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Making the Final Cut

Multifunction digital finishing systems deliver efficiency and new products.

By Thomas Franklin

There are many cutting options available for a digital printer, depending on the media. Choices range from the old fashion, manual methods like scissors, knifes, and saws, to automated solutions such as drum cutters—for kiss cutting thin, flexible materials—to computer numeric control (CNC) routers—for boring through solid substrates like wood—to multifunction routers.

Traditional methods of cutting graphics are proven slow-footed in the short run, digital era. Turning around a 3,000-piece order of point of purchase (POP) displays, standees, or other display graphics demands speed and flexibility. Such capabilities are available in a multifunction cutter/router.

This multifunction solution is more prevalent in digital print environments not because it can make cuts that other systems or methods can’t, but because it handles multiple types of cutting jobs on a single platform, quicker and much more accurately than competitive methods, says Marco Azzaretti, director, graphic solutions, Gerber Scientific Technology, Inc. A simple change of a cutting tool can transform the system from a sensitive vinyl cutter into a platform for cutting and creasing corrugated media or routing rigid substrates such as foam core.

When you’re done finishing a graphic, you can use the system to create the graphic’s own packaging, adds Don Skenderian, VP of direct sales, Kongsberg/ Esko Artwork.

Three main trends drive the adoption of multifunction cutters/routers, Azzaretti observes. The first is a desire for improved efficiency. The second trend is a push toward short run production and the need for "application flexibility." Third, "customers are looking to broaden their capabilities, which will help them to broaden their business."

Digital High Point of NC purchased a Kongsberg DCM cutting table with an eye toward cutting corrugated media for retail POP and packaging applications. The system’s flexibility, however, led the firm down new avenues, says Craig Marsh, director of operations. "With digital presses there are so many different materials you can run through. We started using the DCM with corrugated and we’ve since expanded into Sintra and styrene."

The ability to perform complicated cuts on rigid materials also liberates designers to be more creative, says Russell Stefen, production coordinator, BigLook Displays and Graphics of Bozeman, MT. Since the purchase of a Zünd L-2500, the firm’s designers "can now create design elements that we could never have produced by hand."

The adoption of flatbed UV printers in particular helped drive the need for multifunction routers, says Steve Aranoff, director of business development, MGE. The ability to print directly to rigid materials created demand for more robust cutting and finishing solutions, he adds.

These routers—or digital finishing systems—are available stand alone or with an optical registration system for improved accuracy. Manufacturers include Gerber Scientific Products, Inc., Kongsberg/ Esko Artwork, KUTRITE Solutions Inc., Mimaki USA, and Zünd. Sizes range from 26 to 126 inches with prices that can span from $50,000 to $200,000, depending on configuration, including cutting tools and software packages.

Many of those systems use cameras and software to enhance productivity and accuracy. Models from Kongsberg and Gerber incorporate MGE’s i-cut and i-script digital finishing workflow solution. That solution is being positioned by the firm as a universal—router neutral—platform to better automate the finishing workflow. "What we want to do is eliminate all the steps between designing and finishing, the fewer steps along the way, the fewer mistakes and the better the efficiency," Aranoff says. The firm also services the screen printing market with its ai-cut offering, an add-on for Adobe Illustrator that automatically inserts register marks in print/cut files that will later be cut with MGE digital cutting/routing systems.

The efficiency and multifunction capabilities in new finishing systems mean less waste, less time spent on production, and fewer employees dedicated to cutting, Aranoff says.

Digital High Point reported efficiency gains with the use of its Kongsberg DCM cutting table. "Our digital press is so fast, but I load those sheets into the DCM, turn it on, and let it go," Marsh says. "I only need a half person to run it." Digital High Point uses its DCM to produce retail POP and packaging. One of the keys to maximizing the efficiency of a router or cutter, says Marsh, is in the design stage. "You have to know how to design for your cutter, you have to know what works to really make it efficient."

