New Developments in Plotters

Dec 3, 2009

Whether your restyling shop offers vinyl graphics, vinyl signage, paint protection film packages, window tint or other film-based products and services, many of you are using computer driven plotters as a primary tool to serve your clients’ needs.

Plotters (or cutters) give a shop the ability to provide solutions to clients’ aftermarket vehicle customizing needs, commercial and fleet markings as well as marketing opportunities. Plotters date back to the late 1950s and have featured a standard process of moving rolled film/media forward and back on a Y axis while moving a knife blade back and forth across the face of the media on an X axis.

While the basic technology hasn’t changed, increases in computer processing speeds and design and production software developments all offer powerful improvements to a shop’s ability to render sophisticated output with faster turn around times. Advances in computing technology aside, plotters have leapt forward in features and capabilities, giving users an arsenal of tools custom-designed to improve performance in general as well as to provide nuanced abilities paired with specific materials to achieve accurate and profitable production. In particular, advancements in digital printing and continued growth in PPF markets have driven technology in plotters, but new developments have been realized in the equipment’s controls, longevity and durability-as well as ease of use and integration with computers.

“Summa’s premier S Class line of vinyl cutters features a touch screen display to allow for anyone to easily navigate the menus and functionality,” says Royce Owen, marketing manager for Summa, Seattle. “Summa also provides a cutter/printer control desktop host program to allow full control of the machines directly from a computer’s desktop. Summa continually upgrades its vinyl cutters and printers.  Most upgrades are available on our Web site at no charge to the customer.”

Contour Cutting and Registration

One of the most significant developments in cutting technology is the integration of digital printers and plotters. Many restylers are digitally printing large-format graphics which then require contour cutting to achieve the end product.

The critical feature which allows for an accurate contour cut is media, or print, registration. If the cutting device cannot precisely locate a starting point as well as registration points during the cut, your expensive print will be ruined.

Steve Urmano from Mimaki USA, Inc., Suwanee, Ga., describes the company’s newest alignment feature: “An optical sensor enables automatic consecutive detection of registration marks throughout the nested image which the printers print, in combination with the automatic correcting feature that allows you to obtain a precise contour cut.”

Graphtec America, Santa Ana, Calif., offers the Advanced Registration Mark Sensor system which can read multiple registration mark patterns to obtain accurate contour cutting.

“This especially benefits those who have a need for contour cutting of longer prints,” says Glenn Liebner, product manager from Graphtec.

It is interesting to note that manufacturers like Summa and Roland offer digital inkjet printer/plotter combo units. These combo pieces offer a concise package for a shop seeking an entry into digital printing. However, a digital printer is a sensitive machine and it is widely accepted that non-printed projects shouldn’t be introduced to such equipment, so these combo units are not the best option if your shop does not have a separate plotter.

Gerber Scientific, South Windsor, Conn., offers a feature that falls into its own registration category: the View and Recover system.

“You can pause a job, slew the vinyl to view cut depth, cut quality, graphic features, or even print to cut,” says Dana Goodale, product manager for Gerber Scientific. “If all is OK, you can simply continue with the job. Or if a setting adjustment is required, you can change a setting such as speed or cut depth and continue from there.”

While this is not specific to contour cutting, it is a unique vinyl cutting features and illustrates, along with contour cut registration features, plotter manufacturers’ dedication to equipment improvement.

Size Does Matter

Plotters come in a wide variety of cutting widths. When researching equipment for your shop, it is important to pair the appropriate width with the materials you will be using. The restyling industry has seen growth in so many areas and many shops overlap services, so your equipment needs to be as versatile as possible to achieve to maximize profits.

Window tint services can include not only automotive and RV projects but also residential and commercial buildings, necessitating wider films to result in splice-free jobs. Paint masks are also a growing field for many shops and a wide range of projects await those who provide this specialized service. Plotter manufacturers have risen to the challenge of wide format PPF cutting, improving their offerings to address this market.

Restylers are becoming more and more familiar with digital printing. Just thumbing through this magazine or attending the annual SEMA show will illustrate the long reach that this technology has extended into the automotive aftermarket industry. Since many digitally printed projects require contour cutting, it is only natural that plotters are sized to match the printed output size. Plotter manufacturers like Roland, Summa, Mimaki and Graphtec have developed wide format equipment in 54, 60 and even 64-inch widths to accommodate these cutting-edge materials.

With increased markets and applications for PPF have come a corresponding usage of wider PPF materials and the cutting equipment to handle wide format film. Liebner notes a particular demand for larger plotters.

“I know in talking with some of our dealers that as a result of big advancements in automotive PPF use there has been a need for cutters 60-inch or larger, in part because they want to cut the PPF in one piece opposed to two smaller pieces. Our dealers have been selling a lot more 60-inch plus cutters for that application alone. This way installers, instead of paneling the material and kits, can apply single pieces. That’s where our sales growth has been in the automotive market-the larger cutters as opposed to even a year ago where we were selling 30-inch cutters. Now it has gone all the way up to the 60-inch and larger cutters.”

As many shop owners are aware, purchasing material in the widest formats can result in the best square-foot price. Producing kits and custom application pieces using the widest materials not only results in simpler one-piece installs, but often there are large pieces of film left over that can be utilized for smaller applications, expanding on the profit per square foot of the material.

Staying On Track

With the advent of larger, wider machines and the corresponding longer cut runs comes another production concern: material tracking. There are essentially two types of media feed technology: friction feed and sprocket feed. While friction feed is the most widespread media feed method, sprocket feed technology possesses a distinct advantage: unattended cutting.

