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Short-run die cutting

Jun 1, 2005 12:00 AM

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There are three main types of die cutting technology: platen presses, rotary die cutters and optically registered gap presses. If throughput were your sole concern, platen presses would be the best choice. If you’re not doing a lot of long-run sheetfed work, however, you probably won’t recoup die and changeover costs, or your upfront equipment costs, which can be $500,000 or more. Platen presses also have huge footprints.

While rotary die cutters’ upfront costs aren’t as steep, these machines accept only coiled materials. Rotary die cutters also handle elastic substrates poorly and have moderately expensive dies. Changeovers can be expensive. Moreover, other die cutting methods offer better cut-to-print registration.

Outstanding cut-to-print registration
Optically-registered die cutters can be an excellent choice for printers producing short-run, specialty die-cut products with stringent requirements for cut-to-print registration. Typical upfront costs for these systems range from $125,000 to $200,000. Tooling can cost as little as a few hundred dollars for steel rule dies. These die cutters can deliver cut-to-print registration of ±0.005 inches (0.1 mm) by reregistering at every press stroke. That is the two hairs’ width precision we consumers have come to expect in quality die-cut printed products as diverse as electroluminescent cell phone panels and casino playing cards.

Look for modular systems that are easily reconfigured. Does it accept both sheet- and coil-fed materials? Does it offer a variety of output modules for efficiently extracting die-cut parts? Can you use a wide range of die types from any manufacturer?

An optically registered die cutting system typically is used with steel rule dies, male/female hard tools, mini-dies, modular dies, progressive dies and compound dies.

Steel rule dies generally are the most cost-effective option for short-run jobs. Not only are these dies the cheapest, but many job shops can turnaround custom steel rule dies overnight.

If you are building a short-run diecutting niche, an optically registered diecutter that automatically positions steel rule dies can reduce changeover time and costs significantly.

On average, steel-rule dies can be used for 250,000 to 1,000,000 cycles before resharpening is required. If you’re doing long-run jobs and need to go three million cycles between sharpenings, consider hard tools. When calculating the cost of a die over its entire life cycle, look beyond upfront costs—ask how many times a particular brand of die can be sharpened and how often it needs to be sharpened. Expect to pay $30,000 for quality hard tools.

A lower cost version of the standard male/female die is called a mini-die. These give the same edge-cut quality as hard tools but have a lower upfront cost and can usually be sharpened up to 12 times for a total of 750,000 to 1,000,000 operational cycles.

A hard-tool alternative
The modular die is a newer die alternative for runs of less than a million. These dies last about 500,000 cycles but can’t be resharpened. Modular dies typically cost $6,000 and can be obtained in a fraction of the time it takes to receive custom hard tooling dies. Because modular dies give the same high edge quality as hard tooling, they provide a good alternative for short-run, high-end jobs with tight edge quality requirements.

For complex jobs that require different cuts, scoring and other special features, you can choose between compound and progressive dies. A progressive die system moves material through a series of stations, each of which adds a feature. Note that accurate die cutting depends on the precision of the system that moves the material between stations, as well as the accuracy of the printing.

Unlike a progressive die system, a compound die cuts all special features in one press cycle. A compound die is actually multiple tools built inside each other.

Specialty die-cut advertising products are evolving constantly. Most refrigerators probably sport a magnet or two today, but it wasn’t so long ago that refrigerator magnets were novelties. Whether it’s travel agents’ luggage tag promotions, hang tags for POP displays or desktop calendars, there’s no shortage of new die-cut printed products.

The Rainbow connection
To the casual observer, one of Rainbow Printing’s (Union Town, OH) recent products might look like two printed circles connected with a center grommet. But to obstetricians, these are fetal growth charts that simplify prenatal care. And for physical therapists, these are goniometers—angle readers that are critical to their work with patients. Add to these products the wall charts, refrigerator magnets, wallet calendars, and other die-cut printed specialties, and you’ll understand how Rainbow Printing grew from a 15-account shop in 1987 its current 1,200+ accounts.

Ken Thompson, Rainbow’s owner and president, says some of this growth resulted from researching new opportunities and equipment options. "When we are looking for a new product segment or customer, we try to determine that there is a new market before we buy new equipment. We then design a marketing program and test drive it. Initially, we subcontract work out until we are satisfied that we can build the volume needed to justify a major purchase. We then look at where our production bottlenecks will be and make sure we aren’t throwing money away by trying to pair the world’s fastest press with a slower die cutting system, or vice-versa."

Rainbow’s equipment includes a Heidelberg Speedmaster 74 for sheetfed applications, a modified SORDZ that can print 0.030-inch-thick plastic, and a variety of other presses. Rainbow’s extensive finishing department includes laminators and five pieces of precision optically registered equipment from Spartanics (Rolling Meadows, IL), including one M500 decorated material punching and diecutter.

Thompson says speed and reliability are key die cutting system requirements. "Otherwise, you just can’t compete. You need a system that delivers good edge quality so that your customers can get the appearance they want."

All of Rainbow’s die cutters offer correct registration in three axes (X, Y, and rotation) at every press stroke. By contrast, systems that only adjust registration once per sheet typically cannot overcome printing variations, and cutting errors are the inevitable result.

A finishing odyssey
The International Assn. of Diecutting and Diemaking (IADD) and the Foil Stamping & Embossing Assn. (FSEA) host the 2005 IADD/FSEA Odyssey June 15-17 in Atlanta. See

Bob Trkovsky is vice president of Spartanics (Rolling Meadows, IL), a manufacturer of die cutting, punching and other finishing equipment. Contact him at