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Automating large-format print finishing - where are we, and where are developments taking us?

If only we had a pound for every time we heard that finishing was the production bottleneck in the print process…hence a couple of questions to the sector’s finishing kit providers: one - what’s being done to improve large-format print providers’ throughput and efficiency via inline finishing and automation developments?; two - where do you believe the biggest gaps still exist in the market, and how do you propose to fill those? So will the responses from some of the industry’s key suppliers have you reaching into your coffers in the hope of improved throughput and impressive ROI?

Elitron points out that its cutting and automation systems include those with optional loading and unloading/stacking automation through to the fully integrated, completely automatic, pallet-to-pallet Kombo TAV. With the latter, an integrated ‘Seeker System’ camera identifies the position of the printed graphics and reference points from both the top and underside and realigns the cutting file to allow for any possible distortion. An optional, integrated roll-in, roll-out multi-pallet system can incorporate an automatic, inline or standalone Reversa sheet turner for further automation when the media needs to be creased from the underside. There’s also an Acetal unloading conveyor which can be programmed to unload single or batches of sheets as required. Two independent, multi-tool cutting heads cut and crease single or multiple smaller boards and Elitron’s patented ‘Airo Panel’ then removes all cut and waste material and creates a neat stack in the unloading bay, on the waiting pallet.

This year has also seen Elitron’s introduction of modular, feeding and stacking systems that can automate loading and/or unloading of its complete standalone range of cutting systems. Now all the company’s finishing systems can be automated using the Elitron Feeding System (EFS) and Elitron Stacking System (ESS). The EFS feeding system can also incorporate the Seeker System plus the still new Protective Material Handling system (PMH) which has a floating mechanism to prevent any media damage while loading.

Zund highlights its Q-Line with BHS180, launched this spring. The integrated system - with board handling system and undercam for pallet-to-pallet automation - is intended for the demands of industrial finishing of printed boards for displays and packaging. Working together, the new machine components generate a speed of up to 2.8m/s. Acceleration of up to 2.1g is made possible by a new, linear drive system. The new substructure for Q-Line cutters is made from concrete to ensure optimum cutting precision even at extremely high speeds.

The Q-Line with BHS180 comes with Automo L, providing a creasing pressure of up to 50kg. This makes it suitable for creasing with large crease wheels such as the Creto 150. Other tools include Unito, used with centred and off-centred drag knives and suitable for processing materials up to 5mm thick. A Tomac Tool Management Client takes care of tool management, digitally linking the tools with presets. The Q-Line with BHS180 captures information stored for each job using QR codes and thus ensures an intelligent production workflow.

The new Q-Line with BHS180 is available initially as a dual-beam system in three different sizes - the Zund Cutter Q 32-32 D has a working width of 3.2m, the Q 22-32 D a working width of 2.2m, and the Q 18-32 D a working width of 1.8m. In addition to the hardware new Q-Line with BHS180 comprises software, such as the latest Zund Cut Center or the Zund Connect production monitoring and analysing tool.

Speaking of the ZCC Zund Cut Center, the software and user interface have this year been reworked to provide more capabilities for automated file preparation and digital cutting.

There are two different editions. ZCC Zund Cut Center Basic is aimed at those in production environments that don’t require functions such as automatic data import, job queues, or data exchange with other systems. With the Basic version, the operator can manually convert source files into .zcc files using ‘cut editor’ and open them as production files in ‘cut center’.

ZCC Zund Cut Center Advanced is suitable for those with high order volumes and wanting to increase workflow automation. In this edition, users have access to functions such as the job queue, information on the estimated production time, import via hot folders, and email notifications. For both editions, options such as the camera, pick and place, visualising, and routing can be bought individually.

Cut editor is the central software component of every ZCC software suite and is used to import source files and prepare them for cutting. It can be run directly from the workstation at the cutter. It can also be installed at other workstations in prepress and used for file preparation. If needed, it can be expanded with a nesting option.

Cut server provides automated data import via hot folders, data exchange with other systems such as the ERP and Rip, and an estimated production-time calculator. It also handles the communication between cut editor and cut center. Other systems can connect to the cut server using the .zcc file format.

David Preskett, vice president of Kongsberg Precision Cutting Systems, EMEA and APAC, stresses: “We continue to explore and develop innovative new ways to add value to the cutting and routing processes, which in turn add significant value to businesses. Our solutions combine with advanced software and robotics to deliver complete automation for printers and converters around the globe.”

For example, the latest version of Kongsberg’s iPC (i-cut Production Console) software is packed with new features and upgrades, and the integrated iPC version 2.6 software now comes as standard with Kongsberg cutting tables.

Note too the Kongsberg automated Feeder and Stacker for pallet-to-pallet automation. “With a stack height at 915mm and quick automatic load cycles, it’s the optimal solution for production in all typical packaging and display materials,” says Preskett.

“Combining the power, performance and versatility of our digital cutting solutions with workflow software and robotic material handling delivers huge efficiency and productivity gains. At Kongsberg PCS, our tooling and material handling options deliver a fully integrated, automated system that serves to boost throughput, delivering the bottom-line results that are so crucial to our customers.”

Keencut chairman Paul Moxon however is eager to promote the value of manual finishing, saying: “Customers tell us that combining auto and manual cutting machines gives the ideal solution for larger operations with complex or repetitive jobs. While an automated system takes time to set up and run through its whole programme, the [manual] Keencut cutter can carry on cutting other less complex items. The Keencut SteelTrak or Evolution3 is always ready for immediate action, leaving equipment like CNC machines for different tasks. In this way, you remove bottlenecks in workflow by providing quick, repeatable cutting or one-off cuts.

