing the ROI on their existing cutting system.”

More Demand from Clients

George Folickman, director of business development for digital finishing, Esko, Miamisburg, Ohio, points out that these types of machines are popular now because of pressure from the market. “With more companies moving into wide format, it is driving the need for more creative jobs or projects as a service. Almost any company can do a good job printing on a board and cutting a rectangle. However, there is constant pressure for our customers to seek higher margins by creating higher value products.”

Folickman says that they are seeing companies that have advanced from just rectangular cuts or 2D contour cuts to offer the end customer more creative, project-driven solutions. He adds that things like multi-substrate or semi-permanent displays offer higher value, greater margins, and more differentiation.

“While an exceptional cutting table is required to make clean contour cuts on light and heavy substrates, there must be software to support it. Esko is fortunate enough to be able to provide a complete portfolio of software products like ArtiosCAD structural design and Studio graphic design tools for quickly creating and rendering complex CAD designs. Tools like Automation Engine take those designs and make them print-ready,” he explains.

Folickman points out that these cutting marvels are helping their end users bring more projects in-house.

He adds that many companies are starting to laminate different substrates together to achieve very unique effects. “Imagine routing the substrate and exposing very different metallic reflections from the different materials. However, in order to accomplish this, you need a finishing system that has the power to make the cuts and routs cleanly.”

He says they have made some recent innovations in their products including a Braille tool. “A wide variety of tools are what truly enables customers to extend their offerings and expand their businesses with the most creative use of materials and applications. The Braille tool is loaded with clear acrylic “Braille spheres” that are inserted into small holes. These holes are milled with a special bit to create raised dots that are readable with fingertips.” He says the Braille tool will work on most rigid materials more than one mm thick and is used to produce signage that meets ADA compliance guidelines.

“This year, it was released for the Kongsberg C tables, meaning that all Kongsberg tables can utilize this tool.”

He points out that they also offer laminated materials via a3kW router. “The Kongsberg C tables can be configured for milling applications ranging from sporadic, light-duty routing to lengthy jobs working with heavy-duty materials – all with exceptional productivity. This provides enough power to cut through multiple layers. In fact, the Kongsberg C is the only super-wide finisher with a 3kW continuous duty high-performance milling unit. Thus, the Kongsberg table is the best at making clean and fast routs.”

Folickman says that Esko Kongsberg table users are graduating from rectangular displays to irregular shapes. They are using ArtiosCAD and Studio software to design creative new displays and designs out of different materials that are truly unique.

“In addition, automation plays an important role. It’s one thing to design unique displays and produce one-ups. It’s another thing to do this for a longer run for a large chain of national retail stores. With automatic feeders and take up options—as well as robotics—Esko considerably reduces the process that wastes the most time: waiting for material to be cleared from the table and a new substrate to be fed into the machine.”

NovaColor Thinks Outside the Box

One customer that is getting the most out of their cutting table is Fred Honigfort of NovaColor, based in St. Louis, Missouri. They recently completed a project using an Esko Kongsberg table and Esko ArtiosCAD. It was a box that housed a 4- inch LED screen, which was used as a promotional item.

“Our customer, Hunter Engineering, approached us originally for a vinyl wrap to cover an existing box provided with video screens. Unfortunately when they received the product it didn’t come in a box. It was simply the video screen sandwiched between a couple thin pieces of styrene with foam and all the electronic control buttons,” Honigfort says.  

He adds that’s when they asked if they could design the carton to hold the video components, which functioned when a magnet was removed from a trigger point; and the shipping box for sending to their potential clients.

“Everything needed to be repeatable over the long haul because these were going to be shipped out typically four to six pieces at a time. They needed die line files provided so their marketing department could change the design and customize each package for the recipient.”

He recalls he started with Artios to create a file capable of tightly wrapping the video components and sealing in the magnet trigger to work the screen. “Once we had that fully functional and provided them with workable samples, they began creating the artwork. That's when we began working on the die for the shipper which would also be custom printed for each individual run. We also supplied foam materials to hold everything in place during the delivery.”

