A Cut Above
How five shops have benefited by investing in cutters and routers
Many wide-format jobs aren’t finished when the ink is on the substrate. Applications from point-of-purchase displays to signage to window stickers often call for cutting out custom shapes. To meet those demands, many print providers now include routers or cutters among their finishing tools.
Both routers and cutters carve shapes out of the printed material, but they work in different ways. Routers use a spinning bit, like a drill bit, to whittle away at the substrate, while cutters use knives to slice it away. Which tool is required really depends on the type of material—you can’t cut vinyl with a router, and you can’t trim plywood with a knife. Some machines have the ability to handle both kinds of jobs, with the operator simply swapping in the correct tool.
Routers and cutters are generally guided by a “cut file,” or an outline of the desired path, sent to their controlling software. The cut file contains index marks, as does the printed artwork. A camera or sensing device on the machine looks for the index marks and uses those to follow the cutting path in the proper place.
To find out why print providers invest in cutters and what they use them for, we spoke with five shops that finish jobs with custom shapes.
Store Décor: Bottoms Up
Store Décor (www.thestoredecor.com) founder Robert Potts began his career in retail design as a remodeling specialist for a pharmaceutical company, charged with selling fixtures to drugstores. He eventually began his own fixture and store-design firm, and in the early 1980s he added his first computerized vinyl-cutting machine for making signs and basic wayfinding materials for his customers. Potts is still the president, and Store Décor, based in Rowlett, Texas, now has about 70 employees.
“We’ve had UV digital printers for about eight or nine years,” says general manager Ron Freeman. “We print on just about anything—vinyls, wall coverings, rigid sheets, card stock, cardboard, coated metals, GatorBoard, PVC sheets, polystyrene, acrylics, polycarbonates, even raw plywood. If it can be printed on, we’ll do it.”
For about the same length of time, the company has had Gerber Sabre routers, and more recently they’ve added a couple of MultiCam machines. “We got our first MultiCam router, a 3000 series, four years ago,” says Freeman. “We needed something that would accommodate 5- x 10-foot sheets. It’s also a powerful machine with a large spindle, letting us plow through some of our more difficult materials, like one-inch MDF.”
Two considerations drove the more recent purchase of the MultiCam Digital Express, a flatbed knife cutter. “The knife cutting capabilities lets us cut vinyl and thin materials quickly,” says Freeman. “We cut window vinyl for a lot of fast food restaurants, in the shape of their brand characters, for instance.
“The second thing it lets us do,” Freeman continues, “is to establish a different price point. Our router tables let us print on Gator Board, but that costs about $30 a sheet. A sheet of polystyrene or PVC, on the other hand, might cost $2 to $6 a sheet. That gave us a high-price product and a low-price product, but nothing in-between. Now, I can get foamcore in the same thickness as GatorBoard for about $10 a sheet, but you can’t cut that on a traditional router table with a spinning bit—you need a knife. So the Digital Express lets us meet a middle price point and gave us increased sales and fabrication opportunities.”
The MultiCam 3000 series router still gets a lot of work, however, as in a recent project for a popular chain of family restaurants. The company needed a sign to advertise a specialty drink served in its restaurants. Store Décor printed the sign on quarter-inch birch plywood in pieces, utilizing a UV printer. “We print these in a variety of sizes,” says Freeman, “and the whole finished image will not necessarily fit on a 4 x 8 sheet.” In addition, the router let them create an MDF backing frame for the sign that has different depths, enabling some elements of the sign to stand out at a different depth from the rest. Once the sign was assembled, they used the router to trim the excess raw plywood from around the image.
The biggest challenge for this job? “Holding down a flat piece of plywood on the printer,” says Freeman. “But the router has a high-power vacuum that holds it down pretty well.” During the routing operation, the operators affix a sheet of adhesive film to the sign to protect the printing and to prevent the small splintering that tends to go along with cutting plywood.
BIGraphics: Completing the Illusion
Dave Merrick launched BIGraphics, Inc. (www.bigraphicsinc.com) in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1996 as part of an unplanned midlife career change. “I got laid off in early 1996 as a product manager for desktop printers,” he recounts. “I was in my early 50s, and there wasn’t a lot out there. I went to a franchise show in Boston and ended up buying a turnkey wide-format printing system. My plan was to align myself with retail photofinishers and frame shops in my area and offer to print their customers’ photographs on canvas. Unfortunately, that business fell flat on its face. It wasn’t the other shops’ core business, so they didn’t push it.”
