Specialty converting machinery goes far beyond RFID, however. By definition, such equipment is custom designed and built for specific, often arcane, applications. These include medical products, industrial and automotive parts, cards and tags and plates, as well as direct mail pieces that are composed of multiple webs of paper and film.
The special nature of the equipment also has meant that converters, and the machinery manufacturers, are reluctant or unable to discuss their work in detail. "Most people don't want us to talk about what they do," says Bill Knotts, president of Spartanics, Rolling Meadows, IL. "Many times we sign confidentiality agreements."
Knotts says that converters and their customers "are dealing with the continued pressure on profitability, and try to find new market areas to get into. Frequently they are looking for diecutting assistance, and diecutting flexibility."
"Our customers are continually looking for ways to add value to their products to better serve their customers, and they appreciate the flexibility of our equipment," says Wendy Stromberg, sales engineer at Delta Industrial in Minneapolis. "Delta's converting and packaging equipment provides converting customers additional capabilities such as product inspection, machine validation, island placement, and stacking/conveying to the more basic processes of diecutting, lamination and printing."
Delta's equipment is made with a modular design approach. "That, along with our completely servo driven equipment and proprietary software, allows customers easy product changeover on both short and long run products."
Stromberg says that consistent growth in the medical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries has been a healthy sign over the past three to four years. "We have also had many requests for RFID manufacturing equipment," she says. "From our viewpoint, the RFID market demands tighter tolerances and faster manufacturing outputs than we have witnessed in other converting applications. These issues along with the demand for lowered product costs, create a difficult situation for many converters and manufacturers. We are working to resolve these issues."
The RFID challenge
One of the companies dedicated to RFID converting machinery is Bielomatik, headquartered in Neuffen, Germany with an office in Windsor, CT. Bielomatik's equipment is designed to bring together into a single lamination the separate parts of an RFID label — the carrier layer, the transponder, and the cover layer.
In 2000 the company introduced its T-100 system to the marketplace, a high volume RFID laminating machine. The unit is modular and extendable, meaning that it can be upgraded for higher volumes in the future. It offers continuous roll-to-roll processing, operation speeds up to 200 feet per minute, and the option of data encoding, which means that the unit can be configured to encode the customer's data during the converting process. Bielomatik also offers a TTL-100 V machine at an entry-level price.
Both Melzer machines feature transponder selection, which ensures that only good transponders are processed. The production lines integrate punching units, trim removal and rewinding equipment and are expandable by additional modules.
Last year Melzer set the bar higher with the introduction of its M4 Digital Production System, which features six different or identical working heads. It is capable of handling several processes, including wire embedding, pick-and-place dispensing, bonding, testing, blade cutting, laser cutting, ultrasonic welding, and printing.
"For many converters, RFID is still vague," says André Beaudoin, vice president of AB Graphic International in New Milford, CT. The company, headquartered in England, manufactures a wide variety of converting equipment, including RFID inlay machines.
"The converter needs to know the number of webs to integrate, the types of antennas being used. It can get quite complex," says Beaudoin. "The operator must be careful about inserting antennas so that they are not broken or damaged during the diecutting process. I see a lot of converters sniffing around it, but not a lot of them are committing to it. They are interested, especially after September 11 and the heightened interest in security related issues. But it ebbed off a bit."
Another area which AB Graphic International has successfully explored is postage stamp converting. Both Avery Dennison and Ashton Potter print and convert stamps for the US Postal Service, and utilize AB's custom designed system. "We take a 40" roll down to one-inch rolls with tolerance of ±0," Beaudoin says. "Our machine diecuts, perforates, strips the matrix, rewinds on a turret rewinder, and closes the roll either with a paper gum band seal or a pressure sensitive label, or it is put into the packaging that the government is using that day. Every stamp is accounted for, and there are some jobs where the stamps are numbered. There must be total accountability. A roll of 100 stamps cannot have 99 and a half, or 100 and a quarter."
|Bielomatik's RFID & smart card converting machine|
Short run capability, Knotts adds, appeals to narrow web converters, "and that is especially attractive with steel rule dies, because they are relatively inexpensive, and they can get the dies in a day. The tooling cost is anywhere from $150 to $300, and allows for relatively low tooling cost for a job. Changeover is just a few minutes."
Specialty machines vary one from another. "There are finishing modules that can be attached to the discharge side of the diecutting unit that can deal with how parts are removed from the web," says Knotts. "These finishing modules are interchangeable. You buy one and you can get another and put it on. We have people who have two or three who swap out as conditions change."
Some of the machines Spartanics has manufactured diecut specific parts which are knocked out at a specific point in the web path by pneumatic cylinders, then deposited onto conveyors. "We have part extractors, which are versatile machines: The web comes out and goes over a series of rollers, and by bending the web the parts are popped loose and will drop down onto the conveyors. One customer uses this type of machine to manufacture boxes for videocassettes that are digitally printed on a web 1,000 at a time. "They go straight into the diecutter, and the parts are extracted and drop to conveyor, shingled nicely and collected at the end."
"We have standard modules that we put together to make up a product," Knotts adds, "but there really isn't any thing that's standard."
RotaCom, a Canadian company with an office in Deep River, CT, is about to unveil what it tentatively calls its "convertible converting line", a modular unit in which each module is completely independent of the other.
"What's unusual about this system is that the machine can move from full rotary to semi-rotary with the flip of a switch," says Ross Hoge, RotaCom's chief engineer.
The unit can handle rolls up to 50" in diameter at widths of either 13" or 20", Hoge says. "In its most basic form it will diecut in re-register mode in rotary or semi-rotary." By using flexible magnetic dies, the operator can diecut a 12" repeat using a 19" circumference die cylinder; in the semi-rotary mode the web will stop and re-start when the cylinder makes its full turn. "So we stop the web, back it up, and re-start it at the right point."
According to Scott Beaudoin, who handles sales for RotaCom, conventional off-line diecutting systems require changeovers that could take up to 45 minutes, "but here it's the flip of a switch." "The whole concept," adds Hoge, "is a combination of the software and the machine."
| 13" Delta Crusader
"Say that you have to do a spot color or varnish after a print job on an Indigo press," he continues. "You want to diecut and strip the matrix, and perforate and rewind. A standard machine with coating and diecutting heads can't perforate. With our machine you can back out the cassette a couple of inches, put a die in that station, and perforate in the second station."
The RotaCom unit also can be converted to a hot foil station. "Every module will accept two laminations, so if you're doing hot foil you can bring the foil in and wind it up at the same unit."
Scott Beaudoin adds that the unit is symmetrical, and runs in either direction. "Indigo runs right to left, and Xeikon printers go either way, so our machine goes either way as well."
"Each station is independent," adds Hoge. "On a regular press tension is controlled at the infeed and outfeed. Here, each station is servo driven and has independent controlling tension."