By Elizabeth Quirk
There are a number of ways to cut a substrate including using a laser. Two different versions of laser cutters are predominantly used in the graphic arts—a standalone or dedicated solution, and then there are routers than can be equipped with an interchangeable laser option, otherwise known as a multi-tool device.
Dedicated laser cutters are fairly mature and mainstream equipment, suitable for both industrial and commercial usage. The main application is materials processing, including all types of metal and non-metal processing such as cutting, engraving, and etching. Interchangeable laser systems, on the other hand, are ideal for many print service providers (PSPs) looking for one machine that can cut and engrave a variety of materials.
As digital printing continues to make inroads into new industries, like apparel, décor, and awards/promotions, the ability to laser cut becomes more prevalent. Not only is full-on cutting achieved, but engraving or etching are additional possibilities.
Above: The Summa L Series offers advanced laser cutting for sublimation printed fabrics.
Standalone laser cutters in general, as opposed to multi-tool cutters, are ideal when production-based solutions are necessary to maintain and/or increase throughput. Standalone laser systems may also be beneficial for production scenarios that are predictable and exclusively geared towards high volume in one particular deliverable in textile or décor, often seen in wholesale provider scenarios.
The decision to choose a dedicated laser cutting solution is usually driven by volume, according to Warren Knipple, president, Trotec Laser Inc. A standalone laser cutter can increase production in a high-volume environment as well as reduce cycle times and minimize changeover times. But it all depends on the business and its application needs.
“If you have a narrow or specific cutting application with precise or well-defined processes—for example, if you need to cut textile sheets as part of a multi-step, industrial manufacturing process or are cutting laminate blanks for labels—it may make more sense to choose a laser system that serves a single, specific purpose,” he continues.
Leonard Marano, VP, product management and marketing, automation systems, Gerber Technology, recommends standalone solutions for niche companies targeting a more specific place in the industry, such as soft signage. Finishing in soft signage is often time consuming and costly, but with a laser cutting solution, a PSP can cut and seal edges simultaneously, greatly increasing speed while improving the final product.
“A laser is a contactless cutting method and seals the cut edges to deliver easily manageable pieces. It is productive because of the high laser acceleration and the ability to cut while feeding or transporting the media. Besides the method of cutting, laser cutters are usually equipped with specific features to minimize distortions, ensuring accurate results,” explains Jim Manelski, business development manager textiles, Summa America LLC.
Unlike multi-tool cutters, James Stanaway, director of marketing, Epilog Laser, believes standalone systems require very little in the way of consumables, are more reliable and precise, are exceptionally durable, and incredibly fast. They cut and engrave a variety of popular substrates including acrylic, wood, fabric/textiles, rubber, cork, plastic, and leather.
“Standalone laser cutters offer simplicity and higher throughput, no loss of time due to tool changeover, and the ability to continuously cut/mark jobs on the fly compared to multi-tool solutions,” adds Steven Leibin, president, Matik, Inc.
In the case of dedicated lasers the wattage of a machine impacts how fast the laser moves as well as the level of thickness it can cut through. It is also important to note that there are two types of laser sources—CO2 and fiber. Adam Voigt, marketing and sales, Kern Laser Systems, provides an explanation.
“CO2 laser sources are available in multiple wattages, 50 to 400 watt. With different wattages, users cut through different materials at different thicknesses including wood, acrylic, foam, and rubber. At 150 watt and above metal cutting is an option. Alternatively, a fiber laser is more for cutting metal or sheet metal production—this includes brass, copper, stainless, aluminum, and mild steel. Wattages may come in 500kW, 1000kW, or 1500kW—offering the ability to cut though different variations of metal and thicknesses,” he shares.
CO2 and fiber options exist separately, but some vendors also offer hybrid options. Matt Hsu, marketing specialist, GCC America Inc., details new features found on the LaserPro Spirit GLS Hybrid. Combining CO2 and fiber laser options in one system, it performs finishing techniques on a variety of applications from organic materials to direct metal engraving.
Dual-source cutting systems are well suited for PSPs looking for one machine that works with the widest variety of materials. These solutions allow for greater flexibility and versatility, and consequently, permit much quicker and easier adaptation to changes in demand. More than any type of single-purpose equipment, they provide a PSP with the ability to use the best and most productive tool—router, knife, or laser—for the job at hand.
“Multi-purpose systems are ideal for businesses whose portfolios are centered on meeting a variety of their customers’ printing and finishing needs while avoiding any of the hiccups associated with outsourcing. They are well suited for those in urban or other settings where real estate and floor space is at a premium and any equipment installed must meet multiple demands, producing nearly continuously,” suggests Heather Roden, strategic account manager for graphics and packaging, Zünd America, Inc.
For example, Zünd offers a number of finishing options on its series of digital cutters when equipped with its automatic tool changer. The Laser Module – LM 100W, compatible with the Zünd G3 series, delivers cut quality and repeatability. When used with the automatic tool changer, the PSP can easily switch to the Routing Module RM-L—a 3.6 kW router.
