Find out how to open your business to a whole new range of applications and niche markets in this overview of precision diecutting technology
By Bill Knotts
Competitive pressures have been building in the screen-printing industry for a long time. Many shops have answered by streamlining their operating procedures to the point where there is seemingly no fat left to trim. In the years ahead, the staying power of a screen-printing business will likely come more from the added services it provides than from any dramatic new efficiencies it uncovers in its well-honed production techniques.
Diecutting is an established technology that can augment existing print-production capabilities in any graphic or industrial screen-printing operation and enable the business to explore new opportunities and tap into lucrative niche markets. This article will discuss how diecutting equipment can help companies using screen-printing and digital-imaging devices grow their product lines and their bottom lines.
Applications and products
Many everyday items we take for granted are either screen or digitally printed, sometimes laminated, and then die cut. Such products include tags, labels, decals, nameplates, and promotional hangers (Figure 1). Another growing area in which printing and diecutting work hand in hand is in the market for plastic cards--credit cards, prepaid phone cards, customer-loyalty (frequent-buyer) cards, and insurance and identification cards (Figure 2). Printers who capitalize on short-run digital imaging also can benefit from diecutting equipment--even when printing variable data, such as in packaging applications.
Finally, diecutting brings new opportunities with ad-specialty products, which already are a huge market for printers. Refrigerator magnets (Figure 3) and similar promotional products are exactly the sorts of add-ons screen- and digital-printing operations can decorate and die cut quickly in any quantity to help sustain and grow business.
What will be the next big new die-cut product? Only time will tell, but being ready for such a product begins by investing in diecutting equipment that can change with the times. Some recently introduced die-cut products (such as heaters for side-view mirrors in newer car models) show how wide diecutting technology spreads its reach. The product qualities made possible by screen and digital printing, as well as thermal and pressure-sensitive laminating, are driving demand for diecutting systems that can work in combination with these printing and finishing techniques.
Selecting the right system
Adding diecutting capabilities with the intent of developing new market opportunities requires that you first zero in on die-cutting technology that is flexible enough to accommodate changing job requirements. The first types of jobs you line up will not be the last. Innumerable products are made from printed, die-cut, flat-stock materials, and the potential for new types of die-cut products is ultimately as unlimited as the human imagination.
To keep up with changing times and mushrooming product possibilities, your best bet is to look for modular equipment that you can upgrade inexpensively. Modular design, when it comes to diecutting systems, mainly means that the inputs to the diecutting system and the outputs for handling die-cut parts can be readily changed. In this case, readily means in minutes, not hours, so you can switch from sheet-fed to roll-fed materials as needed for different jobs and similarly use different back ends to extract die-cut parts and/or feed them into other finishing equipment. There are, in fact, a wide array of finishing modules for high-precision diecutting systems, including part knockouts, part extractions, part rewinds, part shingling, and sheet collection.
At a minimum you need to have the ability to equip the system with either steel-rule dies or hard tooling (male/female dies) for longer runs. The most flexible systems also will allow you to use dies from any manufacturer, instead of limiting you to proprietary die designs and their sometimes higher prices. Die flexibility means that your system won't lock you into the current choice(s) of die options forever; instead, the diecutting system is configured to evolve with changing job requirements.
Consider, for example, that loyalty cards with accompanying key-chain tags (and similar multipart, die-cut products) were originally made by using progressive dies--all the die-cut features were created in multiple steps. However, as product designs got fancier and more complex, compound dies were introduced to create all the die-cut features in one press stroke. Modular dies are the most recent evolution of the tool. They offer excellent cut-edge quality along with cut-to-print registration equal to that of compound dies, but at a fraction of their cost.
The production of many newer die-cut items, such as some of the ones mentioned earlier, is possible only because high-precision diecutting systems are used (Figure 4). These devices, which can include sophisticated optical registration systems, adjust registration positioning at each press stroke in three axes (x, y, and theta or rotational axes). Such three-axis registration is able to deliver consistent accuracy within ± 0.005 inches. That precision, about two hairs' width, is about the smallest level that the human eye can gauge. An increasing number of products, including electroluminescent cell-phone panels, voting ballots, and casino playing cards, require such tight tolerances in cut-to-print registration.
