Tips for Getting The Most Out of Your Automated Cutter
When I hear of cutting and routing, my first thought is large flatbed cutters (including lasers) and rigid signage either being cut or routed into shapes. That certainly is a big part of what this technology is used for; however, textile cutting needs to be in the equation as well. And whether you are doing rigid signage, roll-to-roll imaging, or textile printing, automation makes a big difference in your ability to move jobs through your shop efficiently.
There are a number of manufacturers to consider in this space: Colex, Kongsberg, Zund America, Gerber/MCT, Summa, and Matic, among others. Without calling out one manufacturer over another, I thought it would be good to cover these four main topics:
- Rotary blade or knife
- Cameras and vision systems
Rotary Blade, Router, or Knife?
First, let me say that a couple of the cutters mentioned above are identified as XY cutters, meaning they cut four sides of a banner or textile (not rigid substrates), and the shapes are usually a square or rectangle. These are great for handling large runs of banners. These are almost always knife units, and make quick work of a large run of these types of products.
A standard high-performance drag knife is probably the most commonly used tool; yet, depending on the material and material handling properties, other cutting methods — oscillating, rotary, routing, or even laser — may be more suitable for achieving the desired cut quality.
A resource I like to use when choosing which knife blade or router bit to use is CutGuru.com. It’s an invaluable resource for choosing knife blades or router bits as CutGuru has done the research on a large number of products, and offered options for each one. It offers tips, like this one: “CUT ANGLE — The larger the cut angle, the more over-cut will occur. Over-cut will also increase as the thickness of your material increases. Larger cut angle knives will generally be more durable.” This information is applicable regardless of the manufacturer, and helps the end-user select the proper tool for the product.
Lasers have come a long way from their inception, and it’s good to note the advantages and disadvantages. For textiles, think about the type and the desired finish. Natural fibers will burn with a laser, and the edges of polyester will melt — not a bad thing, just a thing. A laser is great when small cut-outs or air vents are needed, and when a sealed edge is needed on polyesters; natural fibers will not result in a sealed edge when using a laser. Lasers can get a bad rep due to the smell or VOCs that can be generated, so an air removal system is a must — this is equally necessary when cutting many rigid substrates. Make sure you work with your manufacturer to get the airflow, exhaust, power, and speed in the correct sequence for each material.
Nick Buettner with ISW noted that there are different laser options the end-user should be aware of. A standard CO2 laser with glass will typically last two years versus a metal tube rated for 10 years. A CO2 Galvo laser is primarily used to burn images into fabric or make holes and patterns (think denim and fleece). He also noted that Galvo technology is being combined with some XY fabric cutting systems in one machine with two tubes so cuts and embellishments can be made quite accurately with current camera technology, and he notes that this is making great strides in the athletic apparel space.
Automation in Cutting Systems
There are several options in the automation category that primarily deal with loading and unloading materials. Robotic arms, feeder and stacker tables, motorized roll feeders, and take-up units are just a few of the options. Your primary application will drive which of these has the most value, and of course you would need to determine what options the manufacturer you are considering offers. For rigid materials, a board feeder and stacker system (either one or both) makes a big difference in your output capabilities. Robotic arms are more specialized, and in some applications, can be a better option.
Another quick note on feeder and stacker tables: make sure the materials that come to the cutter from the printer are stacked properly to improve the handling of the feeder. Boards stacked with no thought to the next application can take away from the benefits you were trying to achieve with automation. Neat and lined-up boards will feed faster, and lead to improved throughput.
I checked in with Beatrice Drury, marketing manager of Zund America, and she noted a range of modular tool options that can be freely combined for jobs that involve several different cutting methods (e.g., cutting, creasing, and perforating). Switching from one tool to another — or with their ARC automatic tool changer, from one routing bit to another — happens automatically, with no manual intervention. Some manufacturer software can even automatically suggest the best tooling and machine settings for the job at hand.
Cameras and Vision Systems
Speaking with Drury about Zund options, she mentioned cut-to-print registration as another aspect of automation that merits careful consideration. With over-cutter-camera registration in addition to the beam-mounted systems, tremendous efficiencies are created when registering cut-to-print with one shot of the camera. This is especially true for applications such as printed textiles, which involve a lot of register marks because of potential material or print distortions and require automatic compensation (i.e. on-the-fly adjustments of the cut file) to achieve the desired result.
All cut systems will have some type of registration system that will read not only barcodes to load specific cut jobs, but will also read registration marks for perfect cuts every time. Most systems will also have automatic layout generation and nesting for efficient use of the substrate being cut. When a camera system is involved, it just makes the process that much faster and more automated.
When it comes to cutting, there are many options, and it’s helpful to do your homework and investigate options that will prevent the cutter from becoming a bottleneck in your operation.
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Ray assists association members with information on digital printing as well as digital equipment, materials, and vendor referrals. He oversees training and certification workshops at PRINTING United Alliance. Ray is project manager for both the PDAA Certification program and the PRINTING United Alliance Digital Color Professional Certification program and is an instructor for the Color Management Boot Camps as well as a G7 expert. Ray regularly contributes to the Association's Journal and won the 2016 Swormstedt Award for Best in Class writing in the Digital Printing category. Ray was inducted into the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies (ASDPT) in 2020. He also works with SkillsUSA to conduct the National Competition for Graphics Imaging Sublimation. Outside of work, Ray enjoys biking, international cuisine and spending time with his three fantastic grandkids.