Flatbed plotters: what they are, why to use them and which ones to choose
Flatbed plotters success and appeal are following an increasing trend in recent years. These cutting machines are characterized by many different features and are available in several formats.
In this article, Luca Bartalini, Valiani product manager, will guide you through the discover of these valuable machines.
Here are the topics covered:
Flatbed plotters: what they are and what they are used for
Flatbed plotters are called “flatbed” because, compared to roller plotters, they use a beam that moves the tools over the material rather than having the material move under the beam, and the same material is placed on a flat surface.
The main function of these devices is that they allow the operator to cut several substrates without the use of a traditional die cutter. These machines therefore process the raw material by giving it a defined shape. A precise shape that can have different types of applications: the raw material can be transformed into a box, a sticker, a sign or many other applications, depending on the capabilities of each machine.
Flatbed plotters differ from each other mainly for the applications they can realize. The applications are decisive in the sense that they delimit the reference markets of the single model.
Another fundamental element contributing to the differentiation between plotter types concerns the tools that can be mounted on these machines. In fact, tools are very important in determining the applications that a plotter will be able to carry out and the way in which it will be able to do so.
It is often misjudged that size is the most important factor. To be honest, this is the last of the aspects that we should take into account when evaluating a plotter. First of all, we should make sure of the plotter’s ability to process the materials we are going to handle. The choice of the machine size will then go hand in hand with the size of the material to be processed and, if it is printed, with the capacity and maximum print size that can be achieved.
Another factor that determines the type of digital plotter is the software applications. This is not because the machines come without them, but rather because of their ability to manage multiple file formats which, in some way, will also determine the work that will be done.
If we receive a vector format from programs such as Adobe Illustrator or CorelDRAW it is easy to understand that we are dealing with applications belonging to the world of graphics with print-cut combination.
If we receive a .DXF file it is more likely that we are dealing with the world of cutting and modeling of a material. Finally, there are specific files of third-party programs, which do not belong to the machines on the market, and which may have proprietary formats (for example the CF2 of Valiani m3).
Flatbed plotters: what materials they cut
Flatbed plotters can cut different types of materials. The workability of a material is closely related to the choice of tools with which the machine will be equipped.
However, flatbed plotters tend to be used for processing soft materials such as paper, cardboard, adhesive, fabrics, foams and all those materials that have a low resistance to processing.
When we talk about these materials, we can make a distinction between those that can be cut by a drag knife, oscillating knife or rotary knife.
In terms of hardness, the hardest material to cut is PVC Forex®, which is the upper limit that a flatbed plotter can process.
Often flatbed plotters do not just make cuts but, as in the case of boxes, need a second tool to make creases or, in the case of adhesives, need to make a half cut. Materials such as Alu-dibond, high-density Forex®, Lexan or Plexiglass, medium-density fiberboard, which are more suitable for the signage market, require the additional use of a cutter.
As you may have guessed, there are many options and customization possibilities for each specific business need.
Flatbed plotters: when should I choose one?
You’re probably wondering how to figure out if you should really consider purchasing a flatbed plotter. These machines are an effective solution to meet five basic needs of graphic, packaging and printing companies.
If you recognize yourself in these types of needs, you should probably carefully consider purchasing a flatbed plotter.
1) Prototype quickly
This is essential in helping you get a project approved by a client, because you’ll quickly be able to get an idea of what the finished project will look like, and you can show the final version to the customer right away.
2) Outsource less work
By outsourcing less, you’ll be able to speed up your production processes and gain greater control over quality and costs. Producing in house is less risky from an organizational point of view and, having everything under control, you can better manage time and workflow.
3) Eliminate start-up cost issue
With a flatbed plotter you will be able to produce the quantities requested by the customer without constraints and minimum production quantities. You will no longer be forced to produce large runs to reduce start-up costs.
4) Create original projects independently
Without a plotter you will often have to rely on an external supplier and adapt to pre-made cutting dies: in essence you will find yourself acting on work already made by others. On the other hand, with a flatbed plotter, you’ll always be able to design and make original projects on your own.
5) Just in Time – Respond better to the customer’s deadline
Working with a flatbed plotter you will have a better ability to respond to the timing required by the customer. With this type of machinery, you can give yourself the possibility of making a pre-delivery with a shorter run, without necessarily having to make the entire batch in a single production process.
Flatbed plotters and traditional die cutting machines
What we have just listed are the main advantages guaranteed by a flatbed plotter. This type of machinery compared to a traditional die cutting machine is less suitable for cutting large amounts of material. The reason is that the traditional die cutting machine is able to finish these processes much faster.
However, comparing flatbed plotter die-cutting processes with traditional die-cutting processes is a mistake to be avoided. This is because the processes are completely different, both in method and concept. When choosing a machine, it is necessary to have in mind what production volumes we want to achieve. It is the quantity that determines the choice.
You are probably wondering if it is possible to choose both solutions. Well, choosing both solutions can be absolutely correct, because it allows you to respond to two different needs that may occur in your company and integrate with each other.
