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Die, Route or Finish?

Cutout signage can expand retail and tradeshow sales.



“Highly beneficial, these [retail] signs facilitate 80% of purchase decisions made in store at the time of sale. They are vital to persuading customers to take the plunge and make a purchase. A point-of-purchase sign or display from Signarama is an attractive – essentially silent, salesperson – that helps sell products and drive up sales.”
– Maggie Harlow, Signarama Downtown, Louisville, KY

Digital die cutting? Although the term often comes up in machine marketing chatter, today, the term “die cutting” is often misunderstood. For the record, Webster’s, a valid resource, says a “die,” in machine terms, is any of various tools or devices for imparting a desired shape, form or finish to a material. Notice it said a desired shape, connoting a singular apparatus, such as a cookie cutter for making bunny characters. Initially, die-cutting processes were used to shear low-density materials, with the first machine processes supposedly applied to cutting shoe leather pieces. Today, a die-cutting machine comprises a hydraulic-type press system that downwardly drives sharp-edged steel “dies” (again, think cookie cutters, but heavy-duty) to shear prefigured cutouts or imprints in softer materials (gaskets or soft metals). Although practical, these devices are not comparable to computer-based cutting routers or finishing machines – or a wide-format printer that includes a digital cutting device, but ad writers often confuse terms and systems, which can perplex a machine-knowledgeable buyer. So, to clarify, a die cutter is a dumb (one function) production machine that, once fitted with a steel die (you can change them out), shear-cuts the same pattern in a substrate – head gaskets for a Chevy 350 ci engine, for example – over and over and over again. 

A digitally programmed, spindle-equipped flatbed or roll-to-roll cutting device, aka a router and/or digital “finisher,” when suitably equipped with a high-speed spindle and bit or laser-cutting device can be programmed to continuous-line cut any shape or shapes multiple times. (Many routers are equipped with a Z axis for vertical lift that can produce bevel cuts). 

Contrast the two – routers and finishers – as if you were comparing a Toronto Maple Leafs goalie to a champion figure skater. Both have a skill, but it takes less than a minute watching to understand the difference. Therefore, if you’re fabricating and selling gaskets, beer glass coasters or die scores for Cheerios boxes, go for a die-cut shearing system; if you’re cutting channel letter faces, push-through or dimensional tea-shop signs, go for the router. But if your shop is inclined to digitally print and cut retail and tradeshow displays ad artwork – tire-sized cutouts of jelly donuts, for example – you’ll want a flatbed finisher. 



The need for digital print “finishing” developed alongside digital print machines, especially the flatbed ones, because printmakers soon discovered the greater profits from selling the aforementioned digitally printed cutout standups. 


In a straightforward view, flatbed finishing cutters are light-duty cutting routers, and many manufacturers offer machines that will both cut and route. Primarily, many finishing machines are enormously similar to cutting routers and vice versa. In some cases, either can be equipped with spindle options that can govern a collet-mounted bit to cut metal, wood, rubber, fiber, cloth, paperboard, plastic, foam, sheet metal and other materials, including, of course, digitally printed cutout signage. Standups. The machine similarity is due to like components and buyer needs, plus finishing machines are often fabricated by the same companies that build and sell cutting routers.

Each type comprises a table, gantry, spindle driver, collett, cutting tool(s), drive motors and tracking systems, and, hopefully, an onboard computer and digital feedback-control system. Your choices and options determine the type of work a machine should accomplish. For example, some finishing machines won’t cut soft metals, but will cut soft materials much faster than an ordinary router. Thus, your buying decision is based on the type and volume of work you plan to process. Let’s take one: Computerized Cutters’ Accu-Cut XP series routers are designed to cut material in two or three dimensions – X, Y; or X, Y and Z axes – and feature a virtual controller, an operator-control pendant, an auto tool-depth setter and a square rail system. Optional t-slot and vacuum hold-down systems are worthwhile, as is the auto tool changer. My favorite asset is that you can view the tool path as the part is being cut. Will it finish cut? Sure, because to some extent, all routers can finish cut – some better than others – depending upon your choice of machine type and spindle motor, and your production needs.

