Print Business Glossary: Automated Wide-Format Graphics Cutters

Automated cutting devices for wide-format graphics help convert prints on many different types and thicknesses of materials into a huge variety of sellable products. With the right cutter, your print shop can make:

  • two-dimensional decals, signs, and graphics,
  • three-dimensional product displays, exhibits, and promotional products,
  • corrugated packaging and folding cartons,
  • ready-to-hang wallcovering rolls;
  • digitally printed fabric for soft signage and cut-and-sew apparel
  • vehicle graphics and pin-striping

Computer-guided cutting tools on a moving gantry (metal beam) travel across the surface of a substrate according to a programmed cutting path. The cutting tool mounted to the gantry can apply different amounts of force to the substrate. For example, the tool can make partial or full cuts to the print surface or cut into the surface of a rigid material.

Wide-format cutting equipment can be used to make square cuts, contour cuts (die cuts), kiss cuts, creases, perforations, and more.


Automated cutting systems for wide-format graphics have been adapted from computer-guided cutting systems developed about 30 years ago for industries such as photo printing, packaging, sign making, woodworking, and industrial parts manufacturing.

Companies that manufacture different types of wide-format digital cutters include Fotoba, Colex, Summa, Gerber/MCT, Zund, Graphtec, Roland, Esko, and Multicam.

Roll-fed digital cutting equipment is designed primarily for papers or vinyl. Flatbed cutters can be equipped to handle either rolled materials or sheets of rigid materials.  

Because wide-format graphics cutting devices have been adapted from so many different industries, the terminology associated with digital cutting devices is often confusing. Here are some terms associated with machines used to automatically cut the many large-format materials that can be used to make signs, displays, decor, packaging, decals, and apparel.

CNC stands for “computer numerically controlled’ device. The term was coined in the 1980s during the very early days of computer-aided drawing (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM).  Vinyl Cutters (Cutting Plotters) were first-generation cutting devices that signmakers used to cut adhesive vinyl into lettering that could be applied to windows, trucks, banner materials, and signboards. Computer-driven knives kiss-cut shapes and letters that could then be “weeded” (peeled away) from the adhesive vinyl and applied to a signboard or vehicle.

Wide-format vinyl cutters today are more versatile. For example, the Roland GR series of large vinyl cutters can contour cut laminated and unlaminated vinyl for vehicle graphics or pin-striping, labels and decals, window films for signs and decor, heat transfer materials for apparel decorating, sandblast mask; and heavy reflective materials used on emergency vehicles.

Some wide-format eco-solvent printers include built-in vinyl cutters.

Wide-Format XY Roll Cutters trim the edges of paper prints or cut a large print into a collection of smaller square or rectangular prints. The devices read embedded crop marks in the length and width of each print and align the cutting blades for precise trimming.
Photo labs initially used XY cutters to cut wide rolls of photo-processed prints into packages of 8x10, 5x7, and 4x6 inch prints. Today Colex distributes Fotoba X/Y roll-feed cutters in models from 64 in. to 126 in. wide  Fotoba’s inline X/Y cutters can be connected to wide-format printers for a continuous print to cut operation.

Wide-Format Flatbed Board Cutters use interchangeable knives and router bits to finish the many types of materials that can be loaded onto a wide-format cutting table. Zoned vacuum systems can hold small or large graphics in place while the cutting head follows the cutting instructions  Some systems feature conveyor belts to move wide-format graphics from the loading point to cutting to the unloading area beyond the active cutting area.

3-Axis Routers are versatile, three-dimensional (height, width, depth) cutting devices that can hollow-out the surface of sign materials such as wood, acrylic, foam board, MDF (medium-density fiberboard).

Laser Cutters direct a high-power laser through a focusing lens. Where the focused laser beam hits the material, the surface either melts, burns, or vaporizes away. The edge of the cut has a high-quality finish. Laser cutters can be used for many types of wood, plastics, woven fabrics, papers, metals, and card stocks. Laser cutters shouldn’t be used with flame-retardant materials, PVC vinyl, or leathers.

CNC Plasma Cutters use an accelerated jet of hot plasma to cut steel, aluminum, brass, copper and other electrically conductive materials.

CNC Waterjet Cutters use an extremely high-pressure jet of water to cut materials such as steel, stone, plastic, glass, wood, and rubber. To cut harder materials such as metals and granite, the water is often mixed with an abrasive substance.

Panel Saws use saw blades to make straight cuts in rigid signage materials.  Unlike machines that can only cut one layer of graphic materials at one time, panel saws can cut through several panels simultaneously.

Types of Cuts

Contour Cutting devices can create simple ovals or circles as well as designs with intricate curves. Contour cutters eliminate the need to make metal dies to “die-cut” printed materials Wide-format contour cutting devices are popular for decals, labels, POP displays, window signs, and packaging.

Kiss Cutting only cuts into one layer of multi-layer material. For example, a kiss-cut doesn’t affect the protective liner on adhesive-backed vinyl. This enables contour-cut labels to be delivered on sheets until the labels are ready to be peeled off and applied.

Today, the versatility of cutting devices for wide-format graphics is expanding to meet the changing markets for wide-format graphics and digital prints. To conserve print-shop floor space, many wide-format graphics cutting devices can perform a range of tasks, including routing, creasing, scoring, and perforating. Other devices excel at cutting specific types of materials, such as fashion fabrics, different types of adhesive vinyl, thick acrylic plastic, leather, or cardboard and packaging materials.

To speed up production and prevent bottlenecks, prepress operators setting up a print job can designate which cutting device will handle the prints. So the cut marks and toolpaths can be added before the print job even goes into production.

To further improve efficiency, some cutting systems can be equipped with automated loaders, conveyors, roll feeders, and stackers.

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Related Posts:

Print Business Glossary: Emerging and Niche Print Processes

Print Business Glossary: Finishing Equipment for Offset Presses

Print Business Glossary: Post-Press Coatings and Coating Equipment

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