Whether converters are exploring flexible dies, solid tooling, machinery or laser technologies, diecutting is anything but straightforward. Manufacturers have worked tirelessly to perfect this process, giving label converters numerous options to consider. Greater options can lead to more confusion, but industry experts are striving to tailor the process to the individual needs of the modern label printer – and they’re equipped with all the latest customer service techniques.

Die technology, which encompasses a wide range of products, is crucial to the quality of a finished label. A brand-new printing press might produce the most stunning label, but a faulty diecutting process will negatively impact the consumer’s visual perception of the product.

“The quality in the finished label is often only seen from a printing point of view, as this is the most obvious fact to judge a label’s appearance,” notes Andre Gysbers, marketing director, Wink. “However, diecutting plays a decisive role, as well. First of all, only a perfectly cut label guarantees a trouble-free dispensing process. Moreover, a high-quality die allows particularly intricate outer contours that contribute to the overall appearance of the label. Certain functionalities, especially with multi-layer labels, can also only be realized with sophisticated diecutting technology.”

With the evolution of diecutting machinery and the emergence of automation, this process has become extremely scientific. Manufacturers are delivering greater accuracy, consistency and resolution than ever before. According to Rob Hattling, electrical engineer, Delta ModTech, these improvements provide greater speeds with the same repeatability, improved registration capabilities and tension control thanks to the company’s closed loop vision systems.

“A few years ago, we started using next generation digital drives for our servo motors,” says Hattling. “We’re getting electronic accuracies down into the submicrons – 0.006 micons or over 4 million counts/inch.”

Automation has significantly impacted Wink’s product development. This has been seen with the company’s new “AutoControl” feature for its SmartGap adjustable anvil system. A specially developed sensor bar continuously monitors the diecut material on the web. If the cutting is not deep enough, labels are pulled up with the waste matrix. The system detects these missing labels and reacts within fractions of a second if a threshold value is exceeded. The cutting depth is then automatically increased until the diecutting result is perfect again.

All job data and gap dimension adjustments are stored, so that operators can directly start with the appropriate settings for repeat jobs, therefore saving setup time.

“With the SmartGap AutoControl, label converters are taking another big leap toward automation,” says Gysbers. “The system is the first adjustable anvil that automatically adjusts the diecutting depth, which leads to perfectly cut labels, a significant reduction of make-ready time and waste, and thus an enormous increase in efficiency.”

Meanwhile, Midway, an Impact company, has upgraded its programming software to allow for the machine program to run on a 3D model to forecast any issues in machining prior to the actual manufacturing of the die.

“We have top-of-the-line, multi-axis CNC engraving machines with software designed custom to our application by the manufacturer,” states Scott Ellison, executive vice president of sales, Midway. “We purchased a new CNC lathe last year, as well. We also have all CNC grinders that hold tolerances of .002. We use a special blade angle technology for a crisp cut, have accuracy and finishing quality in machining process, and offer machine sharpening for precise and consistent sharpness of the blades.”

Wilson Manufacturing builds its own sharpening machines in house, allowing the company to machine-sharpen shapes and steels that could only be sharpened by hand in the past.  The tolerances that these machines hold are tighter than the tolerances its customers can hold on their presses, the company states.

The latest diecutting equipment has been optimized for faster speeds and a variety of substrates, too. As converters start running faster, wider and on thinner liners, it is important to make sure that the tooling used can support these demands.

“The demand for thinner liners continues to increase,” says Paul Karez, president of Wilson Manufacturing. “These thin liners need a perfect die strike or they will fail with the high-speed applications that are common today. Our machine sharpening produces tighter tolerances than in the past, ensuring the critical die strike on these liners.”

“Cartes has continuously sought to develop new and innovative solutions based on the latest technology available,” remarks Virgilio Micale, export sales manager, Cartes. “Our first goal is to match customer expectations by improving conventional technologies with innovative gadgets. Our wide range of solutions are all 100% modular and suitable for tailored configurations, which can include hot foil stamping and embossing, digital and conventional silk-screen printing, flexo coating, flat-bed and semi-rotary diecutting, along with our exclusive Laser Converting Technology.”

With the advent of new technologies, partnerships and collaboration are more important than ever. RotoMetrics, now part of the Maxcess organization, now has access to a comprehensive suite of products that can be tailored to the customer’s exact need.

