Cutting Plotters

A signshop’s Swiss Army Knife
Tech Review: Cutting plotters could stimulate an upsurge in production

Are roll-type vinyl cutters a good investment for a signshop – or are they, like the 5.25-in. floppy disk, a relic of the past? In the ’80s and ’90s, the vinyl cutter evolved as a sign industry “revolution,” the disruptor that would (and did) replace the lettering brush and pounce pattern as the principal tools for creating commercial signs. Fast forward to today (geez … 30 years seems to have flown by) and digital printers are as common as bugs in summer and, to the uninitiated, cutting plotters may appear as an archaeological find.

Not so fast. As we have previously said, an efficacious cutting plotter could stimulate a valuable upsurge in your shop’s sign-production processes. 

You say, “Hey, my digital printer already has a cutter included, so why do I need another?” Good question, and here’s why: Single-use, print-and-cut machine functions are typically slower processes; whereas individual machines, i.e., separate printers and cutters, allow you to simultaneously print on one while cutting, say, letter forms or outlines, on the other. Therefore, if you are working in a high-volume environment, or if you need to cut thicker-than-average materials (e.g., sandblast mask, highway-grade reflective vinyl or flexible-magnetic sheeting), a dedicated, appropriately outfitted cutter makes sense.

Two critical buying specifications are the machine-cutting speed and knife-down force. An average printer/cutter speed may max out around 10-12 in. per second; a dedicated cutter will zoom past it at 30-50 in. per second. Cutting force determines how well the knife can cut through materials while moving. A dedicated machine will generally offer 25% more force than an off-shelf printer/cutter, which means such materials as thick as garment transfer or sandblast mask media can be more easily and precisely cut at faster speeds. Another production-shop consideration is that while a print/cut machine is cutting, the printer component is idle. Again, for production environments, a standalone cutter will bypass such waiting and help maximize shop output.


Another advantage for dedicated cutting is when working with detailed or intricate graphics, such as promotional phone cases. Some cutting-plotter makers offer tangential-knife systems, as opposed to the more-common and less-expensive drag-blade system. Tangential-blade systems lift and rotate the knife at corners, as opposed to the drag-knife blade remaining in contact with the media and relying on a blade-swivel action to maneuver the corner. Drag action can tear and pucker the media edges at faster speeds, which negatively affects weeding on small items. Again, the tangential machine lifts the blade just prior to the turn, which produces a clean, more easily weeded cut.

Making and marketing decals has become a staple in many signshops; however, a headache occurs if you’re hand-cutting individual decals. Fortunately, many of today’s cutting plotters offer half-cut and through-cut modes (selectable in the software) that allow for creative variances – perforated cuts through the liner, for example, so that individual decals can be easily lifted from the finished sheet. 

Remember, too, that cutting plotters can process media that’s seldom used in digital printing – fluorescent-colored vinyl media, metallic-surfaced and textured media are good examples. 

Notice that we have focused only on sophisticated cutting plotters; these will be the best asset for your digital printing shop. Virtually all leading models come with some form of optical registration, so that the cuts follow your prescribed design paths. Also, most will include cutting-management software, and perhaps plugins for Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW.

Any way you slice it, we suggest you reexamine your shop’s media-cutting processes and survey today’s cutting-edge machines. Adding one might be a smart investment – one that helps boost your shop’s processes and profits.

Signs of the Times August 2019

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