By Melissa Donovan
Laser cutting is constantly used in digital printing environments. It offers a number of advantages compared to traditional blades.
For the purpose of this article, we refer to two types of devices, dedicated laser cutters and finishing hardware with multi-tool capabilities including laser cutting as an option. Both are found in print shops. Recently, with the advent of digitally printed textiles, laser cutting is more prevalent in traditional print environments as well as manufacturing facilities.
Above: Trotec offers the SP Series of large format CO2 laser cutting machines ideal for acrylic, paper, cardboard, plastics, wood, and textiles.
Simplicity or Versatility
Two types of laser cutting devices are used in the graphic arts—dedicated laser cutters and cutters with multi-tool capabilities including laser cutting as an option. There are benefits to both.
Dedicated laser systems are ideal for production-based work, according to Heather Roden, strategic account manager, graphics/packaging, Zünd. “These are scenarios that are predictably geared toward high volume in one particular area. For example, small format applications that require greater laser power than available on a multifunction finishing machine,” continues Roden.
“A dedicated laser cutter offers high cutting speed and low running cost because it scarcely needs consumables,” adds Devin Huang, representative, GCC.
A benefit to owning a dedicated laser cutter is the simplicity, as it only has one function. “There are no other fabrics or tools to switch to, or possible new workflow to learn. There are no blades to replace or stock, or the need to remember what tools do what. Generally, dedicated tools simplify workflow and increase production all while decreasing cost,” says Matt Gusse, VP sales and marketing, Advanced Color Solutions (ACS).
Certain laser cutters are specifically designed to cut fabric. “A dedicated solution will handle fabric in the best way possible, because that’s what it’s been designed to do. Fabric moves, shrinks, and stretches—the cutter needs to take that into account and not make it worse while handling it,” suggests Christina Lefebvre, area sales manager North America, Matic.
Conversely, cutters with multi-tool capabilities offer flexibility. “Smaller PSPs, who have room and need for only one olution like this capability as it allows them to do more work for an existing customer and to more easily gain new ones. The critical issue is having full conveying and automation for both kinds of tools so that a PSP can use the cutter with equal facility for whatever kind of job customers desire,” explains Steve Aranoff, VP business development and marketing, MCT Digital.
“Multi-tool processes minimize non-productive station to station time, as well as eliminate additional overall stack error caused by re-fixturing,” adds Kris Scherm, product group manager, fabrication, MultiCam Inc.
“Dedicated laser cutters are optimized for specific cutting applications, so their speed and efficiency are higher. However, they are not as versatile as cutters with multi-tool capabilities,” admits Shuming Zhang, GM, BesCutter.
Making the Right Choice
While both types of technologies offer benefits, certain print providers and print operations are better suited for one over the other.
In general, Josh Stephens, applications specialist, Trotec Laser Inc., believes any print provider with the need to transform printed materials to specific shapes—known as print and cut—should invest in a dedicated laser cutter. “Adding a dedicated laser cutter opens the door to expanding into new markets such as all segments of the signage industry, prototyping, point of purchase, and apparel.”
According to Roden, a dedicated laser cutter is for businesses with highly specialized and/or predictable product offerings, with little deviation into other applications or product offerings.
“If a PSP already has a satisfactory router/cutter and is looking solely for cutting and/or engraving of smaller pieces, or has a need for higher power—than a standalone laser may be sufficient,” says Aranoff.
Lefebvre recommends print service providers (PSPs) investing in a dedicated fabric printer should also invest in a dedicated laser cutter. “Textiles are alive and need to be handled differently than any other substrates. That’s why the PSP buys a dedicated printer—the same applies to cutting.”
In the apparel industry, Gusse suggests companies outputting in the range 200 to 400 jerseys or garments per day or 300 to 400 yards of cut fabric can benefit from a dedicated laser cutting system. These are generally small to medium sign and display shops or print on demand businesses struggling to keep pace with their printing.
For print providers looking to offer customers a range of options and keep all jobs in house, a cutter or router with multi-tool capabilities is a better fit. “Multi-purpose systems are ideal for businesses whose portfolios are centered on meeting all of their customers’ printing and finishing needs while avoiding the problems associated with outsourcing. They are also ideal 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,” shares Roden.
A print provider can encounter challenges during the initial stages of working with either a dedicated laser cutter or multi-tool device with a laser option. In most instances, it is the common hurdle of becoming familiar with the technology.
“Print providers should expect the same challenges with a laser cutting device as any other large format tool. It is a larger, often very heavy, delicate, technical device,” explains Gusse. He suggests PSPs ask certain questions prior to purchase like what can it cut, how fast can it cut, how much wattage is required, does the laser use a glass or metal tube, how long is the laser good for, and where can it be replaced?
