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Boost Profits, Expand Markets With a Digital Plotter Cutter

September 7th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Cutters are a natural fit in any decorated apparel business. The advantages they offer are numerous, including:

They work with a huge array of materials, including vinyl and film, and you can get a full-blown system, including supplies, for as little as £2000.

These materials can be applied to cotton, cotton/polyester blends, nylon, 100% polyester, leather, canvas, wood, and metal. And in addition to apparel, you also can decorate accessories and extras such as umbrellas, helmets, cd bags and coolers. It’s just a question of picking the right material for the substrate.

You have complete design control, allowing you to do things like custom fit long names on small jerseys, change fonts and colours, and so on.

You’re not dependent on a supplier’s schedule; you make designs when you need them. If you run short of a vowel or a number one or mess one up, you make one more.

Depending on the cutter you purchase, your new equipment may allow you to make a digital transfer of things like corporate logos, a left chest, or full-front design, which allows you to enter a host of new markets.

In addition to teams, you can expand your markets to include local community projects, uniform wear, and all kinds of corporate businesses.  

And when you figure that somebody is going to be making healthy profits doing that business — well, it might as well be your shop, right? In the long run, this kind of market and decorating versatility can only help your business. With that in mind, here’s a look at what you need to know about buying a cutter.

Understanding the Basics
Cutters are available in two types: friction-fed, which includes roll cutters and sheet-fed cutters; or flat bed.

Most friction-fed cutters aren’t designed to handle twill, although there are a couple of significant exceptions. Typically, flat-bed cutters costs around £4000, can do the job extremely well. The ability to handle twill and appliqué means your shop also has to add a sewing or embroidery machine.  And you need to be aware that flat-bed cutters can’t be used with roll materials. Many shops that do both have a friction-fed and a flat-bed cutter.

In either case, the cutter hooks up to your computer (generally not included as part of the purchase); much like you’d connect a printer. You’ll also need a heat press and materials to feed into the cutter. You send a design from the computer to the cutter, which then cuts it from the material — which you then weed (to remove unwanted material) and heat seal to a substrate.

Some suppliers offer packages that include the cutter, a heat press, and materials. In all, expect to spend roughly £2,000 and up for all the required equipment, including a good heat press and supplies — a low price given all the capabilities you’ll be adding to your shop.

Software. Cutters usually come with the software required, either in standalone form or as a plug-in for graphic arts programs such as CorelDraw or Adobe Illustrator. Essentially, the software acts as a driver for the cutter. While it’s a plus if you know graphic arts programs, you can happily get by without that knowledge; with some other software available that automates many of the functions, that would normally take more knowledge. Still, having the flexibility of a full-fledged graphic arts program really expands your capabilities and what you can do for your customers.

There also are CAD-cutting design programs that offer a wide range of predesigned templates geared to the team and sports market. Customers simply choose the typeface, design, colours, and layout they like best, and these are plugged into the template, and out comes a professional-looking design ready to be heat sealed. Another option is to rely on suppliers who offer artwork services. They will clean up your customer’s artwork and vectorize it so it’s ready to output to your cutter. (Cutters work only vector artwork, not bitmap or raster images.) Most clip art companies also offer thousands of mascots and images that can easily be imported into your CAD cutter programme and incorporated into a design.

Material. Materials come in sheets and rolls. One big advantage of roll goods is you do not have to stand there and feed sheets into the machine. You can load up a roll, which will then continuously cut until the job is done. There’s also no limit to the design’s length, since the roll is continuous. Rolls generally come in 38cm and 50cm widths.

Cutters also can do sign vinyl, which is usually a self-adhesive material; film, which is a heat-applied material used for apparel; sand-blast material; magnetic material for making refrigerator magnets and magnetic vehicle signs; and, in some cases, transfer paper. This means that not only can you offer the school football team numbered shirts; you can print up the team’s season schedule on magnetic material and sell it to teams and fans who want to put it up on the fridge.

