by Cassandra Balentine
Laser cutting presents a fast and precise way to cut materials. One benefit of these solutions is the ability to sear the edges of fabric to eliminate fraying. Additionally, they offer compatibility with many other substrates.
Above: Trotec’s SP Series wide format CO2 laser cutting machines are ideal for businesses working with demanding large format textile and fabric cutting applications.
Laser cutting solutions are available for finishing digitally printed fabric. Dedicated laser cutters as well as multifunctional devices featuring laser options are available. This article discusses both configurations, the benefits, and the limitations of laser cutting in a digital textile printing environment.
Laser Cutting for Textiles
Textiles benefit from automated, laser cutting solutions. Christina Lefebvre, area sales manager, North America, Matic America LLC, says that a laser cut—as opposed to a knife cut—seals the edges and prevents the fabric from fraying. “This allows the print service provider (PSP) to use a wider variety of fabrics, like wovens, that would fray when cold cut.”
Laser cutting methods are particularly well suited for commonly used woven polyester. “It keeps this type of fabric from fraying, thereby helping to eliminate additional finishing processes,” explains Beatrice Drury, marketing manager, Zund America, Inc.
“Laser cutters are the ideal fabric cutting solution for one main reason—fabric is alive. It moves, stretches, and wrinkles, leading to inaccuracy in the cuts when the cutting tool is in contact with the fabric,” comments Lefebvre. “The laser does not touch the fabric so it remains in place and the accuracy of the cut is intact.”
“During laser processing, there is no blade physically touching the fabric so it will not cause any dragging, deformation, and no need for a vacuum to hold the materials,” agrees Shuming Zhang, GM, BesCutter. Efficiency is further increased with the help of a conveyor, feeder, and CCD camera. “Laser cutting equipped with CCD cameras that automatically trace and cut printed patterns on fabric and is not affected by the common stretch and crease on the material.”
Uli Kretzschmar, VP of sales, Matik, Inc., believes laser technology represents the future of an eco-sustainable production, replacing traditional and manual methods of cutting, marking, and decorating of fabrics. “Laser not only offers improved efficiency over conventional cutting methods but also better quality due to a clean cutting edge and cauterization by avoiding of defects and without stressing the material. Lasers are not only faster but offer maximum customization, flexibility, and the capability of executing fine details and intricate shapes.”
Speed and quality are the top benefits of laser cutters for the fabric printing market, according to Adam Voigt, marketing and sales, Kern Laser Systems. “Depending on the type of material and the desired cut quality, a laser system can cut through fabrics at a high-speed rate, with minimal product waste. And if needed, different fabrics can be stacked layer upon layer for higher production rates. Also, a positive for some fabrics—since most are relatively thin—it can be affordable to buy a lower wattage laser for the fabric you need to process.”
There are many ways to cut fabric, including automated knife-based equipment, manual cutters, and hand tools. Each brings something to the table, but here we discuss the distinct benefits laser offers over other options.
Traditional manual cutting is a complicated process that may involve high labor costs and low efficiency in production. “Automatic laser cutting machines feature automatic identification and automatic path formation for continuous cutting. It can greatly improve efficiency in production and reduce the production cost,” shares Eric Wang, managing director, Eastsign International Limited.
Edward Prieto, managing director, Media One USA, notes that high-volume fabric production environments should consider laser. “While other devices use cutting wheels and ultrasonic knives, they really can’t compete with a laser cutter in terms of accuracy, automation, and finish.”
Regardless of the fabric, James Stanaway, director of marketing, Epilog Laser, says lasers cut exponentially faster than traditional cutting methods. And since there is no part-to-part contact, there is no need to replace blades or other components.
“With a laser, all you need is a good file design to create customer parts one after another,” comments Voigt. He says cutting by hand is slower, and die boards and presses can get costly to change. Whereas laser allows for cutting templates for fabrics or cutting the fabric itself.
Drag or oscillating knives are also used to cut fabric, but since the knife physically touches the fabric, it may move the material and cause inaccuracies. “Traditional vision cut works perfectly on rigid material, but with fabric’s tendency to stretch and crease it is a challenge,” says Zhang.
Laser cutting is a contactless process. “When it comes to thick media or stretchable materials, a conventional blade cutting plotter is not able to cut through the material in one go,” shares Michelle Chen, senior specialist, marketing department, GCC.
Kretzschmar adds that while mechanical cutting knives are more efficient on multi-layer and thicker materials, laser is a better choice for mono-layer applications as well as light fabrics.
Chen points out that laser machines handle complex and detailed graphics, which are difficult for traditional cutting machines.
“The big improvement is the ability to perform cutting and edge-sealing functions in one step. A significant advantage for materials that lend themselves to a cutting process that involves intense heat—burning and melting—which at the same time seals the edges so no additional finishing step is required to prevent fraying,” says Drury.
However, she adds that there are many other materials—including non-woven, knitted fabrics, or closed-loop textiles—where fraying is not an issue. Cut and seal is also less desirable in production scenarios where sewing is a required function, or where the burning and melting involved in laser cutting result in discolored, brittle, or otherwise unsuitable edges.
Learning a new system takes time and resources. For those with experience in an automated cutting workflow, a laser system shouldn’t be too difficult to master.
Many factors help determine the learning curve for new users such as variety, volume, and sophistication of applications. David Stevens, industrial applications manager, Trotec Laser Inc., says if a business purchases a laser for one very few projects, the learning curve is expected to be short. This is because some processes—such as cutting fabric—can be trained in a small amount of time, and eventually become repetitive.
However, if a new user is planning to laser process a variety of applications and materials, the learning curve can be longer. “In this case, the first step is to have an understanding of the graphic software program used. This is commonly the most time-consuming portion of learning to operate a laser system,” shares Stevens.