As an example, because many choices are available, Esko’s Kongsberg X cutting tables feature its MultiCUT-HP tool that is equipped with a 3kw high-speed, water-cooled milling spindle that’s designed for extended duty cycles. It’s suited for cutting such materials as Plexiglas, acrylic, plastics, corrugated plastic, paper, labels, textiles, vinyl, vinyl banners, car wraps, foam board, rigid paperboard, fluted-core board, wood, aluminum-composite material, aluminum, MDF and more. Obviously, such a machine is suitable for regular signshop use and, in addition, it will production-cut standups and similar objects. Esko and many other manufacturers also offer similar and lighter machines. 

In addition, note that several companies sell digital printer/cutters, such as Roland’s TrueVIS VG and SG Series printer/cutters, that digitally print and also contour cut various materials, including adhesive-backed vinyl, which can be applied as decals, individual sign letters, channel letter face outlines, partial car wraps – or installed on pre-cut media. 


Laser cutters can accomplish such unique work as smooth-edge cutting of Plexiglas – and they are versatile. Trotec Laser, for example, says its variously sized flatbed laser cutters will cut acrylic, foam, polystyrene, wood, MDF, Plexiglas, corrugated cardboard, polycarbonate film, textiles and – get this – carpet.

I’ve yet to see a sign cut from carpet, although I have seen digitally printed carpets at Walmart, ones with printed snapshots of pit bulls and poodles. 



To review the standup (aka cutouts) market, I visited Lane Pence, owner of FastSigns on Cincinnati’s Highland Avenue and found his shop stocked with cutout display samples; thus, I expected to hear him describe his digital finishing machine. Instead, I learned how his employee, Dave, is skilled at hand-cutting such signage. In addition, Lane spoke of his relationship with other signshops, and of a local woodshop that owns a cutting router, and how he subcontracts to such small businesses for jobs he prefers not to process. (This practice suggests that one regional signshop could buy a finisher and actively recruit digital print and cutout work from other shops.) Pence’s shop is nicely located in a retail area that’s near a light industrial zone, which gives him a good customer base as well as different types of fabricators who both buy signs and can provide unique services. 


I had a similar conversation with Travis Neal at Signarama Carmel, in Carmel, IN, who said his shop hand cuts any cutout orders, including one they fabricated for the Indianapolis Park Department’s “Orchard in Bloom” garden show that featured standup cutouts of 1940s’ Hollywood-type images and lettering.



In my opinion, if you’re production-processing finishing work, i.e., cutting out prints that are digitally imaged on lightweight rigid material, your primary decision concerns the cutting method – drag knife, tangential-knife cutting or spindle-based bit cutting – with the latter, along with laser systems, being the preferred method. A sharp bit running at super-high speeds cuts nicely. Next, of course, are table size and cutting speed, followed by the computer control systems (you’ll want correction feedback), safety factors and machine build. In use, finishing machines and routers are subjected to various forces, and unless the basic framework and the gantry are strong, the machine will eventually weaken, and this affects the cutting accuracy. 

As with cutting routers and flatbed printers, a flatbed finishing device requires a steady table, a mirror-flat table top, a stable gantry and precise positioning of all the moving components. Gantry efficacy is affected by the span flexing, and the weight and torque of the spindle motor, plus gantry height and table weight support are important if you plan to cut more than flat or stacked images. You’ll also find different types of drive systems as well as diverse views for holding your material in place as cutting takes place. 


Before buying, I recommend you inspect all parts of the unit. Crawl underneath to see if the table is solidly constructed and have the seller remove any cowlings, so you can see the welds and drive units. You want to see aircraft-quality fabrication methods, e.g., a solid table, quality motors and drive systems, and no loose-fitting parts or weld splatters. Over time, design weaknesses affect the machine’s tolerances and increase its aptitude for skewing. You don’t want that.



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