Introduction to Flatbed Die Cutting

New to flatbed die cutting? Here’s an introduction.

According to Thomas Net:

“Also referred to as steel rule die cutting, flatbed die cutting is a fabrication process which employs a flatbed die cutting press and steel rule dies to convert material into custom shapes and designs. The process is suitable for die cutting fabric, and a wide range of other materials, including paper, plastic, metal, rubber (including cutting neoprene), composites, and laminates, and creating uniform parts for a variety of manufacturing applications.

“Compared to other die cutting processes—e.g., rotary die cutting and laser cutting—flatbed cutting is more suitable for processing thicker material, producing larger parts, and completing small orders or short production runs. However, while flatbed die cutting demonstrates some advantages over rotary die cutting and laser cutting, some manufacturing applications are better suited to these other die cutting processes, such as high-precision, intricate design, or large run part production. The requirements and specifications demanded by a particular die cutting application—e.g., materials, sizing, tolerances, costs, turnaround times, etc.—help determine the type of die cutting process most suitable to use for it.

“While each type has its advantages and disadvantages in regards to manufacturing, this article focuses on the flatbed die cutting process, outlining the basics of the process, and the components and mechanics of the flatbed die cutting machine. Additionally, the article explores various flatbed die cutting capabilities and the benefits and limitations of the process.

The Flatbed Die Cutting Press and Process

“For the flatbed die cutting process to run smoothly, and at optimum capacity, several factors should be taken into consideration, such as the flatbed die cutting machine’s configuration and settings, the material being cut and its properties, as well as the type of steel rule die employed.

Overview of Press Components and Mechanics

“Flatbed die cutting is a type of die cutting which utilizes custom-designed steel rule dies affixed to a flatbed press to convert metal and non-metal material. Flatbed die presses are available in mechanical, hydraulic, and electric models and have configurations which vary from application to application. The typical setup for these presses includes a feeder unit, an in-feed module, a cutting station and steel rule die assembly, part extraction and waste removal tools, and a parts collection and delivery system.

The Feeder

“The feeder—also referred to as the loader—utilizes suctioning, pulling, or pushing movements to transfer material from the feed tray or unwind stands to the in-feed module of the flatbed die press. Controlling the material’s movement and positioning as it enters the press’s die cutting station, the in-feed can also register individual sheets and sections of material to the cutting station. Registering the material helps to both ensure it is positioned correctly within the press and prevent cutting errors.

The Cutting Station

“Within the cutting station, the custom-designed steel rule die assembly is affixed to an upper plate—i.e., the cutting head—and a lower counter plate—i.e., the press head—serves as a surface against which the die performs the cutting operation. Depending on the die cutting operation, the press head is designed to accommodate or work in conjunction with the custom design of the steel rule die. Once the material enters the cutting station and is properly positioned beneath the cutting head, the cutting head begins a downward stroke which applies vertical pressure perpendicular to the plane of the material’s surface. The movement and pressure cause the steel rule die to compress the material against the press head until the die’s edge penetrates the material. This action produces the desired cuts, perforations, scores, creases, or embossed designs on the material.

Stripping System

“Afterward, scrap and waste material are removed, typically by a stripping system, from the die cut designs, or a part extraction tool—e.g., a blank separator—removes the die cut design from the material. Die cut designs can also be ejected from the material by rubber strips or blocks—i.e., rubber ejectors—positioned within the steel rule assembly. The flatbed die cutting system also collects discrete die cut parts, stacks die cut sheets, and rewinds die cut rolled materials onto spindles, and then conveys and delivers the die cut designs down the production line for further processing.

Timing and Control Systems

“In flatbed die cutting machines, timing belts and electronic control systems monitor and adjust the cutting mechanism and cutting cycle to ensure the precision and consistency of the die cut. Flatbed die cutting systems are designed and assembled based on the particular die cutting and manufacturing application. They are available in offline or inline configurations, with the suitability of each configuration dependent on the specifications and requirements of the application.

Material Considerations

“Flatbed die cutting is suitable for a variety of materials, including fabric, fiber, paper, plastic, metal, rubber, foam, foil, composites, and laminates. As opposed to rotary die cutting, flatbed die cutting is used to convert materials in both roll and sheet form. The type of material being converted and its properties largely determine the optimal design of the steel rule die and cutting pressure, as well as the suitability and efficiency of employing the flatbed die cutting process for the particular application.

