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From Start to Finish

Digital Print Suppliers Are One-Stop Shops Thanks to Digital Finishing

By Gretchen A. Peck

"Volumes in the digital print segment are getting large enough that print suppliers can easily justify bringing in their own cutting and routing equipment," suggests Steve Aranoff, business development director, MGE, Inc.

Bringing finishing—cutting, routing, stitching, and welding—in-house not only makes economic sense, Aranoff adds, it also gives the print supplier greater control over quality, schedule, and pricing.

"Many wide format digital print users are still relying on manual, hand cutting, or [they’re] outsourcing to third parties until they have the volume to justify a cutting system of their own. Another concern is space," suggests Pete Alsten, North American product manager, Zünd America. "Our customer base ranges from large screen printers with up to 11 cutting systems, running three shifts, five to six days a week, to small sign shops. These companies are looking to reduce labor costs, increase quality, and provide faster turnaround."

Making the Cut
Carl Baldwin is president of Arlington, TX-based Falcon Graphics, a screen-printing and embroidery company. Baldwin recently invested in a 30-inch Roland VersaCAMM as a means to generate new income and capture new types of business.

The solution combines inkjet printing and high-speed vinyl-cutting technologies.

Baldwin expected the digital solution would be a good complement to his traditional screen-printing processes. The Roland VersaCAMM enables Falcon to digitally print and cut complex graphics for apparel.

What pleasantly surprised Baldwin was how easily the solution enabled him to take Falcon Graphics in new directions. Not only does he rely on the tool to support his apparel customers, he now calls upon the technology to support his growing large format graphics business, as well.

"We’re continually discovering new uses for the VersaCAMM," he confides. "We’re doing everything from athletic wear to fleet marketing, vinyl stickers, and magnetic signs."

"We’re seeing printers using our vinyl cutting solutions to really expand their businesses. For example, sign shops are now producing vehicle graphics. That segment of the industry is exploding—not only for what we’d think of as traditional vehicle graphics, but also for what I like to call vehicle styling applications. They’re getting into things like window tints, or they’re using intricately cut vinyl for masking in custom paint jobs and air brushing," according to Will Curtis, public relations for Roland ASD.

Keencut makes a line of simple, yet effective, cutting bars. Its Javelin, Practik, or Max cutter bars may be paired with the BIG Bench, a precision cutting table.

Summa, Inc. manufactures a range of finishing solutions under the Summa and SummaCut brands—from standalone 24-inch vinyl cutters to vinyl/ contour cutters that range from 24 to 64 inches wide.

According to Drew Groshong, Summa’s VP of sales, the company’s S Class systems are best suited for contour-cutting digital graphics. "The S Class units use a sophisticated OPOS electronic sensor that is able to see registration marks through the toughest laminates," Groshong explains. "That OPOS has an error-correction feature that will compensate for material shrinkage, which is helpful when cutting solvent-based images."

Cutting and routing systems are nice complements for print suppliers working with more exotic substrates, too. Gerber Scientific Products (GSP) manufactures the Sabre 404 and 408 routers. They’re capable of managing materials up to 4.4 inches thick—foams, plastics, wood and composites, to name a few—and are tailored for signage that feature special treatments, like reverse carving and engraving.

GSP also created a range of cutting solutions, including Gerber P2C Plotters—23.5-, 47-, and 62-inch-wide models—capable of cutting vinyl at speeds of up to 55.5 inches-per-second.

"We had one customer who bought a system and was using it to cut vinyl about 80 percent of the time, and rigid work about 20 percent. Within 90 days of installing a cutter-router, the company began selling 80 percent rigid, 20 percent vinyl," Aranoff confides.

And that seems to be a common theme in the large format print market right now—suppliers expanding their horizons, reaching out to new markets, experimenting with new genres of print work. Fundamentally, it’s transforming their business models.

A Seamless Workflow
The cost to acquire fundamental technologies like sewing machines and heat-seaming equipment is more affordable than ever, and many large format graphic suppliers are finding that it’s well worth the investment.

A workhorse sewing machine can be purchased for just a few thousand dollars. Most digital printers already have the skilled labor to operate stitching equipment, particularly if they’ve had previous experience in the screen printing realm.

When shopping for a sewing machine, consider the range of substrates that it needs to accommodate. Most off-the-shelf solutions—even the most sophisticated and expensive models—will lack the muscle and mechanics to accommodate a diverse mix of media or the voluminous workload of the small- to mid-sized sign shop.

Industrial-grade machines with walking foots are better suited to the job, for the design feeds the media through the machine smoother and faster. Brother, Juki, Pfaff, Singer, and other sewing equipment manufacturers make industrial-strength stitching solutions.

