When used appropriately, laser cutting can be successfully combined with many other finishing processes with spectacular results – although conventional die cutting is still typically the most cost effective way to go.
How the process works
In the simplest terms, laser cutters use a focused beam of light to scan art onto, or completely through, material. No physical cutting tools make contact with the stock. Therefore, the level of detail possible in a laser-cut design is primarily limited by the durability required of the finished piece. Designs are created by moving the target sheet under a stationary beam, moving a beam over a stationary target sheet or by a hybrid system using a combination of both actions.
Choosing a paper stock for a laser cut project is extremely important as most stocks are produced for qualities other than laser compatibility. Most are formulated for an ability to be embossed, die-cut or scored cleanly in addition to handling the specific requirements of whatever printing will be used.
Because of the nature of a laser cut, there can be some discolouration immediately adjacent to the beam’s path on the target side of the sheet. This effect can be worked around the printing of a neutral colour on the target side, designing the piece so the target side is not seen, or using the discolouration as a part of the design, such as an “antique” look to a lace pattern. However, the best solution to this potential issue is choosing a stock that cuts cleanly in the early design stages.
Discolouration is most often found on stocks having a relatively high percentage of recycled material, perhaps more than 40 per cent. This discolouration can become progressively more noticeable with time. Archival and 100 per cent cotton papers are typically without any discolouration and remain that way for years. Discolouration is also affected by the thickness of the stock. A thick stock exhibits the effect more than a thin one because more material has been vapourized.
Getting the stock test cut is the best way to avoid quality surprises later on. This should ordinarily be a free service and encouraged by laser cutters as a part of every job where an unfamiliar stock is being used. Also, laser cutters will be able to recommend stocks with which they have had good results in the past.
The future of laser cutting
Laser cutting, as a graphic arts medium, is still relatively in its infancy. Though it has been used successfully by most greeting card companies for over 20 years, it is just now beginning to find much wider use in other markets, such as party accessories, stationery products, insert ads and direct mailings. It is no longer a high-priced novelty medium reserved for limited quantities and high-end applications.
Within the last couple of years, one of the most rapidly growing uses of laser cutting has been in packaging. The unique qualities of laser cut surfaces add elegance to food and cosmetic packaging that would be difficult to achieve in any other way. Cut openings can have a delicate visual quality and offer a subtle peek at the product or allow customers to sample scented products. The tactile quality of cut papers also creates an additional level of interest. In the highly competitive field of packaging, laser cutting has given manufacturers new tools with which to differentiate their products.
Increased demand, lower equipment costs and higher volume capabilities suggest there are lasers in the future for many finishing shops.