“For lower volume or start-up operations, automated cutters are expensive. A Keencut manual cutter can meet all the print finishing cutting needs, providing a highly efficient, cost-effective, space-saving, and simple-to-use alternative. With a Keencut manual cutter, there is no cutting dust or debris to damage printers. Keencut cutters take less than 10 minutes to master, and there is no need for an experienced operative. There is no programming time, power costs, downtime, or complex maintenance. You get a boost in productivity with quick precise cutting accuracy.”

Talking textiles

So what’s being done to make printed textiles/fabrics finishing easier and less labour intensive for professional large-format PSPs? Automated recognition systems are one ask, alongside things like more efficient welding and sealed edge cutting processes, so are those print operations facing such difficulties likely to see much headway?

Allan Ashman, managing director at Atech (distributor for Matic and PlastGrommet) says developments to improve efficiencies are coming through. On the sewing side of things he points to Matic’s fully automated machines. Matic Cronos and Overlock sewing machines can be supplied with a QR Reader - when the QR code is scanned, either from the job sheet or directly from the material, the machine will load the program indicated for this specific application and automatically set the correct parameters, such as thread tension and sewing speed. When applying keder for example, the tension for each side of the banner may be different to avoid waves in the fabric, these saved settings will ensure the right finish. What’s more, data and production history (manufacturing orders, items, articles, operators, programs etc.) will be recorded and can be exported to Excel for analysis, or imported into an ERP system.

On the PlastGrommet front, it has been developing a range of banner finishing systems that automate and integrate tasks such as welding and eyeleting into a single process. For large banner jobs, the All in One is a fully automated roll-to-roll or roll-to-sheet machine that welds and inserts eyelets simultaneously to both sides of banners. It offers the option to finish the banners using keder, tape reinforcement or hem welding.

The system also integrates a rewinding and slitting station allowing PSPs the option of working roll-to-roll or cutting the banners reading cut marks, typically hemming, eyeleting and cutting a 50m roll in under nine minutes according to Ashman.

He says the Finishing Station, a single-sided combined welding and eyelet machine, is the ultimate solution for mid-size production. A single operator can finish banners in one step. It is also possible to either weld or just eyelet as both machines are mounted on linear guides and can be stepped back for individual use.

Other offerings that can help PSPs reduce the textile finishing bottleneck include: the Roll2Roll Welding system, which automates the process of welding both sides of the roll simultaneously using hot air technology with low noise level compared with other systems; Roll2Roll Eyeleting, which handles automatic eyelet setting on both sides of a roll by selecting distance between eyelets (this figure will be constant for the entire roll); and the Roll2Roll Eyeleting Pro. This has the same features as Roll2Roll Eyeleting but incorporates a motorised traction gantry and an automatic slitting device.

There’s also the TrackXpress, an automatic eyelet press that adapts to almost any finishing table with unidirectional wheels and linear roller guides.

Sarah Fenna, group sales director at Soyang Europe/Josero, also notes that textile finishing equipment is becoming more advanced, and points to the Meevo (for which it is exclusive UK distributor) line of sewing machines that bring three different levels of automation to sewing large-format panels while maintaining efficiency and accuracy.

Eastern Pearl

CMYUK announced in September that it had become the exclusive UK/Ireland distributor of the Chinese-made JWEI JCUT digital cutting systems, which group commercial director Robin East says he’s “100% confident will transform the digital cutting and finishing leader board” due to the high-end spec minus eye-watering price tag.

Available in three bed sizes - 1600mm x 2500mm, 2100mm x 3100mm, 3200mm x 3000mm - the range kicks off at £64,995 (ex VAT) for the J-CUT Pro-1625 and £89,995 for the 3.2m J-CUT Pro-3230.

The spec includes an automatic feeding conveyor, 1800kW liquid cooled router, Auto Tool Changer (ATC), Universal Cutting Tool (UCT), Kiss Cut Tool (KCT), Electric Oscillating Tool (EOT), Crease Wheel Tool (CWT), V-Cut Tool (VCT), and a modularised cutting head that accommodates up to three sets of tool combinations simultaneously.

All tables are solidly engineered, with the 3.2m wide model fitted with a carbon fibre reinforced gantry. The cutting tables have a top running speed of 1200mm per second (75m per minute) with a maximum acceleration point of 1G.

The tables are controlled by the OptiScout Vision controller software. Individually configurable import filters ensure optimum preparation of the cut contours during importation. For example, open contours can be closed or optimised, or duplicates removed. Individual macros can be executed automatically before and after the import, to optimally feed data into the subsequent cutting process.

The use of a CCD camera increases the precision of the output that compensates printing inaccuracies. Flexible registration reliably processes even the most problematic of materials that are prone to distortion.

At the heart of ‘Production Process Automation’ is a material database that can be accessed at the job preparation stage.

OptiScout is supported by industry leading Rips, including Agfa Asanti, Aurelon PrintFactory, Cadlink, Caldera, ColorGate, EFI, ErgoSoft PosterPrint/TexPrint, IGEPA MasterRip, ONYX, Pjannto, PosterJet, Prep-it, SAi, and Wasatch.

CMYUK engineers will provide installation, operator and application training. The price also includes free lifetime training on equipment, on-going support and service, and stocks all consumables and spare parts for quick availability.

JWEI was founded in 1993 and, with a R&D team of 50-plus, has become a specialist in digital flatbed cutting systems, with its products installed in over 100 countries and regions around the world. The China-based company is headquartered in the Ningbo National High-Tech Zone, a manufacturing facility that was completed in 2021 representing an investment of more than 1bn Yuan. It has both ISO9001:2000 and CE certification, and holds accolades that include Top 10 Software Enterprise, Top 10 Innovative Enterprise, and National Hi-Tech Enterprise.


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