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Technology Focus

Photoengraving options for today's graphic finishers

by Staff

August-September, 1995
The growth of foil stamping and embossing has led to paralleled growth in the demand for dies. Flat stamping dies are typically chemically etched with magnesium, copper or zinc engravers metals in a process known as photoengraving. Embossing dies are either hand or machine tooled in brass and can be photoengraved to a shallow depth. Photoengraved dies can be produced quickly for a fraction of the cost of the labor intensive hand tooled brass dies.

Traditionally, photoengraving was the method of creating letterpress printing plates until offset printing displaced the letterpress printing process. The emergence of flexography, which employs photoengraved magnesium to mold rubber flexo printing plates, expanded opportunities for photoengravers who formerly manufactured the letterpress printing plates. The latest trend of print enhancement through foil treatment and embossing has renewed interest in the art of photoengraving.

Die Making Options
Materials used for making stamping and embossing dies exhibit different characteristics which should be considered when deciding which type of die is best suited for the needs of each job. The principle materials used for die making in the graphic finishing arena are magnesium, copper, brass and zinc. It is important to note that the performance of dies is greatly influenced by the skill of the pressman, paper stock, and quality of the engraving. The following is a summary of the characteristics of each of the commonly used die making materials.

Magnesium dies are widely used throughout the foil stamping and embossing industry and they hold up well for most short-run jobs. Magnesium dies can be etched quickly, can be hand modeled, and are inexpensive. Factors to consider when selecting magnesium for foil stamping and embossing jobs are the length of the run, budget for the job, type of press to be used and the skill of the pressman running the job.

Magnesium remains the preferred engraving metal of the major greeting card companies. Magnesium dies perform well for short to medium press runs. While durability is a consideration, a skilled pressman can make magnesium dies meet the highest performance standards.

Until recently, the primary use of photoengraved copper was to manufacture engraving dies for intaglio printing of high quality stationery and marketing materials. Increased use of foil on long run jobs such as labeling for consumer goods has spurred healthy growth in sales of copper dies. Copper dies are most commonly used on large sheetfed presses engaged in long-run production. For long press runs copper is favored since economies can be realized through the number of impressions. The superior heat transfer of copper and quick heat recovery properties of this metal enable pressman to run large jobs at maximum press speeds, usually with a single makeready.

Powderless copper etching is somewhat more difficult and expensive than magnesium photoengraving. Copper photoengravers need to be highly skilled machinists to produce quality dies. Copper dies require additional machining and finishing work not required in magnesium die production.

Brass is commonly used to make high quality foil combination dies as well as sculptured and multi-level embossing dies. Brass can be hand sculptured by highly skilled engravers, routed with a pantograph working off of oversized magnesium or zinc masters, photoengraved to a shallow depth or a combination of all of the above.

Photoengraved brass is chemically etched using the labor intensive powder etching technique. The powder process has limitations as brass is not ideally suited for etching. Because of the labor involved, brass dies take longer to produce and are much more expensive than other die options.

Zinc stamping and embossing dies are still commonly used outside the U.S. The North American market prefers magnesium because of the excellent machine and etching characteristics of the metal. However, zinc does provide a low cost alternative to copper intaglio etching, although it will not produce the same high quality engraved image.

Factors to consider when sourcing dies
The skill of the engraver has a significant impact on the final results of foil stamping and embossing jobs. All dies are not created equal. Die makers use different techniques to create foil stamping and embossing dies which best suit the artwork as well as the application.

Many photoengraving shops produce both copper and magnesium dies. Skilled press operators and photoengravers can direct you toward the most appropriate metal for a particular job given the variables previously outlined.

The arrival of quick print has built new expectations into the printing industry and graphic designers, printers, and finishers are promising shorter delivery times, creating a sense of urgency in the die production process. most competitive magnesium die makers turn around a die in one to three days. Due to the longer processing times of copper dies, two to five days in production is more common. A few high volume shops ship out finished dies for overnight delivery the same day the artwork is received.

Whether the convenience of sourcing dies from a local manufacturer, the skill of the photoengraver, or a quick delivery time is the qualifying factor for selecting a die maker, there are many skilled die makers throughout the U.S. The capabilities of die makers vary greatly and buyers should find a source which can best meet their needs. An open line of communication and responsiveness to the finishers needs is critical.

Is in-house die-making for me?
The number one reason for considering starting in-house die making operations cited by finishers in an informal survey was to gain more control over the job. Most finishers are pleased with the die making skill and quick delivery provided by their current sources but feel than an element of control over the job is lost in outsourcing.

A considerable amount of coordination is required by the graphic artist, die maker and finisher and the lines of communication are not always perfectly clear. Establishing an ongoing relationship with a reliable die maker increases the odds of receiving dies which meet the buyer's expectations.

The pressure of shortened production times causes many finishing operations to consider making their own dies. As one finisher put it, "If I receive an unacceptable die, which is rare, I have to delay my client for a few more days which is becoming less acceptable to many customers who have grown accustomed to quick delivery."

Several factors must be weighed by shop managers considering setting up in-house photoengraving operations. Management must be committed to the project to ensure that the proper equipment and skills to do the job well are present and that resources and allocated toward developing the foil stamping and embossing end of the business in order to make it a profitable venture.

In-house die making operations require training an employee or hiring a skilled photoengraver and making an investment in time and equipment. If a shop does not feel that it readily can duplicate the skill of its current supplier to produce high quality dies, it is unlikely that any immediate benefit will be derived from in-house die making operations.

Shops purchasing dies in volume should first do a cost/benefit analysis of die sourcing to determine if an investment in in-house die production makes financial sense and then consider if the effort and expense involved in managing an engraving operation is realistic given competing priorities for that business.

The primary element which will determine the success or failure of an in-house die making operation is the dedication of management to the project. Unlike most graphic arts processes, photoengraving is not taught in trade schools. Some manufacturers of engravers metals and equipment have experienced photoengravers and technical experts on staff who teach photoengraving, however, the finer aspects of die making are learned over time through hands-on experience just as operating a press.

Magnesium and zinc etching is a relatively easy operation to start in-house. The investment in new equipment including an etching machine, exposure unit, and plate processor will run about $30,000. Magnesium photoengraving appeals to many new photoengravers because it has few environmental hazards associated with it and etchers can be trained in a short period of time. An in-house magnesium or zinc etching operation is going to make the most sense for those foil stamping companies that specialize in short-run work and are operating with clam shell or low tonnage platen presses.

Copper die making is somewhat more involved due to the complex chemistry utilized and more elaborate finishing process. Training for copper etching is a more extensive process as well, although can be learned in a relatively short period of time. A start-up copper operation is going to be a larger financial investment than magnesium or zinc, mainly because of the copper finishing equipment necessary to produce quality copper engravings. Those foil stamping operations which are utilizing large quantities of die and are considering in-house die making should certainly consider the additional investment for copper, especially if the finisher is stamping on large platen presses with considerable tonnage.

Significant savings can be realized through well-run die making operations. Finishers can increase the volume of their foil stamping and embossing business by providing these services with quicker delivery times and at more competitive rates. As a general example, a shop sourcing about 5,000 square inches of copper or magnesium dies a month will see a return on its investment in equipment and training within one to two years.

Foil stamping and embossing is a dynamic and high growth industry. Competitive pressures continue to mount as opportunity creates innovations and efficiencies not previously available. The only question remaining is how to best position your company to serve that business.

Ann Casey is the marketing director for Revere Graphic Products, Inc., manufacturer of engravers copper, magnesium, zinc and brass, as well as etching chemicals and equipment.