For decades I have managed to resist most of the hot technology by remaining an incurable old school thinker and craftsperson. Manufacturers have made daily work simpler, more precise, and time effective by introducing machines including hot vacuum presses, wall cutters, and underpinners. Well I may have succumbed to the hot/cold vacuum system, but after thirty years have continued to function without either a wall cutter or underpinner. Granted I am not a production shop but rather a high end specialty framer, educator and consultant.
Then the computer hit us. I recall back in early 1991 as I ranted and complained about my computer illiteracy and ongoing operational frustrations, my 10 year old gently touched my the top of my hand and said "Don't worry Mommy, I'll teach you." Well if that wasn't enough to frost my cookies. In any event I have at least conquered the basic computer and word processor to write two books and to keep the monthly columns for PFM coming strong.
The next invasion were computers in frame shops. Not bad enough this electronic monster had me spelling words correctly, but now it was also able to price framing jobs, maintain inventory...and yes, even cut mats. Well, at that I had to put my foot down. Though I had survived without a wall cutter and underpinner I can truly see the benefit and efficiency of both of these pieces of equipment. But, there was no way I could ever sanctify the travesty of mat cutting with a computer. Seems I had gone from computer illiterate to computer intolerant.
Change of Heart
I was raised with a Great Grandfather who was a stone carver, a Grandfather who was a fine carpenter, and a Father who was an electrotyper and cabinet maker. Fine hand craftsmanship is in my blood. Cutting mats by hand and assembling frames with hammers and nails is what I have always loved about this art of framing, it's all very creatively right brained.
But the left side of my brain, the analytical business head, sees the benefits of production, precision, and efficiency. As an industry consultant I have been asked over the years where I thought the framing industry was going. I truly believed that computers were a passing fad within this industry and if you ignored them they would go away. OK, so I was mistaken. It may have taken me a decade to come around to digitals and electronics but I see the error of my ways and I finally realize that computers are here to stay.
The CMC (Computer Mat Cutter) Series
This CMC series may sound like the playoffs, but in fact is meant to be a hand holding walk through the introduction and basic concepts behind understanding and utilizing the computer mat cutter in your successful framing business. So what exactly qualifies me to be the person to tackle a series of articles on Computerized Mat Cutting? Precisely the same thing that kept me a technotard for so very long, my resistance to modern technology.
The series so far includes 6-8 articles that are slated to run over the next two years and will include CMC selection, differences, sales, promotion, pricing, designs and controversy. So here we go, and in this article I am covering when and how.
Trade Shows and the CMC Boom
Walk any trade show and count the number of booths focused on POS (point of sale) software and then notice the computer mat cutters. Just a few years ago there were only a few, now there is one on every corner. In fact, it is almost anachronistic to see a manual mat cutter being marketed much anymore. Though Fletcher-Terry, Nielsen Bainbridge or Keencut may still showcase and sell their manual cutters, the glory days of John Ranes behind a F-2100 have made way to him in front of a F-6100cmc. A sign of the times. Though the likes of Gunnar and Kaibab have been in large scale production divisions and OEM markets for years, it is in recent years they have become players in our humble Mom & Pop market. Wizard International (1994) began just a few years ago with small 10'x10' booths while now touting full islands and the da Vinci mat printing system to boot.
Recognizing the Players
There are nine companies you will need to be familiar with: Eclipse (Kaibab), F-6100cmc (Fletcher-Terry), I Mat (formerly Mat Maestro, Regal Crown Industries), Valiani (Pistorius), Rapido (Gunnar), Spirit (Esterly), Trucut Elan (Berlyne), Wizard, and Zund. Though I will not compare each of these individually I will point out some of their basic differences and target markets.
Esterly, Berlyne, Pistorius, and Zund appear to be more directed toward mass production operations with limited templates, higher cutting speed, or limited interfacing with POS software. These will be less often chosen for privately owned smaller scale framers who wish to offer more elaborate designs. Gunnar, Kaibab, and I Mat offer alternate systems for either market of high production or custom framing. While Eclipse, Fletcher-Terry, and Wizard are systems targeted more specifically for the custom user.
Too Much to Do Too Little Time
The question is when are you ready to shop CMC? The only time a change will occur from the way 'its always been done' is for a reason. As soon as any process becomes inefficient because of time or money then new technology will be searched out. A vacuum press is often purchased when the daily volume of mountings exceeds manual mounting production. Such may also be true with a CMC.
When the work load has become more than a single framer can handle its time to hire additional help. An additional employee can have its benefits in that there is another person to open and close the shop, help customers, keep company, and allow for owner vacation time. The disadvantages include higher overhead, employee benefits, and someone else to manage.
The alternative of acquiring a CMC will offer the benefits of either not hiring a new employee at all, or hiring a lesser skilled art student type with good computer skills at a lower hourly rate for fewer worker benefits; less stress and carpal tunnel potential; and quicker more intricate designs that bring in more money. The disadvantages include no longer having an employee for opening and closing, customer assistance, vacation and sick time, or companionship. Plus what if the power should go out...no cutter. Now you can't meet deadlines because the computer operator may not be capable of manually cutting mats.
It All Comes Down to Economics
In order to afford a CMC all you need is to be cutting mats every day. If cutting three double mats a day for $30 profit, 5 days a week, times 4.3 weeks, equals $645 per month in cut mats. Remember these are 3 basic rectangular opening double mats (6 total mats) per day no frills, no fancy corners, no spacers, no tiered mats, no multiple openings...you do the math. Just imagine the profit potential.
