UV Ink, the Driver for Innovation
Innovations in the finishing industry came about after technological advances were made in the printing process that made printing on many substrates not only feasible but economical. This technology was UV printing—these inks are high quality and high fidelity and cure almost immediately when struck by UV light from the printheads that are used when printing.
This innovation in printing technology meant that printing on substrates that had previously been impossible or uneconomical, such as plastic sheet products, metals, textiles, and wood, was now completely within reason. However, this jump in technology left a large gap—specialized machines are required to handle the finishing process of these materials efficiently and quickly. Companies adapted quickly, resulting in the modern finishing machines in which we’re familiar.
The Roots of Modern Finishing Technology
Digital finishing technologies now used by printer service providers (PSPs) can be understood as a combination of two technologies, both of which were important in the printing industry to finish various types of print projects.
The first technology introduced to PSPs for finishing was specialized adaptations of CNC and milling machines designed for lower-impact use on acrylics, plastics, and other soft materials that PSPs typically used for printing. These machines were extremely adept at the two-dimensional cutting of materials and designs intended for three-dimensional signage, especially when working with tougher, more rigid materials.
The second technology was an adaptation of the flatbed vinyl cutter technology that has been used for decades in the signage industry to cut out vinyl letters and other shapes for signage. In their modern incarnation, these cutters are a far cry from a hand-operated manual cutter, featuring compatibility with major software suites and vast automation potential.
Modern Finishing Technology Has Been Hybridized
Unsurprisingly, the fact that both of these machines are essential for any shop wishing to offer digital print finishing services means that after they had been perfected, both types of machines began moving toward each other, offering similar feature sets and options.
CNC routers now feature large, high-speed rotating spindles, as well as knife-cutter integration, for an all-in-one solution that can handle both limited standard vinyl cutting applications and the high-speed cutting and milling of rigid materials.
Higher-end flatbed cutting machines can even include laser cutters—one of the newer technologies on the market that promise incredible control and complexity when cutting even the toughest materials, allowing for shapes that would be impossible with any other technology.
These flatbed cutting machines focus more on extremely precise cutting knives and automation technology, while also incorporating high-speed spindles that perform quite acceptably at CNC milling and machining of wood, acrylic, and other lightweight printed materials. Unique opportunities arise when using lasers for cutting and finishing of fabric. Such systems can automatically seal cut edges allowing the process to move 6-12 times faster than hand cutting with hot knives. The expedited process also reduces the need for additional finishing steps, such as hemming.
Which Style Is Better? That Depends on the Shop
If you need to know what style of hybrid machine is best for your shop, well, it’s complicated and mainly depends on the substrates that you typically work with and in which direction you’d like to grow in the future.
If you’re doing a lot of work with heavier substrates such as acrylic and wood—or even some thicker metals, a purpose-built CNC machine with some hybrid cutting features will likely give you the best results.
However, if you’re focusing more on traditional signage and 2D printing jobs, a larger flatbed knife cutting machine may be a better option—including a high-speed routing tool to handle the lower-volume milling job. You should consider that milling speed becomes more important than horsepower when milling the materials that are used for print, as opposed to those that might be used for three-dimensional signage, architectural signage, or thicker metals. These machines also typically have more automation capabilities and better integration into print RIP workflows
Both technologies offer:
- Great Versatility
- Ample Automation Options
- Connectivity with Most Modern Digitial Printing Packages
Given the fact that the digital printing industry is set for huge growth in the next five years, the continued improvement and evolution of digital finishing technology for PSPs is going to be interesting to watch. Expect to see further innovation in the spheres of automation and laser cutting as they increase widths and become less expensive. It is anticipated that these machines will become widely available to match the increased demand for digital laser print cutting services.