He says they developed this with and for Hunter Engineering almost two years ago and they continue to use their design today. “Each time they refresh the artwork to create a whole new look, yet with each new use the product is now able to be put together the exact same way as the original. It really is an elegant presentation.”

Zünd Rolls Out LM-100W

A recent SGIA Expo in New Orleans marked the official North American introduction of the new Zünd Cut & Seal Laser Module LM-100W for processing polyester fabric.

“As the name implies, it simultaneously cuts and seals the edges, eliminating the need for post-processing to prevent fraying. With the modular design characteristic of Zünd, the laser module provides 100W laser cutting capabilities in addition to G3’s full complement of cutting and routing options as well as automatic material advancing. Steel plates protect the conveyor belt while the laser is in use, and an integrated crane makes changeovers quick and easy. To facilitate automatic, tension-free advancing of these often high-stretch fabrics, Zünd offers a cradle feeder,” Roden says.

Earlier this year, Zünd also introduced the powerful 3.6kW router with ARC tool changer. The RM-L module features a robust routing spindle that delivers 3.6 kW of processing power and a maximum torque of 0.7Nm. Especially combined with the automatic eight-position tool/bit changer and minimal quantity lubrication, the RM-L routing system is perfect for processing acrylics, polycarbonates, aluminum/ACM materials, MDF and other wood products—making heavy-duty digital routing efficient, productive, and profitable without the need for a separate CNC router.

With the addition of the RM-L router and 100W laser, Zünd tooling has now expanded to six different modules and 20 different tools.

“As PSPs are faced with ever-increasing demands for greater flexibility, customization and personalization, along with faster turn-around times and lower cost, Zünd’s hardware and workflow developments are all designed to make users more nimble in reacting to these needs,” Roden says.

“For textile applications, including custom on-demand wearables, we have added the Class 1 laser module and cradle feeder," she says. "While the Zünd D3 with Board Handling System (BHS) was primarily designed with packaging users in mind, we have also seen wide-spread adoption from higher-volume sign and graphic printers taking advantage of the system’s unbeatable efficiency. No matter the application, PSPs are keen to push more work out the door, and Zünd offers them a variety of products and methods to do just that.”

Roden says that Zünd being the most widely accepted digital cutting solution on the market means they have users who meet print demand on a huge array of print products: from retail promotional graphics, POP displays, tradeshow and display graphics to folding carton and corrugated packaging and much more. The possibilities are truly endless.”

MCT Offers VersaTech2 Upgrades

Aranoff points that they have added new tools/accessories to the VersaTech2. “MCT has employed a nominal 140 watt laser with a patent pending laser belt and dual conveyor for more than three years. This has now been improved to cut and seal fabrics at least 30 percent faster. We have also sped up routing by doubling the power of the available routers to 5 Kw plus adding the ability for a tool changer for those who need it. This also accommodates up to 10 mm bit shafts versus 6mm previously. A new automatic board changer that conveys boards onto the cutting table versus just holding them up, also provides the opportunity to use for offloading and picking more efficiently.”

Aranoff says that these advancements are opening up new applications and markets for many of their end users. “Fabric and short-run packaging are the two of the fastest growing market segments that are well served by our laser cutting/sealing equipment, plus the simpler and less expensive board feeding and offloading capabilities. By having the patent-pending dual conveyors, MCT is the only company that can automate all functions within a single system, and minimize the footprint and costs of utilizing multiple types of cutters.”

He adds that with these systems, shops are only limited by the customer’s imagination. “They can also etch onto hard materials as well as cut wood, acrylic, aluminum, and more and also etch onto rock and glass.”

Circle Graphics Installs VersaTech2

Longmont, Colorado-based Circle Graphics recently installed a VersaTech2, a 1.6 meter flatbed cutting system equipped with a laser cut, knife cut and routing system.

Kevin Reynolds, vice president at Circle Graphics, says the system has made a major impact in their Business Products Division, providing finishing application for more than 20 product offerings in the Business Products Division. He says he's impressed with the machine and was happy with the installation.

“The heavy duty yet elegant design and build style of the MCT VersaTech2 flatbed cutting system was one of the first things I noticed," he says. "The installation went smoothly and the MCT techs and support people really know the machine and its applications.”