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Shaping the Cutter Market

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Shape and size are two elements of a sign never to be overlooked. Having the freedom to manipulate these elements allows sign makers to incorporate another level of creativity into their work. This is done with the technology of table cutters—automated X/Y cutters designed for cutting sheet materials.

These machines are used in high-volume productions, in three-dimensional sign work, to create special effects and more. As a result, sign shops can generate “new and exciting applications or enhance existing applications by adding shapes in today’s market,” says Keri Blackburn, Director of Marketing, North America, Esko. “Shops are no longer just print providers.” 

Of course, digital prints are a large portion of the graphics industry but when a shop can take the printing aspect and add dimensionality and original contours, there can be much more appeal for the end user and an opportunity to cross into other markets. Beatrice Drury, director of marketing and communications at Zünd America Inc., points out that because of cutters’ capabilities, inroads have been made in packaging and fabrics “with no end in sight.”

Demand has increased for original sign work and cutters have provided an avenue to produce them.

Improvements in table cutters over the past few years have allowed sign shops to improve their offerings and keep their business diversified. More specifically, today’s cutters offer more speed, more durability, more power and more versatility than ever before.

More Speed

The rate of speed at which a cutter performs depends on the material being cut and the knife technology. MultiCam’s Digital Express boasts a 7,000 inch per minute cut rate. Store Décor general manager, Ron Freeman, decided to purchase a MultiCam cutter in 2010 to serve his customer base of over 200 nationwide. He says, “In terms of speed, the Digital Express has been a game changer. It’s 10 times faster than cutting by hand. We’ve saved on labor by requiring just one person instead of five.”

With increased speeds, it’s also important to continue to deliver a superior end product. This is an area that manufacturers address when capitalizing on today’s advancements. “We are looking at new technologies to increase both speed and acceleration without sacrificing quality,” Blackburn says.

Speed as it relates to quality should always be a consideration. Speed as it relates to productivity is another element—one that Zünd emphasizes.

“There is no way to make up with ‘faster machine speed’ the time that is routinely lost with inefficient digital cutting workflows,” explains Drury. “Which is why Zünd has focused so much of its development on workflow automation and overall productivity.”

More Durability

Another strength of table cutters is the ability to be used with many different substrates. They need to withstand the rigors of cutting through materials that aren’t necessarily part of more traditional signage. “Many customers want to cut materials that are substantially heavier than traditional lighter weight sign and graphics materials,” says Dan Bussey, Marketing Specialist, MultiCam Inc.

Esko developed its Kongsberg line with an eye on customers’ potential to grow without having to limit their selection of materials. “The philosophy is having a table top design that can withstand the force necessary to crease, cut, and mill on a wide variety of materials at high speeds,” Blackburn says.

In many cases, durability is proven with time-tested strength and endurance. Drury says that there are still “many Zünd cutters built in the 1990s in operation all over the world.  Even though they may lack some of the latest tooling and automation features, they are still capable of handling the tasks for which they were originally purchased effectively and reliably.”

More Power

Like durability, power has become an element that is required more often with different materials available for sign projects. Cutters need to pierce the most rigid of substrates, sometimes in large batches.

"Zünd began addressing this need nearly 10 years ago, with the introduction of G3," Drury says. "Zünd’s heavy-duty flagship cutter series and its robust tool options such as the G3 router module, high-performance electric oscillating and high-powered driven rotary tools.”

Bussey recognizes the need for powerful tools as well. He says, “with the move to heavier materials being cut, spindles up to 8.5 HP and heavier knife assemblies have been adopted.”

More Versatility

What good is speed, power and durability if the cutter doesn’t fit with customer demands? Esko, for example, makes sure to collect feedback from the market regarding the design of new tools so that their products fit precisely with the projects that are being created.

This type of emphasis on the customer ensures that there are regular upgrades and add-ons available that will help advance the shop’s capabilities.

“Because Zünd places such importance on making each and every tool modular,” says Drury, “customers can add new or different tooling at any time and are never stuck with the configuration they originally purchased.”

