by Mike Bacon
The story behind hybrid roll/sheet-fed laser cutters
It wasn’t that long ago when workers in a Little Rock Arkansas plant would sit for hours on end, exacto knives in hand, pulling the webbing out of “o”s, “a”s, “e”s, and similar letters needing weeding in the custom labels the company creates for manufacturers worldwide. This ate up a lot of time—and money—but Southern Coating & Nameplate Inc. (SCN; www.southerncoating.com) had to do what it had to do in order to deliver what the customers wanted and needed.
That all changed in 2007, when SCN added a Finecut Laser Die Cutting System from Spartanics (www.spartanics.com) to its equipment roster. It was unlike earlier generations of laser cutting technology that had used generic laser control software supplied by the laser manufacturers. Now, state-of-the-art custom software engineering was at play to handle all the intricacies that their artwork required and the range of materials that they specialize in—from polycarbonates to polyesters to polystyrenes and more. Very quickly, the laser die cutter became the cutting tool of choice in the company’s operation, running every hour SCN was open, and often when their steel rule die cutters lay idle.
Southern Coating & Nameplate was founded in Little Rock in 1972 and quickly became a major factor in the local market. By the early 1980s SCN was shipping high-quality labels and nameplates to 16 states and 2 foreign countries. The reason for this success—they offer the highest quality products and provide second-to-none customer service at competitive prices.
Scott Adams, Southern Coating vice president, explains why laser die cutting supplanted steel rule die cutting in very short order: “For one thing, this laser die cutting machine is so much faster than traditional die cutting; we always want to use it so we can get throughput gains. Depending on the complexity of the cuts involved and the material we are cutting, this single-head laser die cutter is 5–15 times faster than the steel rule die cutters would be. Secondly, the savings from reducing scrap are considerable—all told probably a 10% cutback.”
He continues, “We especially see this with one of our specialty products, domed labels, which are labels with a polyurethane resin layer added on top. The precision of the Finecut’s kiss cutting eliminated the problem we used to have when we used steel rule dies. With steel rule die cutting the kiss cut might be too deep on one edge or too thin on another such that the doming solution rolled past the desired edge lines. Before we started making these kiss cuts with our laser die cutter, we’d just have to plan on between 10–15% of the labels being scrap. Now we’re down to zero. Similarly the elimination of labor time for setup makes a big difference. Our laser die cutter automates the set up, for example by determining the optimum cutting sequence and other settings, more or less doing the thinking for our operators behind the scenes. Its precise cuts, with negligible setup time, no defects, and very fast—that’s why it’s so valuable to us.”
Actually, there was one limitation in this otherwise very rosy scenario, and it had less to do with where SCN had been and more to do with where it was and is going.
Spartanics Finecut software automates setup, for example, by determining the optimum cutting sequence and other settings. Photo courtesy Southing Coating & Nameplate Inc. (www.southerncoating.com)
Like other companies in the graphic arts or converting industries, the market shift to short–run, quick turnaround work has become a major factor in recent years and especially in the recent economic downturn. Adams reports, “We used to get purchase orders for a year with four release dates, as a typical order. Now, most of our customers want specialized products and name branding labels, but only in order counts of 500 or 1000 labels at a time; perhaps ordering anywhere between three to six times a month. The demand for quality isn’t any less. Quite the reverse—our customers want higher-quality work and especially high-quality four color process printing.”
With the writing on the wall Adams and his co-managers at SCN began the due diligence investigation of the best digital printing presses to suit their range of applications. That landed them with an Inca Spider Digital Press from Fuji Films, which will arrive before the year’s end.
They knew SCN was now entering the digital printing age where nearly instant job turnarounds and the improved color of UV inks were the norm. The management took stock of how to streamline their entire operation, and they realized that their roll-fed Finecut would no longer be the star of the finishing department when their major print output came in the form of digitally printed sheets with registration marks for cutting.
A quick call to the engineers at the Rolling Meadows, Illinois, headquarters of Spartanics and a re-engineered laser die cutting system that could seamlessly alternate between sheet-fed prints and roll-fed materials was soon in the works.
The specifications for the new laser die cutting machine were first and foremost full operational versatility. This was the overriding design principle, and flexibility-focused features were given the highest priority in the re-design.
It was a given that in the new system sheet-fed or coil-fed jobs would be quickly interchanged, with jobs loaded and setup completed in minutes. Any and all types of printing processes from flexo, screen, digital etc. printing line had to be accommodated. There could be no limitations to the cutting itself; intricate detail in limitless shapes and geometries had to be maintained as the standard, as it was in the original Finecut system design. Any combination of cutting and marking details had to be made in one cycle—kiss-cutting, through-cutting, consecutive numbering, personalizing, perforating, creasing, and more. And the same single-source laser design combined with customized software to deliver defect-free cutting and ability to seamlessly stitch images together for unlimited X-direction part dimension for web-fed jobs had to be maintained. The new system had to be able to take advantage of digital print registration marks and feed sheets automatically, similar to the automated sheet-fed laser die cutter that Spartanics had introduced a year earlier.
In short, it had to be a hybrid—doing sheet-fed work when that was the job at hand and quickly switching to web-fed work when those type jobs were in the work queue. SCN had to be able to follow market opportunities where they found them—without taking steps backwards to use slower steel rule die cutting that wouldn’t allow them to keep up the throughput standards they had achieved with the original Finecut laser die cutting machine.
Arriving at SCN before its digital press companion, the hybrid design has reportedly already given Southern Coating the flexibility it needs to keep up with shifting market demands.
Adams comments, “At this time, we still actually do more high-run large quantity orders than short-run orders, and the speed of the Finecut laser die cutting machine really comes into play. Also, for our short-run jobs, for which customers would normally have to purchase a die, they no longer need to. So there is a big plus for short runs too. It took only one job for us to get our return-on-investment for the original Finecut laser die cutting system. It was a job that would have been virtually impossible to cut with steel rule dies. We expect the return on our sheet-fed addition to be even shorter. In fact, we put the hybrid system to use immediately and started getting a return even though our digital press is not yet in-house.”
Mike Bacon, VP sales and marketing for Spartanics, can be reached at email@example.com.