In recent years, small desktop machines that can cut out images have become very popular. Used for scrapbooking and iron-on shirt transfers, they have brought a lot of attention to the larger machines that are capable of print and cut functions for commercial applications.
What is print and cut?
It is the ability to print a digital image on a variety of materials and then cut out the image with the same machine. We are not talking about cutting out a rectangle of material with the image on it but cutting out the image by tracing the actual shape with a knife blade. Although these have been around for a long time (I tested one many years ago), they haven’t captured much attention until recently with the introduction of some new wide-format models.
What are they used for?
The little home-type personal use machines like the Cricut, Cameo or Silhouette are used by seamstresses and craft people for a variety of applications such as making iron-on appliques, sewing patterns, scrapbooking, greeting cards, decals, stencils, window clings, etc. The big boys, on the other hand, can do a wide variety of projects, including larger ones, with speed, high-quality and great accuracy.
Companies like Roland DGA Corp. (Irvine, CA), Epson, Mimaki USA (Suwanee, GA), and HP offer machines of various sizes that can not only print appliques, they can print and cut self-adhesive labels, decals, vinyl, car wraps, signage, fine art, photos, posters, backlit signs and menu boards, wall graphics, control panels and probably a thousand things not even thought of yet.
One thing that is certainly new is that in addition to solvent ink-based printers, suppliers are now offering machines that combine UV-LED printing and cutting in one machine. Of course, UV-LED printers are relatively new themselves but until recently, there haven’t been any machines that are capable of both printing and cutting.
Although most of these printers are wide-format printers, meaning (for the purposes of this article) that they can handle media 54" or wider, there are a couple of “small” units as well with 20" or 30" printing capabilities.
What can you make?
First and foremost is the question of “Why should you be interested in one of these machines?” With all the various processes available to you such as laser engraving, sublimation, sandcarving, direct-to-garment printing, UV-LED printing, screen printing and hot stamping, only to mention the most common, what can a print and cut device bring that others can’t and, most important of all, will it make you money?
The list of what these machines can make is both specific and diversified. Most can print banners so no need for vinyl letters. Just print full color directly onto the banner material. They can print labels, decals and stickers. Labels for almost anything and in almost any shape can be printed and then automatically cut out. When using a self-adhesive substrate like sign vinyl, all you have to do is weed and stick them on whatever it is you or your customer wants to label. You can also make stickers—stickers for almost anything from a sticker the local dentist gives a kid for being good to a warning label for high voltage. Control panels are often made from steel or aluminum and covered with a vinyl face with all the necessary markings. Industrial clients are always looking for sources to make their products look good. Then there are posters—all kinds of posters—for indoors or outdoors and as large as the printer can produce. Everything from a poster advertising the local school play to those on the front of a museum announcing some great event. Signs of all kinds, both interior and exterior, can be made with any of these devices.
One of the “got to have” products companies are asking for are vehicle wraps and, sure enough, you can print them with any of the printers mentioned here. I have even seen people with a blue car that wanted it red, so they wrapped the entire car in red vinyl and, believe it or not, it looked great. The same is true with people who want to protect the finish on some exotic car. What do they do? They cover it with vinyl so any little dings or scratches get on the vinyl, not the actual car, and it’s much less expensive than a paint job! Of course, vehicle wraps are also very popular for advertising businesses, organizations, events, etc.
Been to McDonald’s or Burger King lately? Those backlit menus are printed with a machine just like the ones mentioned here. In fact, using translucent vinyl or acrylic, you can make all kinds of backlit signage.
Another product line that has gained popularity in recent years is wall graphics. Be it for a kid’s room, a church, school, public building, museum or just for fun, you can print directly onto removable vinyl that can be applied and then removed from almost any surface to produce everything from the face of a famous football player to a life size Thomas the Tank Engine.
Floor graphics are also popular. General Formulations (a manufacturer of pressure sensitive films) makes a cloth-like material that can be printed with solvent inks that will stick to just about anything and can be removed easily and even reapplied multiple times. This makes a great material for floor graphics. They also make blank footprint shapes out of the same material. Tell your client his customers will “make tracks” to whatever he has on sale. I saw a set of steps done with these in Las Vegas a couple of years ago at a pet food convention. It was a real attention getter.
