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A Cut Above the Rest

Cost Effective Vinyl Cutting Technologies

By Gretchen Peck

Vinyl-based substrates are continually prevalent in large format graphics. Despite growing interest in alternative textile media, vinyl is a staple product, largely due to emerging applications.

Vehicle graphics, for example, continue to push vinyl growth within the graphic arts. "It makes sense for a lot of sign manufacturers, because it’s something that they’re inherently familiar with. We’re talking about taking sticky material and putting it on something that a lot of our country is passionate about. The car craze is part of American culture, and here, you’re mixing the two together. Beyond cars, you also have boats, trailers, and trucks—all kinds of things are getting wrapped these days," comments Rick Scrimger, VP/GM, Roland DGA Corporation.

Scrimger continues, "I’ve seen iPods and computers wrapped. In fact, while I was in Europe, I saw a refrigerator wrapped, There’s a whole movement in the interior décor market, with things like blinds, lamps, lampshades, and so forth, that require some type of printed and cut vinyl. I even saw a grand piano that was wrapped—not in crazy, wild flames or anything. It was a very subtle treatment. It made me do a double take."

The Wide World of the Web grew out of a bricks and mortar sign shop based in Newark, NJ. "Our parent company, Group One Investments, was spending enough on things like signs and decals that it justified us getting into the business," recalls Seth Danberry, director, "We were enough of a customer in and of ourselves that we were able to break even. But in the past five years or so, we’ve grown tremendously."

"Initially, we started accepting local business from some larger clients. For example, we do a lot of work for some of the major stadiums, including Giants Stadium and Yankee Stadium. And then about two years ago, we decided to expand to the Internet, and that’s when was founded," he notes.

The Web site draws customers from across the U.S.—folks looking for everything from window decals to customized license plates, vinyl banners and signage, to letters for personal, fleet, and marine vehicles. Most jobs require some form of vinyl media—most often what Danberry calls "cast, six-year vinyl." employs several digital and thermal print engines, including a Gerber EDGE FX from Gerber Scientific Products. "The Gerber EDGE FX melts the vinyl colors and comes with a separate plotter, the Gerber enVision. Both take sprocket-fed media, so they operate inline. The material is fed through the Gerber EDGE and then directly into the enVision, which we primarily use for smaller decal-type jobs that require cutting," Danberry explains.

The Gerber EDGE FX handles media up to 15 inches wide and the enVision is offered as a tabletop option—15 inches, or as a self-standing device—30 inches. Both run on Gerber OMEGA software.

The company also employs two Roland VersaCAMM SP-540Vs. "We have reached enough of a capacity for cut-vinyl work that we can justify adding another," he adds.

The nature of the business allows Danberry and his staff to concentrate primarily on producing spectacular print. Although the company will perform installations for their local clientele, its nationwide customers are on their own when it comes to applying or installing the print.

"We do provide installation kits," Danberry remarks. "Most of JavaSigns’ customers are looking for small letters, window decals, banners, and things of that nature, so they can easily install them themselves with a little guidance and instruction. And truthfully, they enjoy that. They can say, ‘Hey, I designed this and I installed it!’ A do-it-yourself sense of pride!"

Get Your Sign On
Keith and Shannon Myers found themselves immersed in print when they opened Sign-On Custom Vinyl Signs in Burkburnett, TX, an extension of a family trucking business.

"We started in 1998 by doing cut vinyl signs for our family’s trucking company," Keith Myers recalls. Though the name of the company would seem apt, since the business continues to supply vinyl-based print to a regional clientele, it probably doesn’t do the scope of the business justice. As Myers points out, the company also offers screenprinting and textile work, a segment of the print business that he says is an ideal complement to the vinyl.

"One of our greatest selling points is that we can assist in the creative process. We do 100 percent of the design for the vinyl signage and lettering jobs," he notes. To assist in cutting, the company deploys two primary technologies—a GCC JII-61 standalone cutter purchased years ago from Sign Warehouse, and a Roland VersaCAMM SP-540V, a print-to-cut solution available in 30- and 54-inch wide models. The device features Roland’s ECO-SOL MAX ink and Roland VersaWorks RIP software. Max speed is 114 square feet per hour (sf/h) at 1,440 dpi.