“In flatbed die cutting, the properties of the material being cut influence the design of the steel rule die’s cutting edge geometry and bevel. The material’s thickness and compressibility largely determine the thickness of the die and the length and angle of the die blade’s bevel. Thick, hard materials require a thicker die and a longer, more angled bevel, while thin, soft materials utilize a thinner die and a shorter, less angled bevel. As flatbed die cutting is often used to cut thicker (>⅛ in.) and harder materials, steel rules are generally designed with greater thicknesses, greater lengths, and steeper angles. Thicker and harder materials also require greater pressure than thinner and softer materials to properly and precisely cut completely through the material. As flatbed presses are capable of exerting more force—and consequently more cutting pressure—than rotary presses, they are better suited for cutting through such materials, as well as cutting through softer and thinner materials.

Types of Steel Rule Dies

“The flatbed die cutting process employs steel rule die assemblies to convert metal and non-metal material. A complete die assembly is composed of a steel rule—i.e., the cutting component of a die assembly formed by a sharp-edged metal strip bent into a custom-designed shape—and a die base—i.e., the carrier component of a die assembly into which the steel rule is fitted, allowing the rule to maintain its shape and form. Ejection rubber can also be fitted around or within the steel rule in the die assembly to allow for easy removal of the die cut designs.

“There are many types of steel rule dies employed by flatbed presses, and determining the type that should be utilized in a particular flatbed die cutting application requires several considerations, including the type of material being converted, design and manufacturing specifications, and production quantities. Some of the types of steel rule dies available include:

  • Blanking
  • Combination
  • Progressive
  • Progressive feed dies

Blanking Dies: Also known as a shearing, stamping, or male/female die, a blanking die is composed of an upper (female) section fitted with a custom-designed steel rule and a lower (male) section which accommodates and inserts into the inner steel rule design. Although typically used to convert metal, it can be used for both soft and rigid materials.

Combination Dies: A combination die incorporates elements of a standard steel rule die, and blanking die. The steel rule cuts out the design’s outer perimeter, and the blanking component produces internal cutouts within the die cut design.

Progressive Dies: A progressive die is used when there are multiple cutting stations, each of which performs one or more separate operations to a die cut part. Parts remain on the stock material between each station until the final operation, where they are cut out of the material into discrete parts.

Progressive Feed Dies: A progressive feed die is composed of steel rules affixed to a long die base. The die assembly feeds into the cutting station in increments and is used to die cut the different components and parts of a product.

“Besides die type, steel rule dies are differentiated based on their bevel orientations, profiles, and finishes. A die’s bevel is classified based on its angle and determines how the die’s blade cuts through a material. The most common orientation and profile for steel rule dies is a center face, center bevel, meaning the cutting edge is centered on the die’s blade. Die blades are also available with side face bevels (i.e., the cutting edge is located off-center, either to the left or right side of the blade) or flush bevels (i.e., the cutting edge is located in line with one of the blade’s faces), short or long bevels, thin or wide bevels, and double or multiple bevels. Bevels are also available with various metal finishes, such as drawn, ground, and polished, to aid the cutting process. While each bevel style offers some advantage, the particular die cutting and application and its requirements largely determine the optimal bevel orientation, profile, and finish.

Flatbed Die Cutting Capabilities

“Flatbed die cutting is a fabrication process suitable for industries and companies ranging from gasket manufacturers to packaging companies, labeling, and printing. The process can be used on a wide range of materials, including fabric, fiber, paper, plastic, metal, rubber, foam, foil, composites, and laminates, and offers several different die cutting capabilities, such as:

  • Through cutting
  • Kiss cutting
  • Perforating
  • Scoring
  • Creasing

Through Cutting: Also referred to as metal-to-metal die cutting or thru cutting, through cutting is the type of die cutting in which the die cuts the design through the entire material. For adhesive lined materials, the face, adhesive, and backing material layer, and for multi-layered materials, all layers, are cut through. The design is fully separated from the stock material.

Kiss Cutting: For adhesive lined materials, kiss cutting is the type of die cutting in which the die cuts the design through the face and adhesive material layers, but not the backing material layer. The die cut design is not fully separated from the stock material, but can be easily removed from the intact backing layer.

Perforating: Perforating is the type of die cutting in which the die cut design is held in place on the stock material by a series of punched-in holes. The design is not fully separated from the stock material, but can be easily detached along the perforated lines.

