By Melissa Donovan
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many print service providers (PSPs) to adapt to new demands quickly. Those with the right hardware—printers and finishing devices—took existing operations and leveraged them to their advantage. Many utilized their product arsenals to create personal protection equipment (PPE) from masks and gowns to shields and partitions.
As the world opened back up again, it was apparent that for average day-to-day interactions, items like masks would be needed on a consumer level. Again, certain PSPs leveraged their expertise and hardware portfolios to meet a growing demand. Automated finishing devices like router/cutters are integral to PSPs’ success in creating applications beyond traditional signage and graphics.
Owning an automated finishing device is beneficial in a number of ways for PSPs that traditionally create digitally printed signage, graphics, and packaging. When COVID-19 hit, PSPs with these tools in place pivoted quickly and used them for new applications—probably ones they never dreamed of producing.
Face masks were some of the first applications to appear. “This was especially from PSPs already involved in digital textile applications, but others were quick to come on board, and we saw significant increases in tool add-ons especially in cutting fabric,” shares Chris Nicholson, customer experience director, Zund America, Inc. Face shields, scrubs, and other protective items followed. And then complex furnishings like temporary hospital beds, medical tents, cashier shields, as well as directional and social distancing flags, banners, and floor graphics came next.
“Masks are probably the most popular new application, but also sneeze guards and all kinds of dividers are hot products,” admits Roberto Rodriguez, director, Digital Graphic Systems (DGS). Acrylic dividers are the most common, cut using CNC or lasers, but Rodriguez says another alternative is a combination of honeycomb boards and 020/030 clear polycarbonate. “This offers a less expensive and lightweight option, which also is recyclable.”
Customers of Universal Laser Systems shifted production on their laser systems to fill the need for face shields. Many of these included finishing a thin and clear flexible plastic sheet such as polyester film, PET, PETG, or polycarbonate. Not only was a laser used to cut the plastic sheet for a shield, it was also utilized for marking part numbers, logos, and websites.
Epilog Laser users created laser cut mask clips. “Elastic bands of medical masks can rub the skin raw behind the ears, so Epilog Laser users started laser cutting acrylic medical mask clips. Instead of securing the mask behind the ears, it moves the elastic bands behind the head—being acrylic, they can be sterilized and used again,” comments James Stanaway, director of marketing, Epilog Laser.
Adam Voigt, sales and marketing, Kern Laser Systems, admits that PPE wasn’t even on the company’s website as an application prior to COVID-19. “Yes, we had customers cutting medical equipment and signage for these types of things, but it wasn’t a huge scale on our end. With the versatility of a laser it is amazing how many applications came about during the outbreak.”
These were not fulfilled in small quantities either. For example, Mark Bibo, director, global field marketing, graphics and packaging, Gerber Technology, spoke with one PSP that said prior to March 16, 2020 it had never produced a face shield. In July 2020, that same customer achieved a milestone of its 1,000,000th face shield.
PPE, directional and safety signage, and dividers are now common applications processed on finishing devices, which led to “tools to process face shields, cutting textile blanks for masks, and even crease and cutting cardboard stock for custom packaging for shipping,” notes Kevin Grabiec, VP sales and development, CWT Worktools USA.
“On the one hand, businesses helped out their community. On the other hand, they could sustain production and employ their staff to help out instead of having to lay them off. Very quickly initiatives sprang up like mushrooms in a field. Communities joined efforts to produce as much safety products as possible and distribute to the ones that needed it the most,” shares Gary Buck, VP of sales and marketing, Summa America.
Get You a Finisher
With an automated finishing device already in house, many PSPs can react quickly to macro influences like COVID-19 and address demands that previously didn’t exist. A number of features found on these machines enable successful business pivots—whether related to a pandemic or some other change.
“The ability to have an automated flatbed cutter finishing solution allows a business to grow and increase sales and productivity,” comments Maureen Damato, sales account manager, Colex Finishing, Inc.
According to Stefan McIntosh, director, brand and marketing, Wizard International, Inc., the right equipment in house enables companies to quickly pivot. “The ability to create custom geometry and cut a variety of materials is important.”
“Having a digital finishing system is the big differentiator between PSPs. It provides a new profit center, community goodwill, and increases print revenues,” explains Mark Packman, product manager – digital finishing, MultiCam.
Specific features found on automated devices enable endless applications. A driven rotary tool is ideal for fabric-based applications like gowns and masks. Nicholson says Zünd saw as many upgrade orders for its Zünd DRT (Driven Rotary Tool) in a month as in the past two years prior.
To process cardboard, a digital cutter should be equipped with an oscillating knife, set of creasing wheels, and V cut tool, notes Rodriguez.
Many PPE applications require a combination of knife cutting and routing along with vision registration, according to Jim Heenan, national sales manager – routers, AXYZ. One example is printed acrylic, which is used in shields or partitions. “A heavy-duty routing solution gives operators a leg up on the competition by being able to cut thick acrylic sheets in a single pass with a smooth, finished edge directly off the cutting table.”
“An important feature is having automatic router bit and automatic knife tool changers. Eliminating the manual changing of tools will speed up production and eliminate costly operator errors,” adds Packman.
Grabiec agrees, providing the example of an automatic tool changing station for routing bits. Customers can have their nine tool stations prepared with the proper router bits when switching from cutting acrylic to aluminum composite materials.
Laser finishing devices are also influential. “Businesses with a laser system or other automated finishing system in house can quickly change their focus or expand their market reach independently as opposed to relying on outsourcing. The versatility of the laser system, specifically, allows PSPs to process a variety of materials while only needing a new file designed in a common graphics program to implement a new product or product line,” shares Andrew Wellons, industrial sales manager, Trotec Laser, Inc.
