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Technology Focus

Diecutters Rise to the Challenge as Short Runs Proliferate

by Ralph Pasquariello

May-June, 2007
In today’s marketplace when wanting to impress the final customer, it often takes more than ink on paper. For projects needing that ‘something more’, postpress processes can add those all-important finishing touches that attract customer attention and help protect declining margins while standing apart from the competition. Although processes such as foil stamping, embossing, or special UV coatings are obvious finishing choices, a simple to extravagant diecut can sometimes be the answer the customer is looking for.

Whether you are an experienced converter or a commercial printer looking to break into packaging, you can be affected by market shifts based on changing customer requirements. As packaging becomes more specialized, for example, shorter runs are becoming more common. To reduce time-to-market, end-users are pushing tighter deadlines for the delivery of limited-run prototypes, custom packaging, and POP displays, as well as to fill up short-run production schedules.

In response to trends like just-in-time delivery, die-less digital diecutting (especially for labels), and other factors, converters – like their counterparts in the ink-on-paper segment - are running smaller quantities and changing tools more frequently. High-volume producers equipped with highly automated equipment also will handle shorter runs from time to time, ratcheting up the pressure on small-volume producers to stay competitive. Because lower volume jobs require more frequent tool changes, converters and package printers want diecutting products that will enable them to achieve the fastest speeds and quickest set-up times - without sacrificing accuracy.

Much is being done today to address the trends and challenges associated with diecutting in a short-run environment. Below are some of the latest diecutting trends and considerations in the market today.

Creative diecutting can bring out the best in a printed piece. In addition to high-volume folding cartons, the process also is used to create business card slits and windows, or entire three-dimensional products from perfectly flat sheets.

Diecutting’s strength lies in its versatility. Jigsaw puzzles, video boxes, POP displays, CD slots, pop-up books, as well as distinctive labels, greeting cards and invitations, educational manipulatives, coupon books, plastic membership cards, and Braille documents are just a few examples of the diverse applications of the diecutting process.

Diversifying your diecutting applications can help you step into new markets while increasing the finishing capabilities you offer to current customers.

Automation Equals Speed
Performing long diecutting makereadies for short-run projects can be a waste of time, labor, and other resources. Unnecessary handwork and manual adjustments can hamper the speed, accuracy, and efficiency of the job. This is why it is becoming more and more important to consider automation in the postpress department.

For obvious reasons, precision diecutting systems that automatically reposition the dies after each job or that automatically position the die in the same place each time a specific job is run are particularly well-suited to short-run work. “Precision” is the operative word here, since registration errors often can result in imperfect products and the loss of precious production time spent on reruns.

To counter this, you should look for automated features such as electronically controlled, on-the-fly-adjustable front and side guides; advanced gripper assemblies designed to minimize nicking; advanced logistics, including feeder and delivery units equipped with automatic stacking devices; electronic optical scanning devices; and components that permit hands-free waste removal and blank extraction.

Sheet travel also is a consideration. As if being subjected to several tons of pressure during the cut itself weren’t enough, substrates can take a real beating during their trip through many diecutters, often resulting in misregistered or unusable product. Sophisticated platen diecutters that include such features as a moving upper table that maintains gentle, horizontal sheet transfer from feeder to delivery can produce higher production speeds and keep lost sheets and time to a minimum.

These types of automated features are key to moving high-quality jobs on and off the cutting press in short order.

Modularity and Design
When shopping for diecutters, modularity and design should be key considerations in a new piece of equipment. In addition to handling cutting, stripping, and/or blanking, the most versatile diecutting machines also feature such basic options as creasing and scoring, all the way to value-added modular enhancements like cold embossing or even hot embossing and/or foil stamping.

Versatile diecutters also can accommodate materials from paper to paperboard to cardboard to corrugated board, coated and laminated stocks, as well as plastic. A growing trend is plastic membership or direct mail credit cards and plastic used for folding cartons/packaging. Diecutting presses that have special features or options to help with the cutting of plastics can be a great advantage for the converter.

Beyond the features, ergonomic designs promote safety and reduce operator fatigue. Conveniently located control screens with GUI (Graphic User Interface) make it easy to see and control machine output functions, helping to shorten the learning curve, slash changeover times, and reduce associated costs.

A diecutting machine whose compact footprint permits the best utilization of factory floor space also can be a valuable asset, especially on a cramped production floor. Large windows that provide easy access to workspaces, tool frames, chases, and the cutting plate further enhance an operator-friendly environment, and can help keep makeready and set-up times to a minimum.

Start Finishing Ahead
Much has changed in the diecutting environment over the past decade. Today, more and more options are available to help converters and printers take advantage of diecutting.

Until recently, diecutting services were among the most often outsourced, together with foil stamping, embossing, and other “nonstandard” finishing processes. With the introduction of affordable diecutting systems with compact, economical footprints all that is changing. So, where do the printer and the converter fit in this equation? Many printers are choosing to do standard diecutting jobs in-house and leave the more sophisticated jobs to a graphic finishing operation. This means that converters must consider the most up-to-date automated equipment to keep pace and have that extra edge over what a printer can do itself.

Whether printers choose to bring diecutting capabilities in-house or not, they can benefit from the latest technology and advances in current diecutting equipment.

That homework also should extend beyond equipment considerations. Since errors in tooling can increase both machine set-up and lost production time, even the most extensively automated diecutting equipment is dependent on well-made, compatible dies. As a result, diecutters involved in short-run projects should strive to specify dies and create die line files correctly the first time around. As the saying goes, a press or operator is only as good as his or her tools.

By carefully examining your diecutting needs, knowing the latest market trends, and staying up-to-date on what to look for in diecutting machines, you can ensure a diecutting solution that will help you – and your customers – finish ahead.

Ralph Pasquariello is vice president, postpress product management for Heidelberg USA. He can be reached at Ralph.Pasquariello@heidelberg.com.