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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Laser vs. Rotary Die Cutting

I watched a video recently on YouTube. It showed a laser cutting machine producing a series of “kiss-cut” labels and then winding up the roll of labels while removing the scrap, or waste. I felt like it was the mid-’60s again and I was watching the original Star Trek TV show. The laser really has come of age.

First of all, a point of information. “Kiss-cutting” is cutting through the matte label stock while leaving the backing paper intact. To do this with a laser, which essentially burns rather than cuts the substrate, is impressive.

The YouTube Laser Cutting Video

Here’s a short description of the video, which can be found online. (I’m sure a number of laser cutting manufacturers have their own version.) First, a wide roll of preprinted labels unwound through tension rollers into a glass-covered tower in which a laser darted across the printed press sheet to trace the outline of all of the labels. You could see the bright flame as the laser burned through the paper stock, while a vacuum immediately pulled the smoke and paper dust out of the enclosure. (For the video, the cover of the laser console had been removed so you could see exactly how the laser worked.)

As the web of litho paper left the laser enclosure, it passed through more rollers, which removed the unprinted waste paper surrounding the series of labels. The rollers then wound up the web of paper onto the take-up reel.

I encourage you to find this or any other video demonstrating laser cutting. It’s really rather impressive.

Old and New Die-Cutting Processes

Prior to the advent of laser cutting, printers used rotary dies or dies on flatbed letterpresses. Metal rules inserted into wood on one side of the die cutter punched through the paper substrate and came to rest on the wood or metal beneath the paper. Then the waste material (anything not needed) was removed.

You could make anything from pocket folders to business cards to wine bottle labels this way. However, it took time and cost money to make the metal dies. Therefore, you couldn’t economically make a die for a single prototype. It was only cost-effective for long print runs of die-cut products.

Then, with the coming of laser cutting, commercial printing vendors could use digital data controlling a laser beam to cut anywhere from one copy to an unlimited number of copies of their finished product. Since laser cutting didn’t require metal dies, there was no need to pay for the dies, wait for them to be made by specialists, and store them carefully after their use.

Laser or Rotary Die Cutting: The Pros and Cons of Each

As with TV and radio, the advent of laser cutting has become more of an issue of options. Rotary dies are still used, and they offer benefits lasers do not. Here’s a rundown of when to use one vs. the other:

    1. Lasers can cut intricate patterns. Metal rotary dies cannot. So if you are die cutting a snowflake into a business card, for instance, you would want to use a laser.


    1. Lasers can cost-effectively cut one product, since no money goes into making the die. Therefore, if you want to produce a prototype of a fancy cologne carton with die cuts, laser cutting would be the technology of choice. If you then want to roll out a huge run of the same cologne carton, rotary die cutting might be advisable, since it is much faster than laser cutting. And at that point, you can spread the cost of the metal die across the entire press run.


    1. Speed to market is usually important for new products. If this is the case, a laser cut job is ideal because there’s no wait time for a die maker to create a die for a rotary press or flatbed press.


    1. Lasers don’t get dull like metal cutting rules. If you’re using metal rotary dies, they will eventually get dull and need to be replaced. This takes time and costs money. Laser cutting avoids this problem.


    1. Lasers are slower than rotary die cutting, particularly when cutting thick material. Thick paper (or any other substrate) slows down a laser cutter but has no effect on the metal dies of rotary or flatbed die cutting.


    1. If you’re using a laser cutter for 100 different cutting patterns, there’s no storage space, since the die specifications exist only in digital form on a computer. On the other hand, if you’re doing rotary die cutting and then storing 100 dies, you will need extra storage space to keep them safe and sharp.


    1. Not only the crafting of metal dies but also their use on rotary or flatbed presses requires skilled labor. In contrast, once you know how to use a laser cutter, the overall operation of the equipment is easier than rotary die cutting since it requires far less hand work.


    1. Laser cutting equipment costs much more to buy than rotary die-cutting equipment.


  1. Laser cutting equipment can be set up and then reconfigured for a new job far more quickly than rotary die-cutting equipment.

So a quick answer to the question of which to use is probably both: laser for prototypes and short runs where making quick changes is necessary, and rotary or flatbed (traditional metal die cutting) when the substrate is hard to cut and/or when you have a long run of die cutting to do. Ideally you would have access to both technologies.

Another Option: A Knife Plotter

I failed to mention one other option I have come across, which incorporates both metal cutting tools and the digital information of laser cutting. The machine is called a “knife plotter,” and some large format inkjet presses are configured with such a tool.

Basically a vertically held knife handle travels around a sheet of vinyl (above the preprinted labels, for instance), using digital information from the computer to precisely trace the perimeter of each label. Then the operator can peel off the scrap, leaving the “kiss-cut” printed label on the backing sheet.

The plotters I have seen online (Mimaki makes some of these) are small, slower than metal rule die cutting, but ideal for a small run produced by a small shop. In fact, it would be ideal for a commercial printing vendor who doesn’t want to commit to full-fledged rotary die cutting, has short-run jobs, and doesn’t want to subcontract the work.

Implications for the Custom Printing Trade

All of these options actually say a lot about the state of commercial printing, specifically:

    1. Creating labels is a large and quickly growing component of the world of custom printing. It’s big business, and there’s ever-increasing demand. Otherwise, manufacturers would not be scrambling to provide digital options for die cutting.


    1. The particular size of the die-cutting presses on the market (plotters and laser cutters) seems to precisely fit the requirements for label creation.


  1. It is clear that short, personalized runs are now the norm for labels, stickers, and such. The size, format, and economics of laser cutting all support the small formats, short runs, and personalization requirements of label and sticker production.

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