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Print & Cut Technologies: A Perfect Pair

Copyright © 2017 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in December 2017, Volume 43, No. 6 of The Engravers Journal

Multiple printed items can be cut in one setup. Photo courtesy of Epilog Laser..

   Lately it seems that almost daily, something new comes along in the personalization industry. It is an exciting time. One of the really neat and relatively new technologies available to many of us is the ability to print something with one system and cut it out with another. For example, you could use a UV printer or sublimation to print custom key chains onto a sheet of acrylic and then use your laser to cut them out.
   There are many different applications for this process. You can precisely vector cut items that have been preprinted, such as sheets of digitally printed transfers, labels, membrane switches, signs, name badges, models, decals, puzzles, cards, boxes, novelties and stationery. The possibilities are endless.
   There are a couple of ways to go about doing this. One way is to use an optical recognition system on your laser. These are now being offered by all of the major laser manufacturers, and the beauty of this technology is that it pretty much automates the laser cutting process which can save you loads of time. You can also do this manually if you don’t have an optical recognition system for your laser. In this article, I’ll take a look at both methods.
The Printing Part
   There are, of course, a variety of technologies that you can use to print full-color images onto sheets of material. For instance, UV printers are the rage in our industry right now. They do a great job of printing full-color images and photographs on all kinds of substrates including wood, plastics, acrylic, leather and paper.
   Sublimation is another full-color printing technology. Sublimated materials such as hardboard, fiberglass reinforced plastic, sublimatable plastics like DyeFlex and sublimatable acrylic can be cut out with a laser, as can items that are screen printed. Things printed with regular off-the-shelf inkjet and laser printers that might include card stock, paper, foils or decals can also be cut with a laser.
   Once your items are printed, you can use your laser’s vector cutting capabilities to cut them out.

Figure 1: Here is an example of something simple to be cut using the laser. The red outline indicates the vector cut line.

Figure 2: For this artwork, you can use CorelTRACE to outline the image and then delete the background.

Using an Optical Recognition System
   Using an optical recognition system makes the task of cutting out products with a laser much easier, much faster and much more accurate than doing it manually. As mentioned, most major manufacturers offer a camera system for at least some of their machines, usually as an option, includingEpilog Laser (eView Camera), GCC America (LaserPro AAS Module), Gravotech (Print & Cut), Trotec Laser (JobControl Vision) and Universal Laser (Camera Registration). The system amounts to little more than a camera mounted on the lens assembly and some software which optically recognizes the shape to be cut.
   The specifics of how these systems work will vary somewhat depending on the manufacturer, but they all work on the same basic concept. You start by creating the artwork to be printed and then add in standard laser cut lines (.003" line thickness) around the shapes to be cut and a number of registration marks, depending on the complexity of the job. After placing the printed material on the laser bed, you send the cut lines/registration marks portion of the art to the laser and the camera automatically reads the registration marks and applies the cutting data to create a cutting path to precisely cut out the shapes in a way that provides perfect image registration with the surface-printed graphics. Since the camera and computer are doing the work, it doesn’t matter where or how the material is placed in the laser. In other words, even if the sheet of material is deliberately skewed in the laser, the optical recognition software will reposition the cutting path of the vector cut to provide perfect image alignment.
   The benefit of using a camera system is that it completely automates the laser cutting process. If you are doing a lot of this type of work, it is definitely an option to consider.

Figure 3: In the case of a photograph, you can outline the image in CorelDRAW and then PowerClip it. Figure 4: This image is a little more involved since you need to create cut lines around the image and inside the image as well.

The Manual Way
   As for the rest of us who don’t have a camera system on our lasers, there is a way to accomplish the same result with some good old ingenuity.
   If you print something using any of the methods mentioned earlier, chances are, you created the design in CorelDRAW or a similar graphics program. That is all you need to be able to cut out printed projects using your laser.
   The ingenuity begins when you are creating the artwork. As when using a camera system, you need to do two things. One, you need to add at least two registration marks to the outside of the area you are going to cut out. Two, you must include a cut line on the outside of the image. When printing the image, that line can be made transparent so it doesn’t print on the original but it needs to be there so the laser will know where to cut. As another alternative, you could place the cut lines on a different layer in the layout.
   The challenge here is making sure the printed material and the laser cut lines line up. Simply changing the size of the page in the graphics software will rarely cause them to line up so you will need to do that manually. This is why the camera systems are so helpful—they don’t care where the image is because the camera(s) looks for registration marks and adjusts the laser layout accordingly.
   First, whatever you printed or sublimated will be on a certain size paper or sheet stock, so begin by creating a page in the software that matches that. In my case, I always work with a full 12" x 24" page so I have to create a box that is the appropriate size and place it in the upper left corner of the page. On other engravers, you can create a different page size and the software will automatically place it in the upper left corner for you.

