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Lasers Aren't Just for Acrylics Anymore

Lasers do a great job of cutting acrylic with highly polished edges in one pass, far better than it can be "cut" by routers. Not everybody knows, however, that they also can do a fantastic job with most of the traditional materials used in today's printing world. In fact, using the latest laser technology, solutions abound that change the speed barriers normally associated with cutting and finishing of printed graphics using what have been the fastest of the available knife cutting/router systems.

By Steve P. Aranoff, Founder and Principal, ARTTEX Associates

The advantages of the laser cutter were so superior that knife cut samples would not be able to give their customers the proper look and feel to make decisions for fairly large product runs being considered.

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  • One Company's Journey
    Imagination Trends, a pioneering printer in DeForest, Wisconsin, had the need for a combination of very high-speed cutting for large jobs under contract with major distribution outlets, coupled with the need to do a large number of samples quickly. They also wanted to be able to prototype packaging for the end consumer products they were producing as well as produce a small amount of corrugated packaging for sample runs. And so, the search began for a multi-function machine that could do both.

    At first, the only solution to the sample making and prototyping was a traditional knife-cutting and creasing system. Such systems are routinely used for the finishing of specialty printed graphics and for short-run packaging. However, for the production work, the company felt that these machines were far too slow, and in turn started looking toward a high-speed, galvanometer-based laser solution that wasn't too expensive.

    Although many screen printers routinely use high-end cutters for doing similar kiss-cutting and through-cutting, what is different here is that the final products are to be used solely by children. The quality of cut really matters as stubby fingers impatiently have trouble pulling moderately small kiss-cut characters (think Disney, Universal, Marvel, Sesame Street and other similar copyrighted characters that could be played with on a wall display, for example). The typical material used for these characters is a two-millimeter polypropylene that is static cling held to a backer. The characters are kiss-cut from this material and are then "applied" typically by a child to a separate kiss cut scene that may be attached to a wall. So, the cutter also is required to kiss-cut and through-cut an adhesive backed "plastic" pre-printed sheet for the wall mounting that may be typically 28 inches by 40 inches in size and to also kiss-cut and through-cut the static cling material for the "applied" characters.

    Testing the Waters
    When testing the concept with a number of the top-of-the-line knife cutting systems, two issues became apparent. First, the knife was continually dirtied by the adhesive sticking to it requiring far too many knife changes, slowing down production and requiring more cost than warranted. Secondly, and more importantly, the knife systems tended to float out of the "groove" being cut, so that there were sections of characters that were not being kiss-cut through. In testing the finished goods with two different top-of-the-line cutting systems, significant tearing of the characters occurred. On one system, every third or fourth character tore as it was pulled out of the sheet, and on the second system every fifth character suffered the same fate.

    When the same jobs were run on a flatbed laser system, 100 percent of the characters could be pulled out without tearing. It also became obvious that the laser was capable of being run with a wider cut, making it easier for the stubby fingers to easily find the cut lines and pull out the characters than was the case even where the kiss cutting was fully acceptable. The discussion at this point was that:

    • The knife systems might be able to run more slowly and would still give Imagination Trends the full set of prototyping tools that they needed.
    • A high speed galvanometer-based laser solution would be able to give them the quality and through put need for production quantities of the retail products, but it would be to busy to handle all of the prototyping and other testing that might come along.

    Although Imagination Trends was sure of these decisions through its pre-purchase prototyping efforts, they became concerned about doing prototyping on one kind of system and their production on another. The advantages of the laser cutter were so superior that knife cut samples would not be able to give their customers the proper look and feel to make decisions for fairly large product runs being considered.

    Sign Elements Vehicle Templates

    Finding the Perfect Match
    At the 2010 SGIA Expo, Imagination Trends visited a laser solution supplier, which listened intensely to the company's product needs and formulated an approach that utilized:

    • A gantry-based CO2 laser with a 6x10-foot flatbed cutting area and a floating head to keep it at a constant distance from the material, and outfitted with the i-cut® Vision system to produce the most accurate cut-to-print accuracy for the prototyping.
    • A high-speed three-axis galvo-based solution, with a 30-inch by 40-inch cutting area to handle the production requirements. The galvo system runs up to 10 times the speed of the knife-cutting systems in full production mode, making it a highly effective production solution.

    Imagination Trends reports that its first flatbed prototyping system not only has operated as they had anticipated, but they have become enamored with other capabilities that they hadn't even dreamed about when their search started. As a start-up company, there are now roughly 200 distinct products being manufactured using the two-millimeter polypropylene, however, they haven't yet developed the single product that will drive their long-term growth. Therefore, flexibility of the prototyping capability is their key to success. Since getting the system, they have found that:

    • It helps with preparing for final production as their customers keep tweaking the product needs right up until the last minute. Armed with an Oce Arizona wide-format printer and the Vytek LStar cutter they can handle just about anything - quickly.
    • Many more uses for the laser have been found as they prototype more and more products, including paper and cardboard that cut without any burning, and non PVC-based rigid materials can be cleanly cut, including Coroplast, which is really nasty to cut with either a knife blade or router bit.
    • New product opportunities that include the laser's ability to etch (engrave) high-resolution images on a multitude of surfaces from leather to wood to acrylic to stone and tiles.

    Given their success so far with the new printer and laser cutter/etcher, Imagination Trends is looking forward to their next round of capital and the purchase of full production capabilities for both printing and cutting.

    Since they haven't acquired the new three-axis galvo cutter yet, I'd like to introduce a close but somewhat different application for a similar system to which Imagination Trends plans to buy and demonstrate what can be done with galvo systems. Take a look at Figure 2, which is a copy of a stencil outline that was tested and is considered a very complex cut pattern for a specialty graphic. If cut on a traditional high-end cutter, this stencil would probably take about six to eight minutes, estimated by the new CUT-Estimator™1 software that accurately estimates without having to run the finishing system if it had rounded edges on the "petals" or up to 50 minutes if the edges are true points as this would require a physical lift and turn on the cutting blade, a time consuming process.

    Stephen P. Aranoff is Founder and Principal of ARTTEX Associates. He has more than 30 years experience in the development and profitable distribution of printing/digital imaging market products, emphasizing marketplace convergence. ARTTEX provides business, marketing and sales strategy and implementation consulting to both large and small client companies, including bringing offshore products to the domestic market.

    1 CUT-Estimator is a new software product that can accurately estimate the time it will take to produce a finished specialty graphic on almost any kind of cutting system, from knife cutter to router to laser. It is able to do this even before the exact shape is printed. This is important as many print and cut jobs must be quoted before the print is completed and inaccurate quoting of finishing can make the difference between making a profit on a job or losing money and ending up with unhappy customers.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September/October 2011 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2011 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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