By Cassandra Balentine
As wide format print engine manufacturers increase speeds on flagship devices, finishing equipment vendors are focused on productivity. Many print service providers (PSPs) in the wide format space rely on fl atbed routers and cutters as versatile solutions for digital finishing. Advancements in speed, cutting tools, and media handling enable improved efficiency that translates to added revenue opportunity.
In addition to speed requirements, media and service versatility place pressure on features expected of production equipment; this includes more tool options, wider widths, and automation.
Stephen Bennett, VP sales central and distribution, Esko, says the greatest demand for more productive and efficient flatbeds comes from the need to match faster print speeds. However, the nature of digital print—shorter, variable runs—is also a factor. “The only way PSPs can meet pricing for larger jobs is through digital print and finishing.” He suggests this trend is happening now because brands look for increased marketing control based on geographic and demographic demands.
In addition to varied content, media versatility enables PSPs to off er more services. Therefore, they look for printing and finishing solutions that can handle a range of diff erent substrates on top of high speeds.
According to Beatrice Drury, director of marketing and communications, Zünd America, the variety of available substrates and the demand for digitally printed graphics reaches across industries, bringing with it a need for differentiation and faster turnaround. “The proliferation of digital printers has caused the cost of printing to go down, making graphics more accessible, flexible, and personal. Th is plays perfectly into the expectations, particularly among younger generations, for the on demand and instantaneous availability associated with other forms of digital communication.”
Roberto Rodriguez, director, Digital Graphic Systems (DGS), adds that wide format print shops and commercial printers are actively looking for solutions that differentiate their products and set them apart from the competition. “I personally believe that the era of wide format printing as we know it—roll-to-roll printing on banner and adhesive vinyl—is gone as a money maker. These days, the technology is so easy and inexpensive to grab, that competition has become extremely aggressive and prices are really low. So, by acquiring flatbed router/cutter equipment and software, print shops intend to enhance the finishing part of the graphics production process or create structural designs—rather than just printed graphics. With more value added, creativity and functionalities open the space for additional substantial margins. In the end, PSPs are looking to bring their profit margins to the levels the industry had a few years ago,” he says.
To handle the abundance of materials and produce more applications, an in-house routing/cutting solution’s role evolves. “Doing more work with fewer resources is a key element in competing with companies that are able to take on larger jobs just based on their scale. Smaller companies working efficiently with minimal interaction can be competitive due to their agility to adjust for changing markets,” shares Josh Hope, senior manager, industrial printing, business development and marketing, Mimaki USA, Inc.
PSPs hope to gain efficiency with multifunction solutions. “For example, users that have a CNC spindle router are looking for add-ons that will let them use blades and scoring tools in their existing machines to cut soft materials such as foam, cardboard, and fluted polypropylene,” explains Rodriguez. “Other print shops that already have a blade cutter are looking for tools that will let them make V cuts for 90-degree bending on materials such as foam and structural/honeycomb boards. This way, the portfolio of products offered to their customer is expanded and may include corrugated point of purchase (POP) displays, packaging, and portable furniture and trade show booths.”
Dylan Hoffman, engineer, Colex, sees a shift to machines that perform both router and knife cutter tasks. “In the past, knife cutting machines had limited routing capability or vice versa. Routers were typically slow at knife cutting and knife cutters too lightweight for high-demand routing. As of recent, the knife cutting machines are increasing their routing capabilities by escalating the power and robustness of their spindles. While the router machines add a wider range of knife cutting tools to cover a larger array of media,” he explains.
Hope believes the key to higher productivity and efficiency lies in the ability to automate the finishing processes as much as possible to reduce the number of touches the piece encounters in production. The more functions a piece of equipment can perform, the more efficient the process becomes.
In order to meet productivity and substrate versatility demands, a number of advancements have been introduced to flatbed routers/cutters. Common upgrades involve speed, tool options, and media handling.
Better tool stability and versatility affects speed expectations of a router/cutter. Therefore, the focus on improvements isn’t so much on speed, but instead on underlying features such as tool performance and availability, each improvement further enabling the efficiency of the latest equipment.
Steve Aranoff, VP, sales and marketing, MCT, Inc., points out that improved tools can help with productivity, such as liquid cooled routers that operate faster and for longer periods of time and faster oscillating knives. “The overall limitation is in machine motion, which has been slow to improve. Added tools, such as laser for fabric and acrylic allow for the sealing of edges in a single operation, reducing the need for costly and time consuming secondary finishing steps, such as hemming and flame polishing,” he adds.
Drury explains that increased robustness in overall system designs lead to greater tool stability, which enables the processing of thicker, tougher materials—like corrugated or honeycomb display board—at full machine speed without a loss of edge quality.