“As an industry, the descriptive terms of auto-applied versus hand are cloudy at best,” explains Keith Laakko, global vice president of marketing and development, RotoMetrics, a Maxcess brand. “It is very important to fully understand customer needs and how liner strike quality is measured. It is suggested to describe need as a ‘light’ to ‘heavy” strike, but these terms better describe the result and expectations. Some materials, due to burst strength of facestock and adhesive, will limit your range of die strike. RotoMetrics prides itself on working closely with material suppliers and customers in running extensive testing to better define expectations.  This comprehensive effort and offering will save the converter time and money.”

“The move to thinner liners puts more emphasis on the ability to produce highly accurate tooling, as well as the ability to supply precision adjustable anvils system, such as the original Kocher + Beck GapMaster adjustable anvil system,” remarks Jim Kissner, vice president of sales, Kocher + Beck USA. “The GapMaster gives the press operator an extremely fine level of control over the depth of cut while still allowing them to apply the correct level of pressure to stabilize the cutting process.”

Flexibility and modularity are also key attributes of diecutting units. As converters expand into newer markets and applications, the ability to handle a variety of new materials is key.

“Our newly developed diecutting station works in full rotary mode and can be upgraded to semi-rotary mode,” explains Chiara Prati, CEO and CSO, Prati. “It’s an easy switch from full rotary to semi-rotary and back. That really helps with certain jobs that require a different cutting tool such as booklet labels. We redesigned our diecutting units completely to address the challenges for more precise diecutting results and to be able to use different technologies within one machine.”

This flexibility prevents diecutting from becoming a one-size-fits-all proposition, too. “We ensure excellent opportunities to personalize each solution, and in many cases the modular design of our equipment allows a company to invest in exactly what is needed – no more and no less,” adds Prati.

The industry has seen other new technologies, as well. Wilson has engineered several new products for the label and narrow web marketplace. The latest addition to its line is a “digital” adjustable anvil roll system, says Karez.

“This system allows the customer to adjust their diecutting depth to better utilize their existing die inventory and extend the life of their tools,” he explains. “We’ve also added a line of pressure gauges. These gauges give the customer better control of the diecutting process and extends the life of their tools. We’ve also added some new non-stick coatings to solve some of the converting issues created with aggressive adhesives. We are continually adding new steels and blade profiles that allow us to cut specialty materials and improve die life, as well.

Sustainability has also penetrated the die market. Midway’s Ellison notes that the company’s material choices are safer for employees and the environment. “Chrome plating is terrible for the environment and for those who have to directly handle the manufacturing process,” he explains. “Impact has found a way to achieve a similar product without coatings that are harsh on employees or the environment.”

Midway is also launching a new product line for the label and tag marketplace, which is an alternative to chrome plated dies. The product line will target both solid and flexible rotary dies, and has been designed to excel in turn times, quality and pricing.

Die selection
The drive to improve pressroom efficiency has included flexible dies, which offer a wide range of benefits. Flexible dies are more readily available and require less room for storage, attributes that have paved the way for their popularity. There is a place, of course, for solid tooling.

The requirement for faster speeds and turnaround times has necessitated a shift toward flexible dies, says Kocher + Beck’s Kissner. “With continued movements in the label industry toward digital and hybrid platforms, we see an even greater move to flexible dies and magnetic cylinders,” he notes. “Both digital and hybrid require short delivery times, but the same can now be said for other parts of the industry. Therefore, a large area of our focus, development and investment continues to be on offering precision products along with delivery times needed within the industry.”

According to Keith Chrisco, VP of sales, Wilson Manufacturing, there are several advantages that flexible dies have over solid engraved dies when dealing with thin materials. For starters, the flexible die cost is typically 20% of the solid die cost, and the shipping cost is substantially less due to the drastic reduction in weight.

“Flexible dies take up much less storage space than solid dies, and turnaround times are normally 1-2 days quicker” says Chrisco.

With most traditional label jobs switching to flexible dies, Chrisco points out that a high percentage of Wilson’s solid tools are now deep-engraved, fully hardened tool steel dies. “Manifold style air-eject and vacuum dies are increasing in popularity as converters look for new ways to remove the scrap from their parts,” he explains. “These types of tools are commonly used in the automotive and medical industries.  Because of the thick, complex materials that they cut, they require special blade angles and a machine-finished die.”

There is a place for solid tooling, though. RotoMetrics offers a wide range of products to satisfy both markets. One of the limitations of flexible dies is material thickness specifications. “As materials or webs are stacked for non-tag and label converting, the solid die remains the logical choice, with deeper blades and machine finishing to a high tolerance spec,” says RotoMetrics’ Laakko. “Maxcess and RotoMetrics utilize blade profiles designed especially for medical, automotive, filters and hygiene products. Both flexible and solid tools are available throughout the world to ensure quality and dependable service and delivery for our customers.”

