Living In A Die-Cut World


I spot die-cut

Assuming you’re in the print or design community, I’m sure you can appreciate my hyper-awareness to the massive amounts of die-cut materials sprinkled throughout our every day lives.  Scattered around my kitchen, I’m seeing cereal boxes, pizza cartons, even the regular mail is filled with standard #10 envelopes that had to be die-cut before they could be glued and converted into plain old envelopes.  So much engineering and craftsmanship in such a neglected and undervalued piece of paper.  Right in front of me, I’m looking at an iPhone, beautifully constructed of round-cornered components, all masterfully die-cut and stamped parts.  Next to that sits my wallet, stuffed with die-cut credit cards, gift cards, my health insurance card, drivers license, various permits, and even my Blockbuster card has round corners.  Whether it’s for aesthetic value, functionality, or even the protection of the piece, it serves a purpose.

So, why is it then that when most clients look to design or print marketing materials, they don’t all choose to customize their project with some fancy die-cutting?

The bottom line is usually the bottom line, right?  Cost.  Especially in this economic climate, if every company, large or small, had it’s own “trending topic” Twitter list, cost consciousness would always sit at the top.  While many clients surely see die-cutting as an added, unnecessary expense, I think few truly understand the real value that it brings to the table.  Typically, it’s more cost effective than you think, especially when you think about the big picture.  With the amount of time, energy, and money you spend to acquire leads, prospects, or clients, shouldn’t you seize that opportunity to communicate with them as effectively as possible?  Of course you should!  Think about how much printing you see every day and then realize what it really takes for something to really jump out at you.  It takes more than a rectangle and some stock photography.  So, like I said…die-cut it.

Let’s walk through the process of die-cutting and then we’ll discuss how to setup your file.

1. Die-creation

This starts with a dieline, which most of the time starts with you.  Once the dieline is submitted, it’s converted into a .dwg (AutoCAD) file for the die to be engineered.  Typically, a blank sample is cut to ensure that the piece works.  This is especially important if the die-cutting provides functionality.  Many times, for cartons and other packaging, numerous samples are made with the exact paper being used for the job, until it’s perfect.  Once the dieline is good to go, a large automated table cutter uses various tool attachments to drill and carve an incredibly precise copy of the dieline into a 3/4″ thick pine board.  Once the board is cut, the die rule is cut and formed to fit the curves of the die, so that it can be inserted into the carved slots and then pounded in securely and perfectly even for cutting.

Die-cutting rule being shaped/formed
Rule being secured into place
Die board with half the rule inserted

If you reorder the same piece later, this process only happens once. Assuming no changes need to be made to the die, then your die cost is a one-time expense and this die will be re-used.

2. Die-cutting

The die is setup on the machine and locked into place.  The machine is sheet fed, so individual sheets feed into the press and are pressed against the die with a precise amount of pressure.  The operator must pay constant attention to the  pressure being used and the registration of the cut to the crop marks and printed piece.  If this job is a piece of packaging or has other folding, conversion or functionality, the operator will strip the piece out and certify that it completes properly before running the full quantity of the job.

Stock entering the feeder of the press
Die entering the press

3.  Stripping

Once the job is finished die-cutting, it’s still in full-sheet form.  You may be a little confused at this point, but this is because, if the machine cut the piece completely out, you’d have odd shaped die-cut paper pieces flying around loose in your machine.  Not a wise move when you’ve got sheets cranking through that press by the thousands.  There are larger presses that can handle stripping on press, but they’re much more expensive, so, as you’d expect, they’re used for larger jobs.  Smaller jobs are hand stripped, which can leave small “nicks” on the printed piece, from the tiny strands of paper that kept them fastened to the rest of the sheet for delivering out the back of the press and stacking neatly.

4.  Additional Finishing

After this, if there is additional finishing to be performed, it will commence.  Typical examples are folding, gluing, applying fugitive (booger) glue and gift cards or promotional coupons, tipping (inserting) in product samples, bindery, etc.  If none of these processes apply, the job is packed and shipped.

5. Setting Up Your File

Now you know more than the average joe about die-cut techniques – now put them into practice! Watch this short video to learn how to set up an Illustrator file that’s ready for die-cut production.