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X/Y Digital Cutters: Making Finishing Solutions as Easy as ABC

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.

Automated X/Y digital table cutters have greatly improved over the past few years, and they now offer more features and capabilities than ever before. Upgraded tools, tool heads, more powerful motors and wider tables have led to a broader range of applications that are perfect for this technology. These digital cutting solutions not only allow shops to reduce finishing costs but increase productivity as well, maximizing the full potential of their flatbed printers.

For those who might be thinking about adding an X/Y digital cutter to their finishing arsenals, we polled a number of suppliers and asked them about current market trends, new applications, the latest products and add-on tools as well as other points to consider before buying.

Royce Owen, director of marketing at Summa Inc., Seattle, Washington, reports that they hear every day from their customers about all kinds of new and unique applications being produced with their digital cutting systems. “They are doing some incredible things with our products," he says. "Our digital machines are designed to cut up to one inch thick, so the sky’s the limit. You can create just about anything. And paring them up with a flatbed printer really opens up a lot of opportunities in sign making, packaging and textile printing,” he adds.

Signs Pointing to Digital

Greg Stewart, a product marketing and strategy manager for the Digital Finishing Business segment of Esko, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, says that as digital finishing becomes faster and more capable, it is less advantageous for sign makers to invest in old fashioned die cutting equipment.

“When you think about what is going on in the market," Stewart says, "instead of making one display thousands of times, brand owners and retailers are requesting more targeted displays with shorter run lengths. With these types of projects, X/Y cutting is preferable to traditional die cutting. That is going to expand—and not only with signs and displays. We are seeing companies building packaging products for limited runs.”

“If you look at the enhancements that have evolved in wide-format printing, they are more capable to produce personalized packaging. While that is happening, X/Y tables are finishing what they print. In reality, for those presses that include in-line finishing, this is not the best solution. Meanwhile, with multiple tables and the promise of automated feeds and take-ups—including robotics in the near future—finishing tables can keep up with them,” he adds.

Expanded Production Capabilities

John Cote, North American sales manager at Zünd America, Franklin, Wisconsin, says that since the speed of digital printers continues to increase dramatically for sign and display as well as packaging applications, there is a tremendous need for digital cutting/finishing systems to become more productive. “Increases in productivity can be achieved through optimized workflow efficiency, greater automation, and advances in hardware.

“For example, print service providers (PSPs) increasingly demand that a cutting system be tied into their digital print workflow and their estimating system. Zünd offers an open system with easy integration to allow input from most RIP and imposition systems. Our system also easily links out to estimating programs resulting in realistic cut-time estimates for different job production scenarios.”

He adds that automation of material handling is another important area to consider when looking at a digital finishing system. “Ultimately, the goal of automation is to keep the cutting head doing what it is supposed to do, cutting, as much of the time as possible. When the machine is cutting, the shop owner is making money!”

It’s All About the Substrates

“In many ways, finishing equipment producers must continue to respond to what is happening with the wide array of printable substrates running through today’s grand format digital printers,” comments Steve Aranoff, sales and marketing V.P. at Mikkelsen Converting Technologies (MCT), Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

He says that the needs of PSPs for industrial and traditional finishing jobs still revolves around materials that are up to two inches thick and up to 10 feet wide, and that printer RIPs and graphical front ends can now achieve tighter and tighter nesting, which reduces scrap.

“More and more materials, higher speeds and capacities are making finishing application options plentiful," he says. "In addition, printers are getting faster and wider, challenging digital finishing equipment to keep up.”

He points out that some print shops handle mostly one particular set of print substrates, while others never know what kind of material the next potential job will require. “The capabilities of traditional PSPs, sign shops, and industrial printers have begun to merge because the equipment they use has begun to merge as well. Speed and accuracy are now available even on moderately priced finishing systems. Logos, labels, printed awnings, industrial signs are not very different from banners and retail signage.

"Parametric design software for production of simple P.O.P. and packaging applications is now really easy to use which expands opportunities. The primary issue becomes; how does a PSP or sign shop provide for all of the different requirements that may now be thrown at them from clients?”

He suggests that by adding laser-cutting capability without giving up any of the other benefits of traditional digital finishing tables adds one more dimension to their overall functionality. “While a laser is good for many substrates, the two most noteworthy uses are for acrylics and fabrics—both in industrial and traditional shops.”

Improving Performance

Aranoff says another important issue that PSPs face is overall performance. “With today's new printers getting wider and faster; the digital finisher also needs to be wider and faster. Many shops that had done well with five-foot widths in the past now look to upgrade to 10-foot widths. In the early 2000’s when digital finishing began to take off, one finisher/cutter could handle the work of multiple printers.

"Now it's the cutter that is becoming the bottleneck. One prospective customer recently mentioned to me that in the time it took his old printers to produce 80 boards, he is now producing 200 boards. This has put pressure on cutter manufacturers to significantly increase cutting speeds. For example, MCT’s new award-winning VersaTech2 has made a major leap in this direction by achieving 1.25 g acceleration with cut speeds of 78 in/sec even on its larger 10' x 10' cutters,” he adds.

Merging Media

Esko’s Stewart says that one big trend he's seeing is a merging of two-dimensional sign making on sign materials with fabrics and textiles—which require faster, more accurate cutting, along with edge-sealing capabilities. “The challenge is for some companies to determine a way to cut textiles with a traditional knife-cutting device,” he explains.