The Triple Interchangeable Tool Head found on the Colex Sharpcut Flatbed Cutter illustrates versatility as well. Users can change from a laser to a three horsepower router in less than five minutes. Another tool compatible with the head is the heavy duty fabric knife. “This provides versatility to the end customer with the capability to seal fabric/textile edges and the ability to route rigid material and knife cut signage material,” offers Maureen Damato, sales dealer account manager, Colex Finishing, Inc.
Utilizing a system with interchangeable options also allows room for growth. “Interchangeable laser options are a great option for businesses in lower volume production environments using a laser as part of a strategy to extend product lines or increase capabilities to broaden market reach,” advises Knipple.
“A multi-tool machine is a good choice when a PSP is using a cutter mainly for rigid materials and needs fabric cutting capabilities on some occasions. It would also be a good choice for a smaller shop or smaller budget. However, if fabric is your main business or you plan to grow your fabric offerings, a dedicated laser cutter may be best,” says Christina Lefebvre, area sales manager – North America, Matic.
The ease of use found on both dedicated and multi-tool finishing devices increases productivity significantly. Fueling user-friendly processes is the software systems that drive the hardware. Specifically, vision or camera systems are some of the newest enhancements.
According to Matt Gusse, VP sales and marketing, Advanced Color Solutions, different types of vision or camera technology is gaining in popularity as dye-sublimation printing continues to grow. These laser cutting solutions incorporate an overhead camera combined with software for cutting printed fabrics.
Software system updates enable more stable and precise solutions. In addition, the pixel capturing capabilities of certain camera technologies are improving—offering higher definitions and increasing cutting precision, agrees Frank Wu, representative, Eastsign Inc.
“Cutting of printed sublimation is still the number one bottleneck at most small to medium sports uniforms/apparel manufacturers, so adding a machine and software that generates all the data needed, on the fly, from a piece of printed fabric and then start cutting is awe inspiring. These laser systems have quickly become the problem solver in dozens of our clients’ shops. It can save tens of thousands of dollars in labor and countless hours of sleepless nights spent cutting out garments,” adds Gusse.
Matic recently developed its Helios Plus Laser to offer technology similar to facial recognition. “Printed images are scanned on top of the conveyor belt—in order to know where they are on the table—and then matched to the original cutting file. The software automatically finds the right cut file in its database, shaving time off in the process,” explains Lefebvre.
Tuaktech offers an overhead camera on its TUKAcut laser machine. “It can be used to scan pattern shapes, including those with digitally printed designs on the interior of the boundary lines and will cut out the patterns while ignoring interior printing lines,” explains Chris Walia, COO, Tukatech.
Zünd’s Over Cutter Camera (OCC) registration system is used to combat the distortions that commonly occur when textiles are printed and fed onto an advanced cutting system. “OCC provides superior speed in processing registration marks as they are all captured in a single shot rather than sequentially through beam movement,” adds Roden.
Demands from the Masses
In general, the majority of PSPs looking for a laser cutting solution request speed but without sacrificing quality or accuracy, versatility to cut multiple materials, and ease of use in operation. Safety is also a concern.
Fast, automated machines are in demand—as are machines that run unattended as much as possible, cites Lefebvre.
Quality is essential. “Customers continually ask to see samples of cuts, certain products they may have created, to ensure that the machine they are getting is right for their company,” explains Voigt.
“Today’s PSPs want quality laser cutting/marking, laser flexibility—cut/mark any pattern using a digital process, fast output, and easy machines to operate,” agrees Leibin.
Versatility to cut all types of material on one cutter is a growing demand, according to Damato.
Stanaway states that customers are asking for machines that are robust and easy to operate. “For ease of use, it really comes down to how easy it is to transfer a design to a product, and that means incorporating cameras for easy drag-and-drop positioning, a job manager for tracking projects, and a thorough materials setting database,” he continues.
Simplicity is found in other ways. According to Manelski, another unique ability of some laser cutters is cutting while the belt is moving, transporting the material, and scanning all at the same time. Even setting up materials is much easier—using a material database the operator selects his/her material and every setting is stored for future use.
Safety is all a factor frequently addressed. “It also is a major concern, particularly for systems used for wide format materials. Many customers in the market for standalone cutting systems are interested in a system with a generous working area, but most of the larger systems are not safety class II systems, meaning most require additional safety measures such as safety goggles, training, or protective gear,” says Knipple.
Up to You
So in conclusion, there are two different versions of laser cutters predominantly found in the graphic arts—a standalone or dedicated solution, and finishing devices equipped with an interchangeable laser option, otherwise known as a multi-tool. Both have their own unique features and benefits. It’s up to the PSP to determine which solution is ideal for its business.
Sep2019, Digital Output