Scoring: Scoring is a converting process in which the die leaves an impression, indent, or partial cut at a single stress point on the stock material rather than cutting entirely through it. The score typically only penetrates or cuts through ≤50% of the material which reduces the thickness at the stress point, allowing for easy, square profile folds.

Creasing: Similar to scoring, creasing is a converting process in which the die creates a fold line on the stock material. However, unlike scoring, creasing reshapes the material to have an inward bending bulge between two parallel stress points. Having two stress points increases the flexibility of the material at the crease and reduces the amount of stress on the material at each point when it is folded.

Benefits of Flatbed Die Press Cutting

“Compared to other types of die cutting, flatbed die cutting offers several advantages. These include:

  • Suitability for larger and thicker materials
  • Sharper, crisper cuts
  • Minimal material deformation
  • Small order or short-run production
  • Decreased lead times for multiple parts
  • Lower tooling costs

“Flatbed die cutting presses are capable of cutting intricate, custom designs with precision and accuracy on a wide range of materials.  This means it is a good process for custom paper die cutting, fabric, fiber, paper, plastic, metal and rubber cutting, as well as cutting of foam, foil, composites, and laminates. While the rotary die cutting process is only capable of converting web or roll material, the flatbed die cutting process is capable of converting both roll and sheet material. Additionally, flatbed presses have more generous material size limitations than rotary presses.

“The capability to cut through larger and thicker materials is not the only consideration when choosing to use the flatbed die cutting process for a particular die cutting application. Especially for thicker materials, cuts produced by a flatbed press are typically sharper and crisper. The sharpness and crispness are because cutting pressure is applied perpendicularly to the stock material in flatbed die cutting, rather than cylindrically over the material as in rotary die cutting. The vertical motion of the flatbed press also results in less material deformation and curvature as the stock material is maintained in the plane of the press and is not forced into or cut on a curved surface.

“Compared to rotary die cutting, flatbed die cutting is more cost-effective for small order and short-run production. Although not quite as durable, the custom-designed steel rule die assemblies required for the flatbed die cutting process are much cheaper to produce and procure than the custom-designed rotary dies required for the rotary die cutting process. Additionally, steel rule dies are more easily replaced within flatbed presses than rotary dies are within rotary presses, allowing flatbed die cutting to have even shorter downtime between the production of different designs and parts. Altogether, the lower tooling costs and limited downtime make flatbed die cutting more suitable for low budget, multiple part, or small run operations.

Limitations of Flatbed Die Cutting

“While flatbed die cutting demonstrates advantages over other forms of die cutting, there are also limitations to the process. Although suitable for converting a wide range of materials, flatbed die cutting may not be appropriate for all manufacturing applications, and other fabrication processes may be more suitable and cost-effective. Flatbed die cutting is generally comparable to rotary die cutting when considering its cost-effectiveness and suitability for a particular manufacturing application. Summarized in Table 1 below are some comparisons between flatbed die cutting and rotary die cutting.

Table 1 – Comparisons between Flatbed Die Cutting and Rotary Die Cutting Processes

AdvantagesFlatbed Die CuttingRotary Die Cutting
Precision/Tolerances X
Cut Sharpness/CrispnessX 
Multiple Operations (in line) X
Downtime (for multiple parts)X 
Constant Cutting Speed/Pressure X
Lower Tooling Costs (short-term)X 
Tooling Durability X
Max. Material SizesX 
Minimal Material DeformationX 
Max. Tonnage PressuresX 
Short/Small Production RunsX 
Long/Large Production Runs X

“As indicated in Table 1, above, compared to rotary die cutting, flatbed die cutting produces sharper and crisper cuts, but with generally less precision and lower tolerances. While the lower tooling costs of flatbed die cutting make it suitable for low budget and small production runs, rotary die cutting offers faster turnaround and large production outputs due to the rotary press’s constant and continuous pressure, web feed, and cylinder rotations which make it more suitable for long-term and large-scale manufacturing operations. Additionally, while steel rules dies are comparatively inexpensive to rotary dies, they are also less durable which increases the need for replacement during production runs, therefore lengthening lead and turnaround times and increasing long-term tooling costs.

Summary

“Outlined above are the basics of the flatbed die cutting press and process, various flatbed die cutting capabilities, and some of the factors that should be taken into consideration by manufacturers and machine shops when deciding whether flatbed die cutting is the most optimal solution for their particular die cutting application.”

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