Video: Understanding steel rule die-cutting

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By Mike Sorrels | May 07, 2019
Clam shell press in fabrication cell at GMN

In the manufacturing landscape, die-cutting is an indispensable fabrication process used to convert a wide range of materials into specific shapes and sizes. Whether you wish to utilize a custom-shaped silicone foam into a gasket, require a panel filler for a medical device, or simply need to cut out labels and adhesives, die-cutting allows you to efficiently cut materials in large volumes with increased consistency and accuracy.

While there are several die-cutting methods including laser cutting, water-jet cutting, and rotary cutting, our latest video offers a glimpse into steel rule die-cutting, one of the most common cutting methods utilized at GMN. Made of steel, the die is formed by bending, curving, cutting, and shaping a straight steel rule in the required design. Once the rule is mounted and secured on a laser-cut wooden board, the die is ready to use. The lead time to make a steel rule die ranges between one to three days, depending on the complexity of the design.

Typically, steel rule die-cutting is performed on a clam shell press. Comprised of two platens – one stationary and one movable - the press in different tonnages can support varied sizes and materials. As seen in the video, the die is installed on the stationary platen and the material to be cut is placed on the movable platen.

The precise alignment of the material is ensured with one of the following ways -

1) 3-point registration system - This consists of two grips to hold the material in place and one guide mark to accurately align it with the die.

2) Pin-register system - Pre-punched registration marks on the substrate itself that can be aligned to the die position. 

The movable platen is pressed against the stationary one to complete the cutting process. Although the majority of the steel rule die-cutting is performed on a clam shell press, GMN also utilizes vertical, cylinder, horizontal, roll-to-roll, and hydraulic punch presses to cut a broad array of materials such as polycarbonate, paper, foam, Lexan, and aluminum. The hardness of the material directly influences the maximum material thickness that the presses can accommodate.

Steel rule dies allow up to 10,000 hits approximately and therefore can be used for medium to high production volumes. In addition to achieving tolerances as low as 0.01”, steel rule die-cutting offers you the flexibility to accomplish kiss cuts, custom shaped die-outs, clean cuts, scoring lines, and perforations. One of the limitations with this method is that the steel rule has a minimum bending radius of 0.03” which means that any designs with square corners or the ones that require the steel rule to bend less than 0.03” are not suited for this technique. Nonetheless, it is a highly preferred solution due to its cost effectiveness when compared with chemical etch dies and Class A tools. 

With the versatility to accommodate varying shapes, sizes, materials, and designs, steel rule die-cutting is undoubtedly one the most popular die-cut fabrication methods to meet your unique needs. To see some of the clam shell presses at GMN in action, watch our latest video here.