Sign-On uses 3M Controltac Graphic Film IJ180C for outdoor applications. For indoors they use Arlon 4560 GTX.

Both the GCC JII-61 cutter and Roland VersaCAMM SP-540V are quite adept at multitasking, according to Myers, who explains, "We’re finding that more people want dimensional lettering, we use our cutters to create a template on vinyl which is used to cut out three-dimensional letters and other graphics."

Problem? There’s a Solution
Cutting systems for vinyl media come in many shapes and sizes. From simplistic, straight-cut manual tools to highly sophisticated, software-driven systems that perform complex and intricate cuts. The type of system a sign shop chooses is largely dependent upon the volume and genre of the workload.

Some may specialize in simple banners or rectangular vinyl signs, in which case a solution like SEAL Graphics’ AccuCut Table Mount System may be all that’s needed. Available in either a 60- or 100-inch wide model, the AccuTrim TE can cut and trim everything from vinyl to paper-based printing stocks to heavier-weighted cardboards and other non-ferrous media.

Promoted as an entry-level cutter by Graphics One, LLC, the GO SignCutter is well-suited for shops with mid-range volumes of jobs such as display graphics, decals, and lettering. It is available in 24-, 30-, and 48-inch widths.

For more complex jobs, digital cutting solutions that perform more than just media trimming are available as well.

Mutoh America, Inc. offers the Ultima family of cutting plotters. These standalone devices can cut, plot designs, and punch when needed. Two models—the Ultima 850 and the Ultima 1400—feature a laser-guided optical sensor that detects registration marks on printed stocks—most often, vinyl—and performs cuts at up to 39 inches per second (in/s) on media up to 1mm thick.

GCC has several brands of cutting plotters, but the most popular model for U.S. sign shops is the GCC Jaguar family, which includes the new Jaguar IV.

"The all new Jaguar IV is a revolutionary cutting plotter that utilizes a high-performance DC servo motor for accurate tracking capabilities up to ten meters, cutting speeds up to 60 in/s, and cutting forces up to 600 grams across a broad range of materials—from thick sandblast and reflective sheets to vinyl and thin masking films," explains Mira Wu, senior specialist, marketing communications, GCC. The Jaguar IV features a powerful Accu-Aligning System—AAS II—for achieving precise cutting performance.

Graphtec America, Inc. offers five models of cutting plotters within its FC7000MK2 Cutting Pro series—from 30- to 72-inch wide. Each device is equipped with Graphtec’s Advanced Registration Mark Sensor (ARMS) System, which enables contour cutting of up to 58.5 in/s. Designed specifically for vehicle and fleet graphic specialists, Graphtec’s FC7000MKS AKZ is available in either a 42- or 64-inch wide configuration, both adept at cutting window-tint and paint-protection films, as well as vinyl.

Mimaki USA, Inc. recently introduced the latest generation in its CG-FX II series of cutters. The new models feature an over-cut function, which extends the starting and ending points of the cuts in order to eliminate any uncut portions common with thick or sticky substrates. And FineCut, the software guiding the cutting plotters, now features a new cutting preview, enabling operators to check the start position, cutting lines, cutting direction, and cutting order before beginning the job.

Depending on volume and type of print job, some large format print suppliers may decide that the flexibility of a hybrid cutter is best. Take, for example, the CONTECH DigiCutter—which can butt- or gap-cut, and edge-trim—either in a standalone configuration or inline system attached to a printer or laminator.

Wrap it Up in Vinyl
"In my experience, the vehicle wrap and window graphic markets have gone crazy," marvels Joe Ekhamel. For a decade, he’s been the plant manager for wholesale print supplier Trient Technologies, based in Woodville, WI. Vehicle graphics is a market he knows well. Reflecting back on how he found his way into the large format print market, Ekhamel says, "My goodness, I go all the way back to the days when Gerber cutting machines were new!"