Fabric is another application for these machines. You can print heat applied appliques one at a time or by the thousands and then personalize each one if you like.
Fine art is yet another application. You can print any non-copyrighted image onto fabric and then adhere it to a backing board or stretch it over a frame to make artwork for homes, offices, churches and anywhere else that needs them. And if you pay the appropriate royalties, you can print the copyrighted images too—think about colleges and universities! Then, think profit.
Basic Information About Print & Cut Machines
Some things are common among the quality print and cut machines that you should know. All of these machines use friction rollers as opposed to tractor fed systems. This provides more accuracy, and some printers have as many as 40 of these feed rollers. All of these printers are CMYK at a minimum and many will allow you to add white, silver or clear varnish and the larger ones offer many more colors. Larger printers come in two sizes: 54" and 64" and are roll-fed. The size of the machine will vary depending on the type and the manufacturer, but as an example Roland’s new TrueVIS VG2 series large-format cutters have a footprint of 116" wide x 28.8" deep x 51.6" high for the 64" printer and 105.8" wide x 28.8" deep x 51.6" high for the 54" printer. They weigh 451.9 lbs. and 421 lbs., respectively. These printers all require a RIP (raster image processor, a specialized print driver) and that RIP determines what the printer can and cannot do so it is very important. Each manufacturer touts their own RIP as being the best, so it is important that when considering a printer, you also investigate the RIP very carefully. A great printer with a mediocre RIP will only produce mediocre results. All manufacturers recommend creating art using the RGB color palette. Although the printers are CMYK, RGB offers a much broader color spectrum than CMYK.
Although most of the larger print and cut machines are wide-format and are in the $14,000-$55,000 price range, there are smaller models that are priced as low as $8,500. Whatever size machine you buy, don’t let the tail wag the dog. If you already have a good business going with laser engraving, or anything else for that matter, don’t let a new process hurt you rather than help you. It will take time to build up the printer business. These printer cutters probably work best in a niche market and it will take some time and experimentation to find the niche that works best for you. If you invest $10,000 now and build up your business, you can use the profits to buy a larger unit later. Nothing comes with a guarantee in our industry. What makes money for one person may not work for another.
Further, the wide-format machines require a lot of space and many small- to medium-size shops don’t have the space to spare. Not only must you make room for a printer that might be over 100" long and 3' deep, you will also need a worktable that is 6' wide and 8' or more long just to accommodate what these wide-format printers churn out.
One of the smallest printer cutters is the Roland VersaStudio BN-20. It is a 20" wide printer that can handle a wide range of materials. This is the successor to the one I tested over 15 years ago. The BN-20 can be used as a vinyl cutter as well as a printer without combining the two in the same process (they can all do this). For short runs of labels, decals, stickers and vinyl signs, it can produce a lot of product and where there is product, there is profit. This machine has a small footprint of 23" x 40" and weighs only 80 lbs. (shipping weight is more) making it a good choice for shops like mine that are already cluttered and could never accommodate one of the big boys. This machine is small enough to be portable so it can be taken onsite to sporting events and the like. All that is needed is a laptop, the printer cutter and some white vinyl. This printer is CMYK+1. The extra color can be either silver or white, and the machine can be used with either aqueous (water-based) or Roland’s solvent ink.
There are at least four companies that manufacture the 54" and 64" print/cut machines for the U.S. market. They are Roland, Epson, Mimaki and HP. As you would expect, each has its own list of features and limitations. My intention here is to give a quick overview of what’s available and where to find it, not a blow by blow comparison of the various printers.
The first to consider or rule out are the HP printers. I say this for two reasons only. First, these are strictly aqueous printers (HP uses the word latex). If you want to work only with water-based inks, these printers are ones to consider, but if you want to use solvent or UV-LED inks, as most professionals do, this is a brand you can pass over.
The HP systems include the Latex 315 Print and Cut Solution which is a 54" print/cut system and the Latex 335 Print and Cut Solution which is a 64" system. Using water-based ink allows the product to be used outdoors for a short time but any long-term exposure requires it to be laminated for UV protection. This can be done with a liquid (available in spray cans or by the gallon) or laminated with a film (most people seem to get by with spray cans). If the product is laminated, it is usually printed, then removed from the device, laminated, and returned to the device for final cutting. In the case of the HP systems, indoor use doesn’t require lamination and according to at least one manufacturer, the ink is color-safe for 130 years when used indoors (UV light coming through windows and certain types of lightbulbs might change that). The advantages of latex ink are they dry super-fast and there is little or no odor. Some solvent ink printers can require up to 24 hours to off-gas before they can be given to a customer and, yes, solvent inks can be used outdoors for a longer period without lamination but for extended use outdoors, they also must be laminated. One more thing I have been told about aqueous printers is that you should seal the edges after cutting. This is a step that isn’t needed when using solvent inks.
