Find out about the hardware and software that are making complex custom graphics faster, cheaper, and more desirable to produce.
By Sean O'Leary
There you are in Vegas, surrounded by the densest concentration of state-of-the-art entertainment and advertising wizardry to be found in the Western Hemisphere, and maybe that other hemisphere as well. Forget gambling--Vegas is a smorgasbord of sensory overload, a world that looks more like Star Wars than Main Street USA. Yet amidst this over-the-top visual environment, you observe two women nearly coming to blows over a graphic product--a three-dimensional Fender Stratocaster guitar graphic on Gatorfoam.
These particular women were among the crowd at Durst Phototechnik's booth at the Photo Marketing Association trade show last February, where the life-sized guitars were being direct-printed on the Durst Rho 160 flatbed inkjet printer and then contour cut on a Zünd M-1600 digital plotter equipped with an i-cut vision system. Although not everyone was quite as aggressive about claiming their prize, the Durst booth was swarmed as attendees watched the plotter's routing head magically trace out the shape of the guitar on the cutting table. Durst's staff estimate the equipment was used to print and cut about 4000 of the guitars at the show, including one 4 x 8-ft version for the House of Blues.
The passion for the guitar souvenirs reflects the fact that dimensional and specialty displays (Figure 1) are enjoying unprecedented growth in P-O-P and related graphics markets. This demand is a side effect of the continued growth of P-O-P as a marketing-communications medium that shows no signs of slowing its decade-long expansion. As brand marketers have found broadcast media to be more fragmented and less predictable, P-O-P displays have come to be perceived as more cost effective for their immediate influence on consumers. Within this thriving P-O-P sector, dimensional displays are proving to be among the most influential and are enjoying a corresponding explosion in popularity.
Expanding the appeal of dimensional graphics from the supply side is the fact that digital technology is transforming the way shaped displays are produced, allowing them to be manufactured faster, better, and less expensively. Furthermore, they can be targeted to specific audiences or customized with other types of variable data. In this chicken and egg scenario, demand for custom-cut graphics is driven both by changing marketing strategies and by the fact that digital technology has revolutionized graphic-production methods. At the focal point of this revolution is the formidable combination of flatbed inkjet printers--flatjets for short--and digital cutting plotters.
At present, the graphic providers involved with this evolving medium are almost exclusively screen printers and photo labs, with a few digital service bureaus thrown in. Whomever the beneficiaries ultimately turn out to be, we are looking at the emergence of digital cutting (or digital diecutting) technology as a significant force within the graphics industry, capable of imparting a competitive advantage to its users. In a business climate that is challenging at best, any emerging technology that can potentially provide a competitive edge is worth a look. So let's do it.
In an article I wrote for Screen Printing's July 2002 issue ("Breaking Bottlenecks with Digital Graphic Production Technology," p. 46), I touched upon flatjets in the larger context of workflow automation. Although only a few machines had been installed in North America at that point, I predicted that the flatjet/digital-plotter combination was going to play a major part in the competitive landscape of the short- to mid-term graphics marketplace. This observation required neither courage nor vision, or I wouldn't have made it.
Nevertheless, as of this writing, the number of installed flatjets has increased to more than 50 on this continent, with no signs of the tough economy slowing the momentum. The three models currently dominating high-end installations in North America are the Durst Rho 160, Inca Eagle 44, and Vutek PressVu UV. (If you are interested in mid-to-lower priced flatjets, check out the Océ Arizona T220 and the Zünd UVjet 215C.)
Of these installations, a significant number are operating in a production workflow that includes a digital plotter. And whatever the brand of the digital plotter used, virtually all of them are equipped with an i-cut vision-registration system manufactured by Mikkelsen Graphic Engineering, Inc. (MGE), Lake Geneva, WI. Having scoured the world during my research for this article, I am confident when I say that MGE is well ahead of the game in this particular niche, particularly in the US and Canada. (My search for competitive products yielded only German plotter manufacturer Aristo, and their efforts are currently limited almost exclusively to Europe.
As is the case with most "overnight" successes, vision registration has been a long time in the making. The use of large-format, computerized flatbed cutting plotters has grown over the last decade in applications once reserved for conventional fixed diecutting, but the process of improving speed and accuracy of digital diecutting was a slow one. Still, for short runs of complex shapes, the big plotters had some obvious advantages, primary among them being that the expense and delay of making a physical die is eliminated. Unlike roll-fed cutting plotters, the large flatbeds also are able to rout shapes out of rigid substrates (e.g., Sintra, acrylic panels, wood), score foam core, and cut clear through decal materials. More recently, these machines have gained the ability to cut shapes from the same graphic-application file that generated the image elements, which has proven to be a harbinger of more sophisticated integrated systems to come.
The technology took a leap ahead in 1998, when MGE released the first versions of the i-cut vision system. Introduced as an add-on for Zünd, Wild, and other large-format plotters, an i-cut system is composed of a proprietary software package and a camera using charge-coupled-device (CCD) technology that is capable of reading printed registration marks. The vision system makes the plotter much smarter, allowing it to compensate automatically for key job variables.