Laser systems like those from SEI Laser should be able to read any file format—a print file with a die layer or a die drawing—that is sent to the laser for immediate production. Prepress sets up the job, not the operator, comments Steve Leibin, president, Matik, Inc.
“The more tools you have at your disposal, obviously the faster you can adapt to new demands. The fact that Epilog Laser systems can work on a variety of substrates and can create finished or ready-to-assemble products quickly and precisely opens up a world of possibilities beyond a customer’s primary application. Our customers were poised to go from traditional customization/personalization jobs to creating the PPE/accessories their communities needed,” explains Stanaway.
Automated routers and cutters continue to play a prominent role in applications derived from the COVID-19 pandemic. Separate from this, these finishers are also integral in the introduction of other new applications and how they are manufactured.
“Taking into account the recent developments with regards to the pandemic, it looks like this new type of signage will remain part of the sign maker’s gamut for some time still,” foresees Buck.
As Tom Flowers, VP of sales, Anderson America Corp., points out, it is difficult to imagine restaurant seating so close together soon. “Or that most transaction tops won’t feature some form of clear shielding to protect their employees going forward. With transaction, seating, and waiting areas all taking new shapes in the near future, there should be lots of new unforeseen opportunities.”
This means finishing devices like lasers will continue to play a role in both the production and prototyping of PPE materials and other pandemic-related applications, says Wellons.
“Finishing devices, such as laser cutters, remain paramount in meeting whatever demand is presented by the times. We may not always need to be creating protection equipment to deal with a pandemic, but service providers with a strong arsenal of finishing tools will better be able to pivot to meet the needs of clients,” agrees Stanaway.
Automated routers and cutters will continue to produce output derived from the effects of COVID-19, and also encourage additional work as a byproduct. “This could be in the way of new customer relationships by having the proper tool for the onset of the pandemic. For example, today a PSP may be successfully using their flatbed for cutting acrylic guards for a retail location, and now be providing solutions for their point of purchase/point of sale displays, overhead aisle graphics/wayfinding signs, and even floor graphics both for safe distance and promotional items,” suggests Grabiec.
“This has invited many new customers into a PSP’s business for the continued printing and finishing work required,” adds Damato.
While Packman believes that applications manufactured as a result of COVID-19 will be with us for years, what will change is the substrates utilized for these applications. “New substrates lend themselves to new applications. Some for printing and cutting, and some just cutting.” One example is acoustic panels. New types of panels are used worldwide for interior décor—as well as sound proofing.
Beyond the pandemic impacting the way we gather in groups, thus driving demand for social distancing and protective equipment applications—it also exposed a serious flaw in our supply chain. “This will undoubtedly accelerate resorting initiatives and with it the need for automation,” notes Nicholson.
When the pandemic is under control and some of these applications are no longer required, finishing machines will continue to benefit print providers, allowing them to manufacture creative applications like trade show booths, event graphics, and office décor. “If they are made out of cardboard, even better since a good portion of consumers are more conscious about the environment, so I foresee an important participation of paper-based rigid products—mainly corrugated and honeycomb—in the wide format printing industry from now on,” shares Rodriguez.
If there is anything to take away from this article, it is that automated machines like finishing devices are adaptable at a moment’s notice. This is important for PSPs from all backgrounds.
“The pandemic forced many companies out of their comfort zones and required them to adapt quickly to new, unfamiliar applications. Having to learn on the fly can be stressful but the experience gained from producing new products will be valuable for future projects, COVID-19 related or otherwise,” says Heenan.
Unpredictability is well, predictable. If anything, we can be confident that nothing is for sure. “Market demands are unpredictable for any number of reasons, and the more flexibility you can build into the system, the more value it has for the customer. We were told by many customers that the ability to upgrade their cutters quickly, easily, and cheaply was key to helping them stay in business,” admits Nicholson.
“The pandemic enabled companies to experience the true versatility of their equipment. They developed new revenue streams and their business reached new customers. The pandemic has shown the industry that companies willing to try something different are well positioned to expand their business with new products and services,” notes Bibo.
Wellons agrees that adaptability and versatility are important when considering a finishing system. “Purchasing a finishing system that can only process one material, has a limited working area, or not enough power to adequately process your materials will limit your product and business opportunities.”
Flatbed cutting systems allow PSPs to rout contour acrylic standoffs in one moment, kiss cut pressure-sensitive adhesive vinyl decals next, and then use a rotary wheel to finish textiles for soft signage or cut parts for dye-sublimation. “Now a PSP can target their customers’ entire graphic communication needs by being nimble,” explains Grabiec.
CNC routers with open architecture programming offer the ultimate flexibility. “They are just as efficient whether they are programmed with software for plastics, wood, composites, or even non-ferrous metals,” explains Flowers.
80 percent of Kern customers call in and request laser systems for cutting plastic, wood, or foam. “In the signage industry, we usually get more applications for plastics and added metals. Being able to change substrates or materials with the changing times can only leave your company open for opportunity,” states Voigt.
“The ability to shift gears and adapt to a changing environment is critical in today’s world. As we’ve seen, things can change quickly, so the ability for companies to adapt can be the difference between staying in or going out of business,” says McIntosh.
A Real Differentiator
With no end in sight to COVID-19, PSPs are not exactly operating as business as usual. These times are challenging and uncertain, but having specific tools in place can help quickly pivot to new applications when a demand arises. Leveraging automated cutters and routers for more than just traditional signage applications was something many PSPs did at the onset of the pandemic and continue to do into the new year.
Feb2021, Industrial Print Magazine