Die-cutting machine or digital cutter? How to choose

Die-cutting machine or digital cutter? How to choose

Article originally published in Published in Specialist Printing n. 03/2020

A cut above the rest

Die-cutting machine or digital cutter?
If you are hesitant about purchasing a cutting plotter due to insufficient automation, Valiani has a solution…

One of the most frequent questions of the period we are living in is whether it is more convenient to use a die-cutting machine or a digital cutter. Large companies offer both die cutting and digital cutting to help their customers create unique shapes but what’s the difference between them is not clear to everyone.

It is not even clear, to most of the small companies that do not have these types of solutions, which they should buy first. Very often we, as experts, find ourselves in the awkward position of having to answer this question and give advice. Let’s first try to clarify what the terms “die-cutting” and “digital cutting” mean.


In the world of printing, die cutting provides a quick and inexpensive way of cutting lots of printed items into identical shapes. The artwork is printed on a square or rectangular sheet of material (typically paper or cardstock), then placed in a machine which has been loaded with a custom-made “die” or “punch block” (a block of wood with a metal blade, bent and folded into the desired shape). When the machine presses the printed sheet and the die together, it cuts out the shape of the blade into the material.


Unlike die cutting which uses physical dies to create the shape, digital cutting uses a blade which follows a computer-programmed path to create the shape. A digital cutting machine consists of a flat table area and a set of cutting, milling and scoring attachments mounted on an arm. This arm allows the cutter to move left, right, forwards and backwards. The printed sheet is placed on the table, and the cutter travels across the sheet along the programmed path to cut out the shape.


Which is the better option?

How do I choose between the two cutting solutions? The easiest answer would be, “it all depends on the kind of job”. If you are looking to trim a high volume of smaller items printed on paper or cardstock, die cutting is the far more cost-effective and time-efficient option. Once a die has been assembled, it can be used over and over again to create a huge number of identical shapes – all in a fraction of the time of a digital cutter. This means the costs of assembling a custom die can be somewhat offset by using it across a large quantity of items (and/or reusing it for additional print runs in the future).

However, if you are looking to trim a low volume of large-format items (especially those printed on thicker, tougher materials such as Forex, Foam-board or R-board), digital cutting is the better option. There’s no need to pay for a custom die; plus, you can create more intricate shapes via digital cutting.

Do your research

Based on market research and sector journals, the printing market is experiencing a period of great growth in the digital sector. This mainly due to a sharp reduction in the quantity of orders but with a substantial increase in the variety of demand

Typographies are increasingly faced with requests for small batches, custom tailored jobs, fast deliveries and competitive prices, which is ill-suited to offset printing and die cutting processes.

From this assumption we come to the question, what should be done to satisfy this kind of demand? My personal interpretation is, equip yourself with a “smart” product, capable of meeting quality, versatility and a fair production capacity.

Each manufacturer claims that their product is of the highest quality so the next question would be, what are the parameters that should guide us in judgement? Surely reputation on the market is an important factor, as is value for money but there are other aspects that I would suggest looking at: real usage cost, support available, additional services, warranty terms, ease of use and installation and training times.

Versatility is another important aspect that determines the extent of the work that can be carried out, the variety of materials that can be processed and the longevity of the investment. The last aspect is very important because considering a hypothetical leasing, it is imperative that the machine meets its needs for a period at least similar to that of the leasing.

Finally, your new equipment should have a fair production capacity that is able to meet real needs – not just expectations.

Advantages of digital cutting

It’s my opinion that if you’re looking to make your marketing materials a little more engaging, a custom shape goes a long way. So how do we turn this idea into reality? Surely the easiest way is to equip ourselves with a digital cutter that can make cuts and score different shapes in various types of material whether rigid or soft, such as paper, cardboard, foam or Forex. 

Currently the market offers a wide choice of solutions for digital cutting, with different prices and sizes, from small to very large, and with different performance or cutting capability. The majority of these machines are conceived for single processes, some with flat tables, others with conveyors, and the most advanced with dual gantry that grant a sort of tandem mode and theoretically double the performance but in all cases and despite the technology, they need an operator capable of using the equipment and who can load the materials. 

Digital flatbed cutting machines come with a system to detect printing registration marks, a bundle of software capable of managing different file formats and making the daily duties easier and quicker . Additional software that helps generate packaging, POS/POP display or any other similar application has become a standard of the market. 

All these characteristics often make digital cutters appear very interesting and attractive to a lot of end-users, but possibly their capabilities are still far from the expectations of automation and speed required by the high-volume printing companies. This is demonstrated by the growing number of producers attending trade fairs, both directly and through dealers, with products of all sizes and prices – and, I would add, quality!


Automated Processes

It is possible to combine the versatility of flatbed cutting plotters with the automation of a printing machine that has an automatic materials feeder. These machines offer the flexibility of handling different kinds of materials and thicknesses but at the same time allow the end-user to load a substantially long job and forget about it until it’s completely done. Certainly, to the eye of an entrepreneur, an automated machine allows them to make more precise calculations and be very competitive in terms of global offerings.

The most advanced machines work both ways: in automatic mode for large batches and as a traditional digital cutter for single mock-up or for prototypes.

As with traditional flatbed plotters, this automated variant also has its own characteristics. Among the most important, I would certainly consider the size and thicknesses of material that can be processed and the capacity of the feeder that determine the autonomy of the process. The simplicity of use is also important, along with the integration with vector graphics software such as AI or CorelDraw, compatibility with packaging CAD, a precise solution for detecting printing crop-marks, capacity for loading a file via QR code that make the process even more automatic and independent of the user capabilities.

This is undoubtedly a new business opportunity for machinery manufacturers, and an excellent resource for all those companies who until now had doubts about the purchase of a cutting plotter due to insufficient automation.