During plotter operation, the on-board camera optically locates and analyzes the position of round registration marks, which have been strategically placed in the job file and printed along with the image. Then i-cut's algorithms compare the actual registration-mark location with the ideal location. Using this data, the new plotters could "fix" cut lines on the fly in order to compensate for dimensional changes in the printed substrate.
For the first time, a plotter could adjust the cutting path for each piece or individual image in order to correct for non-linear distortion, as well as linear distortion. This was a major advantage over fixed dies, which can be repositioned, but can't adjust for skew or stretch. The same algorithmic strategy lets a plotter equipped with i-cut compensate for inaccurate placement of the printed substrates on the plotter bed. Once the camera finds the first two registration marks, it "knows" where the job is and computes a new start location for cutting.
Screen printers in the vinyl-decal business embraced the new technology for obvious reasons. Having previously limited the printed sheet size for vinyl jobs that were to be diecut (in order to minimize distortion), printers could now step and repeat multiple images and jobs. Nevertheless, acceptance of the technology proceeded at a decidedly leisurely pace until flatjets were finally released to commercial markets in 2002. Flatjets have turned out to be the technological soul mates of digital plotters.
Because a flatjet can print directly on rigid substrates as well as roll stock, it can be viewed as a digital screen press that requires far less prepress time. It also eliminates the screen room. For screen printers, flatjet technology nudges the inherent strategic advantages of the screen-printing process further down into the one-off and short-run quantity range. Of course, it provides those benefits democratically to any type of graphics producer. For non-screen-printing digital shops that were already using inkjet and electrostatic devices to print on flexible media, flatjets meant the end of mounting printed media to a substrate. This was clearly a way to compete with screen printers for short-run graphic business. Both groups quickly recognized that flatjets and large-format digital plotters were the two halves of the custom-graphics oyster shell.
SCL Imaging in Toronto was one of the first graphics providers in North America to deploy a flatjet along with a digital cutting system. Although the company's three Lambda photo imagers were busy, management could see that the graphic market was not standing still. "We realized we were still a one-product company, and we needed to offer more," says SCL production manager Peter Spring. "It was clear that a flatbed inkjet would give us the capacity to print directly on other substrates, but then we had to ask: How will we finish them? As opposed to the cost of a big guillotine cutter, we figured a digital plotter could also give us the flexibility to cut contoured shapes."April of 2002, SCL had settled on a combination of an Inca Eagle 44 printer and a Zünd M-1600 plotter equipped with i-cut vision. The system is now running three shifts a day. "We see a new dynamic unfolding with our customers," says Spring. "They are spending more per unit for more effective customized pieces and faster turnaround. They begin to rethink their visual-communications purchasing strategies when we point out some of the hidden costs they used to pay for printing, storing, and shipping orders." In addition to cutting complex shapes and dimensional graphics from Sintra, styrene, and foam core, SCL also is using the digital cutter to trim step-and-repeat photo prints, not to mention corrugated packaging for product shipping.
Moving toward total integration
One of the keys to MGE's success in digital plotting has been the pursuit of higher degrees of automation in the printing/finishing workflow. So even as the first stage of flatbed-inkjet/digital plotter adoption continues to gather steam, the next phase already is well underway. That phase involves a significant improvement in the ability of the various production components to communicate with each other.
Up to this point, there had been a disconnect between the paths of the image data and the cutting data as they traveled the workflow. Although both originated at the creative/prepress stage, bit-mapped printing information went to the RIP to drive the print job, while the vector-cutting line information went around the RIP to the i-cut software. The net effect was to create bottlenecks in both the prepress department and in plotter setup. But if RIP/print-control systems could understand the cutting data as well as the image files, they could add value to the workflow. It is far more efficient to allow print-management software to automate layout-related production processes such as tiling and nesting. RIPs are specifically designed for these functions, as opposed to Illustrator and CorelDRAW!, which are not. If the RIP could automatically add bounding boxes for square cuts, perform step and repeat, nest, tile, and transmit cutting paths for contour shapes, a new level of automation could be achieved. This is the mountain we are scaling now.
In order to make this concept a reality, MGE came up with i-script, a software language or protocol that allows job information to be transmitted across platforms. The primary barrier to implementing this protocol has been that print-management/RIP developers needed to be convinced they would benefit from implementing such a programming upgrade. This has taken some time, but i-script has been launched on several fronts this year.
Probably because they always have built their own print-control system, Durst Phototechnik was the first printer OEM to embrace the integration of the i-script protocol into the workflow. In fact, the addition of an i-cut-compatible component to the Rho front end was in many ways a philosophical extension of the automated cutting utilities the company previously had developed for Lambda users. Although the Rho is not the fastest of the flatbed inkjets in terms of pure print speed, Durst has proven remarkably adept at providing tools that streamline the production workflow. In the first commercial implementation of the i-script protocol, Durst created an integration path for both Lambda and Rho devices that automated rectangular trimming. To make any XY cut, the customer merely needs to activate the i-cut module built into the front end. No other work in prepress is required.
