By Cassandra Balentine
Digital print environments benefit from workflow automation. Flatbed cutters represent an essential piece of machinery that improves productivity through automation. However, these devices often require a significant investment, and print service providers (PSPs) are sometimes turned off by the price tag.
PSPs should weigh the price against the significant functions and benefits flatbed cutters offer to determine whether or not it makes sense to invest. An all capital expenditure, it’s smart business to evaluate your estimated return on investment (ROI).
Above: Valiani offers a variety of bed sizes, cutting tools, vacuum tables, and a crop mark detection system within its flatbed cutter products
Automated cutters feature a variety of standard tools that PSPs can use out of the gate. Add-on tools are also available to further extend capabilities.
Flatbed cutters have come a long way since first entering the market. Lenny Marano, VP, product management and marketing, automation systems, Gerber Technology LLC, says as large format printing capabilities expand to support more materials, cutters must keep pace with faster knife cutting, improved oscillating cuts, driven wheels and lasers, and digitally printed fabrics. “This is in addition to the tools needed to cut thicker materials with routers and mill. Modular cutting systems allow these tools to be configurable based on the job, but also be available in a range of sizes on either a static or conveyor platform.”
Flatbed cutters are typically equipped with an array of options to meet all digital cutting requirements. “With multi-cutting head choices, a range of materials from rigid stock, corrugated, fabrics, and vinyl can be cut,” points out Michael Osman, president, CWT Work Tools USA.
Most tables provide a set of basic cutting tools such as oscillating knife, non-oscillating knife, scoring wheels, and kiss-cut knife. “A V cut tool is sometimes optional as well as a spindle router,” adds Roberto Rodriguez, director, Digital Graphic Systems.
Russell Weller, product manager, digital finishing, Esko, agrees, adding that a good digital table offers cutting capabilities in addition to creasing, perforating, milling, and V notches.
Many digital flatbed cutters feature a modular tooling system that includes a router, tangential knife, and electric oscillating tool. “While it has become standard to have automatic router bit changing, some have added automatic knife changing capabilities to further speed up manufacturing time. This also reduces the risk of operator error,” explains Mark Packman, digital finishing product manager, MultiCam Inc.
Beatrice Drury, director of marketing and communications, Zünd America, Inc., says to make efficient use of all of these options, digital workflows help automate changeovers between processing methods as well as tool and bit changes. “Job and file retrieval also happen automatically, either with a barcode scanner or camera system. Material handling can be automated with conveyorized systems in conjunction with roll-feed devices and spreaders, automatic sheet feeders, board handling systems, and robotic off-load devices.”
Other features PSPs should evaluate include tooling calibration, vacuum strength and zones, and registration systems. A vacuum table holds the material in place, while registration systems—either laser or camera—ensure proper alignment.
Flatbed cutters may also provide pallet-to-pallet sheet automation and roll-to-roll automation. “With camera locating marks, they can also assure registration and compensate for print or lamination distortion so materials are still finished perfectly,” offers Weller.
Marano says many cutters are equipped with fully integrated registration software that allows users to streamline the finishing processes without having to go back and forth between registration and cutter production software.
Steven Leibin, president, Matik, Inc., adds that CCD cameras and associated kits are essential to assure a print marker can be recognized and cutting is in registration. “Better tables also assure easy access to the work area and easy maintenance,” he continues.
In addition to standard features, many automated flatbed cutting systems have optional add-on modules.
If PSPs are interested in adding on tooling options, the cost and difficultly to implement them will depend on the existing system and the options they intend to add. Many automated flatbed cutters are designed to accommodate requests to add tooling throughout the machine’s lifecycle as a shop’s needs evolve.
Most tooling options are simple to add as long as the system is pre-wired for the capability and the tool head allows for interchangeability. “Some routers and lasers require liquid cooling, for example, and the PSP should know whether these can be easily added in field or require technician assistance,” suggests Marano.
Packman adds that most companies have a similar price point for tooling. “This can be determined before the purchase of the cutter. The ease of use may be determined by the new substrate they will cut or route. Automatic tool and knife changing capabilities also determine ease of use. This automation is important in reducing operator error,” he states.
Overall, modular tooling options are typically easy and straightforward. “Implementing them can be achieved within a few hours,” offers Osman.
Automated flatbed cutting solutions provide numerous benefits to a PSP.
Digital flatbed cutters bring the same flexibility to finishing that is already enjoyed with digital print. Individual designs can be created without additional expense and automated finishing offers a reduction in lead time. “For short-run work, this provides profound advantages. With the flexibility to have rapid job changeovers in digital finishing production, there is a complete independence to change priorities and get that urgent job out the door,” says Weller.
