Perhaps the most versatile investment a business can make is in a vinyl cutter. When combined with a heat press, a vinyl cutter can create heat transfers from heat applied film, rhinestones or digital transfer paper. When combined with proper software and an embroidery machine, the unit can produce custom appliqué. When paired with transfer tape, it can produce signs. For a machine selling for $500 and up, it certainly offers a tremendous upside and return on investment.
Many small businesses claim that the cutter generates more revenue than their original investment, whether embroidery machines or screen printing. So how, then, does one navigate through the many makes and models of cutters in today’s market to make a wise investment? Let’s dig in and find out.
The big three
Given that vinyl cutters vary in price from $500 to $5,000, there are definitely differences. The main difference between an inexpensive cutter (less than $500) and a mid-grade unit (more than $1,000) is usually the motor. Inexpensive cutters have a stepper motor which is not as durable as a servo motor commonly featured on mid-grade or pro units. This motor is not only weaker, but also quite a bit louder. However, that is not to say these inexpensive cutters are totally inadequate—they definitely have their place in the market and, possibly, your business.
The size of a cutter is an important consideration. Look into the width of material you’ll want to accommodate and make sure to have a cutter that suits it.
Every job produced with a vinyl cutter has a direct cost related to the amount of material used.
For those planning for low-volume cutting or those just starting out, a stepper motor does the job for most applications. However, when comparing durability over time, the servo motor clearly excels, specifically when cutting thicker materials such as twill for appliqué or traditional rhinestone template material. These tough-to-cut materials are often not recommended for cutting with a stepper motor at all and sometimes void the warranty.
In addition to the motor, most inexpensive cutters also lack an optic eye registration system. (There are exceptions to every rule; at least one stepper motor cutter features an optic eye.) Optic eye features allow the unit to trim around an image printed on vinyl/paper by reading crop marks that are printed along with the design. Software and art setup allow the cutter with an optic eye to locate an image and trim it. This functionality is quite useful if the cutter will be used in conjunction with a digital printer. Common applications include trimming full-color prints for stickers and/or dark colored T-shirt applications.
Another key consideration that relates to the capabilities of a cutter is its maximum down force. Down force, reported in grams, indicates the amount of pressure the cutter is able to deliver with the blade to cut through materials. Typically, units boasting a high down force of 250–500 grams in conjunction with a powerful motor are industrial-grade machines. These cutters are best suited for high production and maximum versatility.
While down force is a hard number and usually pretty easy to read, be aware that some cutters state a large down force maximum but are not necessarily adequate at cutting thicker materials. These units can be uncovered by digging further into the motor type and/or asking for a guarantee from the supplier.
Making the most of material
Every job produced with a vinyl cutter has a direct cost related to the amount of material used. For this reason, it is of critical importance to ensure the cutter and software allow for maximum utilization. One key component of this is the cutter’s ability to accommodate sheets or pieces of material.
There will always be some leftover scraps when cutting media in rolls. Most cutters can reuse these scraps but some do it more efficiently than others. Units that connect with a USB cable typically facilitate two-way communication between software and cutter, rendering exactly how much material is available for your design on the screen. One small additional feature to consider is whether or not the cutter can cut in front of its pinch rollers that lock down on the edges of the material. Some units can only cut between the rollers, while others cut material to its edge.
Many small businesses claim that the cutter generates more revenue than their original investment, whether embroidery machines or screen printing. (All images courtesy the author)
Size and speed
The size of a cutter is an important consideration as well. Look into the width of material you’ll want to accommodate and make sure to have a cutter that suits it. Units range from 8" to 64" but the most popular models are 24". A 24" cutter is perfect for apparel applications as well as most signage. If the focus will be heavily on signs, a 30" or larger unit should be considered.
Speed is another consideration. The ability to quickly cut graphics saves a lot of time in production and allows additional capacity when orders are piling up. Cutters are very popular for name-and-number combinations for team uniforms. When an order comes in for a league of 12 teams of 15 players each, a fast cutter will be much appreciated.
Almost every cutter comes packaged with a driver from the manufacturer. It’s important to make sure this driver and the cutter are compatible with your operating system. Some cut drivers also allow users to import graphics from or plug into popular graphics programs such as CorelDRAW and/or Adobe Illustrator. Those using these programs will find a cut driver that integrates with them very helpful.
In addition, look at the cut driver’s ability to mirror graphics, create cut lines on scanned images, make copies and nest designs. While the lines blur between graphic software and cutting drivers, be sure all functionality desired is there. If the intent is to create appliqué or rhinestones, special software is required to automate the art process.
The final word
All the features and functionality of a cutter will help make business smoother. Once capabilities are accounted for, make sure the unit selected is easy to setup, has good tech support and has a large group of users. All of these elements will ensure that a new vinyl cutter investment will not become an old one collecting dust. Usually those who don’t see a return on their vinyl cutter investment 10 times over simply don’t know how to use it—so make sure to take heed.