Finished Plot: Digitally Cutting More Than Just Vinyl

“Our Colex Sharpcut [cutter] has proven to be a great investment and has truly unlocked the full potential of our flatbed printer,” praised Ward Martin, regional support manager in the Carolinas and Georgia for wide-format franchise Speedpro Imaging. “From finishing large-volume jobs to cutting shapes, the Sharpcut provides us with the necessary capabilities to win more business, maximize our flatbed printer investment, and significantly reduce labor costs.”

In addition to such return-on-investment (ROI) considerations, what else do print firm owners need to know when selecting a vinyl cutters/plotter? Versatility is a key consideration today, explained Peter Wright, Northeast sales manager for manufacturer Colex Imaging, which introduced its latest Sharpcut model at the annual SGIA Expo in late October (www.sgia.org). Also at the Orlando show, a Graphtec FC8600 cutter demonstrated a print and cut/finishing solution, including pop-out decals, with the latest HP latex printer.

“It’s the ability to kiss-cut and work with decals plus do heavy-duty routing on Coroplast [corrugated plastic sheets], Gatorfoam [lightweight, rigid board], and a plethora of different substrates,” Wright noted. The 5-by-10-foot flatbed cutter’s triple-interchangeable tool head is “a huge time-saving benefit,” he added, “allowing jumps from creasing wheels to knives to routers on the fly and with no human intervention.”

Colex also offers a 6-Zone Vacuum System divided into independent stations, “which saves on electric when you’re using only a small section of the table,” Wright said. The Sharpcut package includes a fixed knife, oscillating knife, and router (1HP or 3HP available). Its new and improved oscillating knife cuts at 14,000 strokes per minute, cutting 50 percent faster along with a variety of new tools offered to customize the device to suit specific needs and workflow, including: the Universal Drawing Tool, V-cut Knife for 90-degree folds, Coroplast Knife, Creasing Wheel, and the Universal Single Edge Knife for Sintra (up to 6mm).

For repeatable jobs, its Optiscout Vision Registration System features a high-resolution color camera, the ability to import more than 30 file formats, and plug in export data from CorelDRAW, Illustrator, and AutoCAD desktop. Media and thicknesses are set up in the material library, explained Colex sales administrator Maureen Damato, who added that an import filter renders the machine compatible with RIP software from Zund cutters and Kongsberg I-Cut devices, for example. “It’s also third-party compatible with all box software on the market,” she noted.

Training and support

Training also is crucial. “Your equipment is never as good as your operator,” said Wright, which is why Colex stresses on-site training after installation. Daniel Valade, product manager at Roland DGA Corp., agreed. “Consider whether a cutter is compatible with your operating system and design software. The cutter should be easy to use so you can begin using it right out of the box,” Valade advised. “Look for a manufacturer with a high service orientation and the support and educational resources you will need, including training and product documentation.” Also, invest in a product from a reputable manufacturer that offers solid warranties. “The lowest priced option on the market may not offer the performance features and reliability you need,” he warned.

Because vinyl cutters come in many sizes and various cutting speeds, it is important to determine intended use, Valade added. “Roland offers a full line of GX cutters, ranging from 24 to 64 inches in width, to accommodate a range of applications, from real-estate signage and heat transfers for garments to vehicle graphics, sandblast and paint masks, custom window tinting and even rhinestone apparel decoration,” he said. “Also, if you intend to pair the cutter with a printer to cut preprinted graphics, make sure it comes with an optical-registration system such as Roland Quadralign, which automatically recognizes printer crop marks and contour-cut designs based on the vector data created in the design software.”

Cutter/plotter performance -- such as maximum cutting/plotting speed, cutting force, acceptable thickness, tracking capabilities, and contour cutting function -- also should be carefully evaluated, according to Mira Wu, marketing communications manager at GCC. “Besides the functions, the most important thing for wide-format print firm owners is the budget,” Wu suggested. “You just need to know what kind of materials would apply to your business, then you might choose one ‘suitable’ cutter/plotter.” She emphasized that “suitable” does not necessarily mean buying a top and expensive cutter/plotter but rather “a suitable one to fit your task. For example, if the most material you applied is vinyl, you just need to survey a middle-range cutter/plotter.” GCC’s Puma III and Jaguar IV are good choices, she added.