He says automated finishing tables can also work straight from a design file. “Due to the nature of digital flatbed tables, every sheet can have a customized die cut, crease, or perforation pattern. There is no setup time—nor is any costly storage space or recycling cost required,” adds Weller.
In today’s ever-evolving manufacturing environment, digital flatbed cutters enable companies to streamline workflow to enable expansion of product offerings. “With in-house automation, these companies can be more price competitive,” suggests Osman.
Packman believes profitability is the biggest benefit of acquiring digital finishing equipment. “With the addition of cutting/routing capabilities, PSPs see increased revenues from existing customers while attracting new clients. Bringing these services in house allows the PSP to protect quality control of the finished product and meet the increasing demand for shorter turnaround times.”
Automated finishing provides internal resources to cut and finish a large number of printable materials with accuracy, cleanliness, speed, and reduce waste—all under the management of the shop. Marano says this is accomplished in a cost-effective manner and typically shops that understand how to estimate their finishing well and use this technology are more profitable than those who just consider cutting/finishing as an add-on cost to print. “With modular automated finishing, shops can expand offerings and increase capacity due to the reduced labor required for each job.”
With continued growth in digital printing comes demand for efficient, highly productive digital cutting/finishing equipment. “While order quantities and delivery times decline, the pressure for customization and personalization—areas where digital print-and-cut workflows are a particularly good fit—continues to increase,” explains Drury. Well designed and implemented automation elevates digital cutting systems to an industrial level, where reliable, efficient, and non-stop productivity is a must.
Automatic cutting machines that are integrated into a PSP’s supply chain provide high accuracy, minimize cutting errors, and cut up to ten to 15 times the speed of a manual cutter, comments Mike Vizcarra, business analyst, Tukatech Inc.
Luca Bartalini, product manager, Valiani SRL, believes the ability to handle work in house is key to success. By eliminating outsourcing and having the capability to provide final products in the shortest amount of time, PSPs obtain new customers and best serve existing ones.
Barry Budwit, VP/GM and Dave Stantial, director of operations, Summa America LLC, see a number of flatbed finishing systems purchased to keep production and finishing inline with printing systems to help prevent bottlenecks.
While the decision to invest may be initially difficult, once the leap is made, Dylan Hoffman, engineer and Alex Nechetsky, Southeast sales manager, Colex Finishing, say PSPs immediately realize the benefits of automated finishing equipment. “The first thing they see is better quality control by doing more in-house finishing, increased throughput, and the ability to handle higher capacities by removing previous bottlenecks.”
Despite the aforementioned advantages, PSPs are sometimes hesitant to invest in new technologies, including automated finishing. Reasons may include space limitations, workflow volume, the initial cost of investment, and fear of the unknown.
Marano commonly hears printers mention that they are printers first. “Without sufficient print capability, they have nothing to sell. With finishing, there are manual and semi-automatic alternatives. While they may be less efficient, they do get the job done.”
Leibin agrees, adding that many PSPs may feel finishing is an afterthought. “However, finishing needs to be seriously considered to improve process throughput, eliminate production bottlenecks, and streamline the workflow.”
“For years PSPs have done a great job of analyzing the need to acquire UV flatbed and roll-to-roll printers. Sometimes, it is not until they have commenced printing do they recognize the bottleneck of hand cutting or outsourcing finishing and how it jeopardizes their customers’ experiences. Once this becomes evident, it comes down to having enough floor space. This is the major challenge for many smaller shops,” shares Packman.
“Many PSPs tend to implement digital printing technology without fully realizing how greater printing capacity affects the entire production workflow and need for cutting/finishing in particular. This is especially true for jobs that involve routing, which may require multiple processing steps. “These finishing functions are inherently slower than printing—even with the fastest, high-powered equipment and most efficient finishing workflows. PSPs are sometimes slow to realize that significant price point differentiation comes from the complexity of their finished products—not from the ink they print on a substrate, which further heightens the demand for more complex and time consuming finishing,” says Drury.
Rodriguez suggests some PSPs may only see a limited application range for cutting tables, like contour cutting on flat substrates for signs and flat graphics. “They consider bypassing this process by using other means, such as vertical manual cutters or simply manual cutting. In this case, an investment in a table cutter may be considered unnecessary or expensive. On the other hand, if the PSP can see the full range of applications related to structural designs, such as point of purchase displays, trade show booths, packaging—among other applications, then buying a table cutter makes lots of sense.”
Bartalini believes having too little knowledge of the product and production possibilities is part of the challenge. “I would say that it’s our duty as a manufacturer to educate potential users and the market so products of this type are easier to understand.”
“The best time to invest in automated finishing equipment depends on the individual needs and the capacity of each shop,” say Hoffman and Nechetsky. Requirements from the customer base also play a big role.
“Change is never welcome, but the fact remains, once automated finishing equipment is implemented into the process it becomes an integral part of the workflow that users soon learn they can’t live without,” admits Osman.