So, instead, Merrick turned his attention to other sources of printing business. “I started calling on designers, ad agencies, photographers, and so on, and built the business around them. Now we have about eight employees here.” BIGraphics operates with a Fujifilm Acuity HD, three solvent HP 9000s printers as well as a couple of aqueous Designjets, plus a ColorSpan 72UVR flatbed UV unit.
“Around 2005, I decided I needed a router,” Merrick says. “My son-in-law was an engineer, and he said, ‘Let me build you one.’ He put something together for me for probably no more than $8000. It had a vacuum table and used a Sears router as a cutting device. It worked like a champ, but we had to manually align our projects and hope the images were printed square. We made that work for a year or more.”
Eventually, though, Merrick decided he needed a real commercial router. He considered the ones intended for the sign industry, but decided they were overkill for his purposes. “They’re designed to cut metal and wood and we mostly cut foam board and plastic.” He finally decided upon the Gerber M3000 Flatbed Cutting System. “This thing is really powerful when it comes to cutting with knives,” Merrick says. “We can cut through 1/4-inch PVC with no trouble at all.”
One project Merrick recently produced with the M3000 was a four-foot-high sign for an organization that manages company cafeterias for several corporations located in New England. The resulting sign looks like three sheets of wood stacked on a blue oval, but “it’s all one piece,” explains Merrick, “except the words Center Stage are on 3/16-inch brushed aluminum-faced acrylic, and the Epicurean Feast logo is printed in 6mm white PVC. They’re glued to the face of the sign.”
The background image—the three “sheets of wood” and the blue oval—was printed with the Fujifilm Acuity onto a rectangular piece of 6mm PVC. Merrick then used the Gerber M3000 to cut around the edges of the image to complete the illusion of separate pieces. The black frames are actually hinged pieces of transparent polycarbonate, behind which the company can slip pieces of paper with menus, specials, and so on.
Besides specific projects such as the Center Stage sign, Merrick also cites the ability the cutter gives him to make his own shipping boxes and display easels. “That’s a tremendous advantage,” he says.
Big Mountain Imaging: Last-minute Adjustments
Big Mountain Imaging (www.bigmountain.com) started in Philadelphia a little more than 10 years ago. “We began as a grand-format facility with two Vutek 5300s,” recalls president Jason Cardonick. “We were mainly producing billboards for casino clients in Atlantic City. That’s an industry for which speed is a critical component of their buying decisions. At the time, our client was buying from a company on the West Coast that wasn’t able to meet their same-day, next-day needs. From there we were able to pick up some additional casino accounts, and became at one point the primary billboard printer for every casino in Atlantic City.”
The billboards eventually led to other requests. “The casinos kept asking us if we could make other things, such as posters and light boxes and slot machine displays,” says Cardonick. “Of course we said, ‘yes’—you don’t say no to a client. So we continued to buy additional equipment and increasing our capabilities increased so we could service their needs.” The company now employs about 80 people in production facilities in Philadelphia and Las Vegas and has sales facilities in several other cities as well.
Among the equipment in the Philadelphia location is a Zund G3 cutter. “We acquired the Zund cutter in 2007,” recalls Edward Davis, Big Mountain’s East Coast production manager. “Before that we had a vinyl cutter, but it wasn’t something we could cut anything rigid with. At one time we were cutting everything with a hand router.”
“By that time we’d entered the retail P-O-P market with an EFI Vutek PressVu 320/400 and an EFI Vutek QS3200,” says Cardonick. “Those machines go hand in hand with a router—it would be frustrating to have a printer you can do all these neat things with without having a cutter to cut them out.”
They chose the Zund G3 in part because of its flexibility. “It has routing capabilities and cutting capabilities,” says Davis. “You can use it for different materials; for example, you can’t cut Dibond with a knife, but card stock is thin enough that a knife goes right through it. We just swap a knife and drill bit in and out depending on the job.”