“Systems can be offered with a CO2 or fiber laser source, and each type has its own set of advantages and limitations. Consumers are often not aware of the many available accessories that can enhance an application or make processing materials easier, such as cutting tables or camera registration,” recommends Stephens.
According to Zhang, an initial concern with a dedicated laser device is setting up the laser beam alignment. Once this is accomplished—correctly—setup and everything that follows is much easier.
Roden admits that one of the biggest challenges is knowing when a laser makes sense versus a different tool. Sometimes it is difficult to determine the better and more productive option. “There are many materials and applications for which laser, and the burning process it entails, are less than ideal because of discoloration or other potential issues with the sealed edges, the cut pieces need to be sewn anyways, or their chemical properties do not lend themselves well to laser cutting.”
With a growing number of PSPs adding digital textile printing to service offerings and garment manufacturing settings expanding into digital printing, it’s logical that finishing be addressed. Laser cutting is highly beneficial when it comes to cutting textiles.
“Modern laser—in addition to knife—cutting allows flexibility in design, full customization, and one-off processing at volume pricing,” says Scherm.
Textiles are challenging materials to work with. The less they are touched throughout the production process the better. Laser cutting eliminates a touch point. “It is a cutting technology that limits or eliminates touching the fabric. There is very little stress put on the fabric, hence it will not be stretched or tensioned out of the measurement,” shares Lefebvre.
A device with an extended table is important, whether it is a dedicated or multi-tool capability laser cutter. “Digitally printed fabric presents a larger table need compared to typical signage. Fabric rolls require accurate cutting and the final size may be longer than a traditional table length,” explains Aranoff.
Laser cutting prevents fraying. “Because of the burning and melting process involved in laser cutting, it has the advantage of both cutting and sealing the edge of commonly used polyester. PSPs who benefit most from adding laser to their tool palette are those working with woven polyester media making products where sealed edges are ideal for keeping the material from fraying,” explains Roden.
With no blades, dies, or punching, no fabric is wasted from cutting or fibers floating around the production area. Also, no blades eliminates blade cleaning or wearing down of the blade, so less ongoing maintenance and cost, cites Gusse.
While textiles are popular, other digitally printed materials can be laser cut—from foam to wood, plastic, and paper.
“Laser systems can process thousands of different types of materials ranging from fabric and textiles, plastics, glass, and food. Many technologies use a physical knife blade or bit to cut printed materials, but a dedicated laser system utilizes its beam of light for processing, allowing for more intricate cuts compared to a physical blade, which is limited to a tight radius,” explains Stephens.
Scherm also points out that many if not most materials can be cut with the laser, and the “as cut” condition right off the machine can be used as the final product—no additional finishing required.
This includes acrylics, which are cut via laser frequently, according to Zhang. The final product offers smooth and polished edges—coming off of either a dedicated laser cutter or a multi-tool device.
“Many applications use laser cutting after print, for example, a dedicated laser cutter can cut the contour of printed labels, while a multi-tool device with lasers can crease and cut a printed paper box,” offers Huang.
And while materials such as ceramic or rock can’t be cut, they can be etched with a laser, expanding even more possibilities for a PSP’s customer, according to Aranoff.
Models in Motion
Here, we share information on popular models of dedicated laser cutters and finishing hardware with multi-tool capabilities including laser cutting as an option.
ACS distributes the Golden Laser series of dedicated laser cutters. They use conveyors and auto feeders to keep cutting continuous. Systems are produced in widths up to 3.2 meters and lengths up to eight meters or more. All models are equipped with a camera vision registration system. Various cutters are designed for specific applications including sublimated clothing and fabric, sportswear, flags, banners, and soft signage.
BesCutter offers a 150W dedicated laser model featuring a 52×36-inch table. The device includes both a honeycomb and a knife blade worktable. The table height can be automatically adjusted to accommodate rotary attachments and tall objects. The clearance is up to seven inches.
Eastsign Inc. provides four different models in its Mark Point line of dedicated laser cutters. With variations in cutting area, each model in the portfolio offers cutting speeds of ten to 50 meters per minute. Accurate camera positioning provides cutting correction for stretching and distortion. The cutters are equipped with automatic feeding devices to handle challenging materials such as fabric.
G.U. Eagle America, Inc.’s G-1325 CO2 laser cutting machine offers high precision cutting for acrylics, wood, and cardboard. It features a working area of 49×98 inches. The G-1325 is equipped with optics produced in America in order to produce a high quality and consistent laser beam across the entire working area. This achieves a better cutting and engraving quality.
