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Archive for the ‘Die cutting’ Category

Custom Printing: Options for Die Cutting Work

Sunday, December 20th, 2020

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.)

Custom Printing: Laser vs. Rotary Die Cutting

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Laser cutting equipment costs much more to buy than rotary die-cutting equipment.
  9. 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.
  2. The particular size of the die-cutting presses on the market (plotters and laser cutters) seems to precisely fit the requirements for label creation.
  3. 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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