Cutting Corners

PrismTech Graphics has utilized digital cutting technology to increase efficiency and expand clients’ imaginations.

The year was 1996 and PrismTech Graphics – a screen-printing operation in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada – was looking for a way to set itself apart from other print providers.

“The industry was quickly switching to digital and we needed to be there to keep an edge over our competitors,” says Lane Beaton, PrismTech’s director of operational development.

Founded in 1994, PrismTech ( focused on P-O-P displays, signage, and fulfilment. It first entered the digital marketplace “with several different types of roll-to-roll printers, ranging from 54- to 126-inches in aqueous and solvent inks, both pigment and dye-based,” says Beaton. “In time, we became an Océ beta site, taking advantage of having their factory in our backyard and access to their technology and supplies.”

Today, the shop occupies a 50,000 square-foot facility and employs more than 30 people. It has grown from a relatively small screen-printing company to a full-service operation with an array of digital print equipment, including: three Océ Arizona flatbeds, HP Scitex LX850, two HP Designjet L25500, and anEpson Stylus Pro 11880. And it has continued to make inroads into the retail P-O-P market as well as the worlds of housing and transit signage and more.

But there was still another critical part of its technology roster that Prismtech wanted to upgrade: its finishing services.

Entering a digital-cut world
Already in PrismTech’s finishing tool chest were a Seal 62 Pro and Image 600 laminator and a Fotoba XL 320 cutter. Then, two years ago, the shop moved to add a digital cutting system – an Esko Kongsberg MultiCut i-XL24 equipped with i-cut technology.

“The expectations at the time were to relieve the production pressure and cost from the die-cutting department,” says Beaton. “With the turn to digital from screen printing bringing in smaller runs, the resultant cost of die fabrication was becoming prohibitive.

“The second reason for adding digital cutting and routing technology was to become a possible new revenue stream by potentially bringing some trade work in from local print shops. However, as it’s happened, the primary reason has turned out to be so successful that we’ve had little time to take in outside work.”

With no experience in the world of digital cutting, PrismTech approached the new technology with caution. “We were unsure how to bill for the services. So, we carefully began to learn the machine and its capabilities; but we didn’t want to charge our customers for us to climb the learning curve. Once we were familiar with the equipment and had a foundation of expectations, we began to weigh the labor and consumable costs against the alternative methods of production. We still determine this on a case-to-case basis now,” explains Beaton.

After gradually realizing the efficiency the new technology offered, the shop was able to shift a significant portion of work from other departments. To determine what work will be done digitally, Beaton weighs the quality of work that the alternative units will offer. “For instance, the die cutter will crush foam core-type material, while using a vibe knife on the Kongsberg allows us to get the job done.”

While Beaton usually won’t market the specific capabilities of cutting and routing to new clients, the technology does play a significant rule in the development of many projects.

“We don’t try to influence our national client’s work to fit the Kongsberg – we simply use it to play any role in the completion of the work that may arise. However, we work closely with the agencies involved in the project and we tour them through the facilities prior to working with them for the first time. When they see past projects in our shop, I’m sure it influences the designs we do together. I notice that as we work with agencies repeatedly, they begin to expand the scope of how they can make use of cutting within the design.”

Niche development
With the help of digital cutting technology, PrismTech has developed somewhat of a niche with custom display stands and standees. Recently, for instance, PrismTech was approached by a Whistler, British Columbia-based software developer looking to furnish the area with cut-out standees of fantasy characters.

“The characters were conceived flat by a designer who never gave any consideration as to how it was going to be freestanding. We were given the freedom to engineer feet onto the characters in the client’s files using Adobe Illustrator,” says Beaton. The characters needed to be durable enough to last outdoors and heavy enough to not be blown away. Using its Océ Arizona 550GT flatbed in quality layered mode, PrismTech output the standees onto an e-panel aluminum composite, which has a thinner face of aluminum on each side, saving a few dollars per sheet, says Beaton.

Then, using the MultiCut i-XL24, the team cut out the characters and shipped the standees in pieces to be assembled onsite. “The biggest issue with this job was getting the precise cut so the pieces would fit together tight, but not too tight,” Beaton continues. “We made a series of components and printed an instruction sheet for the client to assemble. In the end, about 15 different characters were produced and shipped.”

Because PrismTech handles a lot of fulfillment and distribution, shipping costs are a constant cause for concern. A frequent client of PrismTech’s, a Canadian casino, called for a short-term interactive display that was to be shipped unassembled, and assembled by the end-user. While the design concepts were supplied by a creative agency, PrismTech was given the liberty to engineer the files in Adobe Illustrator as needed to meet the project’s requirements.

