Laser Cutting: Expanding the Wide-Format Opportunity
There are many attributes that make wide-format printing stand out from other print segments. It is perhaps its diversity — of materials, of end products, of markets it enhances — that defines it most. This diversity is enabled by wide-format inkjet technology, but it is driven by the materials and the finishing technologies used to transform print into product.
Cutting technologies have become essential to wide-format production and systems that don’t become production bottlenecks that possess the strongest ingredient for success. "Laser cutting systems, can cut faster, in more shapes, and can add embellishments to production that a knife-based cutters just can’t do," says Steve Leibin, president of Matik, US distributor for SEI Laser. "It also offers individualization and speed-to-market.” SEI Laser, supplied by Matik, has several models that fit the specific needs of the wide-format space.
As wide-format inkjet devices have developed greater capacity, allowing graphics producers to do more, it has become imperative that finishing technologies keep up. Leibin says that depending on the complexity of the job, laser cutting is up to 40% to 50% faster than knife-based systems, and, as a non-contact technology, requires less routine maintenance. Further, users of laser systems experience less down-time.
Laser systems can cut a larger variety of shapes, and more quickly, than knife-based systems. "Laser can handle anything you can think of," says Leibin. "We can handle all kinds of intricate designs, including inner and outer components of shapes.” Also, laser systems can cut complex shapes — which adds the ability for producers to deliver brand-defining, creativity-driven signs and graphics at production speed.
In addition to fast, accurate cutting, laser systems can handle a broad range of substrates including many plastics, acrylic, steel, wood, and a wide variety of fabrics. In doing so, these systems enable graphics producers to expand the number of materials they can offer their customers and to cut those materials on a single system.
Benefits of Embellishment
While laser systems excel at cutting, their capabilities don’t end there. They are also widely used for surface embellishment, which can serve both decorative and functional purposes. For instance, laser systems are used in the sign-making space for “dot etching,” an embellishment effect for acrylic panels that promotes light dispersion for LED backlit signs. “The benefit,” says Leibin, “is much more even light across the display, without light or dark spots. This becomes really important with custom shapes.” Bringing dot etching capabilities in-house, instead of purchasing etched panels from outside vendors, can save producers time and money, and improve speed to market.
For decorative embellishment, Leibin says, "Laser systems are currently being used to create textures on gunstocks, faster, with much greater flexibility. A different texture just means a different file. Embellishment can be done for production, but also for personalization."
Laser systems are used in denim production to mark or distress the fabric, giving a worn-in look. “Every pair of jeans can be different,” he says. Smaller scale units are used in the promotional products space to add branding or customization, for instance, to metal lighters and glass beer mugs.
For graphics producers looking to use laser to expand their capabilities and maximize speed in finishing, Liebin says a few key considerations should be made before sourcing a machine. They include: how can laser technology improve the production process? “They should look into what it can add, not just what it can replace.” He also asks what capabilities a company is looking for: “If they’re looking to grow their business, what solutions do they want to provide.” Another consideration is whether they’re seeking to differentiate or offer more. “Laser delivers the capability to diversify 110%,” he says. Addressing a common production challenge, he asks, “What are the bottlenecks in the business?” If it’s in finishing, laser may be the solution.
Cost-wise, Liebin says laser systems are comparable in price to knife-based systems. That said, they offer greater capacity and substrate diversity, along with embellishment capability. "While many of the producers of knife-based systems are adding lasers alongside knives on some of their machines, they don’t have laser experience, and the associated software and control systems must be appropriately done.” He adds that while a hybrid system may offer improved flexibility, it may not deliver improved throughput.
Liebin says the learning curve for companies new to laser cutting is relatively short. “From installation to full production takes about a week. To really become proficient — that takes time, like with any new machine.” The learning curve, he says, must also extend to sales teams, who need to fully understand the capabilities — whether for cutting or embellishment — of the system and sell with that in mind, thus maximizing the investment.
For more information on how laser cutting can transform your business, visit matik.com.