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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: Options for Die Cutting Work

Prologue and Background

The key word that got me thinking was “tooling.”

My client had reviewed a commercial printing estimate, and had asked what the tooling charge was for, particularly since her client had already paid the printer for the prototype. The print job was a flooring sample presentation binder that would contain 32 wood chips (.5” x 1” x 2”) to showcase the flooring product.

My client had commissioned a one-off prototype (sample of the final production run) to show exactly how the presentation binder would be constructed, how the sample blocks of wood would be inset and glued into the die cut “wells,” and how the overall design/decoration would be applied to the box. It was sort of a proof, but actually more than a proof (an almost-exact copy of what her client, the flooring company, could expect).

So I confirmed with the printer that the “tooling” was, as I had expected, the creation of the metal die that would die cut the product sample wells and any other intricate elements of the presentation binder of sample wood chips.

But my first thought at that point was why the metal die had not been billed along with the prototype of the sample box. Then I realized this was a silly question. Here’s why.

How Do You Die Cut a One-Off Product?

Die cutting chops irregular shapes out of custom printing paper on a special press. The process involves setting metal rules into a wood base locked up in a letterpress, then laying a printed press sheet over the cutting die, and then cutting out the shapes (and removing the waste).

(A letterpress is a “relief press” in which type and art rise above the surface of the custom printing plate. This is in contrast to an offset lithographic press, in which both the inked surface of the plate–the image areas–and the uninked areas–non-image areas–are on the same level of the plate. The inability of greasy ink and water to mix, called “immiscibility,” makes offset lithography work by keeping the image areas separate from the non-image areas.)

In contrast, letterpress is a “strike-on” process in which the raised areas of the plate hit (and deposit ink on) the paper substrate. Die cutting is much the same process, but it uses metal cutting rules instead of type and artwork on an inked plate.

To die cut anything (which would include all but square-edged exterior boundaries of a book page, for instance), you need a die. In my client’s case this includes cutting the interior wells into which the sample blocks of wood will be glued. On a pocket folder, the die cutting would include all the flaps, tabs, and extended areas that you would see if you disassembled the pocket folder into a completely flat press sheet with cut-outs.

Metal dies, which cost around $500.00 (or more) to create, are only cost-effective for producing multiple products in a print run. The dies are expensive, and the die cutting process on the letterpress is an additional expense, driving up the overall production costs even further. Only by spreading the expense over a long production run do you lower the per-unit cost.

So a press run of one copy, for my client’s prototype of the flooring sample presentation binder, would be a problem if you have to make a separate die. The extra $500.00 for the die making plus the cost of die cutting would make the single prototype cost-prohibitive.

What I Thought / What I Found Out

Having made different kinds of mock ups for jobs when I was a graphic designer, I actually realized that for a one-off product, the best way to die cut the prototype flooring sample presentation binder would be to cut it out by hand (kind of like making a balsa wood model of a boat with glue and an X-ACTO knife).

So when I was discussing the die cutting (or “tooling”) costs with the printer’s sales rep, I was pleased to find out that the die cutting process for the prototype had been automated and digitized. The sales rep sent me a link to a video in which a plotter used a knife to cut out all the irregular edges needed to prepare both the chipboard base and the paper liners for the prototype binders and boxes the printer produces.

This video focused on what looked like a large-format inkjet press. Only instead of print heads jetting ink onto the large press sheet, the automated cutting head of the machine, driven by digital information in a computer art file, zipped back and forth across the large press sheet cutting out the tabs and edges of the box (and liner).

I would also compare this machine to a “plotter” (which has a pen in place of an array of inkjet heads). The pen of the plotter can be used to draw a large-format image like an architect’s blueprint (or any other drawing) on a commercial printing press sheet.

So everything I saw on the presentation binder printer’s video demonstrated how to die cut a single box without making a $500.00+ cutting die.

So What Can You Do?

Now to go back to the initial product for my client, since both she and her client, the flooring-maker, liked the prototype, they intend to produce a final production run of 200 copies. At this point in time, this particular presentation binder maker is charging a $500.00 tooling expense, which means they are making a metal die rule, insetting it into wood, and then die cutting all of the irregular shapes for the box using a letterpress.

But for a press run of 200 copies, this is still not cost-efficient. Just for the die, for example, each unit cost goes up by $2.50. That said, for a per-unit cost of $58.00 for 100 copies or $43.00 for 200 copies, the $2.50 is not a lot of money. But it is something, and it takes extra time to make the metal die and to die cut the box blanks on a letterpress.

Enter Highcon

Now there’s a new option that requires no dies. You may want to research this company: Highcon. Highcon makes equipment that uses lasers to either score (crease commercial printing paper) or die cut it.

If you research the Highcon Euclid or Beam, you will see how digital information within a computer design file can run lasers to cut press sheets and also remove the unneeded scrap paper. (And for scoring or creasing, the equipment extrudes a line of plastic onto a plastic plate, much like a bead of hot-melt glue, that can slightly crease a printed sheet to make folding possible without a metal scoring rule.)

In both cases, this eliminates the need for a metal die. Moreover, the equipment now works with press sheets from the typical (approximately 13” x 19”) digital press size up to the larger offset printing sheet sizes (up to 30” x 42”, depending on the particular Highcon equipment model). It can even process everything from paper up to cardboard and even fluted, corrugated stock.

What this means is that it’s not a toy. It can be used to cut and crease actual press sheets off an offset press as well as both smaller and larger press sheets produced on digital commercial printing equipment.

The process is fast. It reduces overall waste (i.e., it’s more environmentally friendly). It eliminates the cost and time needed to create a metal die or creasing rule. It eliminates the cost to store metal dies for future use by the clients who had initially paid to have them made. (Imagine a smaller manufacturing plant, with less staff, lower heating and cooling costs, and a lower cost to inventory the stored metal dies.)

So my overall takeaway for this article is that it’s worth your time to do some research. Highcon is the up and coming digital die cutting and scoring technology. If you need one box or presentation binder (perhaps as a prototype) or a short run of boxes or binders (maybe 200 pieces), this could be the technology for you.

Therefore, you may want to start looking for a printer with Highcon equipment, because the same process is used for die cut pocket folders, for presentation report covers with little die cut windows that allow you to see the report titles, and even for intricate folds on promotional mailers.

Interestingly enough, though, if you’re producing a long run that requires die cutting, metal cutting dies have not disappeared entirely. I believe it’s actually cheaper–for a certain print run length–to still do die cutting the old fashioned way with metal cutting dies. So ask your commercial printing provider for the optimal (price-wise) cut-off point between digital and analog die cutting.

(It’s kind of like the cut-off point between digital and offset commercial printing, or between digital inkjet and custom screen printing. Personally, for longer runs, I don’t think analog processes will ever disappear completely.)

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