Laser Die Cutting: “Laser Show”; Label & Labeling; Issue 4 2012

Laser cutting in the label market has slowly transitioned from a fancy magic show to a legitimate finishing solution that is solving problems for many label manufacturers. Several years ago the thought of using a laser to cut label stock was not widely accepted. Quality and speed seemed to be the two major concerns for many critics. As operating software for controlling the laser source and galvo heads (mirror device used to redirect laser beam around the die cut line) got better so did the speed and quality of laser cutting systems. Naturally when a technology begins to gain acceptance within any given marketplace there is a greater push to utilize the technology by companies looking for a competitive advantage. Label manufacturers are suddenly looking to laser cutting equipment to provide this advantage as shorter job runs and private labeling begin to require quicker response times.

A little over a year ago, a label manufacturer in Denmark was presented with a unique challenge. Flexiket was a traditional label house with several flexo and screen printing machines and one digital printing machine from Xeikon. A pharmaceutical customer asked if it would be possible to produce a couple hundred jobs consisting of approximately 10 to 400 part runs every 24 hours. The key was to be able to track print on demand (POD) jobs on every piece of equipment utilized in the printing, inspecting and converting processes. Following extensive research a POD cell was introduced into the plant including a Jetrion 4830 digital printer, Spartanics L-210 dual head laser cutting system, a Convertec Braille machine and a AB Graphics combination system for vision control, slitting and/or sheeting. Bjarne Svensson, Flexiket’s Production Manager and Partner, explains, “Tracking of all jobs was important to Flexiket but not a direct requirement for our customer or the pharmaceutical industry, however, full traceability regarding printing of lot numbers, batch counts and corresponding date is a requirement for our customer and the pharmaceutical industry.”

A logical way to track the jobs was to introduce a barcode that would remain on the web of material and act as a trigger point and tracking device for each piece of equipment within the digital cell. Flexiket identified all of the equipment with the exception of the cutting device. Traditional die cutting would not allow them to handle all of the variability in label sizes that this project required. So the final piece to the POD puzzle was finding a cutting solution that would allow for extreme flexibility of several different shapes and short, day to day delivery of labels. “Laser cutting based on unique software parameters for packing different jobs and label sizes gave us the possibility for non-stop production and Spartanics designed their laser cutting system to fit our needs.” says Svensson.

The Spartanics laser cutting system is able to accept hundreds of job files (die cut files) in a given library either on the system or in a remote location. The system reads a barcode that corresponds to a specific job file. Pen settings (colored die lines) are defined in the pre-press area, which designate different laser energy levels and cutting depths. As a result, hundreds of jobs can be sent to the laser cutting system without operator intervention.

The finishing system required dual laser cutting stations. The first laser cutting station (Station A) was dedicated to making an initial cut into the printed label followed a second laser cutting chamber (Station B) that operated as a standard laser cutting station to kiss cut the final label design. The system needed to average 30 to 40 meters per minute in order to keep up with the other processes and the volume of jobs being processed daily. Everything seemed like it was in place In terms of system configuration but there were three glaring concerns:

1) Since the job runs were so short there would be many instances where laser Station B would be finishing a job while laser Station A was starting a new job.
2) Throughput speeds vary when using laser cutting technology more so than traditional rotary die cutting systems. If Job 1 runs at 80 meters per minute and Job 2 runs at 30 meters per minute due to the complexity in cutting requirements, how do you compensate for this when Job 1 running 80 meters per minute is in Station B and Job 2 running 30 meters per minute is in Station A?
3) Will the laser display cut quality issues when ramping up or slowing down system speeds between jobs and laser stations?

The answer to these concerns? Software. Keeping with the long standing tradition of “it’s only software” Spartanics gave their engineering department several bags of sunflower seeds (a Spartanics tradition that provides carefully timed food release) and put them to work.
As with any digital technology, improved software developments dominate technology breakthroughs. Once the hardware reaches a certain level of competency software takes over and makes standard improvements even more impressive. The basics were in place to provide a solid laser cutting solution for this POD project, however, the final 20% required software enhancements that would make the system operational with very little operator intervention.

In general terms, laser cutting has arrived in the label market following a lengthy introduction. With all of the emphasis on lean manufacturing in the label market , the “Flexiket Experiment” was very timely. Laser cutting and digital printing are not trying to replace traditional flexo printing rather co-exist. The three main advantages of laser cutting systems are 100% savings in tooling costs and design time, 30% savings in job changeover and 20% material savings. These savings are important when calculating the bottom line for short run jobs, but also important when considering longer run jobs given that some laser systems reach speeds up to 100m per minute.

Looking ahead the next obvious technology will be fully integrated digital printing and laser cutting equipment that offers true plate-less technology. These systems are here and being sold into the marketplace. Lean manufacturing at its finest!

Mike Bacon is vice president of sales and marketing for Spartanics, which manufactures laser cutting systems, in-line digital printing/laser solutions, steel rule die cutting systems, screen printing lines, automated counters and other equipment. Spartanics is available for technology demonstrations and contract manufacturing services. Inquiries should go to mbacon@spartanics.com or sales@spartanics.com

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