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Commentary & Analysis

Dangerous Potential: The True Power of A Strategic Approach to Paper Cutting and Handling

A shop’s cutting department is often thought of—when it’s thought of at all—as an “invisible workhorse”: highly productive—until it’s not. In this feature, Trish Witkowski takes a 360-degree look at cutting equipment, from retrofitting newer features onto older cutters, to the latest automated, and even robot-assisted, cutting systems.

By Trish Witkowski
Published: March 8, 2018

In print operations, the cutting department just doesn’t see the kind of attention that other areas receive. “The paper cutter is like a hot water heater in your home,” says Richard Peereboom of C&P Microsystems. “As long as you have hot water, everything is fine and nobody thinks about it. But when the hot water stops, everything is disrupted.” 

Richard is right. In print production, we look at the cutters as an invisible workhorse. Of all of the print facility tours I’ve been on in my career (it’s a big number, by the way), I can think of very few that have stopped so that we could ogle the cutting systems.

Although fanfare isn’t a requirement for any given department, respect certainly is. After all, there’s a lot at stake when the printed page gets all the way to the cutter. Is this where we can tolerate a bottleneck? Is this where we open the door to human error? With so much at stake, I wanted to know more about what’s happening in paper cutting and handling, and where it’s going. As we’ve all watched innovation and focus move through the production workflow from prepress to press and finally to the bindery, cutting is starting to get the attention it deserves—even though the cutting line is not generally viewed as a profit center.

So, let’s take a trip. Although I love all that is new and exciting, my practical side always forces me to take a look at what I have, and to see if I really need something new. So, for that reason, we’re going to start by exploring the “make the most of what you have” option of retrofitting the cutters that are already sitting in your shop. We’ll move from retrofitting, to refurbishing, to buying the newest in cutting and handling technology—and then we’ll explore the exciting future of robotic co-workers in print environments.

Get Rid of It, or Retrofit It?

As president of C&P Microsystems, Richard Peereboom leads the Microcut brand for North America’s largest independent distributor of paper cutters and paper handling equipment, Colter & Peterson. Microcut is a retrofit system that can be installed to control backgauge movement on any cutter in any brand or size, as long as the cutter uses a leadscrew for backgauge movement. The product includes the installation of an intuitive operator interface as well. Richard admits that their technology has actually been around for many years, but that they’re seeing renewed interest in Microcut, since it can solve the problems of today’s networked production environments, adding new functionality and longer life to older machines.

Can This Cutter Be Saved?

An example of a prime candidate for retrofitting would be a 20-year old guillotine cutter with some computerization that has been well-maintained. “If a customer’s front end can generate cut block information, our system can take the file, convert it in a few seconds, and determine the most efficient way to cut that down,” he says. When asked about pricing, Richard said that where a new 45-inch cutter might be in the $70,000 range, they can update that 20-year-old guillotine cutter with a back gauge control system and networking capabilities for somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000. 

Another scenario would be the 10-year-old cutter that is in perfectly good shape and suits the needs of the production floor, but that is simply not networked into the overall production workflow. Richard said that a newer machine can be networked for around $10,000.

Success with Reconditioned Cutters

When it no longer makes good sense to save a cutter, a refurbished cutter could also be a solution that works for your business. In September 2017, Gary Markovits, President of E&M Bindery and Finishing in Clifton, N.J., replaced an old paper cutter with a reconditioned 54-inch Polar ED, a Transomat off-loader, and a Polar jogger—and never looked back. “We had a cutter with lots of miles on it. Between the repairs and maintenance needed to keep it running, the time was right to replace it.” And although a brand-new cutting system wasn’t in the cards for the 56-year-old company with 140 employees, they’re really happy with their investment. “The cutting system is meeting our expectations. It’s faster than what we had before, and our four cutting operators like how easy it is to use. It is 20 percent faster than the other cutters we have (three 45-inch Polar models) and is accounting for 10 percent more throughput.”

A refurbished 54-inch POLAR paper cutter at E&M Bindery and Finishing in Clifton, N.J.

Look Beyond Cutting

At the tail end of our conversation, Peereboom suggested that printers look at the entire paper handling process, considering all of the potential bottlenecks and how to solve them. “Sometimes people try to resolve bottlenecks by adding more cutters, without considering that they may see greater efficiencies in the addition of peripheral equipment instead—like lifts, joggers, loaders and unloaders.”

Buy It New, Lucky You!

I think we can all agree that new is awesome. With new cutting systems, you’ll get the latest in ergonomics, speed, and precision. If you’ve got the budget, you’ll get smart technology, like barcode readers to ensure the correct cutting program is selected, touchscreen displays, real image preview, and automatic trim removal. You can also opt for automated turning and jogging, in-line scales, and more.

And it’s more than bells and whistles at this step in the print production process. These features are in many cases pure necessity. Think about it. Everything is at risk in the cutting department. All of the time and materials that have been invested are on the hook. The schedule, the customer relationship, all could be destroyed with one improperly trained operator, or one highly-skilled-but-exhausted human being. Automation at the cutting and handling process also opens doors for female operators who may have the computer skills and knowledge, but not the physical strength needed to move paper for hours on end. In an industry where it’s getting harder and harder to find and train/retain operators, I imagine this would be a pretty helpful benefit of automated cutting technology. 