Put all of these pieces together and shop owners will realize the many benefits that a cutter brings to their business.

“A digital cutting solution is after all about creating a fine balance between the strength of the frame and tabletop,” Blackburn says. “The raw power of movement; the continuous increase of G forces; the perfectly aligned motion control all the way to the finest cut at the knife edge.”

Other Considerations

Sign shops that do not currently own a table cutter may have considered adding one to their operations. Other shops may not even know where to start their search. If a shop does enough cutting to justify purchasing one of these machines and eliminate hand cutting or outsourcing the work, it’s worth a look at what’s on the market. If a shop is unsure about whether they do or do not need a digital cutter, here are some things to consider:

  • What materials and thickness of materials are you cutting?
  • What is the current volume of cutting at your shop?
  • If you are outsourcing, how much does it cost?
  • If you are hand cutting, how much time does it take?
  • What do customers say about the quality of your cutting jobs?

Addressing a couple of these questions, Bussey states that “many high-volume projects would be too tedious and time consuming to do by hand. You simply could not be competitive.” 

Also important is having full control over the production and overall quality of the project. Drury says that digital cutters provide shops with control over cost and delivery schedules as well.

Taking a look at your business model not only today but as it projects in the future is also a good practice. Because cutters are so versatile and offer several different configurations, it’s feasible that a shop may need one of these machines even if it isn’t necessarily needed now.

“Customers need to evaluate the requirements for not only what they produce today, but what they are looking to produce in the future,” Blackburn says, “so that they invest in a cutting table that is expandable to meet their future needs and provides the high-quality end result that is needed to satisfy their customer’s requirements.”

Perhaps a shop has already made these assessments and is in the position to make a purchase in the near-term. Some more areas they should explore in-depth are: ease-of-use, customer service and expected production output.

These machines can appear to be intricate and daunting so Drury says users should ask: How easy is it to use? What tools or user-interface features are in place to assist the operator and minimize the potential for error like automatic tool setup/initialization or integrated comprehensive materials library for recommended cutting tools/parameters?

To keep complication at a minimum, manufacturers provide support to help equipment owners. Shops should learn about what cutter providers can do to streamline installation, how they can help if there is any down time, what type of warranty is included and more.

Having a good grasp on how much you can produce is vital, especially when working on tight deadlines and with new materials. As Blackburn states it, customers “want the finished product now, not next week.  Having a digital finishing solution in-house instead of sending work out enables the shop to transform themselves from commodity printing to becoming a partner with their clients. They can collaborate on campaigns and deliver high-quality finished products with the shortest turn-around time.”

Success Stories

Many digital cutter owners will share how the addition of this equipment has improved operations for them. Freeman is one of those individuals who has seen an improvement in several areas of his business since purchasing a cutter.

He cuts plywood panels in just six minutes instead of the 40 minutes it used to take when cutting by hand. The machine is online 16 hours a day and is run by just one individual—saving Freeman time and money.

“The Digital Express eliminated hand cutting that was a nightmare,” says Freeman. “Now everything comes out exactly right. It’s opened up a whole new avenue of business.”

Ove Berg, owner of Norway-based Berg Emballasje, says he has also experienced success after partnering with Esko to use a new packaging solution.

“The package design software enables us to easily cut customized cases from corrugated board,” says Berg. “The next step is to cut the protective foam material to specially designed patterns, fitting any item like a tailor-made glove. We are now able to supply up to 300 units on demand.”

The solution was such a success and created such a spike in productivity that Berg now has four table cutters at his facility and customers continue to book high-volume jobs.

“We are very satisfied with the situation, especially considering that our first investment with Esko was recovered within just a few months,” says Berg.

These are just a few samples of shops that have experienced success after adding digital cutting capabilities. Because of technological improvements in these machines and an accurate analysis of their businesses, these companies realized what an asset digital cutters could be for their operations.

“In a world with rapid technology and business change,” says Blackburn, “it is important to invest in equipment that offers the widest array of capabilities.”

Table cutters provide such capabilities.