Some in the sign industry contend that an investment in a digital finishing system is more complicated than investing in a wide format printer. After all, there are many considerations when choosing a finishing technology. Dilemmas a sign shop owner will face are unique to the genre of work, evolving business model, throughput requirements, ROI, and even to the space limitations of the plant itself. And there are the obvious concerns of durability, longevity, and ease of use.
The Perfect Fit
When shop space is an issue, there is a solution. Take for example Gerber Scientific Products’ GERBER DIMENSION 200, a 1.35 horsepower (hp) router starting at $19,495.
"The DIMENSION 200 is uniquely positioned as a compact, bench-top router ideal for the manufacture of smaller signs," according to Marco Azzaretti, director, graphic solutions, Gerber Scientific Products (GSP). "It competes against other computer numerically controlled (CNC) flatbed routers, but distinctive DIMENSION 200 features include the use of lead screwdrives, which ensures superior speed, reliability, and longevity with reduced maintenance requirements. The Gerber lead screwdrive also incorporates a patented anti-backlash system that helps deliver continued accuracy and repeatability over time," Azzaretti explains.
The GERBER DIMENSION 200 comes with three software options—Gerber OMEGA, Gerber Graphix Advantage, or Delcam ArtCAM. The Gerber OMEGA program offers ARTPath routing and engraving functions, providing user control over routing speeds and feeds, male and female tool offsets, engraving paths, multiple depths, inlays, and other common routing commands.
The router also features a patented material-hold and chip-removal system that maintains material flatness and collects debris. "The GERBER DIMENSION 200 is the ideal solution for creating smaller indoor signs using routing, engraving and inlaying methods, including signs featuring channel letters, 3D letters and graphics, and ADA standards," notes Azzaretti.
Mikkelsen Graphic Engineering’s (MGE) i-cut GraphicsRouter is available in several configurations based on multiple table sizes, and ranges in price from approximately $62,250 to $80,775, according to Joshua Farka, marketing manager, MGE.
"Our customers say that the i-cut GraphicsRouter is reliable and experiences very little down time," confides Farka. "The maintenance costs are fairly low as well. That combination really helps customers on their return on investment (ROI) because they can keep their production moving and create quicker turnaround times. Our solution keeps pace with many large format printers, creating a seamless workflow."
"The technology was really born out of a demand in the print finishing market," he adds. "The need was for a lower cost routing-only solution specially designed and optimized for finishing graphics printed directly on—or mounted to—a substrate. In designing this solution we focused on precise, powerful routing, great acceleration, and the i-cut vision system."
Like any piece of hardware, routing systems are only as good as the software that drives them. "i-cut is packaged with advanced routing and milling features available directly from the ‘Edit Tools/Edit Layers’ dialog," notes Farka. "These features include control of inside and outside cutting, curve direction, tool diameter, material thickness, pass depth, finishing pass offset, and web thickness. By editing these simple parameters users will be able to set up complex, multi-pass cutting productions, without creating additional layers or editing curves. By utilizing these new features, i-cut users easily produce cleaner, smoother-edged graphics on virtually all materials—including acrylic, PVC, plastic, and wood," he adds.
"And we partner with most of the leading RIP manufacturers to integrate our i-script/i-cut workflow. The i-cut technology has opened the door for creative minds to unleash their full potential. They are no longer constrained to a rectangular box," marvels Farka.
Keeping it Simple
FlexiCAM prides itself on manufacturing CNC routing equipment that users maintain themselves. When a FlexiCAM router is installed, customers are trained not only on how to use the device, but also on how to maintain it over the course of its lifetime. The company says only three to four hours of basic training is required to learn the router controls. To fully understand the equipment, software, and how to maintain the machine requires just a few days.
FlexiCAM’s Stealth comes with a standard issue, 11-hp, auto-tool changing spindle that is upgradeable to a 20-hp alternative. "It is duty rated for continuous operations for long periods of time, and is built to last with very rigid steel base frames and high end components," remarks Ezon Auyoung, director of marketing, FlexiCAM.
Available in multiple dimensions, the five- by eight-foot Stealth model starts at around $75,000, according Auyoung, who adds, "The Stealth is priced competitively for this class of machine."
FlexiCAM offers seven families of CNC routing technologies—and also manufacturers customized designs—but the S2 and Stealth families are aggressively marketed to the sign making industry.
