The Challenging Landscape of Cutting and Routing is Shaping Wide-Format's Future
Cutting and routing equipment in the wide-format industry has gotten progressively faster and more automated. This reality, coupled with the ever-changing nature of this industry segment, can help owners and operators streamline their business systems and improve their bottom line.
Just ask Signarama franchisee, Ric Anderson, of Salt Lake City, Utah. The cutting and routing space within the wide-format industry has significantly progressed in recent years, which is impacting the way he does business.
“For our shop, we have been able to offer more dimensional signage which was just not possible several years ago,” Anderson says. “The detailing that goes into each sign has become much easier and less time consuming with new 3D software. Textures can be easily added to a sign to give it a refined look compared to a flat sign. And we are able to create more interesting and unique signs for our customers to help their businesses stand out.”
Indeed, As Tim Saul, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America explains, change is constantly afoot within the cutting and routing segment as today’s wide-format printers have made significant progress regarding quality, versatility, automation, and speed.
“From those advancements in printing technology, there is the opportunity for finishing equipment manufacturers to increase speed to market for finished graphics,” Saul says. “The bottleneck for a print service provider moved from printing to digital finishing. Many of
the manufacturers of cutting equipment have met the call for speed and application versatility.”
A Changing Space
Historically speaking, many of the changes in digital cutting have revolved around the versatility to cut a wide range of substrates. As the ink sets and printers allow for greater use with a wide variety of substrates, so must the cutting equipment.
“The biggest changes in the world of finishing cutting systems is the increase in versatility and efficiency in print and finishing/cutting equipment,” notes Gary Buck, VP, sales and marketing for Summa America. “Nowadays, it is important to meet about every cutting need you can imagine and develop versatile cutting machines, able to process a wide variety of materials, and thus address a wider range of industries.”
“Many of the changes that have taken place over the course of the past few years are related to knife and router speeds, which have seen a significant increase,” Saul says. As the variety of substrates has expanded, the tooling manufacturers have kept up with the demand for accurate, smooth cuts with the added benefit of increased cutter speed.
“Certain substrates can only be cut to an optimum level of speed. Tooling makes all the difference in how the cut is finished and presents as a final graphic to an end-user,” Saul says. Indeed, the ability to effectively manage the digital print-and-cut workflow has been an important issue that has driven this segment of the industry.
But speed and versatility aren’t the only factors driving the cutting and routing space of tomorrow. Lenny Marano, VP, product management and marketing for automation systems at Gerber Technology, points out that as the industry begins to step away from traditional signage, he’s starting to see more of a push for connectivity and automation that will allow providers to quickly deliver customized products.
“Providers need to be able to offer both flexible and rigid materials, making it important to have access to the latest cutting and routing technology,” Marano says. “In addition, with digital printers being able to produce vivid graphics for large display applications, up to 3.2m in width, the need for wide-format finishing is becoming mandatory.”
Wide-format providers also need cutting and routing solutions that are compatible with the rest of the shop in order to efficiently offer a variety of services. “With versatile solutions, providers are able to quickly and easily change from one technology to another, providing a tremendous advantage,” Marano says.
“Industry 4.0 is hot on the minds of OEMs and PSPs,” says Heather Roden, strategic account manager, Graphics/Packaging at Zünd. “While Zünd Cut Center (ZCC) has long leveraged material databases for eliminating operator trial and error, we find more and more often custom data exchange taking place between PSP homegrown MIS workflow systems and ZCC.”
Roden goes on to note that one of the single biggest trends she sees for the space is around, “how the data exchange from all of the equipment on the shop floor will allow PSPs to operate with much more sophisticated cost-estimating models, which in turn will lead to much greater profitability.”
The lower costs and faster production times associated with these cutting and routing advancements have given business owners like Anderson the ability to earn more revenue and profit opportunities with their signs.
“We have seen new suppliers of equipment enter the market and they have lowered the cost of owning equipment, making it possible for smaller shops to get into the industry,” Anderson says. “The addition of 3D software has been a game changer for my team, opening the opportunity to automate many processes for small and mid-sized shops.”
Cutting and Routing Trends to Watch
According to Chris Logan, director of product development at Esko, when considering the latest technology advancements in the sector, one of the key factors that will continue to be top of mind is versatility.
As Logan explains, historically, converters would have required an array of equipment across their shop floor to handle a range of different materials and applications — be it textile, paper-based, rigid, etc.
