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Making the Cut

(February 2013) posted on Tue Mar 26, 2013

This article provides an overview of digital flatbed and laser cutting systems and highlights what’s available on the market.

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By the editors of Screen Printing magazine

Digital imaging in the screenmaking department and wide-format inkjet printers on the production floor have enabled graphics screen printers to enter new markets and take on a wide array of jobs profitably, including prototypes and one-off pieces. But what’s available when it comes to finishing the short-run work and handling the big job runs? Let’s take a look at digital and laser cutters, two solutions for finishing graphics printed on a vast assortment of substrates and in just about any quantity.

What are digital cutters?
Digitally controlled cutting and routing systems are available in a variety of configurations. Drum cutters, or roll-fed cutting plotters, are often best suited to kiss-cutting thin, flexible materials that have liners or backing. Self-adhesive vinyl is an example. High-end models may be equipped with optical systems for registering cutting paths to printed graphics.

Another type of digitally controlled cutter is the CNC router, which is common in the sign industry. Computer numeric control (CNC) routers are geared toward straight or three-dimensional cutting and ideally suited for use with rigid, dense, thick materials—wood, plastic, foam board, and non-ferrous metals, for example. CNC routers are typically equipped with 3- to 10-HP spindles and a wide range of collet sizes. Cut-to-print registration is mostly set manually or mechanically; optical registration may be available. Loading and unloading are also commonly manual processes. Clamping and/or vacuum systems handle for material hold-down.

CNC routing involves removing material along a cut path as wide as the router bit being used. The process can be somewhat slow, and it produces quite a bit of dust. Options are available for dust extraction and debris removal. Add-ons for automation include tool changers, tool calibration, misting/lubricating devices (for metal processing), and some knife attachments.

Flatbed cutters round out the category of digitally controlled systems. These cutters combine high-speed operation with several options for tooling and automated material handling. Flatbed cutters, also known as cutting tables or XY or XYZ cutters, feature a beam or gantry that moves along the X-axis (or length of the table), while the toolhead moves along the beam and covers the width of the table, or Y-axis. The Z-axis refers to tool or cutting depth.


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