By the Heat of the Light: Laser Cutting for Textiles | Digital Output Magazine

By the Heat of the Light: Laser Cutting for Textiles | Digital Output Magazine

Laser cutters are well suited for finishing textile applications—from garments to soft signage. These devices offer non-contact, precision cutting, high-quality sealed edges, and high-speed micro-perforation. Advanced camera technologies and automation tools are often incorporated.

Uli Kretzschmar, VP of SEI Laser sales, Matik, Inc., feels that laser technology is a proven solution for many markets and applications in printing and packaging along with several other areas like soft signage, technical textiles, fashion, and denim. Above: Example of fabric laser cut using an AP Lazer system. Precision, Sealing, and Material Versatility Several benefits stand out when it comes to laser cutting technology for fabric applications, including precision cutting, sealing and welding capabilities, as well as maintenance considerations.

One clear advantage of laser cutting is the ability to effectively process small, intricate patterns, point out Katlyn Dykhoff, marketing coordinator and Adam Voigt, sales representative, Kern Laser Systems. This precision extends to accurately cutting textiles and fabrics like stretchable materials that are easily distorted. “Automated options on laser cutting systems can significantly shorten production time and minimize labor costs. Smart nesting makes maximum use of the designs on the material and perfectly controls waste management,” offers Daphne Mertens, marketing and communication, Summa.

“Fabric is alive, it moves, and when a tool touches it, it tends to create a wave that moves forward with the tool. This will create inaccuracy in the cut,” says Christina Lefebvre, area sales manager, North America, Matic. She explains that because laser cutting is a contact-less technology, the cutting tool is never in contact with the fabric, this reduces the risk of the fabric moving during the cutting process.

Mark Bibo, director, global field marketing, packaging, sign, and graphics, Lectra, agrees, since the laser uses light to cut, there is no mechanical contact with the material. “This results in more accurate cutting and better material utilization. More specifically, no over cuts, intricate shapes are now possible and can be nested closely together and quality parts can be cut very close to the material edges.” “Unlike a blade-based cutting tool, the laser performs two functions at once—cut the fabric and seal the edges,” says Beatrice Drury, marketing manager, Zund America, Inc. This ability eliminates the potential for fraying without having to add an extra finishing step. “It is ideal for woven polyester fabric, a material prone to fraying but the substrate of choice for digitally printed silicone edge graphics, backlit displays, and teardrop flags.”

Kretzschmar feels that lasers are a great option and complement to CNC cutters. “Due to the narrow focus of the laser beam, intricate cuts are possible. And due to its digital nature and precision control of the laser, it can not only be used for cutting but marking and etching to add another layer and dimension to the final product.”

“Laser cutting systems provide a strong link between printing businesses, fashion designers, and brands,” adheres Tong Li, Ph.D., CEO, AP Lazer. “A laser machine as an added printer; replacing ink with a laser beam, can cut/engrave fabric and many other fashion materials with great detail. A printing company can easily offer the service to fashion brands, packaging, and all other printing services together to become a one-stop service shop. A laser machine can cut signage, engrave on thousands of products, and enable printers to serve a range of needs for the same customer base.”

James Stanaway, director of marketing, Epilog Laser, praises lasers’ versatility, especially “in terms of the textiles they cut and mark. They’re capable of cutting the most intricate patterns in leather, denim, lace, PVC-free heat transfer material, and twill. You can even dial in your settings so that you can kiss-cut multi-layer materials, such as a twill applique.”

There are both dedicated laser systems as well as digital cutting systems that offer laser options as a modular tool. Multi-process platforms shine in certain scenarios.

Depending on the specific type of textile you want to cut, a knife cutting machine may be preferred over a laser cutter. For example, natural fibers are known to perform better with knife-based systems. Mertens stresses that this doesn’t mean you cannot laser cut natural fibers, but they need to be tested thoroughly to find the best cutting solution.

“Non-woven, knitted fabrics, or any closed-loop textiles fray less, if at all,” adds Drury. For these, she suggests blade cutting tools are generally less expensive to purchase and more productive to operate than the lower wattage lasers available for multi-purpose machines. “The advantages of laser and simultaneous cutting and edge-sealing capabilities are also less desirable in production scenarios where sewing is required, or where the burning and melting involved in laser cutting results in discolored, brittle, or degraded edges.”

Li says that lasers cannot cut PVC or other toxic materials that generate harmful fumes, erode machine parts, and cause danger to humans. Bibo agrees, noting that in his opinion, the biggest limitation with laser is the material cut should not contain PVC. “The material will cut fine, but gasses emitted when laser cutting PVC should be avoided.”

Cutting several layers at once can also be a challenge. “This is due to the buildup of heat and the increased time to process, but lasers are better suited for detail and accuracy. Yes, high-quality lasers can cut multiple pieces at one time to maximize production efficiency, however, it is important to note textiles are diverse in composition and are made of natural or chemical fibers, so they must be processed appropriately. Your parameters will vary depending on the types of textiles you are using, thickness, and the number of layers. It’s important to have an understanding of the platform and configuration of your laser cutter,” suggests David Stevens, technical development manager, Trotec Laser.

Overcoming Hurdles Selecting a solution depends on a number of factors, including the materials and quality priorities.

Laser cutting is a disruptive, fully digital technology that supports a fast growing and diversifying market with many new niches and applications. “New, high-tech and high-performance materials are designed and developed that require new solutions in terms of functionality and significant added value. Converters have to get out of their comfort zone to meet those challenging market requirements,” says Kretzschmar.

To ensure fabric does not wrap or stretch, effective and efficient handling features are key. Mertens says this is true when cutting sportswear or banners, a clean accurate cut is everything for the customer. 

Trusting the process is key. “Most shops want to start with a cutting machine that can handle every substrate—just like they first acquired a printer that can print on everything. Once they start to focus more on printing fabrics, they will buy fabric printers—whether it’s direct or transfer dye-sublimation. Then the need for a dedicated fabric cutter will come,” recommends Lefebvre.

Dykhoff and Voigt feel lack of education is another challenge. “Lasers are a newer technology and there are still many unknowns in terms of their benefits in certain manufacturing processes,” they note.

Li says the term laser cutter is misleading in some instances, because solutions like AP Lazer’s CO2 laser machines can cut and engrave at the same time. “Engraving and cutting presents high potential in textiles, because the finished product provides an emotional link. The process leads businesses to create meaningful products to satisfy customers’ sentimental needs.”

“People often assume that laser cutters are difficult to program and use, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” stresses Stanaway. Working similarly to printers, Epilog users insert the textile in the laser bed, import cutting patterns/shapes, and send the job to the laser. The laser beam quickly and accurately follows the designated cut lines determined by the operator.

Laser Cutting for Textiles When it comes to cutting textiles, lasers offer precision along with the ability to seal edges to avoid fraying. These tools are ideal for fabric environments.

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