She notes that the availability of tools that match the material being processed is equally as important. “For example, there are a range of substrates that require an oscillating tool, but some do better with more power and greater stroke depth, while others require faster oscillating frequencies and shorter strokes. One cutting tool does not fit all materials, so the greater the tool choices available, the better the system can be tailored to meet individual cutting requirements and deliver maximum throughput.”
She adds that similarly, the available range of bits, blades, and other consumables matters as well, because choosing what is best for the job and material at hand can significantly impact both processing speed and output quality.
Media plays an important role, especially as PSPs invest in fabric printing.
Aranoff says efficient motorized roll handling for heavy fabric rolls improves the ability to evenly lay down fabric without stretch or puckering on the cutting table, reducing the need to straighten out the fabric by hand and potentially eliminating a second person to handle fabric, especially with roll widths of 3.2 meters and heavier fabrics being print and cut.
Outside of fabric, low-cost board loading capabilities bring the same kind of efficiency improvements to rigid materials. “Some PSPs call feeders their most productive employees, as they pace the operation of the system,” continues Aranoff. “A board feed and/ or motorized roll handler cost less than the annual cost of a finishing employee while dramatically increasing throughput.”
Drury shares that the more recent generations of automatic sheet feeders are both simpler and more reliable than when they first appeared on the market. Paired with automatic or robotic offload/stacking devices these create powerful, fully automated non-stop production systems that require little to no operator intervention.
“For roll applications, too, there is now a wider range of options available. Depending on the type and characteristics of material to be processed, customers can choose from simple roll-off devices with guide rollers to sophisticated, motordriven systems with dancer bars and other tension-control devices designed for materials that are particularly prone to wrinkle or stretch,” says Drury.
Hitting the Ceiling
Productivity improvements are regularly introduced, leading some to wonder about maxing out on speed capabilities.
Hoffman notes that in the last five years, there has been a vast growth in print speed. “Printhead technology has advanced rapidly. Printers now hitting the market are getting faster without losing clarity and color saturation. There is also advancement in ink technologies. The new inks coming out dry faster, allowing for quicker workflows requiring finishing equipment to be faster and more efficient.”
Current digital finishing capabilities continue to improve in throughput and cutting areas, according to Aranoff, but require a major change in technology before there are significantly faster options available.
Bennett says that there is always a ceiling. “However, addressing the faster printer speeds with two cutters and robotics that can serve two tables at a time is very significant.” The latest cutters can produce more than 100 displays an hour in full production mode, which is close to competing with a die press.
“There is no doubt to the physical limits of the speed at which blades/bits can be pushed through materials without a significant loss of quality and consistency; so there will be a ceiling there,” admits Drury. “Productivity, on the other hand, is a different story. There really is no limit to productivity since it simply becomes a matter of scale. You can always add cutters— especially more efficient cutters— perhaps some equipped with more than one beam,” she offers.
“One of the most exciting aspects of our industry is the constantly evolving level of technology we bring to customers,” says Hope.
PSPs must weigh the pros and cons of an investment. Flatbed router/cutters with all the bells and whistles are attractive, but require a thorough return on investment (ROI) analysis before they are brought into a shop. The cost of manufacturing can dramatically shift when comparing manual or analog tasks with the output capacity of an automated router/cutter.
Rodriguez points out that the purpose of most flatbed router/cutters is to be able to do short, on demand runs. “For largevolume production, other technologies are more efficient and less costly, such as mechanical die-cutting systems. The trick here is to target just-in-time personalized projects that can be handled with digital systems. This is the trend in almost any industry,” he offers.
Hope believes that the name of the game is reducing production costs for the ultimate end user on changing short-run work while remaining profitable. “On the machine manufacturer side, as new technology becomes more affordable, we are able to incorporate it into new devices that help the end user achieve stronger profit margins.”
The more efficient the cutter, the lower the cost of the print. “In other words, the more time wasted with less than optimal finishing workflows, the more projects rejected and wasted because of poor cut quality; the more time and labor spent on proper setup, tool selection, material handling, processing, and offloading and kitting; and the higher the production costs,” says Drury. “Especially considering the lifespan of flatbed cutting/ routing systems, which at 20 years or more tends to be quite a bit longer than that of printers, it becomes quite obvious that purchasing a well-built, highly productive system capable of consistently delivering superior throughput really pays off,” she argues.
“The flexibility of digital presses and cutters changes the equation from manufacturing costs to whether or not a specific project will be produced at all for the brand owner. All marketing projects need an ROI. Product managers will estimate how many units can be sold with the addition of a POP display, and manufacturing costs will be accepted or declined depending upon whether the project will be profitable. With digital printing and finishing, more projects are done because the process is more cost effective. Projects for more, but smaller, SKUs can be done. Digital is working for many print providers but in the form of more, smaller jobs rather than fewer, larger ones. This is also reducing warehousing costs,” explains Bennett.