There are also challenges and limitations to acknowledge, including integration.
It is important to consider ease of integration before investing in a digital cutting/finishing solution. “The more open the system, the more freedom PSPs have to easily integrate with existing workflows—now or in the future,” shares Drury.
Marano notes that cutting systems are relatively easy to operate, but it could take a month for a shop that has never had one to become comfortable with the selection of tools, speeds, and other settings. “Once the operators get comfortable with the capabilities, their trained operators do very well,” he adds.
Hoffman and Nechetsky note that with any new piece of equipment there is a learning curve. “Most shops that we have sold to through the years have never had any form of automated finishing equipment. They usually relied heavily on physical labor to finish their workflow.” They say most customers have a basic idea of what the machine is capable of, but don’t realize entirely the full potential of the equipment. After they realize everything they can now do, the next hurdle is teaching them proper machine setup and safety practices. This is usually followed by what a properly setup file looks like and what to do with the files that are not prepared correctly.
Customers must be able to commit to a true digital workflow, where cutting files are created and delivered directly to the cutting device. In doing so, Leibin explains that one-ups are easy and quick to create and delays are eliminated.
Vizcarra adds that integrating the right software that seamlessly connects the printing application through to the cutting technology is one challenge the industry still faces.
Design capabilities are another issue. Weller suggests that smaller PSPs in particular are likely to lack CAD creation tools as well as good knowledge of substrate behavior.
“With the right design software, the creation process can be a lot easier even for the inexperienced,” points out Rodriguez.
While automated cutting solutions prove to offer many benefits, there is always room for improvement.
“As is the case with all manufacturing equipment, the challenge for flatbed cutters is to deliver greater productivity through higher speeds, more automation, and even more seamless integration in digital production workflows. The pressure to deliver more, faster, and cheaper never ends,” admits Drury.
Packman points out that UV flatbed and roll-to-roll printers have shown dramatic speed increases. “With this trend expected to continue, digital cutters/routers need to do the same. With more applications printed digitally, tooling must effectively cut all the new substrates with these increases in speed.”
While systems are fast, there is always room to improve throughput. “As brands become even more discriminating, there needs to be continuing focus on even better quality and additional capabilities,” agrees Leibin.
Utilizing automation options can be more efficient than incremental speed advantages. “By reducing idle time that offers no value, the table increases productive uptime, while the cutter is moving. In addition, the opportunity to automate process steps so manual operator time is not required is a key benefit,” says Weller.
Hoffman and Nechetsky believe improvements to the user friendliness of cutting software are necessary. “This is not just limited to the cut software on flatbed cutters. The design and other prepress software need to be standardized as well,” they note. “For example, there is a transition to using quick response (QR) codes to transfer file data to the flatbed cutter. This QR code can have critical data such as file name, material type, material thickness, and the cutting tool all pre-determined. This has yet to be standardized across all RIP software.”
A lot of talk regarding automated flatbed cutters is around the significant upfront investment. Pricing for cutting systems varies greatly and depends on size, configuration, and level of automation. The ROI should be considered when determining whether or not it’s time to take the leap and invest in this equipment.
The range in pricing for automated flatbed cutters is vast. “Entry level can be as low as $50,000 with even more robust cutters reaching upwards towards $200,000. ROI can be achieved within one to two years depending on production,” recommends Osman.
Packman says digital finishing systems can range from $50,000 to $300,000. “In choosing the right cutter, the robust build will have a profound impact on the ROI. Most manufacturers have already demonstrated the useful life of their cutter/router. Some are built with obsolescence in four to five years and some last over 20 years.”
“As with most purchases, you get what you pay for,” comments Marano. “Ease of use, cutting size, speed, array of tools available, cut quality, automation capabilities such as loading and conveyors, and more determine the price.”
Vizcarra also says it is important to consider the ROI when looking at the price point of automated flatbed cutters, and many pay for themselves in the first year.
Once ROI is reached, these systems often continue to pay for themselves as they typically last between ten and 15 years. “In fact, spending an additional $30,000 to move between a mid-range to a higher range cutter may make more sense as on a five year lease, this would cost less than $600 per month—typically about six hours of work. By handling more types of materials it is easy to see the value of a more speedy and/or capable solution,” explains Marano.
Budwit and Stantial comment that ROI is dependent on the PSP’s current labor cost structures and workflow efficiencies.
Once the price of outsourcing workflow is higher than a monthly lease payment for an automated flatbed cutter, Hoffman and Nechetsky admit smaller shops are more inclined to purchase more efficient equipment.
Automated flatbed cutters are a solid investment for many PSPs. While the price tag may be overwhelming, it is important to consider the long-term benefits of adding these capabilities in house.
Jun2019, Digital Output