As the first North American Rho 160 customer, Meisel Visual Imaging, Dallas, TX, began production using Durst's new i-script-enabled front end in the middle of 2002. "The software creates a job number, the bounding box, and cut lines; makes adjustments to image placement to accommodate cutting; performs tiling and nesting to maximize material usage; generates register marks; and exports the file to the cutter," says Hoddy Peck, VP at Meisel. "When the plotter operator recalls the file, the machine begins to cut immediately. We save an enormous amount of time in the creative and prepress departments."
According to Peck, the one-two punch of the Rho/plotter system has had a significant positive effect on Meisel's custom 3D-graphics business. "The Rho gave us the ability to print directly on the substrate, and the digital plotter gave us the ability to custom cut it," says Peck. "Once our clients found out what we could do, they began to challenge us with more and more oddball projects."
VUTEk followed a similar path in terms of incorporating i-script cutting-automation utilities into the modified ColorBurst RIP that drives the PressVu. According to ColorBurst president Larry Spevak, ColorBurst automated the generation of simple rectangular cut lines about a year ago. New features that record and transmit cutting paths have been added, which allow the system operator to nest, scale, rotate, crop, or tile contour-cut images prior to processing for print. The RIP software then exports the original vector cut paths to the plotter along with the rest of the job.
For Gigantic Color in Dallas, TX, the installation of a PressVu/i-cut plotter line only a few months ago has made an immediate difference. "Printing direct to substrate on the PressVu is obviously a big boon: It opens up new business and all that fun stuff," says general manager Troy McGinnis. "But it was truly the integration of the digital plotter with the flatbed press that completely changed how we print and finish all jobs. We originally thought the plotter would be used only for cutting out shapes and special trims, but we use it for every job now, including square cuts."
Because the layout utility built into the front end is designed to nest jobs in such as way as to maximize material usage, operators gang jobs that will run on specific substrates and run them together. McGinnis specifically cited increased efficiencies in the company's custom package prototyping business as a result.
3M Commercial Graphics Division also has implemented a number of i-script features into the latest version of its Graphic Maker print-control software, which drives its electrostatic Scotchprint Printer 2000 and flatbed Printer 2500UV. The utilities allow the RIP to lay out and nest differently shaped images on the print media and pass the cutting data through to the i-cut plotter (Figure 2).
Broadening the base
A very recent development in digital die-cutting has been the sudden expansion in the base of output devices that feed these digital plotters. Although flatjets and digital plotters appear to be a marriage made in heaven, there are other scenarios that make sense. These include production on faster solvent printers, such as the various Océ Arizona models, and even slower printers, including the HP Designjet 5000, which haven't previously been associated with contour cutting in any big way. Enabling more efficient workflows for roll-fed plotters are the efforts of third-party software RIP developers who are beginning to incorporate the i-script language into their products.
A key release is the i-cut option now available in Onyx Graphics' new PosterShop 6.0. Because of Onyx's large market share in the wide-format graphics business, the PosterShop 6.0 i-cut option offers the benefits of a semiautomatic cutting workflow for a wider range of graphics providers. Once cut lines are generated in the drawing application, Postershop provides layout and nesting support in the RIP-queue prior to sending the i-script file to the i-cut system. The utility also generates bar codes, which can be read automatically at the digital plotter. PosterShop also provides the OEM driver for the Océ Arizona T-220 flatbed.
An early installation of the Postershop i-cut option is at Poster Print in Greensboro, NC. The company is outputting graphics on a total of 11 roll-fed digital devices, including a grand-format solvent printer and a bunch of HP Designjet 5000s, all feeding a Zünd digital plotter. "We were glad to get the i-cut code into PosterShop," says president Wayne Atwood. "Before, if you were going to print and cut a job 32 up, you would have to RIP it 32 times. That made for some large files. Now, with the information embedded, you RIP it once and PosterShop duplicates it."
Similarly, Wasatch Computer Technology, Inc. has released an add-on cutting utility for its SoftRIP print-management software. Due to its OEM support for Inca Eagle, Wasatch has been able to leverage its experience to implement the i-script protocol in its cutting drivers. This new i-script-enabled i-cut option can produce bounding-box register marks automatically, as well as pass along full contour-cut paths with the job file sent to the plotter. This feature is compatible with most wide-format printers; Wasatch put the software into beta testing in September of this year.
Is flat where it's at?
It is easy to get carried away by the wow factor with flatbed inkjets and digital plotters--until the cost of these devices brings us back down to earth. Reminding us that there are lots of factors involved in building a profitable business and lots of ways to produce the same job, Atwood explains why none of the multiple output devices feeding his i-cut plotter is a flatjet. "I had an order for 1000 4 x 8-ft cut-outs," said Atwood. "I printed them on the four Designjets by running them 24 hours a day, then we mounted [the graphics], cut them on the digital plotter, and delivered them.... All four HPs combined cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars less than a single flatbed would have. And they're paid for." It's hard to argue with that kind of reasoning.
Web Guide to Suppliers
AccuPro (distributor for ARISTO Graphic Systeme GmbH & Co. KG): www.accupro4plotters.com
Inca Digital Printers: www.incadigital.com
Océ North America: www.oceusa.com
Wasatch Computer Technology: www.wasatchinc.com
Zünd Systemtechnik AG: www.zund.com
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