GCC offers its dedicated LaserPro T500 laser engraver and cutter. It cuts through one-inch thick acrylic in a single pass with a smooth finish. For graphics, the AAS contour cutting device is an optional feature that provides accurate and faultless contour cutting by automatically tracking the position of graphics.
Kern Laser Systems’ OptiFlex series of large format dedicated laser cutters are powered by the HyperDual motion system. It features a rack and pinion design and powerful servo motors at each side of the laser table. An improved down draft vacuum bed holds down material. Four standard work area models are available, but custom sizes are also an option.
The Matic Helios Plus laser cutter is a dedicated textile solution. It recently became available in a five-meter wide format, joining the pre-existing 3.3-meter wide version. Designed based on the customer’s requirements, each laser cutter differs in pricing depending on the level of automation and options added into the model.
MCT’s VersaTech2 is an all-in-one solution. MCT is now shipping the third generation of its laser belt technology. Utilizing a unique three-ply architecture, the lightweight aluminized belt system is made up of replaceable laced panels, and a zippered connection allows for easy removal and re-installation. With these capabilities, the VersaTech2 incorporates full conveying for laser, router, and knife cutting in one system. MCT also recently announced a new entry-level flatbed laser solution that while starting as a dedicated laser device can be field upgraded with routers or cutters.
MultiCam’s dedicated laser cutter, the Magnus CO2 Laser, offers several cutting head options and a range of optic choices to suit cutting or engraving. It is ideal for laser cutting acrylic, ceramic, coated metals, corian, fabric, fiberglass, leather, melamine, and paper.
Trotec offers the SP Series of large format CO2 laser cutting machines ideal for acrylic, paper, cardboard, plastics, wood, and textiles. The portfolio includes models with work areas of 49×28, 59×59, 66×98, and 87×126 inches. Maximum material height varies from 2.2 to 11.8 inches.
Zünd offers its Laser Module – LM 100W compatible with the Zünd G3 series. It can be paired with the Zünd Over Cutter Camera system for one-shot registration mark capture and a tension-free unwind unit for wrinkle- and distortion-free advances. The entire solution is ideal for cut and seal polyester fabric applications, but as a multi-tool system, also offers blade-based alternatives. Zünd cutters are modularly designed and field upgradeable.
While digitally printed textiles benefit from the physical act of laser cutting, they also gain advantages from the robust software driving it.
The software used on a traditional optical registration system isn’t necessarily designed to handle all of fabric’s nuances. “Fabric shrinks, requiring excessive dots or registration points to ensure accuracy. It takes time for the operator to add each individual dot and for the system to read each one. There are cases where this is very time consuming, especially when you have sensitive fabrics,” explains Matt Gusse, VP sales and marketing, Advanced Color Solutions (ACS).
Christina Lefebvre, area sales manager North America, Matic, agrees that working with the software on a dedicated laser cutter is ideal when considering fabrics because it is generally designed with only fabric in mind. “Printing on fabric is not limited to 4×8- or 5×10-foot measurements that fit nicely on top of the bed of a cutter. Fabric print jobs might be continuous graphics of 30 to 50 feet long. The software needs to be able to account for shrinkage, stretch, banana effect, and accurately line up your graphic if it’s being cut in multiple passes.”
Vision Laser software, found on Golden Laser devices distributed by ACS, uses one or more HD cameras mounted above the conveyor cutting bed to scan the printed fabric or materials on the cutting area. The software recognizes the outline of the pattern and then generates the cutting data.
“It identifies the printed sublimation pattern, then creates the cutting path data automatically and completes the cutting process so as to perform continuous recognition cutting for the entire roll of printed fabrics with minimal manual intervention,” shares Gusse.
Matic’s Helios Plus dedicated laser cutter is equipped with software that compensates automatically for shrinkage and distortion, eliminating the need for manual measurements.
Zünd’s Over Cutter Camera is an intelligent optics system for fully automated digital capture of registration marks. The camera is mounted above the center of the cutter, either on a support frame or suspended from the ceiling. It automatically captures all registration marks within the working area of the cutting system in a single image in a matter of seconds. The data processing functions are integrated into Zünd Cut Center software and algorithms analyze the data captured by the camera and simultaneously compensate for any distortions.
Efficient and cost effective, both dedicated laser cutters and multi-tool finishing devices with laser options are available for PSPs considering adding laser cutting to their shop. Depending on the type of service/application planning to be completed, one type may be a better option over the other.
Dedicated laser cutters are ideal for very specific projects that occur repeatedly, and if cutting textiles in particular, a dedicated textile laser cutter is ideal. Conversely, if printing to multiple substrates and space is at a premium, a multi-tool router/cutter with laser cutting as an option may be the best choice.
June2018, Digital Output