RotoMetrics’ RotoRepel, an adhesive controlling, proprietary coating, has been optimized for both solid and flexible dies. According to the company, this technology has helped generate more productive press times and higher yield per shift.

“Not only has RotoRepel quickly become the industry standard of overcoming buildup and adhesive transfer, but working with our customers press-side, it became very clear that this was not only a die issue,” adds Laakko. “Together we created non-stick coated idlers and non-stick stripping rolls. By listening to our customers’ issues, this expansion into idler rolls has proven to be very successful in controlling ink and adhesive transfer to these other rolls in the machine.  The amount of downtime for cleaning and replacement has been reduced from days to only hours. Our customers are reporting that the investment into utilizing these coated products is quickly recovered, with many claiming they pay for themselves in the first run.”

All of Kocher + Beck’s flexible dies are completely machine sharpened, allowing for precise control of the dies’ blade profile, ensuring a clean, efficient and precise cut of the facestock. The company also controls the blade height to within a tolerance range of +/- 3 microns as standard and offers an even tighter tolerance die specifically for PET liner applications, allowing for precise conversion of the facestock without bursting through the liner. All the magnetic cylinders produced at Kocher + Beck USA are manufactured using hardened steel bearers with a stainless-steel body, providing an accurate and hard-wearing magnetic cylinder.

“Our flexible dies are typically produced in 24 hours or less, something that is extremely important with the quick turnaround times required within the industry,” says Kissner. “Additionally, due to their lightweight design, flexile dies can be shipped on next-day services at lower shipping rates. They also require far less storage than traditional solid rotary tools allowing valuable floor space to be put to more profitable use.”

Kocher + Beck can produce large format flexible dies for multiple market sectors, as well as even tighter tolerance dies for cutting down to thin PET liners. Its chrome coated dies give enhanced life when cutting aggressive thermal materials, as well as a full range of GlueX coated dies that are designed to give excellent non-stick properties to prevent adhesive buildup.

For customers looking to transition to flexible dies, there are a number of factors to keep in mind. At Kocher + Beck, the company’s staff would first sit down with the customer to get a full understanding of their current range of tooling repeat sizes. The next step would involve drawing up a list of magnetic cylinder repeat sizes that best meets their needs, with the aim of consolidating as many repeat sizes as possible.

“We might then suggest the customer take their most common single repeat size and transition this over to a magnetic cylinder and flexible dies, allowing for a controlled transition,” explains Kissner. “We offer to be on-site during the transition process, so we can educate the operators on the correct handling, use and storage procedures for flexible dies.”

Wink has also gone to great lengths to educate customers on the transition to flexible dies, which Gysbers says is “the first choice for most label and narrow web applications, as they offer so many advantages.” Wink has designed an “ABC of Die-Cutting” booklet while also offering on-site training courses to promote education. In the case of on-site visits, Wink has ensured its customers’ safety by adhering to its “You cut, we care” mantra.

“Wink has taken measures to ensure the safety of all employees and business partners, while being able to remain fully operable,” says Gysbers. “Measures include strict hygiene protocols at all sites and an increased use of teleworking and webinars where appropriate.”

A “laser”?
Laser diecutting emerged on the scene more than 20 years ago, but the technology has not been widely embraced in that timespan. However, as with all aspects of the label and package printing industry, technology is exploding at a rapid pace. Laser diecutting has become much more viable, and the growth of digital printing has made it that much more relevant.

Fueled by the e-commerce boom, AB Graphic has seen a record number of orders for its DigiLase 4. Since its launch in September 2018, ABG has installed several DigiLase machines equipped with various configurations worldwide. Other DigiLase machines, many of which include automatic workflow and the inkjet digital embellishment module, are slated for installation in the coming months in the USA, Mexico, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Germany.

“Our new DigiLase 4 delivers maximum accuracy with the smallest laser beam and maximum speed with improved laser path techniques,” explains Floriana Montella, DigiLase product manager, ABG. “Our advanced software avoids human error and helps generate the perfect cut from the first label with no waste.”

Reduced waste is an environmentally-friendly feature that, along with the ability to match faster speeds and turnaround times, should make laser diecutting continue to gain acceptance.

“A reduced web path and a decrease in the necessary lead-in/out material both help reduce waste,” adds Montella. “The minimum job length through the DigiLase has been dramatically reduced to allow maximum flexibility in short runs, and file downloading takes milliseconds, thereby allowing several jobs to be processed simultaneously, from unwinding to laser cutting and rewinding.”