Accommodating run lengths
Large runs of more straightforward diecutting jobs are suited to rotary diecutters and/or flatbed platen diecutting presses. These types of diecutting systems, while far less flexible than high-precision diecutting systems, can readily handle simpler jobs that don't require extreme print-to-cut tolerance and do so at lower cost if runs are of sufficient size. Even the much greater up-front costs associated with flatbed presses can be justified by their greater throughput.
Die costs alone put both rotary diecutters and flatbed presses out of the running for short-run jobs. Moreover, many of the newest die-cut products are made from more elastic plastic materials, such as PVC, which these types of machines have trouble processing. The key is in knowing when to use high-precision, optically registered diecutting to aid rotary diecutters and/or flatbed presses. Fancier die-cut features are a bit easier for precision systems, which are inherently well suited for kiss cutting, through cutting, creasing, and embossing. These systems actually cover the roll widths of rotary diecutters, as well as the narrower widths of jobs run on flatbed presses.
Unlike rotary diecutters or flatbed presses, high-precision diecutting systems accommodate both sheet- and roll-fed materials. They usually run between 120-150 press strokes per minute. This means that a wide-format (30-in.) system could output up to 50,000 smaller pieces per hour in 10-up configurations. The throughput speed also can be closely matched to inline laminators or digital printers.
The best of these systems are designed so that they can reposition steel-rule dies in minutes, facilitating rapid job changeovers and minimizing make-ready material costs. The steel-rule dies used for short-run jobs can usually be machined in a few hours at a cost of a few hundred dollars. This means that shops that supplement their core screen- and digital-printing business with die-cut specialty products are able to economically output many short-run jobs daily and relatively seamlessly.
The economy of die-cutting systems also is significantly impacted by how well they interface with other equipment. Systems that require manual loading and unloading are inefficient and inherently involve more labor costs. On the other hand, diecutting systems that are configured to operate inline with screen-printing presses and inkjet printers, as well as other finishing equipment, have helped spawn demand for new types of products.
Products to die for
Investing in diecutting systems is a relatively low-cost way for screen printers to quickly diversify and reach new markets. Unlike the half-million- to million-dollar costs of high-volume, automatic graphics presses, many high-precision diecutting systems are available in the low six-figure range. Systems such as these not only allow you to capture the profitable, short-run niches that are growing in markets, such as promotional products, but they also enable you to develop and produce any number of other items that depend on very tight cut-to-print registration. And when you configure your diecutting equipment inline with screen presses, inkjet printers, and any finishing tools you have, you can add new product lines efficiently and with lower costs. After that, all you need is a little imagination and creativity to uncover new applications and grow your business.
Diecutting Systems Explained
The four most common types of diecutting equipment available today include clamshell, flatbed, rotary, and gap presses. Each is suited to particular applications and configurations.
Clamshell The clamshell press is best matched with jobs that don't require extremely tight cut-to-print registration. The clamshell workflow is typically slow and involves manual loading and unloading. Purchasing a high-tonnage unit, capable of processing more pieces per cycle, can help compensate for slower production.
Flatbed These systems also are best used in applications where registration is less of an issue. They often use steel-rule dies and are capable of high output. Flatbeds also can sometimes be paired with automatic material-feeding equipment for greater efficiency.
Rotary Designed for use with roll-fed materials, a rotary diecutting press features cylindrical tooling that rotates and cuts as the materials travel between the press's surface and the tooling. High cutting speeds are possible, but the fixed tooling hinders registration accuracy.
Gap High-precision mechanical-gap diecutting devices can accommodate either steel-rule dies or hard tooling. These machines use electro-optical sensors to ensure tight registration and can be combined with fully automatic material-handling systems to boost productivity. While gap-diecutting presses can't process as many pieces per cycle as other types of diecutters, they're considerably more accurate and flexible in terms of the range of materials they can handle. They also are able to create special features and effects, such as embossed areas, perforations, and creases.
About the author
Bill Knotts is president of Rolling Meadows, IL-based Spartanics, which manufactures a range of automated diecutting and punching equipment. He can be reached at 847-394-5700 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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