Recently, Allied Printing Services in Manchester, Conn., announced the removal of their classic 17-year old Heidelberg/POLAR cutters to make room for four, entirely new Heidelberg/POLAR cutting systems that are completely programmable, with in-line weighted scales to ensure 100% accurate counts. In their announcement, they stated, “On average, this equipment will cut the equivalent of over 2.3 million sheets at 8.5” x 11” in a day!” That’s impressive, for sure. The company also highlights the alignment of this system with their environmental initiatives, mentioning that “‘Arms’ push the paper “waste” immediately to our automated removal system,” as an important part of their comprehensive recycling program.

Another company realizing a significant jump in cutting efficiency with new machines is Detroit-area digital printer, Avanzado. In 2016, they replaced two aging 31.5-inch guillotine cutters with one, new, 36-inch PRISM from Colter & Peterson. The result was speed and efficiency that outperformed the two cutters they were using previously. In January of this year, due to increased volume of work, they added a second PRISM—this time, a 45-inch machine that could handle the demands of the more sophisticated work they were bringing in.

Gregg Gabbana (left), and Tom Jurney of Avanzado with their new 45-inch PRISM paper cutter.

Avanzado’s bindery manager, Tom Jurney, is really pleased with the new investment. “The 45-inch machine has a larger stack lift by two inches, so we can cut up to six inches of material with it,” he says. “The majority is 80- to 100-pound cover stock, and we also can cut a broader range of sheet sizes. We raised productivity with the 36-inch cutter a sizeable amount, and I would imagine we have improved exponentially by another 20–30% with this machine.”

Now that I’m looking for it, I’m seeing cutting technology in every direction. On the high-speed inkjet side, I was just in Boulder, Colo., at the Ricoh USA Customer Experience Center, where I watched the Ricoh Pro VC60000 hooked up to fully-automated inline cutting and stacking systems from Hunkeler and Tecnau. To be continued...

(Co-Working) Robots to the Rescue

Looking ahead to the future, I wanted to see who was really pushing the envelope in the cutting and handling of paper, which led to a fascinating conversation with Henrik Christiansen, President and CEO of Graphic Robotics in Denmark. Graphic Robotics works in partnership with Yaskawa, one of the world’s biggest robot manufacturers, to provide sophisticated co-working robotic solutions for the printing industry.

“Nobody knows more about handling flexible materials with robots than we do,” says Christiansen, whose first print industry robot installation was for Scandinavia’s biggest commercial/magazine printer, Stibo Graphic in Denmark. It was a very complicated challenge because, as Henrik says, “Robots hate flexible materials.” It took a tremendous amount of research and testing to build a robot that could adapt to the unpredictability and variation in paper handling. They studied the operators’ movement patterns down to the tiniest details to get it right.

Henrik explains that the robot cannot replace humans in this scenario—in fact, it actually works in close cooperation with the operator, removing the unwanted and physically demanding functions of the job, while greatly increasing speed and accuracy, and allowing the operator to focus on the intellectual task at hand.

Watch the amazing Graphic Robotics Yaskawa Levanto co-working robot at Stibo Graphic in Denmark:

So, let’s all get co-working robots! Well, not so fast. 

Currently the greatest barrier to mass adoption of co-working robotics is pure economics. “There aren’t many printers that can use a robot to its maximum capacity—you have to have large volumes to justify the expenditure,” he says. “Our robots are well-suited to two specific markets: high-volume web printers, and high-volume online printers.”

These days, Henrik and his team are looking even beyond the cutting process and into robot-assisted packing as well. We talked about what happens after the sheet is cut in high volume scenarios, and how the process becomes totally manual as teams of workers swarm to quickly put the newly-cut materials into boxes by hand.

“Based on my marketing studies among online printers,” says Christiansen, “around 70–90% of all print production is finished at the sheet cutter.” He went on to describe how there’s an increased likelihood of mistakes at this expensive and final point in the production process, and that the waste percentage is not only substantial but often not even measured. If you read my interview with Werner Rebsamen about the hidden costs of poor material handling in the bindery, this should all start to paint a clear picture of a very real issue.

Henrik shared with me a story about large German online print provider, Saxoprint, and how they’re loading cut product directly into boxes in their own developed finishing solutions at the sheet cutter lines. It’s great to see companies all over the world beginning to solve these problems in innovative ways.

Unfinished Business

It’s also inspiring to see increased cutting efficiencies across the budget spectrum. It seems like there’s a solution out there for everyone, which is great. I feel as though I could go on and on with this topic—in fact, I think I will. Watch for future features on peripheral equipment and boxing efficiencies, material handling, and more. I welcome your comments, stories and ideas below.

Trish specializes in creative solutions and engagement strategies for direct mail and marketing. She frequently travels and speaks to print organizations and their clients to illustrate the power of print. 



By Robert Godwin on Mar 08, 2018


Excellent article on the cutting stage in print workflows. it is the most difficult bottleneck (think time suck and errors) to deal with. You correctly identified the buy new or update conundrum. Cutters have a long life (good thing), but with the advances in technology they can become a bit of a dinosaur (bad thing).

I am obliged to mention that ScissorHands (yes those Gothically attired ladies at the trade shows) is another solution for automating a guillotine cutter. It also works across a range of various sized cutters so many shops can benefit. Any automation system will reduce errors and the learning curve for an operator. The first time I ran a cutter, it was with a ScissorHands.net system. I cut 7 different jobs, each a different form factor and had them cut, boxed and labeled in 15 minutes. First time, no errors.

So automation is a good choice and there are several good products on the market that address the classic cutter bottle neck in workflow.


By Trish Witkowski on Mar 12, 2018

Robert - thanks so much for your feedback on the article, and for adding Scissorhands to the conversation. I'll check them out!


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