If the user is well-versed with graphic software, the next step design preparation. “This includes building the design with appropriate configurations and line thicknesses to identify if a laser will cut or engrave a material,” recommends Stevens.
Stanaway adds that most users quickly learn how to send jobs to the machine and what types of settings to use on different substrates. “We find more users are challenged by learning the design software programs. However, once they become more proficient, they are up and producing quickly,” he offers.
Prieto says to expect some software and workflow training, but overall laser cutting systems are easy to operate.
Beyond training, which is sometimes offered by the manufacturer, practice makes perfect. Voigt points out that practice allows finding the right power and speed settings when processing different materials.
Dedicated or Multifunction
A dedicated or standalone laser cutter is best suited for mass production and specific applications, while multifunction solutions bring versatility.
Standalone laser systems are beneficial for the type of production often seen with wholesale suppliers, which is predictably and exclusively geared towards high volume in one particular deliverable in textile or décor applications, comments Drury.
Lefebvre feels dedicated is always best. The way it handles fabric from feeding to take up is designed for fabric and the way it reacts. On the software side, dedicated machines are more powerful because they make calculations regarding how fabric works. “A rigid 4×8-inch board does not react and therefore cannot be handled in the same way as a 40-foot long polyester banner. A dedicated laser cutter takes that into consideration.”
Prieto agrees, noting that no hybrid cutters on the market perform with comparable speed, accuracy, and quality of finish. “In addition, laser cutters do employ some purpose-built features that make them optimal for fabric-specific laser cutting. The conveyer system for example is really an advantage versus a solid table multifunctional unit. Dedicated lasers are appropriate when your workflow demands an efficient and accurate cutting solution.”
“The main advantage of dedicated laser solutions is the speed of the cutting process and the fast acceleration due to its extreme lightweight design utilizing carbon fiber components and precision linear motors,” says Kretzschmar. “For those reasons the dedicated laser machine is a flexible tool for both high volume as well as on demand production.”
Stevens believes volume helps determine whether or not a standalone laser cutting system is right for a business. “In a high-volume environment, the high speed and contactless process helps increase production, reduces cycle time, and minimizes changeover. If you have a specific application need or a step in a larger process, investing in a single-purpose machine might be more suitable than a multifunction laser cutter.”
For general graphics production, PSPs may require a device that works with different fabrics and other substrates. In this instance, multifunction cutters offer the versatility and flexibility needed to support a range of substrates.
“Rather than being limited to a specific type of fabric, blade cutting tools are used for many textiles and are generally less expensive and more productive to operate than laser options. Multifunctional cutters offer the best of both worlds, giving users the option to use laser wherever cut and seal is a necessity, but blade- or router-based cutting methods for all other finishing applications,” says Drury.
According to Chen, multifunction laser cutters are more versatile and suitable for short-run sample making and customization.
With multifunction cutting systems, PSPs have more options and less overall investment. “A key advantage, multifunction devices are dedicated to quality cutting and laser engraving for a variety of substrates. Limitations are due to size restraints based on the model specifications,” suggests Prieto.
Kretzschmar points out that laser technology can be used for a variety of materials in addition to fabric like paper, wood, leather, plastics, and metal.
Automation brings advantages, including enhanced accuracy, improved efficiency, lower material costs, and the ability for variation. It does come with a higher initial investment and a learning curve.
Automated laser cutting is a true digital process of executing digital data. “It is a maintenance-free technology. No tooling is required. Setup and changeovers occur in a matter of seconds. Another advantage is the limited number of operators needed to manage the production and the possibility to manage on demand production with high customization for design and sizes,” offers Kretzschmar.
“Automation offers advantages in terms of process reliability, with levels of precision, cut quality, and repeatability no manual process is able to match,” says Drury.
“When a workflow is automated, it leaves less chance for operator interactions creating errors that lead to reprints. Since the machine is doing all the thinking, any person can operate it with success and good repeatability of results,” explains Lefebvre.
Prieto believes that the benefits of automation far outweigh the limitations for laser cutting systems.
There is still a place for manual cutters. Stevens points out that they offer low-cost labor, as well as the ability to cut in large stacks at one time for efficient production. However, manual cutting can lead to challenges including human errors, wasted materials, and frayed edges.
Wang admits that the capital investment at the beginning is lower on a manual cutter compared to an automated cutting solution, and good for short term and small production business.
Spreading the Word
Laser cutting for textiles is fairly new to the scene, and may require some promotion.
Kretzschmar believes laser cutters are a disruptive technology. “This is the beginning of a transition from conventional to laser cutting.”
Familiarity with equipment like laser machines is an ongoing process. “The technology is constantly updated and improved and the applications are endless. Training in the form of webinars, seminars, trade shows, and tutorial videos are helpful resources for beginners to become more educated,” shares Stevens.
Over the past few years the apparel industry has become more aware of laser cutting technology and how they are best utilized. “While education is always key, apparel professionals are quick to see the value of this versatile equipment and how it can help expand service offerings,” comments Stanaway.
“It’s necessary for print providers to learn about the advantages of using a laser cutting solution for cutting fabric, since the development of laser cutting machines largely depends on printer development. They are mutually affected,” advises Wang.
“People are becoming better educated about the subject of laser versus cold cutting,” adds Lefebvre. “With the growth of fabric printing in recent years, and many players coming out with laser cutters, it is easier to get the information.”
Coming Out from the Cold
Precision is one benefit of laser cutters. For fabric printing, an added advantage is sealing edges to prevent fraying. Laser cutters also feature automation to improve production efficiency. While there are many methods for cutting fabric, laser is an up-and-coming solution. DO
Jul2020, Digital Output