Investing in Cutting Software

Dec 3, 2009

Last month we looked at new developments in plotter technol-xogy and features. Once you’ve absorbed all that information regarding plotters, and considered what hardware might be right for your shop, the next step is to examine the software available to power your plotter. Software is at least as important as the cutting equipment and there are a number of options for your consideration; like pairing proper tools and equipment with the proper accessory installation, software too may be paired in very specific ways to serve your shop, your hardware, your media and your clients’ needs. Film-cutting software has essentially two elements: design capabilities and production capabilities.

An Overview

Generally plotters do not arrive at your shop ready to cut vinyl, window film or PPF. Restylers who invest in hardware will also have to invest in software to drive their hardware to cut film.

Most cutting software comes from companies specializing in software design, but in a few cases hardware manufacturers offer their own software as an add-on.

Film cutting software for the restyling industry can be described at its most basic level as being a set of tools which allow the user to create, modify, and output production instructions to a piece of hardware. The user content is vector-based, although bitmaps (rasters) can be a part of the workflow. Vectors (or object oriented art) are hard lines, curves and points arranged to form an image.

In our industry, cutting vinyl graphics, window tint or PPF on a plotter is an example of vector based output. Bitmaps are most easily described as photographic-style images comprised of pixels, which are grouped to form an image.

Digitally printing a vehicle wrap is an example of bitmap based output. Output is the set of digital instructions sent from your computer to your plotter instructing the machine to move the film on a Y axis while moving the blade on an X axis, and instructing the machine when and where to lower and raise the blade (or other attachment) to render your desired result in the media you are working with.

Depending on the software, the user may have the ability to design artwork from scratch, use and modify existing artwork or templates, send the output to the hardware or any combination of these elements.

Some software offerings will feature very basic capabilities, others will have powerful capabilities and some software will be a collection of templates allowing a simplified straight-to-cut experience. It is important to also note that as digital printing expands its role in restyling, there are many software developments that link your ability to produce and output vector content with ripping, printing and contour-cutting bitmap content.

Production Only Software

The first type of software to look at is production-only software. This type of software is meant to allow film cutting (vector output) without the inclusion of significant design or editing tools. If a shop is seeking to cut from an existing library or utilize a template library, and custom designs aren’t required, then this type of software is for you.

Roland DGA Corporation, Irvine, Calif., a recognized producer of vinyl plotters, offers a  hard-drive based software system called CutStudio. This software has vector output production capabilities specific to Roland plotters. It is important to note that CutStudio is limited in its approach to allow the user the main task of efficiently producing accurately sized film kits ready for installation.

“CutStudio is an entry-level piece of software meant as a turnkey offering paired with cutting hardware to cut right out of the box. CutStudio has very minimal vectorizing capabilities and just basic design tools,” says Dana Curtis, application specialist for sign solutions with Roland. “CutStudio lets designers quickly and easily enlarge, reduce, re-position, rotate and mirror images. User interface is a proprietary layout with two simple tool bars.”

For shops with graphic design experience or who are already using other vector-based software, there is another hard-drive based product from Roland called Film Design Pro, which is a more sophisticated design and cut software with improved vectorizing and editing abilities.

Templates will feature a year range of a specific vehicle and all available manufacturer window options will be contained within that year range. Users may select just the window templates required and nest them for production purposes. Also available is a thorough and up-to-date PPF pattern template library upgrade and even a library of custom vinyl graphics, all ready to cut.

It allows the user to modify templates by nodes, skew or other editing tools and then save that modified file locally on the user’s computer. Film Design Pro has a unique cutting option described as unidirectional cutting. Because window film is such a delicate material, Roland says the unidirectional or tangential emulation provides a cleaner cut, allowing for longer life of the film.

Xpel Technologies Corp., San Antonio, Texas also offers design software called Design Access Program. Compatible with all brands of film and most plotters/cutters on the market, Xpel touts its system as easy-to-use yet powerful, providing access to Xpel’s database of paint protection film patterns, window tint patterns and headlight protection patterns as well as other tools.

