Cutting Through The ComplexityOctober 1998
Computerization is making cutters easier to use and helping in-plant managers deal with the steady decline in skilled operators.
For cutting machines, technological innovation seems to have reached a point past which most further improvements and features seem superfluous. Indeed, today's machines operate about as quickly, efficiently and safely as anyone can reasonably expect.
One factor, however, promises to influence the design of these machines for the foreseeable future: The lack of skilled operators to run them.
"I haven't yet spoken to a single plant manager who hasn't said it's hard to find skilled help," says David Spiel, vice president of Spiel Associates. "The only improvement to cutting machines would be to put better computers on them. There reaches a point where the actual mechanics can't be improved much further."
Spiel notes that the capabilities of cutting machines haven't changed much over the past few years, but powerful computers and computer software have made them easier to use. This reflects the increasing computer orientation of our society, as well as the fact that some segments of the work force aren't keeping pace with this trend.
"Generally, the method of cutting paper hasn't changed for eons," notes Tom Wood, regional manager for Challenge Machinery. "Today, almost all cutters are programmable to some degree. The benefit is increased productivity. A less-skilled work force necessitates more automation. The days of the apprenticeship and the journeyman are over. It's a shame."
Mark Hunt, marketing manager for Standard Finishing, says today's work force needs cutting machines that are easy to set up and operate, and that feature intelligent operator interfaces that guide the user through the setup procedure.
"These are important for safety reasons, but they also ensure that less-skilled operators can use them, since the machines are more foolproof," says Hunt.
On a basic level, increased automation can help offset lack of technological savvy in the work force by making machines more user friendly. It can also help speed production by allowing operators to program those jobs a shop does on a regular basis into the machine's computer memory; in the near future, this data transfer may be achieved via bar-code programming.
One easily overlooked advantage of automation is that, in the hands of skilled operators, it can actually open up markets that heretofore might have been closed to them.
"Increased sophistication allows people who are versed in digital printing—and these are people who are pretty computer-literate to begin with—to make a smoother transition to mechanical printing, since different parameters are involved," says Mark Pellman, sales engineer for Baum USA. "This way, they can cover more markets."