There are other key benefits of laser diecutting, as well. “Laser diecutting is advantageous for tough cuts and tight tolerances,” says Delta ModTech’s Hattling. “The laser can cut through intricate, tricky patterns that would be difficult for a traditional rotary diecutter. It’s also prototype friendly and offers quick turnarounds. Laser cutting doesn’t require hard tooling, so it’s ideal if you want to create quick prototypes. You can then invest in a more durable rotary-cut die down the road.”

A laser is also expected to last significantly longer, as a rotary die will eventually become dull and need to be sharpened and replaced. And because there are a wide range of lasers, they can match up with a variety of materials.
“Lasers provide a quicker time to market, too,” adds Hattling. “You can upload a drawing quickly to a laser cutting machine and begin cutting. Those recipes and programs can also be saved and easily recalled.”

For those converters looking to expand into new markets, such as shrink sleeves, IML or flexible packaging, Cartes’ patented Invisible Laser Cutting (ILC) allows for the production of linerless products, such as IML and dark printed labels, while avoiding unsightly white edges (a challenge associated with laser diecutting), as well as intricate shapes and complex cut-outs pieces.

“For more than 22 years we have been offering a reliable solution for the converting of different label products with our laser processing,” states Cartes’ Micale. “Since the beginning, we have followed the market changes and adapted the former systems to meet new requirements, such as process automation, new materials, as well as linerless and the need for multi-layer products.”

Prati expects laser diecutting to continue to gain acceptance as the technology matures. “Laser diecutting is starting to make inroads and will take over more and more applications,” says Chiara Prati. “We have partnered with a leading laser cutting company and can integrate their technology into our DIGIFASTone machine.”

Customer service
For those label converters planning on investing in the latest diecutting technology, it is important to note that manufacturers have gone to great lengths to safeguard their employees and customers. Even though travel is still not recommended in most regions, companies have made provisions to help troubleshoot any customer issues while also putting in place plans to virtually demonstrate their equipment.

Multiple suppliers have gotten creative with their customer service. Delta ModTech, which boasts a full-service staff of engineers and technicians, is available on-site and – in most cases – for remote access troubleshooting through the internet. This allows for in-depth mechanical upgrades, as well as immediate software additions.

Delta ModTech has also increased the use of HoloLens technology, which has proven to be effective at streamlining and improving everything from factory acceptance testing to servicing. “COVID-19 has disrupted our world in staggering ways. But for manufacturers, it’s merely accelerated trends such as digitalization,” states Ryan Herman, electrical engineer, Delta ModTech. “Nowhere have we found this more apparent than in our own adoption of mixed reality HoloLens technology from Microsoft. The first time Delta ModTech used the technology was on a remote FAT (Factory Acceptance Testing). After first experimenting with FaceTime on an iPhone, Delta and the customer switched to the HoloLens. The customer was so impressed with the functionality that by the end of the week they had purchased a pair – and one for their sister plant.

“It’s part of an ongoing process to deliver a great depth and breadth of service,” adds Herman. “It’s simply a new tool in the tool box.”

AB Graphic also utilizes HoloLens technology to assist its customers in the form of VERA (Virtual Engineer Remote Assistant). “The use of cutting-edge technology has enabled us to maintain and improve customer service levels even during these difficult periods,” explains ABG’s Montella. “Our factory-based engineers’ ability to see what our customers see remotely enables them to run immediate diagnostics and fix any machine issues with a customer there and then. With no travel required, VERA not only helps save time and money; it also provides an environmental benefit by reducing our carbon footprint.”

In order to meet with customers for on-site training, Kocher + Beck has instituted multiple processes and procedures. Of course, the company has also allowed for its external technical sales team to proactively keep in direct contact with customers through phones calls, email and video conference calls.

“When customers have requested on-site technical support, this first goes thought an internal approved process before a decision is made,” comments Kissner. “So, we can make sure that all local and state guidelines in relation to travel are followed, as well as utilize safe practices, including masks, gloves, social distancing and temperature checks.”

Midway believes it is important to work with the customer, ensuring they get the correct product for their specific application. “We take responsibility for the quality of the performance of the die and take a holistic approach to each project to ensure the customer is getting the solution they need, not necessarily the solution they initially asked for,” says Ellison. “We provide much more than just a die – we include service, commitment, collaboration – improving efficiencies in die layouts for customers and always looking beyond the die at the whole picture to advise on anvil and press maintenance to ensure long-term success.”

Read the full article in Label and Narrow Web here.