“With the launch of our DAP 7.0 software, we introduced a library of vector artwork which can be used to create vinyl banners, vehicle decals or to inlay in window tint,” says Ryan Pape, senior vice president of operations at Xpel.

Bekaert Specialty Films, San Diego, introduced its template-based ComputerCut software in 2001. This particular software offering is an example of a contemporary approach to software ownership, often referred to as Web 2.0, which is a server or Internet-based software system. A shop’s ownership of the software is not physical but a licensed arrangement to use the software and its updates as well as its associated template libraries and graphic design services.

“Gary Benoit was the inventor of ComputerCut and the concept of using an Internet-based software to cut window film patterns. He had owned a window tinting shop for 20 years and had come to the point where to increase production he had to sell more projects and hire new employees. In the case of the latter, that was something he didn’t really want to do,” says Rob Garlo, automotive program sales manager at Bekaert. “Benoit had dabbled a bit with vinyl graphics which he farmed out to a sign shop next door to his shop. One day while watching the sign shop’s plotter going back and forth cutting decals he had the thought, ‘What if I could do the same thing with window tint patterns? I could increase my production without increasing my employees and save material through the efficiency of computer cutting.'”

The point of such software is to allow the shop owner to focus on the production process versus graphic design tasks. In the case of high volume window film, PPF or even vinyl graphic or lettering clients where repetitive projects rather than custom, one-off designs are the mainstay, these template systems provide high value for the user.

“The whole idea behind ComputerCut is to increase a shop’s efficiency and to increase their revenue stream. Use that cutting machine and software for more than just cutting window tint patterns; use it to grow your business and increase your revenue,” explains Garlo.

Design Software

Often referred to as sign-making software due to its origin in the sign industry, graphic design software is both marketed towards the graphic arts world as well as the restyling industry. Software like FlexiSign by SAi, Philadelphia, SignLab by CADlink, Ottowa, Ont., OMEGA by Gerber Scientific, South Windsor, Conn. and the previously mentioned Film Design Pro by Roland are targeted towards the sign industry, the automotive aftermarket and some cousin industries like engraving, embroidery and other creative services. These pieces of software are meant to be used to design graphics, signs, wraps and film templates from scratch or to substantially modify existing files. What sets these offerings apart from production software are the sophisticated tools available within the user interface.

These tools include drawing functions, vectorizing actions, layering and dimensional aspects, fills and textures, bitmap handling, import and export controls, training tools and project/business management. The depth of the robust features found in design software could fill many magazine articles; let’s review the greatest hits.

Vectorizing

A customer comes into your shop and introduces himself as the owner of a local plumbing company. He states that he is seeking a complete package for his fleet of service trucks including window tint and vinyl graphics. As you work up the order, the topic of a company logo comes up. He hands you his business card and says proudly “Here’s my logo.” It is less than 1-inch-by-1-inch in size. Since your shop has a scanner, you tell your new client that you will scan his logo and use it for both his door graphics as well as in the center of his rear window, cut from a colorized window film that you will layer with regular window film. But a scan is really just a close up photo or bitmap of the image, and not a hard-line drawing that is cut-ready.

“Vectorizing is defined as converting the dots of a bitmap to nodes or vectors for cutting purposes,” explains Dana Curtis.

In real-world film cutting applications, your shop will have to vectorize on a daily basis. Vectorizing abilities will vary from software to software, but if you want to offer strong graphic design services to your clients you will need to have powerful vectorizing tools at your disposal.

“Vectorizing really was what the company was founded on back in the late 80s,” says Judy Heft, director of marketing at SAi. “ScanVec is Scan to Vectorize and was the original name. Deep tool understanding and training leads to rapid vectorizing abilities. The beauty of Flexi is that it gives you the tolerances, but they aren’t locked in so that when you get a different type of artwork you can tell the software to interpret it differently. The settings depend on the quality of the artwork, the size of the artwork or bitmap.”

Exporting and Importing

As noted, graphic files exist in many file types, specific to the file being a vector or bitmap. Standardization of formats between software products is rare, so you will want your software to be as flexible as possible, with the ability to import a wide array of formats.