The HP printers are CMYK+3 printers. The three extra slots can hold extra CMYK, or one each of light magenta, light cyan or HP’s latex optimizer which is applied to help the ink adhere to some surfaces.
Notice that the HP units are referred to as “systems” or “solutions” and not “devices.” This is because these are the only ones we will consider in which the print and cut processes are not combined into one device. After a project is printed in the printing device, the operator removes the material and loads it into a second device for cutting. A special barcode printed on each job tells the cutter what the job is and where to cut so jobs can be cut in random order. The advantage of having separate devices is that while one is printing, the other can be cutting. If one needs service or needs to be replaced, the other can continue to function.
Next, up is the Roland family of print/cut devices. Roland produces the greatest variety of these devices and includes a long list of features for each model. Of great interest to the owners of small shops are their two 30" print/cut machines but they also offer two 54" and two 64" machines for heavy production or those who want to print wide-format images. They also offer a 30" and 54" device that uses UV-LED inks, making their product line by far the most diverse. Those that don’t use UV-LED inks use Roland’s own eco-solvent ink which they promise is low odor. Some solvent inks put off a very strong odor that can be defined in only one way: It stinks something terrible.
We have already covered the BN-20 tabletop unit because it stands out as being a true desktop unit but there are three 30" machines available under the Roland name. The first uses UV-LED inks and is a 5-color printer (CMYK plus white or gloss). With multiple passes, it can produce what appears to be raised images (they call it embossed) and Roland says this device can not only cut but can also crease the material which seems to be unique to Roland. The UV version of the 30" device is the VersaUV LEC-330 and carries a price tag of about $50,000. Its big brother, the VersaUV LEC-540 is virtually the same printer as the 30" model except it is 54" wide and sells for about $55,000.
The other two 30" machines are the Roland TrueVIS SG and the VersaCAMM VS-300i. There are a number of differences between the two machines but the ones that jump out at me are price and the ink configuration. The VS-300i costs $5,000 more than the SG but it uses a 7-cartridge ink arrangement that can include dual CMYK or CMYK with a combination of light magenta, light cyan, white or gloss filling the other three slots. The limitation of the VS-300i is it can’t handle banner material while the $10,000 TrueVIS SG can print banner material but doesn’t have more than the standard CMYK ink capability.
As for the 54" and 64" printers/cutters, Roland offers two of each. The TrueVIS VG2 series is available in a 54" or 64" model, which are virtually identical devices except for size. These printers can be set up to be 4-color, 7-color or 8-color printers and can include orange ink which is something I had never heard of before. Cost is about $18,000 and $22,000 respectively.
Roland’s TrueVIS SG 54 is the big brother to the SG-30 already discussed. It is the slowest of the Roland lineup and is strictly CMYK but it can handle all the substrates the others can, including banners.
The SOLJET Pro 4 XR-640 is a 64" printer cutter and seems to be Roland’s star performer. It is almost twice as fast as the VG2 and five times as fast as the SG but keep in mind, these usually reflect their top speed which you are unlikely to ever use. The printer accommodates 9 ink colors, CMYK + light cyan, light magenta, light black, metallic silver and white. Normally, this printer sells for $30,000 but when this was written it was on sale for $26,000.
Mimaki offers four print and cut machines with two being of the UV-LED variety. The UCJV300 is a UV-LED printer cutter and is available in four sizes: 31.5" (model 75), 42.9" (107), 53.6" (130) and 63.4" (160). The ink set includes CMYK + light cyan, light magenta, white and clear. Other than size, these printers are virtually identical. The cost ranges from $18,000 to $28,000.
Mimaki’s CJV300-130/160 series is the same printer as the one just mentioned, except it is only available in 54" and 64" and it uses Mimaki solvent inks instead of UV-LED inks.
