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Cutting Plotters

Can they survive in a digital world?




Long ago, when we first entered the sign business, our initial purchases were CorelDRAW and a 15-in., sprocket-feed cutting plotter, which allowed us to design and cut adhesive vinyl and make (and sell) signs and banners. Today, roll-media cutting plotters, aka vinyl cutters, may not first appear practical to contemporary signmakers, especially when compared to the capabilities of digital print machines; therefore, some may believe cutting plotters have little use in a modern signshop. After all, many digital printers include integral cutters.

That said, signmakers should consider the various advantages offered by a standalone cutter, as well as the reality of signshop workflow. For example, if you have a digital printer/cutter and a work order calls for cutting and lamination, the printed image must be removed from the printer, dried (according to the ink maker’s specifications), laminated and then reloaded into the printer-cutter for the contour cut work. Thus, if lamination is involved, it adds extra handling to the process. In addition, your digital print machine is unable to print jobs while it is cutting, so a machine production time/profit dynamic comes into play.

Cutting plotters will also handle tasks that a sophisticated integral cutter shouldn’t. For example, cutting plotters can be used for cutting vinyl signs or paint masks. You can cut vinyl door, window and truck signage (or back window stickers for soccer moms) and add or change copy details on a digitally printed sign or banner instead of reprinting it. You might also consider garment imaging because dye-sublimation or other transfer media can be pattern cut on a plotter. Further, cutting plotters are offered in widths up to 72 in., so matching most sign or print sizes is seldom an issue.


In general, you have two buying choices – tangential or drag-knife systems – and both can be loaded with options. In most systems, a drag knife works fine until you’re required to cut extra-fine details, especially in thicker materials. Thick media or filigree-type cut applications may require tangential knife systems because the blade lifts and turns to face each programmed direction, which bypasses any corner-turn friction a drag knife may encounter. Such machines may also include a drag-knife selection, which is an acceptable choice for everyday operations. A tangential emulation cutting system doesn’t lift the blade, but instead programs it to turn just ahead of the cut, which reduces friction at that point.

Adding a true tangential knife will increase the overall machine price, but also allow you to complete (and charge for) more sophisticated cuts and finishing. If the tangential machine is built with the required downforce, you can also cut reflective vinyl or sandblast media. Blade downforce is measured in grams, while cutting speed is measured from the diagonal blade movement, because this quantity includes the media-advance motor action, which, coupled with the lateral blade movement, provides the fastest speed reading. Also, know that cutting plotters do not cut in curves; instead, they cut a series of miniature straight lines that appear to be curves.

If possible, add an optical sensing system that causes the blade to accurately follow the cut data from the original design settings. For example, an optics technology for registration-mark recognition.


Finally, consider a plotter that accepts various pen holders for marking on paper, which allows the machine to plot shop drawings, install patterns and neon-bend patterns.

Obviously, in addition to being a shop aid, a cutting plotter can become a profit center.



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