Best of British: Essex business plotting to exceed your expectations
Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Blackman & White today is known as a builder of flatbed plotting and cutting tables that are mainly bought for large-format CNC applications including print signage, textiles and packaging.
However, when the company was founded in 1964 there was no large-format print sector in the current sense, while computers for graphics were rare and plotters were basic drum devices working with pens on paper.
In 1964, Les White and Jack Blackman set up an engineering subcontracting company in Maldon, Essex, to make components for local companies such as Marconi. Maldon is a port on a river estuary close to the sea and Les White also had a passion for sailing, which led to his identification of the need for greater automation in the sailmaking process. Blackman & White developed a simple plotting system that became increasingly automated as technology and electronics evolved.
In 1974 the company developed AW80, the first two-axis cutter, for sails and other materials.
Les’ son Alex White joined the company in 1995 and drove the software element of the device, leading to opportunities for building a machine that would be suitable for multiple industry sectors, from aerospace and composites through to digital print and construction.
Today Alex is managing director while Les' brother – Alex's uncle – John is design director. The company employs 30 staff and is still based in Maldon, but has sales and support representation globally. The standard range of table sizes has evolved to encompass multi-tool functionality – router, knife and laser cutting (claimed to be unique), all on one cutting table.
“All design, engineering and manufacturing happens in the UK, and 50 years of development has helped build a wealth of expertise that has led to numerous high-profile bespoke commissions for organisations worldwide,” says Alex White. “We also have a team of in-house software designers with impressive portfolios, with a focus and drive to create software that meets the needs of industry in an increasingly connected world.
“The most important thing is enthusiasm and a passion for engineering that translates into providing a system that exceeds customer expectations. Technical expertise is a given, and our entire team all have some form of engineering or technical background.”
Graphics is only one of the markets for these machines, says White: “Our machines are also used in industry sectors such as aerospace and composites. The high degree of accuracy and speed ensures a high return on investment and reduction in material wastage, which is so critical in industries where material cost is a premium.”
Blackman & White is one of several significant suppliers of computerised CNC (computer numeric control) cutting tables into the printing sector. White lists his main competitors as Bullmer (made in Germany and sold in the UK by Assyst Bullmer), DYSS (made in South Korea and sold through AG/CAD), Kongsberg (owned by Esko and made in Norway and the Czech Republic) and Zünd (made in Switzerland). Mimaki also sells tables into this market.
Cutting tables in general are used in print for relatively short runs where metal dies would be too expensive or sometimes would take too long to make. Pen plotting applications are less common nowadays except for basic marking, but cutting and creasing are used for print, while heavy duty models offer routing, ie the shaped cutting of thick and solid materials including wood, plastics and even metals.
They take digital data directly from the pre-press system (or CAD system in some cases). It’s easy to set up cutting and creasing layers in the original artwork file, registered to the print image where appropriate. They can handle very complex shapes, though the nature of the moving tool head means that the longer the cutting (and in some cases creasing) path, then the slower the throughput.
However, short runs are not the whole reason to use a large computer-driven table: the largest models can cover a larger area than any flatbed die-cutter, at a lower capital and running cost. While small rotary die-cutters with quick-change magnetic dies are gaining ground for short to medium runs, the large-format equivalents are only really economical for very long runs of standardised shapes in packaging and labels.
Blackman & White’s range is currently based on three major models. Genesis-V is the main seller into graphics markets, with a conveyor belt and intended for materials up to 50mm thick (such as paper, card, foamboard, acrylics, aluminium composites, as well as woven textiles and composites). It has twin drop-in tool stations that can take knife, crease, router and laser cutting tools as well as plotting pens – the company claims it is the only mixed laser and knife conveyor system on the market. The dual gantry twin tool stations allow cutting and creasing to be handled on the same run. Camera registration is optional. The three width options are 1.6m, 2.2m and 3.2m with a choice of 1.5m or 3m lengths. Maximum cutting speed is 1,200mm/second, with a maximum move speed of 1,250mm/second (and up to 1G head acceleration).
MasterCut is the large-format heavy duty model series, with zoned vacuum tables and an optional router head for milling rigid materials up to 50mm thick. It’s also suited to printed media and has optional camera registration. As well as pens, there’s an inkjet option for coding and marking. Standard widths are 3.2m, 5m and 7m, while cutting lengths can be up to 80m as standard and more if you want. Maximum cutting speed is 1,000mm/second, with moves at up to 1,100mm/sec and acceleration of 0.5G.
“The MasterCut is the machine range that encompasses bespoke functionality,” says White. “This offers build flexibility, including a machine recently installed in the US that is 50m long by 7m wide, with inkjet and laser cutting, as well as one installed in Germany that is 250m long!”
The third model family, Orion is a vacuum table for high-throughput cutting and plotting work with textiles and composites. It is offered in three widths (1.6m, 2.2m and 3.2 m) and lengths up to 15m, with a maximum cutting speed of 750mm/second (850mm/sec when moving).
New for Fespa 2019 will be the Genesis-Z cutting table, which White says “is a culmination of all the features available in the Blackman & White range, boosted with higher speed and accuracy than ever before.” It’s available as a conveyorised or flatbed table in a range of sizes, that will cut interchangeably with laser, router or knife. New features include a Safety Fence system for operator safety and ViZeo, a new registration mark scanning system. The established Genesis-V table will also be demonstrated the show.
“Also at Fespa we will be introducing the automated unwind machine, which enables fast and accurate single-ply textile roll processing with direct threading of the material into the automatic cutter with uncompromising safety,” says White. This can synchronise directly with both Genesis machines and is key to high-volume textiles processing.
There’s a wide choice of cutting knife tools, including electric oscillating knives for thin materials such as paper, air oscillating for foams and rubbers, a ‘Thru Cut’ drag knife for fast single-pass cuts, and an electric rotary cutting wheel for textiles. A kiss-cut knife can be used on self-adhesive vinyls, to leave the backing layer intact, while a V-cut tool allows angled cutting of foam and fibreboard that can be folded into POS displays. For creasing there is a choice of wheels for different channel types.
Lasers for the Genesis and MasterCut models can be 100W or 200W outputs, and are primarily intended for cutting textiles or polishing the edges of cut acrylics.
The router option for Genesis and MasterCut is a 2.5kW spindle model intended for rigid materials which require contouring, pocketing and grooving. It can work with camera registration for printed media.
In all models the machine’s PC controller takes artwork files including PDFs with cutting and creasing layers. Third-party software from companies such as Esko or Hybrid Software can generate output files suited to the Blackman & White cutters (actually most RIPs are suitable, says White). “The software recognises layers automatically and therefore the correct tools can be assigned to the layers easily,” says White. “Within the front-end software there is functionality which allows for step-and-repeat. Nesting is done at the pre-press stage.”
Information can also be fed back to costing systems, White says: “There are software packages that we can supply, which provide costing information at the quotation phase of an enquiry or full-blown packages which control all aspects of production including costs.”
Some 50% of Blackman & White’s production is exported. Brexit uncertainty isn’t worrying to White, he says: “Opportunities for exports continue to be strong, with continued interest from customers globally. The feedback from our overseas enquiries continues to be positive, with little concern about the impact of Brexit.”
So, what’s next? Looking to the future, White says: “Watch this space. We are always innovating and have some very exciting projects launching soon!”
The current Genesis-V is the company’s star, says White, who claims it is the most versatile cutting system on the market.