By Melissa Donovan
As manufacturers adapt digital printers of varying widths for packaging and prototype creation, they must also address the finishing aspect of the process. Those familiar with package printing should realize the importance of a finishing technology that can match the output capabilities of their printer. Alternatively, a business adding package printing for the first time needs to understand the natural progression of pairing a digital printer and finisher.
Above: Automated board handling is a necessity for rigid packaging and prototype production. Zünd offers a fully automated Board Handling System BHS150 that processes a full skid of material.
From Routing to Cutting
Packaging applications are categorized into two types—rigid and flexible. Both require finishing to yield a final product. Automated finishing tools accelerate the process and minimize room for error.
For those looking to finish both rigid and flexible materials on a fairly constant basis, a multi-tool option is favorable. “Having a variety of tools is crucial to helping a company thrive in a world where customers demand a wider range of solutions, faster,” explains Leonard Marano, VP, product management and marketing, automation systems, Gerber Technology.
Multi-tool configurations involve knives and laser cutters—and offer benefits. “Whether it’s cardboard, paper, or plastics, lasers are ideal since they can work with pre-printed materials, create score marks, kiss cut, and cut the substrate all in one machine. Knife blades can create a score line and cut, but cannot create a perforation. They also tend to become physically dull over time, whereas a laser produces consistent results, virtually indefinitely,” admits David Stevens, industrial applications manager, Trotec Laser.
Flatbed cutters are a popular consideration when the packaging pieces or prototypes output are mainly rigid. “Especially with regards to the space issue, a flatbed cutter ensures the best option. There are different tools offered for all kind of boards. Tools can be interchangeable as well, with alternatives for a router system, so even very robust material isn’t a limited factor,” explains Barry Budwit, VP/GM, Summa America.
“Digital flatbed cutting machines guarantee high flexibility in terms of the materials they can process, low maintenance and consumption cost, no minimum batch, no start up or die cut plate cost, a variety of dimensions and prices, and above all the ability to move from the design to the finished product very quickly,” says Luca Bartalini, product manager, Valiani S.r.l.
The variety of dimensions is an important consideration, according to Mark Packman, digital finishing product manager, MultiCam Inc. He says that whether using a single- or double-walled corrugate, or many rigid substrates, the largest table size is necessary to place an emphasis on productivity.
Automation goes beyond the tools used to physically cut the substrate. For flatbeds in particular, automated media handling is influential. “Providing a seamless way to increase productivity, feeders and stackers speed up short-run production by eliminating operator intervention and manual loading bottlenecks. With finishing among the biggest bottlenecks for large format companies, automating feeding and stacking is key to delivering operational efficiency in today’s wide format market,” suggests Jan De Roeck, marketing director, industry relations and strategy, Esko.
Quick response (QR) codes are another automated benefit. “Workflows involving digitally printed materials with QR codes greatly reduce the manual processes previously required for producing a completed package. The use of QR codes enhances the ability to job track and proceed to integrated, automated production of shipping labels upon completion of the job,” says Heather Roden, strategic account manager graphics/packaging, Zünd America, Inc.
Flexible materials such as vinyl are almost always successfully cut on a roll cutter. In this scenario, a thinner packaging material may even be able to be cut with a print/cut device—a combined solution that both prints and cuts, shares Michael Maxwell, senior manager, Mimaki USA, Inc.
Finishing devices are outfitted with several tools at the outset to cut frequently requested jobs. Rigid packaging can require anything from a heavy-set router to scoring and creasing wheels. Whereas flexible packaging involving thinner materials benefits from a kiss-cutting knife.
Bartalini believes manufacturers should have a clear picture of what the machine is supposed to do prior to purchasing it. “First, they should think about the size of the finishing devices and second about the material they would like to process with the device. Commonly, the size of the device depends on the size of the printer it matches. While the material determines the tools. Then, they should consider the production volumes the machine is supposed to be able to produce, the impact it has on the work environment, and the overall amount of the investment. Finally, they can start considering each cutting tool option and together with the vendor determine the ‘bouquet’ of tools needed.”
Specific tools are used to finish rigid-like substrates including corrugate board, folding carton material, and foam boards. The tool—in addition to the force and direction placed on it—are what enables a successful cut.
