Further introduction to how to decide which flatbed cutter to consider Print

This page has been written because at major trade shows such as ISA sign expo, FESPA, and VISCOM, there are so many choices of flatbed cutters.

Two years ago several people told me that a flatbed cutter (at either SGIA or ISA), that its vacuum pump or comparable motor burned out within about 30 minutes. Reportedly the cutter was made in China. Although I would expect Chinese engineers to be fully capable of producing adequate CNC routers (China is the largest growing manufacturing nation in the world), not many flatbed Chinese UV-cured printers have survived from 2003-2008. Most brands became infamous for breaking down and parts wearing out. So having a flatbed cutter motor burn out is actually predictable.

If you are a print shop that is just starting, it is understandable that you will look at a low budget cutter. But what if there is too much down-time because spare parts have to be found in China? And then shipped to USA? And then wrangled through customs?

Most products in the world of wide-format inkjet printing workflow are promoted with press releases and success stories. Some Success Stories verge on the ridiculous (like the ones that praised the DuPont UV-curable combo flatbed printer: that printer was so incapable that even DuPont stopped selling it. Same with the DuPont Artistri textile printer. Even DuPont stopped offering it. I spoke with one official DuPont distributor who wanted to give their model away just to get it out of their showroom.

So please pardon me when I am skeptical of pr releases. I prefer to visit printshops and get a more accurate story. And I like to visit the factories and demo rooms of the manufacturer to see how the whole workflow is handled.

Harvey Meister and Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth at GDS site visit
Pablo Martinez, FLAAR Technical Writer, taking notes about the EskoArtwork i-XE10 performance at Digital Media Partners (DMP) site visit. Finland

The best way to protect yourself from a PR release or unrealistic Success Story is to have a set of FAQs. The questions are often as important than someone giving you an answer. So I prefer to stress the questions. For ISA sign expo 2011, the organizers asked us to prepare FAQs to guide printshop owners and managers to know what questions to ask when they were making their visits to the various booths in the trade show. Since our FAQs list is too long for a one-page handout at an expo, we cut down the list of questions for the handout. Now, on the following web page I would like to focus on specific questions, and provide details on how to judge the answers (on the ISA expo handout there was space only to raise the questions, not to discuss the questions in details).

Nicholas Hellmuth and Pablo Martínez, taking notes about the EskoArtwork Kongsberg XP, at EskoArtwork booth.

So here are some of the really crucial questions. Others are on the handout at ISA.

When looking for a flatbed cutter, what to be wary of?

When a flatbed UV-printer manufacturer says “our UV printer will print on everything” be wary. First, they will not warn you of primers that may be needed. And if the printer is a hybrid (pinch roller atop grit rollers) the manufacturer and distributor will not often warn you that grit rollers can move only basic foam core. Thick heavy MDO board is tough to move with grit rollers. So even the word “flatbed” for the HP version of the ColorSpan was iffy to begin with.

Same with flatbed cutters: some flatbed cutters were original made to cut textiles. Do don’t expect them to cut DiBond.

Some flatbed cutters have no i-Cut (or no comparable system). Your images, especially if printed on a hybrid of combo belt UV printer, may be skewed. You need an i-Cut to follow the skew.

More FAQs for understanding the differences among flatbed cutters

Where is the cutter really made? Not where does the reseller claim it is made, but where is it really made. Sorry, it makes no difference if the pumps and motors are from Japan or Europe or America. What if the screws, nuts and bolts are made in a low bid company? Then the threads of the bolts and screws will shear off as the machine vibrates; the bolts and screws may pop out: literally.

How many EARLIER MODELS of this cutter are in the US, actually installed (not how many are stuck in a warehouse, still unsold). Because the more cutters of an earlier model that are really out in print shops, the more feedback the manufacturer has on how to improve their next model. And it is generally the new model that will have the improvements. In other words, if there was no previous model, does that suggest that the present model may still be an experiment?

How many owners of the present model can you speak with? And, speak with the operator as well as the owner. An owner will tend to justify the purchase by “liking” the product. It is the operator who has to face reality every time he or she turns the cutter on.

Speak with the operator as well as the owner. The operator who has to face reality every time he or she turns the cutter on.

What materials does this cutter really handle? Do not just send material to the demo room of the manufacturer. Do not just look samples at a trade show. Make an appointment to visit the manufacturer’s demo room and watch the cutting yourself. I have been to the Lake Geneva demo center in Wisconsin (easy to access from Chicago or Milwaukee airports). The company here was the former Zund distributor for USA, and are now the Kongsberg demo center. So the personnel here have experience with both brands. Indeed they still have several Zund cutters on display.

I have also been to the Zund world headquarters in Switzerland. I have not yet been to the Kongsberg manufacturing facilities in Scandinavia but hope to visit in the future.

Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth at EskoArtwork demo room, Lake Geneva demo center in Wisconsin
Honeycomb cutting sample, cut with EskoArtwork Kongsberg XP.

What is the speed of this cutter? Do you have to slow the cutter down because it is not really made to cut the thick dense material that you and your clients need cut? See next two paragraphs.

Does the cutter strain, wobble, or hiccup when cutting some material? We recently did a test of cutting honeycomb sandwich board. One of the cutter brands seemed to strain, and had to be slowed down (we are still trying to understand if the tool was at fault, or if the operator needed more training or experience). The Kongsberg did an excellent job, and faster, on the honeycomb sandwich board.

How many times does the cutter have to cut over the same position to actually cut through the material? A friend in Monaco has a Zund he bought perhaps six years ago. He assumed a brand this well known would cut anything he could print with his VUTEk uv-curing printer. But he said that even cutting DiBond was a challenge for the Zund. Hopefully the newer Zund 3G models can do a better job. I would estimate that a Kongsberg i-cut XP can do DiBond acceptably.

Does the flatbed company produce the entire workflow (camera vision system, software, etc) or is all this come in bits and pieces from different vendors around the world?

Remember, understand the difference between a CNC router and a digital flatbed cutter

This we discuss on an earlier web page on our site. But basically a CNC router is made to rout into wood to make multi-dimensional signage or to cut metal for machine parts. CNC routers are pretty much a mature commodity today. If you go to any Chinese sign expo you will see entire halls filled with smoke, smoke, and fumes: hundreds of brands and so many models of CNC routers that you can’t keep count.

In North America MultiCam and AZYZ are perhaps the best known router companies. These were the kings when cars and other products were still made in America (first manufacturing went to Japan, then to Taiwan, then for a decade to China, and now to Vietnam and Thailand). The College of Technology where I was a professor in charge of the large format inkjet evaluation center, their manufacturing engineer program, had a hard time justifying itself since so much manufacturing moved offshore.

But today signs and graphic display printshops seek a digital cutter. They want modern technology (such as Kongsberg or Zund), not something conceived decades ago. Since Kongsberg comes from the world of packaging, they have experience with the kind of cutting that is crucial for a sign shop today.


First posted April 15, 2011