Laser Die Cutting: “Laser Die Cutting Southern Style”; Industrial Laser Solutions Opto IQ; December 2009

Laser Die Cutting Southern Coating Style—
The Real Story Behind Hybrid Roll/Sheet-Fed Laser Cutters

By Mike Bacon, VP, Spartanics 

It wasn’t that long ago when workers in Little Rock Arkansas’ Southern Coating would sit there 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 Southern Coating creates for manufacturers worldwide. This ate up a lot of time—and money—but Southern Coating had to do what it had to do in order to deliver what the customers wanted and needed.

That all changed in 2007, when Southern Coating added a Finecut Laser Die Cutting System 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-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 Finecut Laser Die Cutting Machine became the cutting tool of choice in the Southern Coating operation, running every hour that Southern Coating was open, and often when their steel rule die cutters lay idle.

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 cutting back on scrap are considerable—all told probably a 10% cutback in scrap. We especially see this with one of our specialty products, domed labels, which are actually 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 to cut these labels. 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 in 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. It’s precise cuts, with negligible setup time, no defects, and very, 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 Southern Coating had been and more to do with where it was and is going.

Like other companies in the graphics arts or converting industries, the market shift to short run quick turnaround work has become a major factor for Southern Coating in recent years and in this time of economic downturn especially. Adams reports, “We used to get purchase orders for a year with four release dates, as a typical order. Now however, most of our customers want specialized products and name branding labels, but only in order counts of 500 or 1000 labels at a time but perhaps ordering anywhere between 3 – 6 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 Southern Coating 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—or actually will land them one soon when it arrives before the year’s end.

Southern Coating knew it 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 in 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 required for the new laser die cutting machine were tallied.
First and foremost, full operational versatility 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 lines—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. Southern Coating 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 Southern Coating before its digital press companion, the hybrid design has reportedly already given Southern Coating the flexibility they need to keep up with shifting market demands.

Adams comments, “We mainly use this hybrid laser die cutter for short runs but we also put it to work for very large quantity orders because we always want the web speed advantage it affords us. 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.”

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Mike Bacon is VP Sales and Marketing for Spartanics and can be reached at +1-847-394-5700.

 

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