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Making the Cut

(February 2013) posted on Tue Mar 26, 2013

This article provides an overview of digital flatbed and laser cutting systems and highlights what’s available on the market.

By the editors of Screen Printing magazine

click an image below to view slideshow

What are laser cutters?
Laser cutting systems use high-powered lasers to vaporize materials that are situated in the path of the beam. CO2 lasers are common in screen-printing applications. Here, the cutting action is achieved by powering the laser beam on and off while directing it along the paths defined by the artwork. Essentially, laser cutting systems import vector-based digital images, and systems can complete job setup in a few minutes based on the imported images.

For the sake of simplicity, we can classify lasers in two categories: gantry systems and galvanometer (galvo) systems. Gantry systems are similar to the XY plotters in that they physically direct the laser beam, which is perpendicular to the material in its cutting path, across the surface of the substrate. Gantry systems are typically slow, but they can be a good fit for superwide-format jobs. Galvo systems, on the other hand, make very small adjustments in mirror angles to reposition the laser beam in different directions, as dictated by the artwork. Galvo systems are relatively quick—straight cuts on some materials can be made as quickly as 100 ft/min—and are often used for full production work.

Laser cutting systems are tool-free, which means they can be used in applications that may be off limits to conventional die cutters and other finishing systems. Tool-free operation also means eliminating the costs and waiting periods involved in tool fabrication. Expenses and delays for tooling, particularly for prototypes and short-run work, are significant.

Job setup can take seconds or a matter of minutes. Some high-end systems come with software tools that optimize imported files for the best cutting results. Here, the software corrects for difficulties created by vector-type files, allowing shorter setup times and overall improvement of the laser cutting process. These systems can also simulate the job-production rate during setup so that operators will know how long a job will take. Job-setup specifications can be saved and recalled, thereby making job changeover a few keystrokes away.

Material compatibility can sometimes be an issue, which means it’s essential that you discuss the composition and thickness of the substrates you typically use—and could use—with cutting-system manufacturers. That being said, laser cutting technology continues to improve. Newer lasers shape beams with greater precision, and more power can be had for less money.


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