Digital cutting machines in the printing and sign industry are on the rise. These machines use ultra-sharp durable blades and laser-cutting techniques to cut a variety of materials at high speeds and with a huge amount of versatility and customizability.
This has led many in the industry to wonder if the days of the traditional die-cutting machine—a large press machine using purpose-made “dies” to punch through materials, thus creating shapes—are numbered.
After all, given the speed and versatility of digital cutters and their decreasing price, won’t they naturally squeeze out their ancient analog predecessors?
Well, the truth isn’t that simple. While digital cutting machines are likely to continue to grow in popularity, industry experts don’t see the traditional die-cutting machine going anywhere—for several reasons.
Materials, Manufacturing, and You!
In this printing industry, one of the main factors that determine the appropriate machine is material.
First, traditional die-cutting machines are not suitable for materials such as extremely thick acrylics—after about one inch of thickness, these machines have a tendency to snap and strain the materials they’re cutting because of their punching design. For these thick materials, a digital cutter is usually more useful because it can saw through the thick material without damaging it.
It is important to consider the type of material you will be cutting. Digital cutters might go through vinyl like butter, but die cutters have an advantage even over CNC routers when it comes to materials such as hard aluminum and other tough, rigid materials—their speed will remain the same, no matter how tough the substrate.
Analog or Digital: Which is Faster?
The answer mainly depends on the size of the project. For a large-scale project involving hundreds or even thousands of pieces, analog die-cutting machines are almost always faster—even considering the lead times needed to craft, set up, and swap dies on the machine.
This difference is because digital “die” cutters aren’t “died” cutters at all—they have to manually trace every curve and inch of an object to cut it. While this gives them great versatility and means they don’t need a specialized die to take on any given project, it also means that this cutting method is much slower compared to a die-cutting machine at a larger scale. An appropriately set-up die-cutting machine can churn out dozens of pieces a minute—much faster than a comparable digital machine.
Despite these disadvantages, small-scale shops might find that a digital cutter is a much better investment for them. These cutters are much more flexible, and unlike with a die-cutting machine, you don’t need to contract out new die every time you start a new project. Also, smaller-scale projects eliminate some of the advantages of die cutters, as you’d have to switch dies more often and slow down the process.
Thus, there’s a place for both when it comes to speed—large-scale projects have die cutters as their reigning champion, while on a smaller scale, digital cutters can easily equal their gigantic opponents in quickness.
Analog vs. Digital: Which Is More Convenient?
This question is quite a bit easier to answer than the previous one. Digital cutters integrate easily with software packages and require very little oversight or babysitting—one employee can often operate several digital cutters, saving costs and reducing the need for labor.
Also, sizes and scales of designs can be changed on the fly on digital cutters, whereas a die-cutting machine would need a completely new die manufactured for each part of the job, making digital cutters a better choice when it comes to scalable jobs.
Given this fact, combined with the higher efficiency of digital cutters on small- to medium-scale jobs, digital cutters are much more convenient for smaller-scale printers and sign companies.
Analog vs. Digital: Which Is Cheaper?
Die cutters are much cheaper to purchase but lack flexibility. Digital cutters are more expensive and have higher running costs but are much more flexible, allowing you to take on jobs you may not be able to do with an analog die cutter.
Another important factor to consider is the type of material you’re printing on. Modern UV printers can handle wood, metal, acrylic, vinyl, and many other materials. Digital cutters are much more versatile when it comes to different substrates and materials, making them a better choice if you’re looking to change the sorts of materials you’re printing on.
However, for large-scale operations, there’s still no replacing a traditional die cutter—the convenience and reliability of analog machines make them incredible at churning out massive amounts of similar products.
So Are Digital Cutters Actually Better Than Analog Die Cutters?
Digital technologies are constantly advancing and coming down in cost, and soon they may be readily available to just about every shop, and so it would be silly to ignore them. They offer many advantages, such as less waste, lower lead times, and massive customizability. However, die cutters are incredibly efficient, reliable, and inexpensive, and they are well suited to huge projects that need short turnaround times.
Therefore, there’s a place for both of these technologies in the industry. Although we wouldn’t be surprised to see much smaller and medium-sized firms go totally digital in the future, for the largest companies, there is simply no replacing a traditional analog die cutter, and so we doubt that the venerable analog dies cutter is going anywhere anytime soon.