Available in a variety of dimensions, the S2 is equipped with a standard issue 7.5-hp manual spindle, which may be upgraded to 11-hp or more, and is also equipped with auto-tool changing. This solution is used for traditional sign jobs, but has some history with exotic applications, like furniture, cabinetry, doors, guitars, ice sculptures, airplane interiors, gun stocks, and kayaks, to name a few.
For both the Stealth and S2 series, FlexiCAM offers the Optical Cut System (OCS). "OCS was introduced in response to the growing market of flatbed printers and the demand for an efficient solution for trimming printed parts laminated on thicker materials," Auyoung recalls. "Because not all printers print to the exact same size, and because graphics are not always printed or mounted square to the board, a solution was required for addressing these problems."
"This OCS is highly cost effective for short run jobs," he continues, "and for jobs when die-cutting just isn’t going to work on substrates such as aluminum or thicker wood. The system uses its optical sensors for calibration and handles all corrections for printing and mounting problems, creating a great replacement for short run die-cutting jobs."
Like FlexiCAM, MultiCam LP custom can build a CNC routing solution depending on the sign shop’s space constraints, media requirements, workload, and throughput. The MultiCam MT Series models are small- to medium-sized CNC routers. These models handle hard wood, acrylic, or aluminum up to one-inch thick. MT model sizes range from 24x24 inches to 80x144 inches. Using MultiCam EZ Control, operators can easily set up job parameters and perform system tests from a remote computer system.
But the company also offers off-the-shelf solutions in the form of its 1000, 3000, and 5000 Series families. Each machine is controlled by a handheld keypad that enables users to set up jobs, jog the machine, perform quality-control tests, and download jobs from remote workstations and systems. Also equipped with the MultiVision Digital Registration System, these routers come in a variety of sizes, feature automatic tool calibration, and can be equipped with Automatic Tool Change (ATC).
Unless a sign shop focuses on a narrow, niche market, multi-functionality is a key requirement in any piece of equipment—print, finishing, or otherwise.
A machine like KUTRITE Solutions, Inc.’s Q-KUT CNC router manages an array of media genres—acrylics, polycarbonates, plywood, Gatorfoam, aluminum composites, and more—up to 7.5 inches thick. The company designed the solution equipped with an 11-hp, high speed, liquid-cooled router spindle, which can turn at a stealthy 10,000 to 40,000 revolutions per minute (RPM). It is complemented by MGE’s i-cut system. The Q-KUT’s base price is $99,000.
Two attributes distinguish this solution from its competitors, according to Sebastian Ward, product manager, KUTRITE Solutions, Inc. "Since the Q-KUT by KUTRITE is built by Anderson Industrial, the longevity of the machine is limitless," he explains. "The first Anderson to role off the line in 1985 is still a working machine. So, that said, with proper maintenance our machines’ life span is still not known."
"Our warranty is also something that sets us apart," adds Ward. The standard warranty comprises two years, which is double the norm for this type of technology," he asserts.
"The Gerber M Series offers ultimate versatility for finishing wide format graphics—by routing, cutting, and creasing," notes Azzaretti. With .25-hp—and a 1.25-hp spindle available later this year—the Gerber M Series flatbed cutter/routers are driven by Gerber OMEGA software and feature GSP’s standard limited warranty which covers parts and labor costs to repair any defects in material or workmanship.
Within the M Series, there are two models and prices—the M-3000 at $109,995 and the M-1200, priced at $97,995. "These are turnkey system prices, as opposed to base prices," Azzaretti points out. "The M Series is sold as a turnkey system that includes all tools, consumables, PC workstation and software, vacuum pumps, table mats, and accessories required for finishing a complete range of graphic products."
Notably adept at multitasking, the Zünd Digital Cutter is available in 14 different models, distinguished by table size—starting at approximately $60,000.
"Because our systems are versatile, we see them used for many different applications, but the most common ones in the graphic industry are point of purchase (POP) outdoor and indoor displays, fleet graphics, vehicle wraps, banners, screenprinted decals, nameplate overlays, membrane switches, packaging, and the list goes on," explains Pete Alsten, North American product manager, Zünd America.
Zünd’s versatility not only stems from the ability to choose from 14 different sizes, but with each of the machines, customers have several options—in both software and tools.
"To satisfy our customers’ varied needs, we currently offer three different vision-registration, front end software packages—Grafitroniks’ Touch and Cut, EUROSYSTEMS’ OptiSCOUT Front-End, and MGE’s i-cut vision," notes Alsten.