Recently, Big Mountain helped the New York Yankees rebrand their minor-league affiliate’s facility, PNC Field in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In addition to large photos and murals, the effort required cutouts of the logos for the ballpark and the team. “The signage that was needed for that was on Dibond, foamboard or Sintra,” explains Cardonick. “We were able to do custom contour cuts at various sizes, anywhere up to 48 x 48 inches.
“We have our own installation department,” he continues. “There were a lot of last-minute adjustments we needed to do when we were on site. But because we had the router, we were able to call in and have specific images routed out to fit a particular area.”
Mercury-LDO: An Elf Story
The two halves of the Mercury-LDO (www.mercury-ldo.com) name had very different beginnings. LDO launched its business in the late 1970s as a traditional reprographics shop, serving the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) market in and around London, England. “In 1992, owner Ray Martin saw the opportunity with all the construction in Las Vegas and, with his partner, opened an office in Las Vegas,” recounts current operations director Steve Martin. “A couple of years later they, severed all their ties with London.”
Mercury, on the other hand, was American born and bred, founded as Mercury Blueprint and Supply Company in 1954 by Joseph Robichaud. In 1998, both firms were acquired by the American Reprographics Company. “We continued to operate as competitors for a year,” says Martin, “and then ARC decided it would be to their best advantage to merge us together. At that point we became Mercury-LDO.” The company now employs around 45 people in Las Vegas and also has operations in Colorado and Salt Lake City.
“We still do traditional reprographics for the AEC industry,” Martin continues. “But we also offer wide-format color with the Océ Arizona GT 350 and the Océ 960. We saw the downturn in the AEC market a couple of years ago and felt it was necessary to venture into the signage business. We do a lot of work with home builders for billboard signage—those big 16-foot billboards advertising new developments being built.”
To support that move, the company bought an Océ ProCut flatbed cutter, which came to the fore at Christmas last year, when Martin was approached by a company that had an idea for an indoor seasonal display.
“They wanted their employees’ images put onto elf bodies,” Martin says. “They just gave us the concept and photos of all their employees. We downloaded different elf images from a royalty-free stock-image site and attached the photos to the bodies via Photoshop. Each employee was a separate elf.”
Martin and crew used Arizona GT 350 to output the images onto 3/16-inch white foamboard at various sizes from two- to five-feet high. They then cut out all of the elves, and these went into an indoor display at the company.
The ProCut made short work of the job, says Martin. “The foamboard cuts relatively easily, and you can get quite intricate on the detail when you’re using the different blades to cut. Sometimes when you’re using a more rigid substrate, you have to switch out to an actual router bit, and then it can get a bit tricky on the fine detail. But the elves were easy.”
For installation, some of the elves were mounted directly to the display wall using stand offs to give them a 3D look; others had large easels made from foamboard mounted to the back.
Tempt In-Store Productions: Shorter Runs
Tempt (www.tempt-ing.com) is a division of HGI Graphic Arts, a print provider traditionally serving the publication, catalog, book, and commercial markets. “Our executive vice president of sales and I had the idea of building some kind of business around a digital solution,” recounts Tempt president Michael Draver. “We acquired the assets of All-American Graphics back in late 2008 with the idea of being more active in digital, in-store, P-O-P-type products.” The Tempt division, in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, now has about 27 employees.
The company’s primary market is in retail—“signage programs, promotional graphics, things like that,” says Draver. “Our retail and brand marketing clients kept telling us they wanted to do more segmented, shorter runs. In 2009 we installed the Inca Onset S70 in order to better provide that service.”
At the same time, the company acquired a Kongsberg cutting table with the i-cut sensing system. “It offered good features, flexibility with different materials, different cutting heads and blades, things of that nature,” says Draver. The company cuts a wide range of materials, including paperboard, foamcore, corrugated, and various plastics, according to Draver. One feature he especially appreciates is the extension table they purchased for the cutter.
“In effect, we have a double-wide table,” he explains. “I can have two 60- x120-inch sheets on the machine at the same time. With most setups, after you’re done cutting, you have to stop and scrap those pieces out. But ours is twice as long, with a belt. After I’m done cutting, the machine moves the first sheet out of the way and moves another one into position to cut, so I can keep cutting while I’m scrapping. It has a sheet feeder on it as well. It was a custom solution put together on the basis of the print solution we were buying.”