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FLEXO Magazine : October 2009
52 FLEXO OCTOBER 2009 www.flexography.org • Laser cutting systems are called digital die cutters because they can take any vector-based digital im- age and import it into their operating software to set up a job. • Soft marking is no small feat for the control software to achieve, and it is only the available from those manufacturers that have made significant R&D investments in better software. • Obsolete models of laser cutters that can only opti- mize cutting for cutting speed, and not web speed, restrict the sizes of pictures to be cut to be no larger than half the size of the working field. Laser cutting, a.k.a. digital die cutting, uses high-pow- ered lasers to vaporize materials in the lasers' beam path. The powering on and off of the laser beam and the way in which the beam path is directed toward the sub- strate effects the specific cuts that the artwork requires. Be- cause parts that are cut away are vaporized, the hand labor or complicated extraction methods otherwise needed for small part scrap removal is eliminated. These basic facts about laser cutting are as true today as they were when laser cutting systems were first put to practi- cal industrial uses in the 1980s. However, recent advances in laser cutting technology, and especially those that relate to the sophistication of the software engineering underlying laser cutting controls, have created dramatic improvements in the type of outputs that can be expected from laser cutters. Today 's lower-cost laser cutting systems, made from less expensive components, have far superior capabilities to the expensive systems that were designed and engineered only a few years ago. At the top end, state-of-art laser cutting sys- tems are able to consistently cut far more intricate designs in a wider range of substrates and with tighter tolerances than ever before. The challenge to those making investments in laser cut- ting technology is to source machines that are well-matched to application requirements. One can still find laser cutting systems in the marketplace that force compromises in quality or production output. On the other hand, those with more straightforward application requirements are often well- served by lower-cost models of laser cutting systems that are powerful and versatile enough for the jobs at hand. In this article, we will discuss how to match today 's laser cutting technology to application requirements and offer insights into how various features of laser cutting systems translate into capabilities for quality and throughput as summarized in Figure 1. LASER VS. TOOL-BASED DIE CUTTING A preliminary step to sourcing the right laser cutting tech- nology is to first determine if laser cutting capabilities are a good addition to your finishing department. There are numer- ous advantages to laser cutters compared to tool-based die cutting systems. Most of these advantages derive from the tool-free nature of laser cutters. Because there are no tools, there are no costs for tools or production delays for time to make tools. This is the major reason why laser cutters provide a rapid prototyping niche for those that use them. Laser cutting systems are called digital die cutters because they can take any vector-based digital image and import it into their operating software to set up a job. Today's best-in- class laser cutting systems can complete set up from these imported digital images in just a few minutes. The term digital die cutter is used interchangeably with laser cutting, and speaks to this advantage. In tool-based mechanical cutting there are always intrinsic limitations from the physical contact between the cutting edge and the material being cut. A laser system bypasses that situ- ation, which makes them able to manipulate many materials that are very difficult or impossible for tool-based systems to handle. For example, cutting adhesives is far easier with a laser because of the tendency of adhesives to literally gum up How to Match Today s Laser Cutting Technology to Application Requirements (Part I) By Markus Klemm FIGURE 1. Laser cutting technology comparison chart. All art courtesy Spartanics. TECHNOLOGIES & TECHNIQUES
Sustainable Fall 2009