As an alternative to vinyl, certain select suppliers also offer polyurethane materials, or PU which is more environmentally friendly. It is actually thinner, looks better and feels softer than vinyl. Furthermore, the PU product “loves itself” and you can, therefore, stick more layers together. An important feature of PU is that a two-colour, two-layer design will feel like just one layer However, some customers may prefer the thicker, shinier look of traditional vinyl.

For markets such as dance, fashion, and safety, you’ll find a multitude of film options, including foils, glitters, metallic, fluorescents, and reflectives. Reflective materials, which have recently become available in a variety of colors, are popular for safety where visibility is crucial, for example, for school children walking with backpacks. Now children can be safe and make a fashion statement at the same time!

Size. Cutters come in many widths — anywhere from 20cms to 160cms. Of course, the cutter’s cost increases accordingly, from about £700 to £10,000. Generally, though, expect to spend roughly £1000 to £1,500 on a quality cutter.

Unless you’re only going to use the cutter for hobby work, you should avoid anything less than 38cms wide. A 60cms width is considered a standard minimum size for a sporting goods dealer doing team shirts.  

Other Cutter Considerations

When shopping for a cutter, there are some other features to be aware of. They include:

Memory. Look for cutters with an adequate buffer memory as. This allows the unit to quickly download designs from the computer to the cutter.

Down force. Find out how many grams of force the cutter has. Some have about 150 grams of force, while others have about 450. Depending on the material you’re cutting, more down force may come in handy. You must have sufficient down force to cut heavier materials like twill, for example. So make sure your salesperson is aware of all the materials you anticipate cutting.

Optical eye. This is a relatively new feature available on cutters but one that can save a tremendous amount of time increasing productivity. A cutter with an optical eye sets up registration points and, with the software included, allows you to quickly set up contour lines around even complicated designs. It then quickly and precisely cut around any design.

If your cutter has an optical eye (this should cost from £1,400 – £2,000), you can then add a low-cost inkjet printer, and cut out full-colour designs for dark garments.  With an optical eye on your cutter you will not have to worry ever again about using scissors to laboriously cut away the white border around your designs. Just print the designs on transfer paper using the inkjet printer, use the cutter to contour cut the printed image, and use the press to heat seal the image onto the garment. An optical eye also allows you to contour cut items such as window stickers.

Presets. For each type of material you cut, the machine must be programmed with the specifics of that material. If you’re going to switch back and forth between vinyl and film, for instance, it’s handy to have a cutter that has a number of presets. This way, you simply push a button and the unit is ready to handle that material.


Warranty. Some suppliers offer extended warranties at no additional cost, so be sure to ask what type of coverage is included. Also, ask if the supplier will offer a free loan machine to use to keep production going should your equipment need servicing.

Training. Using a cutter requires only limited training, which you can get online or in person. In fact, many training programs take only an hour before you’re up and running. Find out whether the supplier offers in-person or virtual training, or both — and at what cost, if any.

Speed. Find out how fast the cutter operates. Most suppliers measure in terms of cms per second. A speed of about 38cms per second and higher is good. Keep in mind that more complicated designs will sometimes require a much slower speed.

Cut quality. Take a close look at the manner in which the cutter does its work. Are the cuts clean and smooth, or are they ragged? Watch the unit in action, and carefully examine samples produced on the machine.

With these considerations in mind, you’re ready to start shopping for a cutter for your business. It’s almost as if you’re purchasing not just a piece of equipment but a new employee who can handle an amazing array of tasks. With a cutter, you’re no longer limited by anything but your imagination.

Printer/Cutters Close Up 
While a cutter has an incredible amount of versatility, a printer/cutter unit ups the ante by adding printing capabilities to the mix. A single unit can output full-color images—usually using inkjet technology—and do contour cutting all in with the same machine.

Using such a unit makes it easy to create customized signage with UV-resistant ink, and do digital transfers for apparel and other items—and it can still do everything a traditional cutter can handle. Of course, such capabilities come at a cost: Prices start at about £6,000 and reach £10,000 and upwards.

Target can be contacted at www.targettransfers.com or call +44 (0) 1376 326351.


Martin Borley

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