The Zünd L-2500 at BigLook replaced an employee who was cutting graphics by hand, Stefen says. Since that replacement, work that would have taken "all afternoon by hand is completed in four minutes."

This efficiency is increasingly important as more businesses bring on digital printing. "We’re really seeing a convergence of several industries, all getting digital printers," Marco says.

"It is similar to when laser printers were first introduced to the market. You purchased one and sold prints for one price, you purchased a second one and stared selling prints for half of the original price. The more people bring on the technology and start competing on price, the more important maximizing your efficiency becomes," Aranoff notes.

"We see the market [for finishing systems] expanding, it’s not just large businesses making this investment, we’re selling into shops with $1 million in annual revenue," says Peter Alsten, North American product manager, Zünd. "They want to expand their business without adding labor costs."

There are other virtues as well, Skenderian says. "The buzz word now is sustainability, so if you’re more efficient, you’re generating less waste" and can cash in on the green cachet.

Hop on Board
When considering a router or multifunction finishing system, how much you cut is less important than what you’re cutting, Alsten says. Customers start with a simple system dedicated to a few core materials and then add cutting tools to the system if it needs change, he notes.

"Customers are concerned about routers, but almost every customer has more roll than rigid capability in their printing department," Alsten observes. "When they look at the cutter, they don’t think about those roll materials, they think about the rigid substrates. We try to tell them: we can do it all."

Profiting from finishing often requires a mindset shift, argues Al Boese, manager of the SGIA-PPMA Alliance. Forget everything you know about print finishing. In fact, forget you even read the word "finishing." If you want to boost the profitability of your print business, forget you’re even in the printing business, Boese advises.

"People who do digital printing think they’re in the digital printing business but they’re not. They’re in the manufacturing business, whether it’s signs, POP, or trade show," Boese says.

Customers aren’t searching for prints, but solutions, says Boese. "They come with an objective—a trade show graphic—delivered to them in a form they can set up. Finishing therefore must be a vital part of the workflow and your cost analysis." It’s not, he stresses, an afterthought.

How have multifunction systems impacted business? We spoke with two display makers who recently purchased routers for their take.

Going Big
BIGraphics, Inc. of Nashua, NH is no stranger to success. "We’ve grown 20 percent per year for the past five years," says owner and founder David Merrick. The firm stakes its reputation on "doing what we say we’re going to do, when we say we are going to do it," Merrick shares.

However, such rapid growth put a strain on the business. "The guys in the finishing room needed help," he says.

BIGraphics is a large format print service bureau producing a full range of banners, POP, trade show displays, and fleet graphics. The 11-year old firm discovered the need for a cutter after the purchase of the ColorSpan 72UVR flatbed UV printer two years ago.

"I knew that if we wanted to move more aggressively into POP, we would have to be able to effectively cut out unusual shapes," Merrick says. Initially, Merrick’s son-in-law built a computer-aided router from scratch. The 4x8-foot flatbed router was a "little crude" Merrick admits, but it did initially suffice for the work it was handling. "It was enough to get us into the shape business," he says.

Since the graphics had to be aligned manually, Merrick realized the need for a fully automated system. "We knew it wasn’t a matter of adding more people, we needed a flatbed router with automatic registration," he says.

The intent, Merrick says, was to ease the burden on the finishing staff, to reduce operating costs and, crucially, and add flexibility to his business. The firm purchased an M-3000 flatbed cutter from Gerber Scientific last year. "It was very easy to set up," Merrick relates. "We had it going virtually minutes of getting it in. It’s taken a load off the individuals in the finishing room and it’s gotten me bigger, better, faster," he continues.

The firm now uses the Gerber for all of its rectangular and multi-copy cutting, Merrick notes. One of the early and pleasant surprises, Merrick says, was the ability to create custom packaging on the M-3000. "We can now cut our own corrugated boxes and scale the box to fit the graphic we’re shipping. That’s been exciting."