“Sprocket-fed material is the ultimate in tracking reliability,” says Goodale. “Simply put, sprockets equal peace ofmind and unattended operation. Sprocket plotters have the most reliable tracking available, whether cutting very long jobs or thicker materials such as reflective or paint masks. Some users scoff at the idea of only using punched materials; however, if cutting large quantities of expensive reflective material on a regular basis, the prospect of throwing away many yards of expensive reflective material due to the mis-tracking of a friction device can very quickly justify a sprocket plotter.”

Manufacturers are improving and modifying control settings for pinch (or friction) to improve performance and to work with a wide variety of materials.

Roland plotters “come equipped with a stand that has integrated media brakes and media guides to keep the roll feeding straight as well as media flanges for roll fed material,” according to Dana Curtis, product manager at Roland ASD, Lake Forest, Calif. “Roland’s media brake stops the roll from unraveling any further than the pre-fed amount before cutting. Media flanges help pick the roll up off the rollers and only allow two contact points between the film and media rollers. This protects the film from damage and helps it to smoothly rotate, which aids in feeding the material through the cutter and prolongs the life of the film quality.”

Liebner notes Graphtec’s material tracking advances, saying that Graphtec tested a variety of medias, tracking each over 50 feet numerous times and in different environments before giving it a guarantee.

“Feed out as much as you need to make sure the aliment is correct. Pull slack off the roll by using the feed function. The feed function will not only feed the material to reduce the slack, but it will also create tracks in the media backing, allowing the wheels to accurately follow.”

Under The Knife

In addition to feeding and tracking improvements, plotter manufacturers have also advanced the actual cutting of the media. Knife blade adjustments are important features as different types of media require varying blade pressures and cut depths.

“Twenty to 600 grams of selectable cutting force allows users to process diamond grade, high-intensity reflective film, sandblast resistant rubber, automotive window tint, PPF and self-adhesive vinyl among other media types,” says Liebner.

Specialized media types like Amberlith and Rubylith films and paint mask materials also require varying cut depths and pressures, so adjustable cutting force and depth is now a standard built into most models of film cutters.

There are two knife blade head technologies in current plotters; tangential and swivel head. Tangential heads lift the blade up and down rapidly in order to realize corners in the cut pattern while swivel heads swivel the blade to complete the curve or corner. Swivel head technology is a less expensive component to a plotter than a motor-driven tangential head.

Glenn Liebner explains the differences simply: “Swivel head blades are faster and tangential head blades offer fine accuracy. There have been a lot of recent developments in swivel head technology that lets this style imitate the tangential process. One of the benefits of a tangential head is cutting the thicker media like sandblast mask where the blade lifts its head and gets a sharper corner.”

Plotter manufacturers each have developed technologies to provide smooth cutting and tear-free corners, including Roland’s ball-bearing housing and carbide blade that swivels as needed during the cut and Graphtec’s Tangential emulation and overcut cutting modes that allow cutting of delicate or stretchy media.

There are, of course, different types of blades as well. Steve Urmano from Mimaki notes that its CG-FX cutter has “user-replaceable blades to cut different types of materials,” allowing the advantage of pairing specific blades with specific production. This will result in longer blade life if, for instance, all reflective material is cut with a designated blade, leaving a separate blade for tint or cast vinyl materials and perhaps yet another separate blade for contour cutting laminated digital prints.

“Users can customize their blade holder, blade and blade force by adjusting how much knife blade extends from the blade holder,” says Curtis. “Thinner materials require a lower 25-degree angle blade, and conversely, thicker materials might need up to a 60-degree blade.”

All Kinds of Options

Plotter manufacturers have you covered for any type of media cutting, offering a wide array of equipment options and controls to realize your specific output.

New developments in plotters range from small but productive features like Graphtec’s built-in cross-cut feature which quickly cuts straight across the entire width of your material to the very detailed Gerber View and Recover system, to the industry-wide contour cut registration systems.

Ease of operation, service and reliability are the benchmarks of a good machine, according to Owen at Summa. Like all good tools, plotters should allow you and your shop to work smarter, not harder. Choose your plotter carefully to realize faster production turnaround, improve production quality, compliment your specific offerings, and above all, generate profits.


Shocking Topic

Users of plotters are probably familiar with the build up of static electricity that occurs in long cut runs. Once the cut is complete and the handler moves to remove the film from the plotter a nasty electric shock can make the experience a bit rude. Plotter manufacturers are taking steps to eliminate this painful annoyance because not only does a shock hurt, it can also be damaging to the electronics of the plotter itself, and in extreme cases even the computer that is driving the plotter.

“The CAMM-1 Pro GX series cutters come with a stainless steel front panel,” says Dana Curtis from Roland. “Because steel is electrically neutral, it generates very little static electricity. Roland offers a media catch basket to protect the cutter and film from dirt and protecting polyester and polyurethane films from attracting dust and fibers on the ground of most shops, which are most prone to attracting static electricity. ”

Other answers to this problem include Graphtec America’s solution: installing static brushes on the front and back of its newest plotter, the FC7000AKZ, to reduce the buildup of static electricity while plotting various materials. Some shops even report running a ground wire from the equipment or suggest that users investigate plugging all electronic equipment into a battery backup that features surge protection and grounding.

As with other concerns, ask the manufacturer about specific topics such as static electricity control to ensure that you aware of standard and optional configurations to protect your equipment and improve productivity.