In addition to outputting your project, you may need to share the design with your client or another service provider and therefore exporting a wide variety of formats is also important. Of particular importance is the ability to import and export EPS and PDF formats; these are widely used and maintain the data integrity of the file. As you expand into digital printing, file formats become even more important in the maintenance of color information and profiles.

Show Me a Picture

With the ever increasing visual sophistication of marketing, showing your clients a preview of the work you will provide for them is critical. Design software must support the ability to import a photo of your client’s work and either derive vectorized patterns from the image (as in custom preparing a window film pattern) or superimpose a proposal onto the image (as in a decorative vinyl graphic or logo/lettering project).

Additionally, accessory manufacturers are allowing images of their products to be utilized by restylers in order to virtually install them on a vehicle. All of the design software products reviewed have this capability in varying forms; seek demonstrations of this important function when researching software for your shop to ensure you chose the appropriate ability to match your anticipated needs.

Training

With only a mere scratch of the surface of the power of design software, it is important to consider how you and your staff will learn to utilize the volume of capabilities of your software. Whether you are a new user or seeking to expand on your working knowledge of software you are already using, examine the software manufacturer’s promotional materials as well as their resellers for training options.

“SAi offers a wide range of training options for users looking to learn how to optimize the use of their Flexi Software and how to maximize the value it provides them and their business. With training materials, online subscriptions, and expert-taught courses nationwide, users will find the resources needed to learn how they can contribute greater value to their organization and further develop their own skills,” says Heft.

“User training is provided by authorized Gerber distributors in all the local markets where customers reside,” reports Goodale. He goes on to describe additional training resources: “OMEGA is chock full of training tools that are designed to help businesses get the most from their investment in Gerber products. These tools include a complete, context-sensitive HELP system, a Learning Guide Tutorial with lessons from the most basic to the most advanced topics, as well as an optional Multimedia Video Learning Guide. The Gerber web site is also stocked with information and live help is available as an additional option.”

Choosing the Right Software

Software complexity should not interfere with your main priority: quickly, efficiently and profitably serving your clients’ needs. Tools can be as simple as a perfect handled Phillips head screwdriver to a full software suite offering design-from-scratch capabilities, production controls, and access to existing libraries of film patterns and templates.

Another useful tool includes pricing information.

“In addition to pattern related features, we have a pricing module that allows our customers to create an infinite number of price columns based on various material costs and labor rates,” says Pape. “Users have the ability to produce catalogs that display thumbnails of the patterns and pricing that the users can set up.”

A shop should carefully weigh how productivity will be affected by the different software options. If you want to eliminate time-consuming and error-prone hand cutting of window film or PPF you may want to choose a cutting software with access to prepared templates. If you are seeking to customize each one of your client’s projects with one of a kind restyling, then select a design and cut software and commit to a complete training program to make that software and hardware work for you.

Investing in cutting software should be an investment in your company, in your clients and in your time.

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Patterns and Templates

Software manufacturers have increased their offerings of highly accurate cut-ready patterns to help you use your equipment and materials more efficiently. There are online subscription options and media-based options that you physically own. These libraries contain valuable prepared files featuring not only the cut-ready patterns but also blank vehicle templates allowing for the virtual restyling of vehicles right before your customers’ eyes. In addition to patterns and vehicle templates, many offer premade graphic files to expand your offerings even more.

SAi has recently introduced its Automotive Suite. The suite was put together as a one-stop option for people looking for the different aspects with the vehicles: textures, images, the templates of the vehicles themselves, and associated PPF and window tint patterns.

“It is a logical collection of the different elements that we have,” says Amy Dickinson, product marketing manager, new products with SAi.

This suite is DVD-based but also offers online options for a limited budget where users can purchase usage on a cut-by-cut basis. Roland’s Dana Curtis, application specialist for sign solutions, notes that Film Design Pro has a hard-drive based library for unlimited cutting.

Rob Garlo, automotive program sales manager, with Bekaert notes that “The choice Bekaert made was to go with server-based software, ComputerCut, offering instantaneous access to the information. New patterns are put up every day; our software actually lists what new patterns were put up that day. Our philosophy behind using a server based software system is giving the customer the most instantaneous information available to them at that time.”

-Steve Zacher