For example, corrugate is a popular rigid substrate used in packaging. Roden says in this case, the number of walls and flute type determine the appropriate cutting component—from a basic drag knife to an oscillating tool. “Adding appropriate creasing and perforating wheels for the materials that need to be processed further enhances the efficiency of the production workflow,” she recommends.
“Automatic knife changing is a must. Having the need for a creasing wheel and drag knife—or perforating tool—on almost every job, you want to automate the tool changing to improve productivity and make it easier on the operator. This also dramatically reduces waste,” adds Packman.
Creasing, cutting, and perforation are important features for rigid package finishing. When combined with the correct support system, corrugated tools can cut and perforate with die cut-like quality, according to De Roeck.
The same can be said for material used in flexible packaging, where a specific tool is required to successfully complete the job. “For flexible packaging providers, automating roll-material handling depends on the overall weight of the rolls that need to be processed as well as the flexibility of the materials. These factors help determine how much guidance or power is needed for conveying the materials smoothly and reliably,” suggests Roden.
Marano lists other flexible packaging finishing tools such as a tangential knife for vinyl and a kiss-cutting knife for pressure-sensitive labels, decals, and vinyl.
Downside of Alternatives
Without an automated finishing solution, a manufacturer is either outsourcing or working with a semi-automated or manual device. For someone already working with a digital printer, neither of these options are ideal.
Quality control is hard to manage when part of the job is handled outside the business. Marano says, “quality is a major necessity in the printing space, which is why having full control over the final product is such a great asset.”
“Reliance on outsourcing can come with several pitfalls, including time to completion, lost revenue from partner mark ups, and security concerns over protecting customers,” agrees Roden.
Other shops may not be outsourcing, but instead rely on semi-automated or manual solutions. Stevens believes the decision to continue with manual finishing or implement an automated finishing solution depends on volume. “For low production volumes, the overhead costs are likely not worth it. For high production volumes, the difference is going to be important for both the final product and final customer. The key is that automation provides higher quality and less failure rate versus manual finishing solutions, and provides more benefits for the long run.”
“Manual processes and multi-site workflows open up the potential for mistakes and lost time and materials. Simplified workflows that can be handled in sequence often net better results,” concurs Maxwell.
The proof is in customer testimonials. Packman recently visited a print shop that gained significant growth in its flatbed printing business in the first month after installing an automated cutter. This was a result of being able to turnaround the printing and cutting in a matter of hours. Instead of a day or two of labor costs, it is now an hour or two.
Never Knew You Needed
Automated finishing tools are more than a nice-to-have option when it comes to package and package prototype services. While it is challenging to convince yourself or a colleague that the ticket price of a finishing device is worth it, the alternative—paying after a mistake is made—is more expensive to your budget and your reputation.
“Customers are always looking for ways to automate processes. Any workflow that can remove labor costs and potential mistakes are important,” admits Maxwell.
Stevens says automated finishing tools are important for the majority of package prototyping because they eliminate the cost of physical labor and human intervention. Additionally, prototypes are simply processed much faster.
“Users invest in expensive high-speed digital printers for packaging but then sacrifice quality and speed by using manual finishing processes. As the need for speed and customization grows, automation is increasingly becoming more critical to getting products to market faster and providing customers with versatile solutions to meet a broader range of needs,” shares Marano.
Products are being requested faster, however quality is only increasing—points out Bartalini. Automated cutting machines allow for the manufacture of a prototype in small batches. They also address the trend of many buyers who continually tweak their packaging during the production phase. “Flatbed cutting machines allow you to pivot and change without having to throw out a whole batch of units.”
Another trend is variability or versioning. More media buyers realize the allure of a package targeted to a specific geographic region or location. Automated cutting addresses this, with De Roeck explaining how variability makes conventional die cutting capabilities obsolete.
“The capability to print a unique sheet each time is an idiosyncratic feature of the digital press and means that, quite literally, every sheet can be different. But if the die cut contour for each unique sheet is also different, then conventional die cutting is out of the question and simply put, digital finishing on a cutting table is then the only option,” continues De Roeck.
Don’t compromise your investment in package prototype creation. Yes you can print it—but can you finish it just as well? Automated finishing solutions for both rigid and flexible packaging applications are available to complement and in many ways enhance the benefits digital print already provides this growing application sector.
Nov2019, Industrial Print Magazine