“Materials and output method were based around the need to keep shipping costs down and the capabilities of our finishing equipment. We chose Ultra Board [United Industries] because it’s rigid, cuts quickly, and prints well. We also used an emulsion PVC, which has more foaming compound in it, resulting in a lighter media for the detailed areas that required finer-cutting. Shipping costs and durability combined with short-term use were the deciding factors – keep it light and strong enough to hold up for one month of use, and then be disposable.”

PrismTech created several prototypes using the Arizona 550GT to refine engineering, and took pictures during this process to be used later as a photographic assembly instruction manual. “With this display, the biggest challenge was to get the hundreds of small pieces to fit together and fit tight enough to stay in place while not being so tight so it would not fit together or not be functional,” explains Beaton.

Because the casinos are spread across Canada, PrismTech is often forced to leave installation to the clients. There is a trick to ensuring the client is able to successfully install the work, Beaton admits: “You have to assume the lowest common denominator is at work; so each project has to be simple and intuitive or it just won’t work out. Even then, we always have to field a plethora of calls to deal with both legitimate and asinine install situations. We even have a small book of snapshots we keep as an internal reference of how bad things can go when assembling P-O-P displays is put in the hands of the general public.”

Keeping with PrismTech’s display-stand expertise, the casino reached out to the shop to create another interactive display unit, this time asking that the stand hold an LCD screen seven feet from the ground, as well as three Plexiglas boxes in the middle.

“We cut .5-inch Ultra Board to fabricate the entire display with some smaller components made from 3A Composites’ Sintra. To ensure the unit would be capable of holding the LCD display, we used simple engineering practices, adding support brackets and locking brackets,” Beaton says. “We printed the entire display on the Océ 550GT, with the exception of the decals on the Plexiglas boxes, which were printed with the HP L25500 with latex ink on vinyl from Ritrama and LG.” Along with the interactive LCD display, the project included carpet printed with the HP LX850 onto Ultraflex digital print carpet.

The most challenging part of multi-step jobs like the casino projects, Beaton says, is the inevitable time crunch. “Consistent with most jobs in this industry, all of the previous parties involved use more than their allotted time to complete their tasks. And being at the end of the food chain, we are usually left with less than 30 percent of the time we asked for to actually produce the graphics – so compromises always have to be made along the way.”

In addition, says Beaton, other parties involved in projects also tend to overspend, leaving print providers with less cash than the budget had initially allotted. “So all and all, our team is under a significant amount of pressure before production even begins. We try to make up for lost time and budget decreases during the shipping phase, which can sometimes lead to damages because of insufficient packaging.”

But, despite the many challenges faced along the way, PrismTech is always able to achieve the client’s desired effect and stimulate its customers to expand their ideas for the next project, says Beaton.

What’s next?
On the agenda for the coming year, PrismTech will focus more on self-marketing. “To be honest, up until the last half of 2011, we did not even have a website. We have no walk-in traffic and seldom do we have a client visit the shop. We have lived off of the reputation that the primary owners had built during their lifetime,” Beaton explains.

“Now, we have taken steps to change that, and we’ve begun to publically market ourselves. I’m pushing to have an open house for some of our existing clients to show off our diverse service offerings to assist them in the conception of their own projects. I’ve heard too many clients say ‘I did not know you did that.’”

Along with fine-tuning PrismTech’s marketing strategy, the shop plans to continue to perfect its skills on new technologies. While Beaton says he has mastered what the cutter and routers can do with certain materials, he admits that there is still much more he has to learn about the equipment.

“I am currently exploring its potential in fabricating packaging prototypes and I am looking forward to the possible revenue stream from such an endeavor.” Recently, PrismTech has secured R&D work for a local box fabricator creating prototypes on the shop’s flatbeds and scoring the corrugated cardboard using the Kongsberg.

As for advice for print shop’s looking to add a cutter or router system, Beaton says: “Ask yourself, ‘What is the bulk of the materials we will be running?’ In our case, we were looking at short- to mid-size runs of lighter weight materials. This is not to say that our current equipment isn’t capable of cutting 1-inch thick acrylic, however, if this was the bulk of my business I probably would have chosen a heavier-duty machine that may not have given me as much versatility as what we have now.”

In the future, PrismTech is considering the acquisition of another, more robust cutter to cater to longer runs with materials like acrylic and plywood.


View more from this Big Picture issue