Aranoff believes the cost of hand versus digital cutting is most obvious in three instances. First, the total cost of material is getting more expensive than cutting labor for rigid materials, so the savings in accuracy and acceptance with less scrap is important. Secondly, there is a major cost and loss of control when the type of customer job dictates the work that a PSP can accept or requires having it finished elsewhere, both of which impact the bottom line and the attractiveness of the PSP to its customer base. Finally, in the case of fabric, customers have indicated they have saved between eight and 12 people per shift of use moving from manual hot knifing to automated cutting with a laser. They also report that the productivity significantly improves their sewing performance, as sewers no longer have to wait for work to be hand cut.
Several manufacturers offer automated flatbed router/cutters for wide format. Recent improvements are designed to improve efficiency and productivity across an entire operation.
Colex recently introduced the new super wide Sharpcut 3232 Conveyor Flatbed Cutter for sign, graphics, and textile finishing. The ten- by ten-foot device features a triple interchangeable tool head, energy efficient 12-zone vacuum system, automatic roll feed, and optional automatic board feeder allowing for faster production runs.
DGS added three new tools to its DGS DYSS V-Pro X5/X7/X9 Series router/cutters. These include a rotating blade tool, which is designed to cut fabrics, including polyester and canvas; a tape dispenser tool, which applies double-sided tape to the substrate automatically in the designated spots; and an automatic bit changer function/tool that allows the automatic router bit to change if the machine has the router option. The latter two tools are only available on the X9 Series Esko introduced a number of new products and features at drupa in May 2016. The company has streamlined and improved its Kongsberg table portfolio to help customers more easily identify the systems that best suit their needs, including predefined and fully upgradable configurations.
Customers choose from two primary families—Kongsberg X and Kongsberg C—each having a range of table sizes and configurations.
“These two distinct product families from Esko give customers a clear and simple choice between the greatest flexibility for versatile and creative jobs—the Kongsberg X; or the best productivity for efficient production runs—Kongsberg C,” shares Bennett.
The Kongsberg X offers the flexibility of upgrading to add more cutting, creasing, and milling tools as business needs develop. Kongsberg C is a top choice for short-run production, building on the existing Kongsberg C line, which has been extended with smaller table sizes.
The new Auto Tools Adjust on Kongsberg tables uses camera inspection and digital image processing to adjust the tool in the machine at the start of each job. When the new job requires a diff erent tool, Auto Tool Adjust automates tool setup for a selected substrate.
Esko has integrated its Kongsberg tables with its workflow automation software, Automation Engine. Automation Engine’s Device View gives better control over finishing production. Work in progress and the status and queues of all connected devices are clearly visualized on screen. The software determines optimal sheet nesting to increase production capacity. Operators use an intuitive drag-and-drop interface to prioritize table queues, insert rush jobs, and balance workloads between tables.
MCT recently released its next-generation Vision capability, TigerVision, which is fully integrated into the VersaTech operating software. In addition, it introduced its new ten-foot wide board feeder to augment the performance of its VersaTech 3.2-meter wide cutters. It also increased the cutting length of its 3.2-meter wide cutters with full conveying capability and 6.4 meters in length. A second generation, patent pending conveying belt for laser cutting is also new. Th is belt improves accuracy and performance when converting between traditional contact cutting using a mat belt and laser cutting using an aluminized conveyor belt.
Released in 2015, the Mimaki CFL-605FT compact cutting plotter is a 20×24-inch model that has the capabilities of a much larger device such as both swivel and tangential knife cutting; creasing; reciprocating cutting; and optical registration mark detection. Included in the package is a quiet vacuum pump.
Hope explains that while this device was originally seen as a packaging prototype cutter for office environments, it is gaining popularity as an alternative production machine for smaller runs that might not be efficient on a larger bed cutter. He says it is also embraced as a training device, enabling students to gain experience with cutting workflow at a fraction of the cost of a full-sized production cutter.
Zünd recently introduced its automatic bit changer or ARC, which is integrated with the Zünd Cut Center digital production workflow. The system consists of a freely configurable eight-bit magazine that automates selecting, clamping, and initializing router bits as well as cleaning them. Compared to switching bits manually, automated bit changes are faster with reduced setup times and virtually no potential for error.
The Zünd D3, the company’s latest addition to its line of digital cutting/routing systems, according to Drury, gives customers the ability to make one machine equal two. “The new D3 features twin beams that can carry up to three different tool modules and operate independently and simultaneously in one ultra-efficient production workflow. Depending on the specifics of the job, this configuration can effectively double the throughput of a single-beam cutter,” she offers.
Every PSP is challenged with maintaing low manufacturing costs in order to remain competitive and profitable. Each equipment investment must be carefully considered, and each tool must make an impact on the bottom line. Flatbed routers/ cutters represent a big investment with a large payoff if the timing is right. The latest in available tools and media handling are designed to improve productivity, both through speed capabilities and substrate compatibility.
Sep2016, Digital Output