“But because of the advances driven by companies, many of these applications can now be handled with a single device,” Logan says. “And due to end-market trends, there has also been a significant shift of focus toward quick changeovers between different materials and throughput, which has succeeded in ensuring finishing did not become the bottleneck.”
Saul points to workflow as the key to success for automating the print and cut production. As such, there have been increases in motor, routing, and cutting speeds, but there are also advancements in X/Y motion speed of the gantries.
“To meet the quest for quicker cutting production, the size of the working table has an impact on the productivity of the cutting system as well,” Saul says. “Cutters that have on-loading and off-loading tables increase the productivity of the cutter, and minimize the downtime of conveying and reloading. There are systems that have increased the working table size, which can cut up to three 4x8-ft. boards in one convey.”
And as suppliers continue to develop new substrates to meet the demands of brands and customers, integrated solutions have to ensure that the tooling technology keeps pace. As Logan explains, this can mean anything from the development of a totally new tool, to a very focused enhancement in knife blades or router bits.
“The challenge is to meet the multiple objectives of ensuring the highest quality of cut, for the lifetime of consumables, within reasonable budget constraints,” Logan says. But that is easier said than done because the challenge of doing so is exacerbated by an influx of low-quality material on the market.
“While in some cases it may still be possible to print on lower quality boards, it is only when finishing a particular substrate that we really find out what it’s made of and suffer the consequences in terms of the final output,” Logan says.
The need will also spread to other areas of finishing. Roden notes that, “as cutting/routing processes become more automated and efficient, kitting is the area that turns into a bottleneck.” She believes solutions that integrate a range of processes will help ease some of the challenges of the future.
The continued importance and awareness of environmental issues has also led to a significant increase in demand for more environmentally-friendly materials, particularly in the sign and display segment of the market. According to Logan, customers are looking to replace oil or plastic-based materials with more sustainable, eco-friendly offerings.
Digital transformation is also hugely important, and as a global provider of integrated software solutions the team at Esko has been heartened that automation has been another driving factor in this market.
“We have seen strong adoption from some of the industry’s biggest names, and it’s now making its way across the market in general, as it delivers maximized productivity, greater accuracy, and consistency of results, while also delivering the flexibility of fast job changeovers as run lengths continue to get shorter,” Logan says.
What the Future Holds
As technology in the cutting and routing space continues to advance, experts agree that manufacturers will continue to embrace enhancements to bring forth more productive units, while also researching new methods and tools for finishing.
“Many of the latest innovations are going to allow manufacturers to produce for longer and longer run sizes,” Marano says. “The new technologies will help providers deliver the quality, speed, and versatility required to keep up the demands of longer-run, digitally printed applications.”
And as cutting and routing technologies continue to get more advanced in terms of digital processing and data capabilities, end users will be able to cut more precisely and leverage higher power tools.
“We are starting to notice the incorporation of linear motors being used in some units,” Saul says. Linear motors reduce friction, wear, and tear on parts, while increasing the speed of the traversing motion on the cutters.
According to Dylan Hoffman, engineer at Colex Finishing, the equipment on the market today is exceeding 4,000 and even 5,000 inches per minute (ipm) feed rates. This was something unheard of less than a decade ago.
“The manufacturers of the equipment are also working toward streamlining setup time by incorporating the use of a shared material library that can be accessed by a printed QR code, which will carry material, tooling, and the cut file data,” Hoffman says. “The main competition on the flatbed cutting market all offer QR code functionality. What is currently holding back this technology from becoming mainstream are the RIP software companies.”
As Hoffman explains, the majority of RIPs have yet to adopt this workflow, with Caldera being one of the first to take a chance. One by one the other RIP software companies will follow as the demand for streamlined productivity across equipment increases, he says.
One additional challenge faced by the wide-format industry is to be constantly aware of the development of new materials — which ultimately affects the routing and cutting processes. “There is also a growing argument for not only advancing deeper automation of the tables, but integrating this automation more closely across the entire shop floor,” Logan says.
And as equipment continues to improve, Anderson and his team at Signarama in Salt Lake City are constantly watching for new software options.
“In routing we are able to produce beautiful three-dimensional signage. To do so we have spent a great amount of time attending training courses and learning the functionality of various software programs,” Anderson says. “This is allowing us to stay ahead of our competitors with creativity and production. I think the future will be wide open for those who stay at the front of technology. 3D printing, lasers, and new technology are the key for our future success.”
Related story: Wide-Format Digital Conversion and its Benefits