When it comes to preferred substrates, “print/cut material varies and will depend on the applications that the shop is focused on,” said Mutoh marketing manager David Conrad. “Typically adhesive-backed vinyl and banner material are what most plotters are used for,” Conrad noted, “but there are some specialty cutting tools and machines on the market that help with textile and fabric cutting as well.

Getting the most from equipment

To get the most productivity out of your equipment, consider materials and applications outside your current market that can expand your business, urged Valade from Roland. “There are niche markets for cutters that may take your business in profitable new directions. For example, if you are currently creating custom apparel, consider moving into vehicle graphics, re-styling, and interior décor applications. Vinyl and film media can be cut precisely to create quality, single-color vehicle graphics and lettering, boat lettering, pin-striping, and window tints. New adhesive-backed fabrics can be cut for wall graphics and other interior décor applications,” he noted.

Business opportunities are not limited to the graphics industries, said GCC’s Wu, but expand “to every work that needs a cutter/plotter, [such as] vector cutting on vinyl, window film cutting for window tinting, and reflective film cutting for traffic signs. With both a printer and a cutter, you can not only print the images but also can do the contour cutting for the labels for the customized market.” GCC vinyl cutters feature an Automatic-Aligning System (AAS II) that can automatically detect registration marks on digitally produced images, allowing for precise contour cutting and “greatly saving you time,” Wu explained.

Maintenance is important, too. “Make sure your cutter protection strip is free of any damage. Running a job over a damaged cutter protection strip can result in stitch or dash cuts, wasting valuable time and materials,” Valade said. “Keep your cutter blade sharp and in good condition as well. A dull or chipped blade can cause inaccurate cuts, including partial cuts.”

Finally, make sure your blade holder is in good condition. “A damaged or worn out blade holder can prevent the blade from swiveling properly, leaving gaps in your cut lines,” he continued. “Keep the bearing lubricated to get the most life out of your blade holder.” Like any part that gets used repeatedly, the blade holder eventually will need replacement, he added. “Blade holders typically last a year or more, depending on the level of use they get.”

Software and substrates

While there really have not been too many changes to cutting devices themselves over the past few years, there have been significant additions in the software available to end users for specific applications. “For example, software plug-ins for the most popular design packages, such as Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW, make the transition from design to output as simple as a couple of clicks of the mouse,” Valade pointed out.

For ease of use, a cutter/plotter that is compatible with different operating system, such as Windows and Mac OS, is a plus, added GCC’s Wu, as is user-friendly software. For different operating system users, GCC vinyl cutters are compatible with Windows 2000/XP/7/Vista and provides Mac AI Plug-in software that can be used in MAC OS X 10.4-10.7, she added. GCC also provides Adobe Illustrator/CorelDraw plug-ins “so users can use the software they are familiar with and get ready to use it in the shortest time,” she said. “If you are not familiar with any software for cutter/plotter, I would suggest purchasing application software which includes the edit and cutting function. If you already have your own software, such as Illustrator and CorelDraw, you can just use the plug-in software. Most cutter/plotters bundle with the basic plug-in software.”

The Colex Sharpcut is a fully integrated hardware and software solution that turns the digital cutting table into a true, short-run production system. It includes a camera system that individually adjusts cut files to accurately match printed graphics.

“Roland also offers CutStudio design software for GX cutters, as well as a software package called R-Wear Studio that can be paired with any GX to design and produce rhinestone templates for customized apparel and gifts,” Valade added. “Roland Film Design software makes it easier than ever to add window tinting and paint protection to vehicles and is perfect for auto dealerships and other auto re-styling businesses,” he continued. “The software can be used with any brand of film and is loaded with powerful design features that make it possible to add logos and text to window film.”

In addition to accuracy and versatility, durability ties into profitability, too. Featuring a solid, welded-steel frame, the Colex Sharpcut is built to last, according to Wright. “Shops may change out printers every four years or so, to keep up with the Joneses,” he said, “but a cutter needs to last between 10 and 15 years.” A reliable, stable, and durable machine enhances productivity and lower costs, GCC’s Wu agreed.

When considering investing in cutting equipment, have long-term vision, counseled Colex’s Wright. “Look at the broader picture and plan for the future,” he concluded. “You may need to diversify your product line as your wide-format needs evolve.” Colex has customers who have migrated from cutting simple decals to doing custom packaging in one to two years, Wright shared.

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