The firm also puts the router to use making easel backs for larger graphics, as well as hanging bars and related add-ons. "It’s just made our shop much more productive," Merrick says. "That’s the best thing I can say about it. The packaging and corrugated boxes—we would never have been able to readily buy them" in the shapes we needed, he says.

The M-3000’s contour cutting helped grow the retail POP business, Merrick asserts. Bringing on the M-3000, which is no small investment, also aligned with his philosophy of staying ahead of the technology curve—and thus keeping ahead of competitors. "We’ve been aggressive in marketing, especially over email. We now have three HP Designjet 9000s, the ColorSpan, and I just installed a Fujifilm Acuity HD 2504 flatbed UV printer—which really generates superior print quality," Merrick says.

All Terrain
Like many digital print businesses, McFarland, WI-based Brandboxx Display Graphics saw an acute need to bolster its cutting/routing capabilities with the purchase of a UV flatbed—the 63-inch Inca Spyder 320 digital UV press with white ink—a little over a year ago.

The 16-year-old Brandboxx styles itself as an "all-terrain" printer, producing the full range of trade show, retail, display, and fleet graphics digitally on a wide assortment of media. While originally a color separation firm, the company remodeled its business to push into display graphics two years ago, explains Jim Sullivan, president/CEO. Brandboxx. "Our customers pushed us into inkjet proofs. So we bought an inkjet printer and the posters and displays followed."

The firm was no stranger to finishing, Sullivan says, but the Inca purchase brought to light a new need."We were cutting on smaller equipment, but after we purchased the Inca we knew our finishing was going to pick up," Sullivan says. It wasn’t simply a matter of size, Sullivan explains. "Our cutting business was growing and we were outsourcing larger jobs and more complicated ones, so we were losing gross profits."

The company invested in a Kongsberg i-XL22 wide format table router with MGE’s i-cut vision system in November 2006. "We needed precision, industrial strength, and 100 percent up-time with great support surrounding it." Such around-the-clock production is the hallmark of Brandboxx. The company runs its 22 employees—four of whom are trained on the Kongsberg—in three shifts to fulfill its promise of a fully satisfied customer.

"We were blown away with how it has worked out," Sullivan observes. Work stays in-house and our bottom line boosted. "It paid for itself in six months. It significantly reduced the spoilage we were getting from our previous system, we were able to take back 100 percent of what we were outsourcing, and we were able to take on projects we had never done before."

The unit’s 66x120-inch cutting area allows the company to finish work on the Inca Spyder and its 63-inch Mimaki JV solvent printer, but also provided Brandboxx the ability to take "complete control" of a project and meet customer demands for prompt turnaround. It aligned with the firm’s commitment to customer service, "We differentiate ourselves by being the easiest company to work with: on time delivery and a defect free product with no failures in the field."

MGE’s i-cut vision system pushed the firm to become significantly more efficient in how it executes its production workflow, Sullivan observes. "You really need to plan a job through the entire shop so you can get efficiencies up front. You have to do planning. If the finishing room isn’t talking to prepress who isn’t talking to production, you’re going to make your recycler really happy."

Since its purchase, Brandboxx employs the Kongsberg to produce POP display graphics, prototypes, and short run packaging for consumer brand line shows, among other products. The firm’s one complaint? "I really wished they doubled the price of the system—it would keep my competitors away from it."

Getting Your Cut
The incorporation of the Post Print Manufacturers Assoc-iation (PPMA) with SGIA is indicative of the importance the graphics industry is placing on all forms of finishing—not just mounting and laminating, SGIA-PPMA’s Boese remarks.

SGIA will offer training on these systems to compliment existing courses on mounting and laminating. Those courses may be available in late 2008 but will definitely be available in 2009, Boese says. The association will also augment its research to include specific issues related to cutting and routing, he adds.

As sales of UV flatbeds ramp up, you’ll no doubt be hearing more about the ins-and-outs of multifunction finishing systems. So give your handsaw a rest. As the printer industry grows, the importance of finishing systems will grow with it.

Apr2008, Digital Output

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