The UCJV150/160 is Mimaki’s entry level machine. It is a CMYK 64" UV-LED printer/cutter. Cost is around $20,000. The CJV150-75/107/130/160 is the same printer, except it uses CMYK Mimaki solvent inks and comes in the same four sizes as the UCJV300. The cost ranges from about $14,000 to $21,000.
Our fourth and final manufacturer of print and cut devices is Epson which offers three printer cutters. They are known as the Epson SureColor S40600, S60600 and S80600. The printers all use the same ink, the Epson UltraChrome GS3. Epson joined forces with Graphtec to design and build these printers and have included the ONYX software for workflow management.
The S40600 is a 64" roll printer with a 4-color CMYK ink set and costs around $11,000. The S60600 is also a 64" roll printer with a 4-color CMYK ink set but has capacity for holding two of each cartridge. This allows for longer print runs without having to stop to change ink. This printer is roughly twice as fast as the S40600 and costs around $23,000.
The S60800 is Epson’s newest and top-of-the-line print/cut offering. The change with this model is the ink set. This machine uses 10 ink colors that include CMYK + light cyan, light magenta, light black, orange, red, white and metallic silver. Like Roland’s orange color, this printer also introduces a new red ink. Red is probably the most difficult color to get right and according to Epson, they have solved that problem with this new color. The print speeds on this machine are approximately the same as the S60600 except for printing banners which is a bit slower. Cost is around $25,000.
Up to this point, I haven’t said much about the cutting capability and although there are differences from brand to brand and model to model, cutting isn’t nearly as exciting to talk about as inks. In my mind, they all do about the same. There are a couple of things to look for when you are comparing machines, however. First is the amount of pressure the machine can apply to the cutting tool. This will be important if you try to cut things other than vinyl. Cardstock, magnetic material, metallic vinyl and shirt appliques may require more pressure than normal. Being able to adjust the pressure and then put it back to where it was quickly will save a lot of time.
The other factor to consider is, “Can it cut holes?” Many graphics will call for sections to be cut out inside the graphic. These are referred to as “holes.” When manufacturers talk about print and cut, what they mean is the machine can “contour cut” out an image. That is, it can cut around the printed graphic to allow the graphic (label, sticker, etc.) to be lifted out of the material and applied to something without a border (unless you want a border, of course).
On most machines, this is accomplished in the RIP. The RIP is software that acts like a print driver but has a great many additional capabilities such as controlling the speed of the print head, the cutting tool, the depth of the cut, the number of items to be printed, ganging the images and much more. As mentioned before, each manufacturer has their own RIP and it should be examined carefully before making any buying decision. It is this software that will determine if it can cut holes, allow for full bleed, control the size of the border around the image and much more.
Roland’s RIP is VersaWorks 6 which includes a RIP by Harlequin. Mimaki has RasterLink6Plus. Epson has ONYX software. HP uses several RIPS from third parties including Caldera, ONYX, GrandRIP and Thrive.
Finally, let’s talk about how all this contour cutting works. When creating your image in CorelDRAW or Illustrator, you will create an outline around the graphic. The software will allow you to make the outline as close to or far from the graphic as you desire. You will then assign a specific color to the cut line. Once you have created cut lines for each graphic and, if needed, created cut lines for any holes you may want to cut, you are ready to send the graphic to the RIP.
Inside some printer/cutters there is a tiny optical device that looks for the cut line color and traces it with the cutting knife. It isn’t complicated in theory but getting accurate cuts time after time requires some really precise engineering. Other printers use registration marks to “find” where they should cut. Either way, it makes for some pretty interesting technology.
Hopefully, this information will provide you with enough information to begin your research for a printer/cutter and even if you aren’t ready for that yet, you will have the basic knowledge when the time does come.
Like any other new income stream, you will want to do your homework first. Is there a market for these products in your area? Chances are, there is but how many other people are already addressing that market? Does your research indicate you can get a good return on your investment? Does printing banners, stickers, labels and the like sound like something you would like to do? What about car wraps? They certainly aren’t for everyone but if you have an interest in them, certainly one of these printers could be the way to go.
Do your homework before you visit a trade show or showroom. Take a list of questions and a list of things you need for what you want to do with the printer. If you don’t, you will be dazzled and might jump for a machine that isn’t right for you. Hopefully, this article will help you get started down the right path.