While stitching, taping, and gluing may be used to sure up edges and create treatments that facilitate installation, heat-seaming provides a more efficient and faster means for achieving the same results.

Radio frequency (RF) welders function in a stamp-like way. The media is placed between a die and base plate, where its thermoplastic coating melts and forms a seal. The die and base plate release the material and the next section of substrate is moved into place in order to repeat the process.

Based in Poland, with U.S. offices in Baltimore, Zemat manufactures "moveable, high-frequency welders" for heat-seaming large format PVC foil products and PVC-covered fabrics commonly used in tent, banner, tarpaulin, and other outdoor applications.

Forsstrom, based in Sweden, offers a range of high-frequency welders, too, including the TD and TDW models, which the manufacturer suggests are best suited to high-volume shops producing a lot of PVC products—tents, tarps, vehicle covers, and advertising billboards.

Rotary welders are said to provide a seamless process. This technology enables the material to be continuously fed through the machine with drive wheels. Heat may be facilitated with hot air or a heated metal wedge. Generally, it’s a faster process than that of RF welding, and an air-fed system may be faster still than systems that use the heated-wedge method.

There are advantages to both types of rotary welders. Wedge welders may use less power and offer a solution that’s less noisy than air systems. The hot-air systems, however, may provide a better, more consistent fuse.

There are also technologies on the market that may be adapted to accommodate either the wedge or hot-air process. Seamtek, for example, offers the SP72P Seam Sealer with puller, which may equipped to do one or the other. Wheel speed, air or wedge temperature, and other features are controlled via a touch-screen control panel. With a 72-inch-wide throat, the system is capable of creating seams between 0.250 and 2.5 inches.

Miller Weldmaster Corporation’s 112 Cross Seamer is well-suited to grand format work. It can be equipped with hot-air or hot-wedge heating system, depending on the customer’s requirements. For smaller large format graphics the company recommends its T-100 DR hot-wedge welder for digital and screen-printed banners, and Miller’s C-MIT 1000 hot-air welder provides a table-top finishing solution.

A Stealthy Workflow
When Lithographix of Hawthorne, CA was founded more than a half-century ago, it was a "simple sheetfed operation," according to George Wolden, the print company’s VP of manufacturing. And it remained a sheetfed shop up until 15 years ago when heatset web presses were added to the shop floor, as well as additional bindery and finishing tools to support the thriving offset business.

By 2004, the company had literally outgrown the building it occupied, so president Herb Zebrack embarked on a ten-month renovation project and moved operations to a former aerospace hangar, where Northrop Grumman had once built Stealth fighters. "It’s a huge building, with a very cool history," Wolden attests.

"Three years ago, we got into the outdoor market," Wolden recalls. "We started out with a couple five-meter-wide digital printers for producing billboards and other types of outdoor products."

The company was perfectly poised to tap into the large format segment, largely due to its well-established customer base that predominantly hailed from the advertising and entertainment industries. "It was a very natural evolution for us," Wolden explains.

Today, Lithograhix runs six digital roll-fed printers—four VUTEk 5330s and two VUTEk 3360s—and two, ten-foot VUTEk QS 3200 flatbeds.

The acquisition of the digital print engines necessitated some additional investment in finishing tools.

"We have two industrial-strength sewing machines and two welders—one of which is the longest system out there, a 100-foot Miller Weldmaster," Wolden explains.

"Sewing definitely has a place when you’re working with certain types of material. We produce a lot of banners on mesh, for example, and we sew those—especially for treatments like pole pockets. But when you’re dealing with vinyls—the substrate we deal most with—you need the welders for heat-seaming those jobs.

Wolden confides that he’s keeping close tabs on what’s happening in the finishing systems market. "The next things we’ll probably look into are the automated trimming and cutting devices. There’s still an awful lot of hand-trimming that’s involved in our large format business, so down the road, we’d like to see that facilitated by some trimming and cutting tools."

Lithographix is producing a diverse array of big print—movie posters, signage, POP displays, standees, and much more. And the addition of digital print engines and finishing complements is enabling the company to branch out into new markets.

"We’re starting to get a lot more retail business," Wolden notes. "I’d say, out of our $130 million dollars in annual revenue, only 10 to 15 percent is derived from retail, but we definitely see that as an opportunity for growth."

The One-Stop Shop
Ben Franklin Press was founded in 1956 as an offset print supplier to Phoenix, AZ and the surrounding markets. Ron Clark, president, grew up in the family-run business.