Traditional die-cutting guarantees performance on high quantities, the flatbed plotter gives the flexibility to choose when to produce in one way and when to produce in another way, according to cost convenience and depending on the quantities for which the machine was designed and chosen by the company.
If you want to learn more about this topic, also read the article we wrote about how to choose between a die cutter and a digital cutting machine.
Flatbed plotter: how to choose the right one
The offer of flatbed plotters on the market is wide and the choice could be very difficult. However, if you are thinking of buying a flatbed plotter you should always keep in mind some fundamental aspects: the needs and requirements you have to meet, the plotter’s and seller’s reliability, the quality of the technical support provided over time, the ability to integrate with other software.
Your real needs
This aspect may seem trivial, but it is not at all. Too often, in fact, entrepreneurs and decision-makers have the mistaken tendency to focus on what they might want to do, on the types of jobs that we might hypothetically do one day.
This kind of evaluation is often misleading, as it leads to the purchase of plotters that have too many features compared to those that are actually necessary for the company. Features that most likely will never be used.
The result is that many companies buy flatbed plotters that are too expensive in relation to the real needs of the company.
If you decide to buy a plotter, we recommend that you focus on your real needs at the time of purchase: you will save a lot of money and you will be able to do your work more effectively.
All brands claim that their machines are reliable, so how can I prove if the flatbed plotter I’m thinking of is reliable?
If word of mouth and positive testimonials can certainly have a weight in understanding if a machine is reliable, there is probably an even more important factor, the so-called longevity, which amortizes the investment in the long term.
A long-lived company, one that has been around for decades, will most likely be a company with a lot of experience, one that has satisfied its customers and achieved very important results over time. For this reason, it is safe to assume that brands with a long history can offer quality products.
At the same time, the longevity of a product is also an indicator of good quality: a model that has existed for a long time, although with the necessary updates, is most likely a successful model. Just think of everyday products like smartphones or cars: there are products that have been around for decades, that have been so successful and are so loved by their users that they have survived the passage of time. These products are updated periodically, but naming and distinctive design features and functionality never change. The same holds true for flatbed plotters.
Conversely, a plotter that has been manufactured for a short time or about which little is known will probably be a machine to avoid.
Also in this case, obviously, it’s not easy to understand who is in front of us. But even when we’re talking about sellers, longevity is a factor that can help you in the final choice.
Choosing a dealer who has been selling the same flatbed plotter for many years is usually synonymous with a greater guarantee, since it is easy to assume a strong link with the parent company, a wide and ready availability of spare parts, a team of technicians able to carry out the first support operations for different needs, such as training on the use, upgrades or repairs.
Features that are not at all common or taken for granted in all vendors.
Quality of the assistance
When considering the purchase of a flatbed plotter, after-sales service and support are often underestimated, but the ability to receive quality service is fundamental.
You must always remember that you will use the machine you buy for a long time (we are talking about many years) and in a continuous way (at least 8 hours a day). If you invest in a plotter that must ensure a long and continuous use, you cannot underestimate what you might need one day.
Obviously, before buying, it is very difficult to know the quality of a service that will be provided only after buying the plotter and, usually, after a rather long time. However, there are some good practices that you can follow while you are evaluating the machines to buy.
The first criterion to follow is definitely transparency: if information is clear, detailed and accessible, you’ll definitely have a good sign of the seller’s seriousness and you will know better what to expect once you have made the purchase. Knowing how the assistance will be provided, the costs involved, the existence of any packages or assistance programs is essential to make the best choice.
We recommend that you get detailed information and ask the company or retailer many questions.
Once you have all the necessary information, you will be able to make the best choice for your needs. While evaluating your purchase, remember to always assign a very high specific weight to the after-sales service and support!
Finally, among the aspects to evaluate when choosing a flatbed plotter, we recommend that you take into account its ability to integrate with other software. Every user knows well the origin of the workings and therefore the software applications he needs to use. Therefore, when making your choice, you should make sure that the cutting machine you are considering can integrate with these software applications.
In addition, many manufacturers create true bundles in which the flatbed plotter is sold in conjunction with proprietary software. This is something we recommend that you inquire about in detail, because this software may be very useful to you during your daily work.
Today we believe that the most important software in flatbed plotters are those for contour cutting of printed files, without which this type of machine would be diminished, losing appeal and value.
Other important software are CAD (computer-aided design) for paper converting, necessary to facilitate the creation of packaging or displays.
Flatbed plotter: learn more about them
In this article, we took a wide overview of the flatbed plotter world.
We found out what they are, what they are used for, what materials they cut. We advised you on how to figure out if you should buy a flatbed plotter and what criteria you should follow to choose the right one for you.
We hope that you found this article useful and that, after reading it, you have a deeper understanding of flatbed cutters.
The topics we have covered are many and in-depth, but we know that there is still so much more to discover.
To do so, we recommend you read all of the articles on our blog. Or, if you would like to get in touch directly with the Valiani team, send us a request for information by filling out the form below.
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