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Die-cutting. What is it? Characteristics and uses

Die-cutting is a manufacturing process that uses specialised machines and tools to convert raw material by cutting, forming and shearing. In printing, dies are used to create custom shapes and designs for labels.

The process is carried out with a part that is, unsurprisingly, called a die. A fabricated die is a specialised piece of metal that is used to cut a specific shape out of a material.

Think of it as a biscuit cutter, but instead of a biscuit sheet, it is a sheet of label material. The die cuts the paper and removes the excess material (called “matrix”).

Die-cutting comes in many forms, some of which are more suitable for labels than others. There are three main processes you need to be aware of in order to know which die-cutting process to use in printing. The three processes we will explore below are flatbed, rotary and semi-rotary.

What types of die-cutting exist?

Flat-bed die-cutting

Die-cutting machine, flatbed die-cutter.

Flatbed die cutters use hydraulic presses and other lifting systems to press a die onto a sheet of material. Flatbed die-cutting is generally used for low-volume projects and larger products. Flatbed die cutters tend to be more suitable for heavier materials such as felt, fibre, fabrics and metals than for most label materials.

Rotary and semi-rotary die-cutting

Both rotary and semi-rotary presses use rollers to pass webs, which are long, flexible sheets of material, through a machine so that a rolling die attached to a magnetic cylinder makes cuts in the material.

However, we consider the semi-rotary to be more suitable for print cutting because its design makes it more capable of effectively shearing different types of material.

In the semi-rotary process, the cylindrical die rolls in one direction only, but the press moves the web from side to side as the cuts are made. This movement allows the printer to use a single cylinder to make multiple cuts on a web. The process reduces the number of times the web must pass through a die-cutting system. This means that more complex cuts can be completed more quickly than in a standard rotary configuration and that turnaround times for your printed items are faster. Once the web is cut, the excess material is removed, leaving only the labels.

Another important aspect of rotary and semi-rotary die cutters is that they can use either solid or flexible dies. While solid dies are steel cylinders with a design already incorporated into the die body, flexible dies are thin sheets of steel that deform around a magnetic cylinder. This makes flexible dies less expensive, which is ideal for companies looking for customised dies for their printing jobs.

What is die-cutting used for?

Die-cutting for promotional purposes

Example of die cut print products.
Example of different promotional products made with die cut

It’s no secret that most printed materials have a relatively routine appearance… they are rectangular or square in shape. Die-cutting offers a way to break this routine by creating interesting shapes, contours, flaps, holes, etc., thus enhancing visual appeal and attracting attention. This makes die-cutting a popular choice for printed pieces used in the promotion of a product or business.

For example, a brochure may have a window, a name or logo, or other interesting design cut out of its cover or pages. Similarly, a presentation folder could be made with uniquely sculpted edges and pockets. In addition, promotional labels, magnets and business cards are often created with rounded corners or various geometric and custom shapes.

functional die-cutting

Folder with functional die-cut.

In addition to promotional purposes, die-cutting is also used to make a printed piece more functional. For example, a door hanger should have a hole or hook so that it can be hung on the doorknob. A mailing envelope often has a die-cut window so that the address or information printed on the contents is still visible once the envelope is closed. Even the simple business card slots or tabs found on some brochures and pocket folders are created with a die-cutting operation.

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