Regarding the technologies’ multiple tools and capabilities, Alsten adds, "Our two most common machine sizes are the L-2500 and the L-3000—for four by eight feet and five by ten feet applications, respectively. The vast majority of these models are configured with two-inch extended beam clearance. The extra clearance—compared to the original one-inch—allows for cutting two-inch thick substrates, and generally makes operating the machine more convenient, even when cutting thinner materials.
"Besides the router, the most common tools are the drag knife, kiss cut knife, high speed foam and CorroPlast knife, oscillating knife, v-cut for Re-board and X-board, and the rotary knife for textiles. Many customers are now purchasing Zünd systems with all of these tools since they are printing on a wide range of substrates that all need to be finished as cleanly and efficiently as possible," says Alsten.
Mimaki USA, Inc. also manufactures two models of its multi-tasking routing solution, the CF3 Series. CF3 Series routers—the CF3-1631, with a base price of $117,995, and the CF3-1610, which starts at $101,995—are equipped with a newly developed router head that cuts materials up to two inches thick. Both CF3 models feature user-exchangeable cutting heads, including the M Head, for routing; the R1 Head for reciprocating cutting; and the TF2 Head, for tangential cutting.
The CF3 Series is designed for high tolerance cutting of sign materials, such as Sintra, Gatorboard, Diabond, and light aluminum composites," notes Steve Urmano, marketing director, Mimaki USA, Inc. "It is also good for acrylics and Lexan because of the multiple heads." The CF3 solutions are also equipped with a patented color photo sensor, which reads registration marks printed on media, in order to obtain more precision by automatically correcting for alignment and distance.
The vacuum system is divided into multiple zones—six for the CF3-1631, and two for the CF3-1610—enabling individual control of each, depending on the size of the media.
The Film Business
For flexible substrates, most sign shops rely heavily on film cutters and print-to-cut technologies. Choosing the right solution is based upon careful analysis of available systems and the new features manufacturers are building into them.
"Finishing prints well is a good business practice and should be an area of focus for every sign shop," stresses Andrew Oransky, director of product management, Roland Color Products Division, Roland DGA Corporation. "In the post print or finishing stages of a project, quality and reliability are critical because there is a lot at stake. Poorly registered cuts and other finishing problems can mean re-running an entire job, wasting valuable production time, materials, and labor. Shops should invest in equipment that delivers the functionality, ease of use, and repeatability they require."
Customers often come to Summa, Inc. with four criteria, or desires, in mind, according to Drew Groshong, VP of sales, Summa, Inc. They want a solution that’s accurate and precise; a finishing system that’s flexible, capable of handling a variety of job types and media; require ease of use and user friendly software; and demand reliability and a meaningful warranty.
No doubt, sign shop owners also wisely invest in finishing technologies that are backed by a manufacturer with a reputation for innovation.
Take Summa, Inc.’s family of cutting systems, for example, suggests Groshong. Summa, Inc. added the FlexCut feature to its cutters, making it possible to cut completely through the backing material. Conversely, the systems are also able to cut through the material down one side of a graphic, but only partially through the backing material down another, which results in a tear-off line ensuring the material retains rigidity during transport, yet is easily taken apart in preparation for the disassembly or installation.
Groshong notes that Summa, Inc. has also equipped its S Class series of cutters with touch screen displays, which enable users to better navigate menus and settings. "Summa also provides a cutter-printer control desktop host program to allow full control of machines directly from a computer’s desktop," he explains.
"Automated technologies can play a key role in preserving the quality of a printed graphic," suggests Oransky. "For example, Roland integrates contour cutting into the company’s SOLJET and VersaCAMM wide format inkjet printer/cutters. Roland integrated print-to-cut technology allows shops to automate both printing and contour cutting using one file, one workflow, and one printer, for precision alignment. As a result, Roland integrated print/cut technology expedites the workflow, reduces errors, and lowers the production costs associated with manual labor."
"And for prints that require lamination, Roland printer/cutters feature the Quadralign four-point optical registration system, which facilitates a print-laminate-cut workflow," explains Oransky. "When laminated prints are re-loaded onto a SOLJET or VersaCAMM printer/cutter, Quadralign automatically realigns the cutting path and compensates for any skew or distortion."
The Well Traveled Router
There are a wealth of router options available. The few discussed here are only a fraction of what is used in sign shops.
When expanding your search beyond these confines be aware of solutions manufactured for other markets besides the graphic arts. In addition to sizing up critical specifications like dimension, speed, hp, and routing/cutting capabilities, make sure to choose a solution designed for your specific needs.