Compared to a manual process, the speed, accuracy, and versatility of flatbed routers and multifunction cutting systems directly translate to cost savings and greater efficiencies for the print service provider (PSP).
Bill Hartman, VP business development, digital finishing, Esko, highlights the benefits of flatbed routers, including the ability to eliminate capacity bottlenecks in finishing. “Everyone is under pressure to offer fast turnarounds. Cutting also expands a shop’s print capabilities, offering solutions on a range of substrates,” he continues.
Another benefit is automation, which allows PSPs to cut creative shapes and folding slots. “This helps create multi-piece assemblies and print displays,” notes Hartman. With a flatbed cutter PSPs generate cutout graphics, tri-dimensional elements for point of purchase (POP) advertising, store decor, props, trade show booths, event backdrops, and customized packaging.
PSPs enjoy the flexibility of flatbed routers to handle a variety of rigid as well as soft materials. Due to tooling devices on today’s machines, users swiftly and efficiently switch between cutting jobs and various materials.
Tool Modules and Material-Handling
Flatbed routers accommodate a variety of tool heads and bits of different shapes and sizes for use with specific materials. “Flatbed routers securely hold the work piece in position either through a vacuum chamber or clamps. The routers also have vision registration capability so that the routing lines up with the graphics,” explains Donald Skenderian, director, sales and marketing, Gerber Innovations.
There are multiple cutting styles to accommodate. “Kiss cutting is used to cut the top layer of a material without cutting through an attached material, and oscillating cuts with a high frequency up and down motion. Routing is used for rigid materials that cannot be cut with a knife. A knife is used for flexible and semi-rigid materials, like Coroplast. Creasing tools help with folds on materials such as heavy paperboards or corrugated materials—particularly helpful for three-dimensional (3D) displays. Creasing tools also work well on paper and folding carton to make everything from wedding invitations to tabletop tent cards to marketing specialty items,” shares Hartman.
Esko’s Kongsberg XP moves in a straight line up to 100 meters a minute. Mid-range cutters have speeds of 40 to 60 meters per minute. “It is important to note that better tables accelerate faster,” says Hartman. “They ramp up to full speed faster than low-end counterparts. What limits speed is the complexity of the shape and the number of corners of the artwork. At a corner, the cutter must stop, turn to change direction, and then accelerate as it starts on another side of the artwork. Shapes have a tremendous impact on throughput.”
Zünd’s multifunctional flatbed routing/cutting systems, for instance, offer five different tool modules—universal cutting, kiss cutting, punching, marking, and routing. The Zünd G3 systems cut material up to two inches thick, including vinyl, film, fabrics, mesh, Gatorboard, plastics, Dibond, solid non-ferrous metals, wood products, and other unique materials like magnetics, leather, felt, rubber, and fiberglass.
Material-handling options play a significant role on these machines and range from semi-automated tandem or pendulum production, where materials can be loaded and unloaded on one side of the machine while cutting continues on the other, to fully automate board and roll handling systems.
Colex Imaging, Inc.’s Sharpcut’s Triple Interchangeable Tool Head station allows for changing application tools within the same job without manual intervention. The Sharpcut includes a router, fixed double-edge knife and oscillating knife with optional kiss-cutting knife, creasing wheel, Coroplast knife, universal single-edge knife, V-cut knife, and a three horsepower heavy duty router that allows PSPs to cut a variety of media, such as foam board, wood, acrylic/plexi, honeycomb, vinyl, aluminum, and Dibond.
AXYZ International’s selection cut materials including all plastic, foam, PVC, MDF, natural wood, aluminium, all non-ferrous metal, composite material, and mild steel. In addition the to the routing head, AXYZ offers knife systems to cut lighter materials such as card, paper, vinyl, soft foam, gasket, recyclable corrugated board, foamex, and correx.
For rigid substrates a 10.8 horsepower spindle is used to process the material at high speed. “The option of an automatic tool change system saves time and increases productivity when routing different material types,” says Robert Marshall, VP market development, AXYZ.
According to Kevin Kane, CEO, CLN of South Florida, Inc., the most popular cutting tool is the spindle power head, which allows users to control the RPM on the spindle and helps in the quality of the cut. Flatbed routers from CLN feature pneumatic pop-up stops that allows users to set the material at the same location for repeat board placement. “When cutting non-ferrous metal such as aluminum, one can attach a lubrication unit to the machine, which cools the bit when cutting,” he explains.
Digital Graphic Systems Inc. (DGS) offers the 5x8-foot Samurai V-Cut 5800, featuring two sleeves for interchangeable tools, including an oscillating knife, non-oscillating knife, creasing wheel of different gauges, 45 degree V cut tool for foam and structural honeycomb board, and a plotting pen. The maximum material thickness is one-inch, and cuts material such as paper, adhesive vinyl, SBS cardboard, Coroplast, foamboard, PVC, honeycomb board, magnetic film, leather, carpet, and fabrics, among other soft materials. If ordered with the spindle option, it also cuts hard materials such as acrylic, wood, MDF, and metal.
DGS’ 4x8-foot V-Pro X5 cuts the same set of materials up to one-inch thick, however it does not have a spindle option. The V-Pro X5 features three sleeves for interchangeable tools. The V-Pro X5 comes with an automatic tool depth sensor, working station, and a PC.
One of the most attractive benefits of a flatbed CNC router is its ability to cut in 2D and 3D in a variety of different materials. “Through the use of different cutting heads and tooling it is possible to process everything from soft materials such as vinyl and fabrics to materials like wood. With the addition of a lubrication system, some flatbeds are able to cut solid aluminum,” shares Randy Paar, senior marketing specialist, display graphics, Canon Solutions America.
Control with Cameras
Contour cutting and the cutting of odd shapes are often requested. As Skenderian notes, doing this by hand is a tedious, if not impossible task; flatbed routers under CAD control perform these functions in a straightforward matter and with significant savings in time and labor.
“Equipping the cutting table with a small camera allows PSPs to re-register the image on the flatbed table and cut out the shape with the spindle or a tool that uses a knife to cut the material such as vinyl or silicone base materials,” says Kane.
Registration of cutting to the print is achieved with ease using AXYZ’s Vision System (AVS). The camera mounted on the machine locates printed registration marks, and then adjusts the program in real time to compensate for misalignment or stretching of the print. The AVS system can be used with either a router or knife system or both on the same job.
Outsourcing finishing can be expensive and time consuming. Werner Waden, president, Colex, explains that investing in a flatbed router allows PSPs to handle all finishing needs in-house including POP displays, flags, posters, banners, signage, labels/decals, and custom packaging and ensures on-time delivery for complex jobs.
All components—tool options, software, and material handling—are critical in determining the versatility and productivity of multifunctional flatbed routing/cutting systems. The options on today’s flatbed routers and multifunction cutting devices minimize cost and allow a PSP to handle more substrates with greater ease and accuracy.