For decades, the company focused entirely on the commercial offset market, but during the mid 90s, the management team saw new opportunity in large format graphics. And Big Ben Jumbo Graphic Solutions, a second division, was born. Today, 80 percent of the company’s business is derived from professional sports teams and sporting venues—the balance from a diverse mix of casinos, supermarkets, and other local businesses that need big print.

The company has a stable of digital print engines today, including two HP Scitex XL1500s, an HP Scitex VEEjet+ flatbed, and a Mimaki JV3. The mix of technologies enables the company to print virtually any size project on a choice of 22 different substrates—everything from billboards to building wraps, from banners to slot toppers.

When the flatbed printer was installed, Clark simultaneously invested in a Kongsberg iXL i-cut cutter/router. "Without a cutter, what good is the flatbed," he remarks. "We use it not only to cut out the square stuff, but also some pretty intricate shapes. Before we got it, we had to print on our Mimaki, mount it on foam core, and cut it out with a jigsaw!"

Clark says he followed the same mantra when it came to digital finishing as he had in the offset world—to be a one-stop shop. "We’ve never outsourced any of our finishing. We want to be known as the printer that makes it simple for the customer," he notes. "Just give us your project, and we’ll complete it—start to finish. We are a one-stop shop."

Before You Buy
While vinyl jobs may still be a majority in the average sign shop’s workload, suppliers are reaching beyond the banner and working with other forms of media, as well. In fact, digital printers are applying graphics to everything these days—from conventional digital print papers, to fabrics, to more exotic textiles.

"Across all the large format markets—sign shops, reprographics houses, screen printers, and even commercial printers—they’re getting into UV flatbed printing," notes MGE’s Aranoff.

And many finishing tools are quite capable of multitasking. Take a solution like the Zünd Flatbed Cutter, which affords quick swap-out of cutting tools and enables users to perform kiss cutting, through cutting, creasing, and routing.

When not cutting vinyl, Ioline Corporation’s SmarTrac Contour cutting system may be put into tangential blade mode, enabling it to cut thicker substrates, such as mylar, select diamond-grade reflective materials, and heavy sandblast.

Buying a piece of finishing equipment to complement your digital print endeavors is a lot like investing in any other technology. Rather than approaching it as just buying a piece of hardware, consider how the technology will be a solution to your challenges, how it will enable your goals, and how it fits into your preferred workflow.

"Many manufacturers out there approach the customer with the question: What size machine do you want? But the answer isn’t really that insightful. Instead, I’d ask: What are you cutting? What are the sizes you need to accommodate? What are your expectations for volume? What is it that you really want to accomplish," Aranoff suggests. "That analysis is how you can find a solution that not only fits your needs in the present day, but will also give you some flexibility in dealing with what the future holds."

Finishing equipment manufacturers realize there’s a demand for a range of solutions, suitable for any budget, any size shop.

At MultiCam, John Harris, director of sales and marketing, notes that the 1000 and 3000—both equipped with MultiVision—are the company’s two best-selling solutions for graphic finishing. "The 1000 offers a cost-effective solution, typically under $50,000," he suggests. "And the 3000 offers a high-performance solution in the $60,000 to $90,000 range."

"If you have a customer who is buying a printer that costs $250,000, they’re more likely to pair it with a robust finishing solution that may cost as much as $150,000. But if you’re a printer who bought a less expensive printer-say, something in the $60,000 to $80,000 range, you’re not likely to think of a $150,000 general-purpose cutter-router as a compatible option," explains Aranoff. "We’re definitely seeing a need for lower-cost finishing solutions."

When shopping for finishing technologies, consider not only the equipment’s capabilities, but the vendor behind the solution. How will the manufacturer support installation and upkeep? And how will they support your quest for a quick ROI?

Spartanics manufactures tool-free laser cutting systems and optically controlled diecutters. The company promotes its Finecut Laser Cutting Systems to large format graphic suppliers. They’re adept at cutting detailed artwork and are said to handle difficult substrates such as thin or flimsy media. Users can get tech support anytime they need it via a secure Internet portal that allows Spartanics’ experts to take the controls of the system and communicate real-time with the printer through video conferencing.

The manufacturer points out that this is an important customer service advantage, for even operators with little to no finishing experience can rest assured that they’ve got a guardian angel helping to make sure the system operates to its fullest potential.

"Whenever we buy equipment, we create tests that will be indicative of the work we do here," advises George Wolden of Lithographix. "We want to know exactly how that piece of equipment is going to perform in the real world. We also want to know about the vendor’s reputation for service, and what the expected longevity of their solution is going to be."

Sep2007, Digital Output

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