“We are also seeing where sign markets are moving into other types of projects from two- to three-dimensional objects. Esko, which offers Kongsberg branded equipment, has focused on all of these for quite a while. Two-dimensional displays are becoming commodities and more price sensitive. Three-dimensional displays are successful in store settings; and for the display producer they represent a more profitable piece of business that can also include other profit centers such as employing a structural design department,” he says.

Finishing Tools

According to Stewart, Esko has also been very much involved in the trend of making sign and display finishing into a manufacturing process. “We continue to develop a wide variety of tools to accomplish this. This is achieved not only through the addition of new table features, but also by supporting software, such as Automation Engine Avant a workflow developed specifically for sign and display production.” Additional software tools from

Esko include Device Manager which moves operational control to the prepress department where operators can monitor job status and manage and prioritize the queues of all connected devices.

And recently Esko introduced the Lubri-Cool tool, which sprays a fine mist of vegetable oil on the cutting table allowing sign makers to cut metals such as aluminum much faster, cleaner, and at less cost. “Smaller sign shops that do not want—or cannot afford—both an X/Y and CNC table, can now do the work of both on one table. An X/Y table cannot cut everything that can be finished on a CNC table, but certainly most of them.”

New Developments

Summa’s Owen explains that they are constantly working on new developments to address users’ needs. They just released a new Rotary Module that he predicts will open up new markets for their customers in apparel, fashion and pattern making. The beauty of this new tool is that it allows users to cut textiles and other thin materials. “In the past fabric materials were a little harder to cut, but the rotary blade which features a wheel knife that allows it to cut through all those fibers. It has a controlled, decagonal, tangential knife and is capable of cutting all kinds of thin materials. The main focus is on textiles because most fibers are difficult to cut with other knife types. After each job, dust is removed from the knife with compressed air.”

Summa was also showing at SGIA their new F2630 flatbed cutting-and-finishing system. “It's a massive machine. If you have the space and the budget, it can really speed up your productivity. The system is highly versatile and users can cut anything from vinyl and aluminum. It’s ideal for industrial shops that do a lot of prototype work.”

He points that the F2630 cutter also allow sign makers and other print professionals to process even-larger media faster, more easily and more accurately. “The wider working area also allows two media rolls to be placed side-by-side on the optional roll-support system for simultaneous processing. Which will really help speed up workflow. As I mentioned earlier, we are in constant contact with our customers and we try to offer them the best tools to get the job done more effectively,” Owen concludes.

Fabulous Fabrics

Aranoff reports that digitally printed fabrics are a major new opportunity for finishers. “MCT has a customer (Comfortex Window Fashions) that utilizes their finisher 2-3 shifts a day, 6 days a week for the manufacture of custom window shades. Coming from a prior solution that used semi-automatic cutting frames to cut rectangles to size, the improvement in both efficiency and the reduction in scrap allowed the system to have a payback of roughly 5 months.”

He adds that they are in the process of installing their first laser system at a manufacturer of semi-custom woman’s clothing. They performed timing tests to determine whether they would achieve the savings they needed to justify such a system, and it passed with flying colors. Both of these applications, and more are growing uses for customized fabric finishing.  And, we believe that the advances in ultrasonic welding are opening up new avenues to handle the next steps with fabric by providing simpler finishing methodologies as customers move more and more into this area rather than traditional sewing.”

New Tools from Zünd

Cote says that Zünd cutting systems are modular and easily upgradable in the field. Which offers PSPs the flexibility to take on new work even if it requires different tooling from what they already have. “Zünd offers tools for almost any sign and/or display job and puts a great deal of effort into making any new tools for existing systems.”

“For example, Zünd offers two routing modules, each with optional Automatic Router-bit Changer (ARC). The 1Kw system is adequate for most sign and display applications, but for very heavy-duty applications, the new 3.6 Kw high-torque router (available for delivery from Jan. 2017) will breeze through the most challenging materials. We also offer a complete line of tools to cut today’s display fabrics, from frontlit to backlit and flag applications.”

“One of the most exciting recent Zünd innovations is actually not a new tool but an entirely new series of cutters, the Zünd D3 dual-beam cutting system, capable of doubling the throughput of a single-beam system,” he adds.

Automated Solutions

Cote reports that increasingly PSPs are also offering online storefronts that allow customers to order products on the web. “We help these PSPs automate their back-end production so that the flow from digital storefront to finished printed-and-cut product is efficient. This applies to the signage, display, P.O.P. and packaging markets. There are customers using their products for applications such as labels and stickers and fabrics from front-lit to backlit and flag/signage. One of our end users, Lenexa, KS-based Custom Color Corp., has even carved a nice niche with some unique flooring applications.”

“Our motto is ‘Ink Big. Ink Fast. Ink Printing.’ Without the quick cutting capabilities of our three Zünd digital die cutters, we wouldn’t be able to Ink Fast – which is quite obviously a problem in today’s fast-paced world,” comments Custom Color Corp. CEO Matt Keith.

He says that one of their Zünd cutters touches each and every wide-format project that comes through our production facility. “As one of the leading fabric printers in the nation, our cutters ensure that each piece is cut to perfection for finishing. We process over five million square feet of fabric per year and each yard touches a Zünd machine,” he says.