The ability to cut crisp and clear shapes straight from large sheets of material has greatly improved the efficiency of many industries, including packaging, automotive, and consumer electronics. This article considers the use of digital cutting alongside other methods.
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Digital cutting enables manufacturers to incorporate delicate and oddly-shaped parts made of a variety of materials into advanced product designs.
Cutting is a versatile process used to shape materials, such as rubber, textile, foam, paper, plastic, composites, and foils, by trimming, forming, and shearing. For many decades, die-cutting has been the standard manufacturing method that allowed manufacturers to achieve high-volume production of components that previously took longer or were more expensive to make using other techniques.
The process involves the use of tooling called a die. A die is a specialized tool with sharp edges shaped according to the two-dimensional shape of the desired finished part. The die is used to pierce the material and to punch out a shaped part that meets specific dimensions and tolerances, not unlike an industrial cookie-cutter.
Basics and Capabilities of the Die-Cutting Process
Die-cutting originated in the middle of the 19th century when the process was developed as a way of modernizing the shoemaking industry. Before the invention of die-cutting, manual labor was utilized to outline and cut the soles of the shoes. The manual cutting process was time-consuming, resulting in low productivity.
The invention of die-cutting allowed the shoemakers to replicate and standardize the sizes of the soles. Through years of development and innovation, the application of die-cutting extended and revolutionized other sectors, such as packaging, consumer goods, and automotive. As a result of the increasing demand for more complex product designs, die-cutting is still evolving and allows even small companies to achieve high-volume production runs as needed without sacrificing the quality of each item.
There are virtually no limits to the possible cut shapes as the die tool can be tailored for each specific job. The ability to rapidly cut a wide variety of custom shapes is one of the essential advantages of the die-cutting process. Once a die has been created, it can be used to produce a huge number of identical shapes. However, custom die fabrication can be costly (especially for more convoluted shapes) and the cost needs to be offset by using the die in large-volume production runs.
Types of Die-Cutting Manufacturing Processes
Die-cutting exists in many forms that can be divided into two groups - flat-bed die-cutting and rotary die-cutting. The rotary die-cutting process uses a rotary-die press and custom-built cylindrical dies. This manufacturing process enables rapid material cutting as a continuous sheet of relatively thin material (typically up to one millimeter) material can be fed into the press.
Several rotary-dies operating in series can cut various shapes and designs sequentially from a shingle sheet of material, minimizing material waste. Thus, rotary die-cutting methods work best for high-volume, repeated runs since there is usually a hefty upfront investment to acquire the dies.
The flat-bed die-cutting process usually employs a hydraulic press capable of exerting higher pressure and is suitable for cutting thicker materials (over 3 mm thick), such as plastic, composites, and metal sheets. This method is better suited for fabricating small batches or completing short production runs efficiently, as the flat-bed die cutters can operate in batch or semi-batch production.
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What Is Digital Cutting?
With the advent of computer-aided manufacturing, a new type of digital cutting technique was developed that combines most of the advantages of die-cutting with the flexibility of computer-controlled precision cuts of highly-customizable shapes. Unlike die-cutting, which uses shape-specific physical dies, digital cutting uses a cutting tool (which can be a static or oscillating blade or a milling tool) that follows a computer-programmed path to cut out the desired shape.
A digital cutting machine consists of a flat table area and a set of cutting, milling, and scoring tools mounted on a positioning arm that moves the cutting tool in two dimensions. The sheet material is placed on the table surface and the cutter travels across the sheet along the programmed path to cut out the pre-programmed shape.
Digital Cutting Enables Large-Format Customized Cuts
The greatest advantage of digital cutting is the absence of a shape-specific die, ensuring shorter turnaround times compared to die-cutting machines as there is no need to switch between die-shapes, which reduces the overall production time. Besides, there are no costs associated with the manufacture and use of a die, thus making the process more cost-effective. Digital cutting is particularly suitable for large-format cutting jobs and rapid prototyping applications.
The computer-controlled digital flat-bed or conveyor cutting machines can easily integrate detection of registration marks on the sheet material and on-the-flight control of the cut shapes, making the digital cutters very attractive for highly-customizable automated manufacturing processes.
The growing popularity of digital cutters prompted manufacturers to offer a wide range of digital cutting solutions on the market, from large-scale industrial machines that can handle several square meters of sheets materials down to hobby-grade cutters for domestic use.
Uses and Advantages of Laser Cutting
A particular type of digital cutting technique that gained popularity in recent years is laser cutting. The process is very similar to digital cutting, apart from the use of a focused laser beam as a cutting tool (instead of a blade). The use of a powerful and tightly-focused laser (with a focal spot diameter of less than 0.5 mm) leads to rapid heating, melting, and evaporation of the material.
As a result, ultraprecise contactless cuts can be achieved with fast turnaround times. The finished parts benefit from very sharp and clean edges, minimizing the required post-processing of the cut shapes. Laser cutting excels when processing durable high-strength materials, such as steel and ceramics. Industrial laser cutting machines equipped with high-power lasers can cut centimeter-thick metal sheets faster than any other mechanical cutting method. However, laser cutting is not well suited for cutting heat-sensitive or flammable materials like thermoplastics.
Some of the leading manufacturers of digital cutting equipment combine mechanical and laser digital cutting in one system, thus enabling the end-user to benefit from the advantages of both methods.
References and Further Reading
L. Lechner (2021) Die-Cutting Basics: Manufacturing 101. [Online] Echo Engineering & Production Supplies. Available at: https://www.echosupply.com/blog/die-cutting-basics-manufacturing-101 (Accessed on 17 January 2022).
Manufacturing (2021) What is Die Cutting for Manufacturing? [Online] Manufacturing Solutions. Available at: https://www.msivt.com/news/what-is-die-cutting-for-manufacturing (Accessed on 17 January 2022).
N. Cleary (2021) The most common digital cutting tables. [Online] FESPA. Available at: https://www.fespa.com/en/news-media/features/the-most-common-digital-cutting-tables (Accessed on 17 January 2022).
Rocket Graphics (2021) Digital Cutting vs. Die Cutting: What’s The Difference? [Online] Rocket Graphics. Available at: https://rocketworld.co.uk/digital-cutting-vs-die-cutting-whats-the-difference-between-the-two (Accessed on 17 January 2022).
R. Ronquillo (2021) Understanding Die Cutting. [Online] Thomas Publishing. Available at: https://www.thomasnet.com/articles/custom-manufacturing-fabricating/understanding-die-cutting (Accessed on 17 January 2022).