Sci-fi finishing kit delivers productivity gains for some


Lasers have long been a staple of science fiction. Whether it’s Darth Vader ordering the destruction of the planet Alderaan from his giant orbitting Death Star or James Bond and the US ‘Space Marines’ doing battle with the minions of bio-haz terrorist Hugo Drax in Moonraker, lasers are depicted as high-power weapons capable of cutting through entire planets if needs be.

Is any of this getting close to becoming science fact? No, of course not. And, sci-fi aside, it turns out that lasers just aren’t suitable for a lot of cutting applications in print either. At least, not yet. This is despite an interest from printers, which seems to owe more to a Bond-like love of gadgets than a real need.

“A lot of customers ask about laser cutting but when you analyse how much of their work would benefit it’s minimal,” says Zünd product manager Lars Bendixen. “For cutting PVC with lasers you need an extraction system because of the toxic gases produced. Another reason for removing those gases is that they can cause the cutter itself to deteriorate. For paper-based materials you get browning on the edges. If you exclude PVC and paper-based materials then there’s not much left. 

“Typical customers in the sign and display market want one machine for everything and here the laser has some limitations.”

Bendixen says that lasers have their place, and Zünd has an agreement with German firm Eurolaser, which uses Zünd bases and adds laser technology. Eurolaser machines also offer mechanical cutting.

Bendixen says: “But a Eurolaser product is built like a laser and has some limitations when it comes to mechanical cutting that make it a less attractive solution for the sign and display customer.”

Essex-based Blackman & White (B&W) believes it has cracked the problem of combining laser and mechanical cutting on one machine with its Mastercut 2200. This device was developed specifically to meet the needs of soft signage firms – Service Graphics was one of its first customers.

Managing director Alex White accepts that combining two cutting technologies is not a simple task.

“You need two very different cutting surfaces for each type of technology and they have to be simple to change over,” he says. “We developed a special material for the laser and we have a woven felt for the knife cutting and routing.”

Using a CO2 laser, which works in the infrared spectrum, B&W claims to be able to laser cut materials that rivals argue would brown or burn.

“We laser cut paper, card, acrylics and Perspex,” says White. “We can’t laser Foamex or PVC because they do brown.”

Material gains

The principal applications for laser cutting are textiles and acrylics, where it improves productivity in different ways. Acrylic is never going to be cut especially fast, however, on the plus side the finish is almost as good as a flame polished edge, so eliminates an additional process. At the other extreme the high speed of laser is invaluable for soft signage. 

“We’re seeing more and more companies getting into lower margin higher volume applications who need 200m2/hr productivity from their cutters,” says White.

B&W is one of the new entrants to the market that are moving it beyond a two-horse race between Esko Kongsberg and Zünd. It and Italian firm Elitron bring expertise from other sectors to the graphics market. B&W combined the founder’s engineering expertise and passion for sailing to produce a machine for laser cutting sails back in the 1980s, which developed into a range of textile markets including garment, home interior, automotive and aerospace, and now graphics. Elitron, which has 2,500 machines worldwide, has its background in cutting leather, one application being cutting the seats and interiors for Maserati and Ferrari.

“Funnily enough there’s a queue of printers who want to see that application,” quips Allan Ashman, managing director of UK dealer Atech.

Agfa, which uses Elitron hardware for its first foray into cutting, the Acorta, has a different reason for getting involved – it wants to be a one-stop shop for printers. 

“We have the ability to sell printers, finishing, inks, media, service & support and financing,” says Agfa UK inkjet marketing and channel manager Steve Collins.

As well as more competition, cutting vendors face new demands from the market, which are shaping developments.

“We just did a big study with our customers and found it’s all about productivity, meeting deadlines and avoiding mistakes,” says Bendixen. “They want the cutter to run unattended. Partly that’s to do with labour costs but it’s more to do with dependability and being able to run into the evening or overnight to deliver in short lead times. There is still the margin to pay for an operator but it’s hard to find people at short notice to get the job done.”

