Fueling Efficiency with a Streamlined Print-to-Cut Workflow

An efficient print and cut system goes beyond just a printer and a cutter. Efficiencies can be gained at many parts along the entire workflow, to make the entire process as simple and productive as possible, yet flexible enough to accommodate a variety of devices and applications.

With today’s printer and cutter solutions, most full-featured software RIP packages provide the necessary tools to manage a shop’s cut jobs effectively, said David Conrad, Mutoh America director of marketing, North and Latin America.

Within the print-cut process, the RIP software must have built-in cutting capability, otherwise a secondary software application is required to handle the cutting portion, noted Shado Norstegaard, lead designer, Summa, Inc.

The workflow should provide all the tools necessary for dielines, two-sided printed, and true-shape nesting, said Bill Hartman, Esko vice president, Business Development, Digital Finishing. It should also have the ability to lay out files and impose graphics on the substrate, to make the most efficient use of the material, as well as printer and cutter time.

“Ideally, the software should be able to plan multiple files on the same sheet of substrate and offer compatibility between the PDF file that is sent to the printer’s RIP and the cutting file that is sent to the digital finishing table, such as a Kongsberg,” said Hartman. This compatibility also includes registration marks that are printed on the RIP and read by the cutter to determine how to cut the job, taking into consideration any distortions. Esko’s i-cut Suite—used with Esko Kongsberg digital finishing tables—has modules to provide all of these functions.”

“All of this software is useless if a table is not capable of reading slight distortions that either come from the printer or from the placement of the substrate on the table,” said Hartman. “The i-cut Vision Pro includes a camera system that individually adjusts cut files to perfectly match printed graphics. It makes sure that die-less cutting contours match the printed images perfectly. It registers the actual dimensions and positions the printed result. Then, finishing is adapted to the shape of the graphics.”

In Canon Solutions America’s workflow, graphic files are send to its ProCut Prepress software, which allows the operator to confirm or change cutter tool assignments, perform nesting, add barcodes and optical registration marks, and then release the job. The prepress software then separates cutter data from printer data and sends each its own way. The print data gets sent to the ONYX Thrive RIP (or third party RIP) where it is color managed and ultimately sent to a Canon’s Océ Arizona series flatbed printer.

The cutter data is sent to the ProCut Prepress software, residing at the cutter, explained Randy Paar, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America, Inc. “This software allows the operator to keep a library of tool settings for all the tools and substrates, eliminating guesswork and greatly reducing setup time. Once the proper tools are online and their settings are selected, the operator just scans the barcode on the printed piece to call up the correct cut file. Next the optical registration process is initiated using an onboard camera to locate the registration marks. The cutter then quickly and accurately performs the finishing steps, which could include cutting, kiss-cutting, high speed routing, oscillating cuts, and creasing.”

Productivity can also be improved and waste reduced by pre-cutting shapes on blank substrates and then printing them on the stationary table of Océ Arizona flatbed, Parr said. “If the final shape is already known, pieces can be pre-cut before the final graphic is even ready for print and any pieces ruined during the cutting process don't also waste the print.”

A digital workflow that provides seamless integration of the cutter (in Zünd’s case, the G3 and S3 lines) and RIP is absolutely essential, added Lars Bendixen, product manager, Zünd Systemtechnik AG. “ZCC provides seamless preparation of cut files from the RIP, uses barcode reading for job locating/opening, and is based on a simple but effective hot-folder system,” he said.

Actual production data is saved and can be shared with MIS systems, which is one of the ways ZCC facilitates production planning and streamlining, said Bendixen. “For an even greater level of automation, ZCC also offers batch processing and email notification in case user intervention becomes necessary during unattended operation,” he said.

The ZCC production workflow suite provides essential file preparation options (e.g. optimal register mark placement, true-shape nesting, tiling, etc.) as well as the color camera-aided registration system. “Cutting accuracy—and ultimately productivity—is further enhanced with a comprehensive materials database for optimal tool selection and cut parameters, cut-path optimization, and process-specific features such as overcut compensation, automatic bridging,” said Bendixen.

Summa’s ultra-fast RIP program, ColorControl, is standard when purchasing a DC Series printer-cutter, said Norstegaard. ColorControl recognizes contour cutlines along with Summa's trademarked FlexCut die cut paths. “For those who are most comfortable using different RIPs and cutting programs, Summa offers WinPlot. Users can setup and print their optical positioning markers in their chosen software programs; WinPlot then recognizes the markers and accurately contour cut the graphics,” said Norstegaard. Summa cutter drivers are also available within major cutting software packages, so users are free to choose whatever suits their particular workflow best.

All of Summa’s cutters include contour cutting optical positioning system for reliable and accurate reading across a wide range of materials and over-laminates.

Integrated or Off-line?

Shops have the option of an offline print-to-cut system, or one that’s fully integrated. There are advantages and disadvantages to both—an integrated system is able to offer an end-to-end automated process, but may lack the speed of an offline system. Which system is better for your operation also depends on whether you need your cutter to work with more than one printer.

“For most wide-format applications that require printing and contour cutting, we recommend an integrated printer/cutter that can automate and expedite the production process,” said David Hawkes, group product manager, Roland DGA Corp. “This will save you both time and labor and will deliver the most precise results.