A big application for combining print and cut technologies is printing on cardstock for applications such as boxes and packaging. Photo courtesy of Universal Laser Systems.

Clear acrylic is an excellent material for print and cut applications. Photo courtesy of Gravotech, Inc.

   To help fine tune the positioning of the printed material and the laser cut lines, you can use those registration marks to “register” the image manually. To best accomplish this, select the registration marks you placed in the original artwork and make sure they are a different color than any of the other vector lines in the artwork. For safety, make sure the entire image on the screen is grouped so you can’t move the registration marks without moving everything else.
   Place the product in the laser and push it up into the upper left corner. Now, turn on the red dot laser pointer and adjust the focus accordingly. Send the single color of the registration marks to the laser and run the job using just the red dot laser. Watch the red dot laser as it runs by standing directly over the piece and looking straight down over the registration marks. You should be able to see if the laser is perfectly matched to the printed marks.
   If it isn’t, and it probably won’t be, select the entire image on the computer screen and move it slightly in whichever direction is needed until the laser and the printed lines are aligned. You may have to repeat this step several times. Then, run that part of the job with low power. Again, check the registration. If the engraved mark is directly on top of the printed mark, you are ready to turn off that color and turn on the color that outlines the image, adjust the power and run the job. It should line up perfectly.
   Provided the products were placed properly when printed, each one should be able to be cut out without further adjustment. Saving the job should allow for repeatability without all the setup should you get repeat orders.
   The simplest type of art to cut out is the art you create yourself such as the circle graphic for Bozhi’s gym shown in Figure 1. In this case, all you have to do is change the outside circle to a cut color (such as red), place it in the laser and follow the instructions just described. (Note: The red outline in this example is larger for illustration purposes. As mentioned, a laser cut line needs to be .003”.)
   The horse and rider image shown in Figure 2 is a bit more involved but because there are really only two colors in the image, you can use CorelTRACE (or some other vectorization software) to outline them in such a way that you can delete all the sky leaving only the black portion of the image. Once that is done, you can select the line(s) that outline the horse and rider, change them to a cut color and follow the procedure just described to align and cut out the image.
   The image of the girl shown in Figure 3 requires a bit more skill. Because it is a photograph, CorelTRACE won’t work. This means you will have to draw a cut line around whatever you want to keep. The Bézier tool in CorelDRAW is my choice to accomplish this. In this case, I opted not to be too careful outlining the girl and allowed the cut lines to eliminate stray hair as it wouldn’t do well being cut out anyway. Once the outline is complete, PowerClip the image inside the outline. Change the outline color to a cut color and follow the instructions described.

These acrylic monsters were cut using the JobControl Vision system from Trotec Laser, Inc.

Optical recognition systems use a camera to detect registration marks on printed artwork. Photo courtesy of GCC America, Inc.

   The final example is the cowboy shown in Figure 4. This image is even more complex than the previous examples since it calls for cutting out the outline but choosing what we want to cut out inside the image as well. You will see I chose to cut out the areas between his arms and body but not inside the straps holding his hat on. The reason for this is because if I were to cut out the areas inside the straps, the straps would be so thin, they would likely break the first time they were touched. The arms, however, are big enough to provide adequate strength. To outline the body, I used the Bézier tool to create a rough outline around the image and then converted the lines to curves and moved them to hug his body.
Integrated Printers/Cutters
   This article has focused on using a laser and some sort of full-color printing technology to combine the print and cut technologies. As a side note, there is equipment available that combines these two technologies into one system. Manufacturers such as Roland DGA Corp., Irvine, CA, Mimaki USA, Suwanee, GA, and Mutoh America, Inc., Phoenix, AZ, offer a variety of equipment ranging from small desktop units to large wide-format systems designed for larger applications like vehicle wraps and billboards. These are essentially digital inkjet printers that can print on a substrate. Then when you switch to cut mode, the same machine cuts out the printed images using a blade. These units are popular for applications such as signage, stickers, labels, transfers for apparel, POP displays, window stickers, posters, etc.
   It’s an exciting time to be in the personalization industry. We continue to see substantial improvements in what is already state-of-the-art laser technology, and color printing technologies are evolving at a rapid rate as well while UV printers have become more affordable and easier to use.
   Combining the two technologies opens a whole new range of possibilities—possibilities that are truly only limited by your creativity and imagination. Maybe it’s time to explore this option in your business.