"I was on the automotive side of the industry for many years before branching out into the sign side of the business," he recalls. Today, Trient Technologies produces banners, outdoor signage, lettering, and a variety of other vinyl-based print products, but it’s the vehicle and window applications that Ekhamel says are driving growth for the business. "The vast majority of what we do is on vinyl," he admits.

Trient boasts customers in every U.S. state, according to Ekhamel. The company caters to sign shops and screenprinters small and large and runs a slew of roll-fed digital printers, as well as some late-model print equipment.

"We still have electrostatic printing done on a 3M Scotchprint machine," he notes. "There are a lot of people out there today that think it’s a very old technology. And it is, but it’s still a very useful technology for us. We continue to get very high-quality backlit prints off that machine, and we find that the color densities are even better than a lot of the inkjet printers today."

"It’s also a very fast piece of equipment," he adds. "If a customer is looking to get a couple of semi-trailers done fast, we can knock them out awfully quick on that piece of equipment. But, of course, we also have digital inkjets, including several in the 60-inch range."

Ekhamel uses the example of the electrostatic equipment to prove a point—that adopting technology for the sake of having the latest thing isn’t always a smart move. Rather, print businesses are better served if they purchase machinery based on what they really need.

"If you take things like fleet markings, in many cases, you’re not dealing with intricately cut graphics. You’re just talking about a straight edge, which you can often just hand trim by clamping down the print and running a rotary blade down it. There are a lot of cases like that, when you just can’t beat a straight edge and simple cutting tool," Ekhamel suggests.

But in cases where more complex cutting is needed, a digital tool certainly comes in handy, he admits. "We have several pieces of flatbed cutting equipment, the largest of which is 60 inches by ten feet long—our Kongsberg table with Mikkelsen Graphic Engineering’s (MGE) i-cut technology. We use that often; about 40 to 50 percent of our projects involve some type of perimeter cutting," Ekhamel confides.

Through EskoArtwork, Kongsberg offers platforms from 30 to 64 inches wide to satisfy every print shop’s need. MGE recently released i-cut version 6.3. The newest edition includes real time window feedback, expanded support for AXYZ and multicam routers, and an expanded multi-installer for easier installation.

Whenever Trient Technologies decides to purchase a new piece of equipment—whether it’s software, a printer, or a piece of finishing equipment, Ekhamel says he relies heavily on two sources of information.

"There are an awful lot of good articles in trade magazines that provide you with the pros and cons, so we pay close attention to that. And we also rely heavily on the suggestions of others. There are plenty of people in this industry who are willing to share their experiences," Ekhamel says.

"But we also keep in mind that it’s not only about the equipment; it’s about having qualified people capable of running the equipment and being able to match color and not waste materials. That’s our greatest selling point as a wholesaler—not only that we offer high quality, but when we give you a price, it’s one that you can rely on," he concludes.

Standalone or United?
For many large format shops considering investing in a vinyl cutting solution, there remains one question. Should you purchase a standalone cutting system or a print-to-cut solution?

"There’s a good argument for both," suggests Scrimger, whose company, Roland DGA Corporation, manufactures standalone printers and cutters, as well as unified print-to-cut systems. He admits that there is the argument that a unified system is guilty of tying up one function or the other—while the system is printing, its cutting utility can’t be working on another job, and vice versa. Often times, this isn’t a significant concern for sign shops and other print suppliers, as they’re likely to have other print systems and cutting technologies on their plant floors.

The argument in favor of a print-to-cut solution is a bit more compelling. "It comes down to accuracy and print-to-cut registration," he explains. "And by that, I mean, once the print-to-cut device prints, and the cutter is onboard, it can go back and cut it very precisely, because it knows exactly where that vinyl and the graphic is. The good thing about having an all-in-one vinyl cutter is that it’s highly accurate, which is crucial for people who are doing the very small applications like labels and decals."

Whether or not you choose to adapt a print-to-cut solution, vinyl cutting is generally something that all sign shops should consider adding on to existing business solutions. These devices are generally easy to use and cost effective.

Customers want a print supplier that does it all. Offering the latest and greatest in applications—including vehicle wraps or even a refrigerator wrap—is guaranteed to keep customers walking in the door.

Jun2008, Digital Output

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