Roland bundles its printers/cutters with VersaWorks RIP software, which features Pantone spot color libraries and variable data printing. VersaWorks automates perf-cutting, along with automating the printing and contour cutting processes. It also offers a custom cut feature that segments very long production runs into smaller sections to ensure precise registration throughout the job, said Hawkes. VersaWorks’ Quadralign optical registration system allows for precise registration whenever printing and contour cutting are handled on separate devices, including for print/laminate/cut applications.

“Productivity is only truly maximized when you can print a graphic unattended,” insists Hawkes. “ We recommend investing in a high-quality printer/cutter upgraded with an advanced dryer system and take-up reel. This will allow you to hit print at the end of the day, close your shop doors, and return the next morning to a roll of flawlessly printed and contour cut graphics—a benefit that will save you more time than all of a printer’s other productivity features combined. “

The more the entire production workflow is automated and integrated, the fewer the manual steps and opportunities for errors and inefficiencies, added Bendixen. “An integrated solution is always the better option—because a simple, efficient, integrated workflow makes training operators a lot easier and is the only way to assure consistently high cut quality and productivity.”

The Summa DC5 thermal transfer printer-cutter is designed with that versatility and affordability in mind, combing eco-friendly and zero-maintenance print technology with the company’s world-renowned cutting technology built-in, said Norstegaard. “It has never been easier to print, cut, and apply.”

A print-cut combination machine may be a better solution for a small shop who is just starting out or one that has very limited space, said Mutoh’s Conrad. It may also be an option for a large shop that wants the convenience of an all in one machine to run quick jobs or one offs where they don’t have to tie up their production printer or take it off line. “

The Mutoh ValueCut line of cutter plotters utilizes multi segment registration technology to assure accurate long run cut jobs, said Conrad. Being able to have the alignment stay true from the start of the job to the end will help print shops be more productive. 

A separate cutter and printer solution is the best solution for shops where production is critical, said Conrad. “Being able to print then cut keeps the printer doing what you paid for it to do—that is print,” he said. “You want to be able to keep the printer printing and when finished with a job, take it to the cutter for it to do its job so you can send another job to the printer. A high production printer does a good job ganging jobs together so they can keep the workflow from printer to cutter moving throughout the workday. In doing so, they maximize their equipment’s capability and their output capacity.” 

For many vehicle graphics shops involved in a print/laminate/cut workflow, the lamination portion of the workflow requires graphics to be removed from the printer anyway, noted Hawkes. “So being able to print on one device, laminate on another and then contour cut on a third machine may actually expedite the workflow if the printer is running around the clock to keep up with demands,” he said. “Roland offers a range of standalone printers and cutters as well, including SOLJET Pro 4 and VersaArt printers, and GX cutters. VersaWorks RIP software also supports Roland’s GX series cutters, making offline cutting as simple as dragging a file from the printer queue and dropping it back into the cutter queue for finishing.”

Colex Fotoba X/Y cutters are an off-line finishing solution that can handle the speed of several printers. They cut 150-foot roll of media in less than 10 minutes, and are able to trim all flexible media output from 67-inches to 130-inches wide and 40 mil thick. Regardless of any feed misalignment, Fotoba cutters automatically realign itself to the edge of the printed image.

In addition to the Fotoba X/Y cutters, Colex also offers the Sharpcut flatbed cutters, both designed to help streamline the finishing production process and improve accuracy, commented Werner Waden, president, Colex Imaging. Sharpcut features a triple interchangeable tool head, energy efficient 6-zone vacuum system and vision registration camera and software to serve markets requiring mechanized knife cutting, creasing, and routing operations. The Optiscout vision registration corrects non-linear distortions by adjusting each point on the cut path, allowing it to compensate for distortions when printed on substrates. The software offers a Material Library capable of storing individual settings for specific media for specific tools that are cut on a repeated basis.

A dedicated cutting system allows for the greatest range of tooling enabling the finishing of both roll and rigid substrate, said Canon’s Paar. In addition, the print-cut combo means greater wear and tear on the working/moving components of the machine, said Conrad. The carriage moves much more, meaning a greater chance for mechanical breakdown on an all in one device.

Manual cutters offer a variety of options to fit any budget while providing a safe and accurate cutting solution, Jen Kester, marketing manager, Foster Keencut. “Typically as a company gets larger or expands locations, we have noticed those companies grow their product lines accordingly by adding more manual cutters to their finishing department,” said Kester. “Between the SteelTraK and the Evolution-E2, these cutters can cut about 90 percent of the materials used in today’s large-format industry. As new materials come to the market or changes in the industry, this allows our products to remain versatile among the various substrates.”

An offline print and cut workflow offers many significant advantages, said Norstegaard, noting that standalone vinyl cutters tend to have much faster and more accurate cutting technology compared to what is available in an integrated print/cut solution.

“Manual cutters offer a variety of options to fit any budget while providing a safe and accurate cutting solution,” said Kester. “Whether using a manual cutter as a backup solution or as the primary cutter, it is an essential piece of equipment to have.”