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Technology Focus

The Development and Use of Embossing in Steel Rule Cutting Dies

by March Love, Atlas Die, Inc.

February-March, 1996
Not that many years ago, when a job required die cutting and embossing, it meant a series of challenges. Not that the process wasn't popular and something the customers wanted, but to the diemaker and press operator, it was a major pain and something to avoid.

If you're an industrial history buff, you know that embossing, as we know it, was developed very shortly after the development of the printing press and steel rule cutting dies. In fact, embossing is actually even older and has probably been around, in some form or another, once man first started putting ink to paper.

Today, regardless of the high tech frills which we use to embellish the manufacturing process of each, the basic functions of embossing dies, as well as cutting dies, are still unchanged from the very earliest attempts. A cutting die is basically a cookie cutter, and an embossing die, in short, is a male and female (an upper and lower) die that produces a raised design on paper or paperboard.

Over the years, the diemaking and embossing industries grew along parallel paths and both systems were refined, improved and hone to the high art form that they represent today. Old world craftsmen have been replaced, to a great degree, with lasers, photo imaging, computers, scanners, automated equipment and a host of other high tech devices in order to produce tools with a quality undreamed of by the original designers. However, the basic concepts remain unchanged. we simply took those original ideas and, over the years, refined the details. We experimented with exotic materials and high tech construction techniques until we developed systems which could produce the ever-increasing levels of quality we needed.

Where do we start?
One of the biggest challenges to die cutters/embossers and diemakers has been to develop a system for placing the embossing die into the cutting die and performing both functions in the same operation. Why is this so important? While two stage operations were perfectly acceptable in the past, in todays fast paced production shop, they have become more and more of a burden. Why? Simple; time is money. Jobs are won and lost over a few dollars. Every minutes saved or wasted translates into profits or losses. Having the ability to emboss and die cut in one pass translates into shorter makeready time, shorter press time, and lower costs. Of course, it is not feasible to accomplish this on all embossing/die cutting jobs, but graphic finishers should be aware of the possibility and take advantage of it whenever possible.

Several years ago, the rare dies that included embossing were likely to have bakelite embossing dies simply nailed in place on the surface of the die board. If you didn't like the position or registration, the solution was simple. Jig out a square of die base around the embossing, knock some leads in place, and start bumping and shimming the block until the embossing looked "close". This was pretty much the industry standard. We all know that the quality levels 20 years ago were not the same as 10 years ago and are definitely not the same as the present. Today, the customer won't let us get away with "close". Like the cutting die, the concept was still good, but the details had to be refined.

I have often heard that America is somewhat ahead of Europe when it comes to packaging quality. However, this is certainly not the case with embossing. In Europe, and elsewhere in the world, embossing was accepted much earlier and to a much greater degree than in America. Even today, this still seems to be true. Embossing is much more prevalent in the European packing market. Since the Europeans were quicker to embrace and accept embossing, they had a head start in developing systems which would allow the embossing die to be mounted into the steel rule die, and then adjusted for registration to printing. In early examples of German dies, I first saw serious attempts to provide a quality system for this purpose. Americans seemed to take the attitude that if Europe could do it, we certainly could do it better. With this in mind, we set out to design the ultimate embossing mounting system. It seemed like a simple task, but proved to be a long time in the making.

How does it work?
Over the years, many die makers have recognized the need to develop a "user friendly" combination embossing/die cutting system. It had to be simple, yet effective, and of course, economical. Most importantly, it had to be easy to use because we know we had to provide a product that would be accepted by the press operators themselves. Atlas Die, Inc., of Elkhart, IN has developed a mounting and adjusting device which uses side pressure to fix a supporting block in the cutting die base. The embossing dies (either brass or fiberglass) are then mounted onto this supporting block, and then into the cutting die itself. The mounting system has built-in adjusters which allow microscopic movements of the embossing to enable the embossing die to achieve perfect registration with the printing while the sheet is being die cut. Adjustment is quick and easy with possible movements of only a few thousandths of an inch. The adjustable supporting blocks also are removable and can be interchanged or transferred to other dies for future use. New German technology that involves using micrometer adjusters to move the embossing slugs is now being researched to increase precise registration even further.

To date, most applications for die cutting and embossing in one pass have been in the folding carton or packaging industries. However, this dual process certainly lends itself to many other applications where the steel rule cutting area does not interfere with the embossed image. It has proven to be very successful in many applications and can be applied to sheet fed platen jobs other than folding cartons.

We may not always succeed, but the important thing is that we try. Incorporating embossing into cutting dies is only one simple example of this concept. In a successful organization, hundreds of opportunities exist for this type of growth. The challenge is to single them out and act on them.

One lesson the history of our industry teaches us is that perfection today will be inadequate tomorrow. We have all heard the old adage: The only certainty in life is change. While this may be true, for our industry at least, the adage more accurately should read: The only certainty is change and improvement. Move ahead and you will grow and reap the rewards of success. Stagnate and you are doomed for sure. It's a hard lesson to learn, and those who have not adjusted to change are not around to regret it.

Whatever the reason, the end result is still the same. Improvement equates to growth which translates to new business and success for our companies. In the end, isn't that the ultimate goal for all of us?

Marc Love is currently Production Manager at Atlas Chem-Milling, here he is responsible for the Rotoplate die line. Atlas Die, Inc. manufactures a diverse line which includes steel rule dies, counter plates, etched steel rotary dies, and a variety of other products for the graphic arts industry.