Relieving pressure

Firms are addressing this chiefly in two ways: firstly by increasing the automation of media handling, and then integrating cutting with other workflow functions more closely. Both take the pressure off the operator to enable them to focus on getting as much through the cutter as possible.

“As presses become more productive, the demand on finishing is for increased productivity, uptime, speed and throughput,” says Esko director of corporate marketing Jef Stoffels, “Our solution is the i-Cut Production Console (iPC), a front-end operating system for all Kongsberg digital finishing systems. The iPC makes the operator’s job more intuitive, and results in less setup time while preventing errors.”

Agfa is applying its workflow automation expertise to wide-format cutting. The skills developed with its commercial print workflow Apogee are now available for wide-format in Asanti, which drives the Acorta. 

“It’s one click to create the job for both finishing and printing, thus increasing overall productivity,” says Collins. “We have just launched Acorta and already see opportunities to enhance the workflow such as automated nesting to improve productivity. 

Zünd recently added the ability to create and read QR codes to Cut Center. It may not sound like much but it enables a new level of automation. Until now the operator needed to read a barcode with a handheld scanner. 

“A barcode at the resolution of wide-format print is too long to be read by the vision system camera,” says Bendixen. “By replacing it with a QR code, which can be read by the camera that picks up register marks, it can be read automatically and open up the right job settings.” 

Another new feature is automated tool change.

“Materials all need different bits,” says Bendixen. “The immediate advantage appears to be speed but a bigger benefit is managing the bits better. By monitoring usage we can identify when a bit should be replaced.”

While printing is predictable, taking the same time per sheet at a given quality, there is far more variability in the time to cut, separate and stack items depending on the number of items, cuts and their complexity and the materials used. Automating unloading can save huge amounts of operator time and free them up for other tasks. Bendixen argues that automating this process can be far more beneficial than loading, which takes a fraction of the total time and is more predictable – like printing.

At Fespa Zünd will be showing a robot arm controlled via the QR code, stacking finished items in a variety of ways, for example, a set of graphics for despatch to one location or ganged up work stacked by job. The cost of the robot – a commercially available system – is €30,000-€40,000. 

Elitron takes automation a stage further with the TAV – as used by Simpson group featured in the case study. Fundamentally the aim is the same, saving operator time, but the TAV does automate loading from a pallet feeder. After cutting and creasing a suction head takes the sheets off the bed and loads them precisely in the stacker. 

“Weeding the pile is really quick because the stack is precise and the way the waste is cut to help the operator, potentially saving 70% of the time usually taken,” says Ashman.

While lasers look unlikely to zap rival technologies in the world of wide-format, cutting, vendors have found other ways of eliminating manpower. Albeit in a more benign way that focuses on cutting out tedious tasks rather destroying planets. 


Case study: Simpson Group

Washington, Tyne & Wear-based Simpson Group recently upgraded its digital finishing operation as part of a £1.5m investment. On the finishing side it replaced an aging Esko Kongsberg DCM with an Elitron Kombo TAV+ 500 and a Crest 3200 X-Y RSC cutter, which were supplied by Atech.

“We saw an Elitron with two cutting heads, offering the potential to cut twice as fast,” says chairman Mark Simpson.” In fact it’s three times faster than the machine it replaced and completely automatic. The way it takes the cut sheets and cuts the waste massively reduces labour as its much easier to strip and weed.”

The Elitron can handle runs of 400-500 allowing the firm to take work off its die-cutters, saving the cost of making the dies, which for a two or three-part FSDU could be £1,000, in addition to eliminating the time needed to send out for a die to be made. It also reduces waste.

“Setting up a die-cutter doesn’t produce the hundreds of waste sheets that getting a litho press running is likely to, but it can still be 15-20, compared to one on the digital cutter,” says Simpson. “On a run of a couple of hundred, it’s 10%-20%. That’s a substantial saving, especially with expensive substrates.”

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