Once the decision has been made to go CMC, then the shopping begins. Cutters may be purchased outright, they may be a leased purchase, or rented. If ownership and investment is preferred, since most people do not have disposable capital of between $15,000 - $30,000, leasing will be necessary. The average lease payment according to Kaibab is $550 monthly. Based on the above minimal matting calculations this should be very easy to achieve with no additional effort at all. Plus there is no limit or monthly corner charges, which allows for more extravagant multiple opening mats and fancier cuts.
Wizard is the only one who currently rents CMCs to the framer. They have placed more than 2,800 cutters around the world and although their CMC may be either purchased outright or rented, most are rented. For $500 to get a system into the shop you may then opt for either the $225 Junior Program allowing for monthly rental charge for equipment and 1000 corners; or the $370 Standard Program with the base rate plus 5 cents per corner. This allows for a lifetime warranty and CPU coverage for 30 months then the monthly rate drops to $200. for corner charges.
Rent vs. Lease to Buy
Many people prefer to rent a new CMC because it feels safer. One of the common questions has been, "Can I send it back if I go out of business?" Honestly now, what kind of a negative affirmation is that? Just as when investing in a vacuum press or new car, never forget resale values. There will always be such a thing as selling used equipment.
Many people are died in the wool renters. They rent their store space, their company vehicle, and want to rent their CMC.Rent if you wish, but look at the big picture. Do not base rental vs. purchase on the monthly cost. Look more seriously on the potential and the number of corners that might be cut. I've seen a wonderful Asian latticework double mat that is an elaborate 142 multiple opening mat, that takes nearly 1000 corner cuts to complete. Think through the possibilities and limitations. The mat could sell for $300-$350.00.A rented machine might limit the corner use, but if profits are the desired end product then elaborate designs should be the feature of the day.
Hardware, Software, Computer, Technical Service
There are four areas to research when looking into this new technology: hardware (machine itself), software, computer, and technical support. The hardware is the mechanics that runs the machine, and the key is to keep the system as simple as possible. There are two kinds of motors used to drive the cutting head and bars, servo motors and stepper motors. Servos are continuous flow while steppers rotate 180 steps per inch for a .005 accuracy rate. Listen to the experts and decide for yourself. Look into maintenance procedures and wear potential on these parts.
As I researched the cutters available I soon discovered that as an IBM computer user there was some software that made me feel more at ease than others. Since I operate with Windows on my PC I prefer software that replicates most closely the windows drag and drop formats I am already comfortable with. I often found myself moving the mouse around frantically searching for how to make it all come together.
When researching cutters pay close attention to the look and feel of the software. Sales personnel have set designs they are very familiar with to showcase as examples during a trade show and it is their job to make their system look user friendly and easy to operate. The point is that it must be easy and familiar for you too. Many of us suffer from computer intolerance while others thrive in the technological computer world. The key is to locate the system that allows you to be comfortable.Use it yourself to test layouts when at shows don't just ask the operator to cut specific designs in variable thickness boards to test it. Yes, it must cut well, but you must also be capable of getting the design into the computer in a timely manner in the first place. When you find the system that feels right, you will likely know its the one for you.
Some companies include the computer with the cutter, while others do not. If a computer is included check all warranties on it, limitations, and time frame for upgrades, and service. Also note its strength and current capacity.
Depending upon the company you select, technical service could be do it yourself with a technical support person on line or telephone; could be through a local distributor; or could be manufacturer based. A manufacturer based technician requires all expenses including travel expenses to be covered by the framer in the event a service call is required or requested. Know what you are getting into with service expectations. And read the fine print in the warranty.
How to Shop: Questions to Ask
What is the maximum ply thickness that can be effectively cut?
Some cutters comfortably cut 8-ply rag with beautiful clean corners and curves, while others cannot cut boards that thick at all. If foam board is a possibility to be cut, ask about it also. Some will tackle ⅛" foam but I have not found any willing to state 3/16" foam is possible. Maybe in time. Not all 4-ply boards are created equal in thickness. A 4-ply white core, Colorcore, fabric, suede, or museum rag are all slightly different in thickness. Also how easy is it to alter blade depth for these mentioned 4-plies, a 6-ply, 8-ply or Paschke tiered mat somewhere in between?
What blades are required?
Any experienced framer has decided long ago that blades are the cheapest part of the framing process, and to change regularly will make life much simpler and happier. The same with CMC blades. These blades seem to average 20-40 cents each depending on the company. Though the companies will talk about maximum blade usage, it will all come down to individual style and techniques. The main thing to look at is blade installation; mat cutting interruption and realignment; pausing features; cartridge vs. head unit blade holders; and the difficulty or simplicity of all of the above.
What is the total board usage?
Edge clearance becomes a good question when an entire sheet of 40"x 60" mat board is to be frequently used. Note the outer edge clearance (aka minimum border) can range from ¼" to 1-½". Also check the clamping techniques that might dent outer mat borders.
What is the CMC warranty...what is covered and for how long?
Check to see if the warranty is part of the quoted price or if it is an extended offered package with an additional charge. Some warranties cover parts only while others may include some labor. Find out specifically what is covered and for how long. Even with rental equipment you will become owner of the computer itself within 30 months. And is the computer also under warranty?
How do you handle computer upgrades?
Whether renting or leasing to buy, pay attention to the computer that is supplied with the cutter. If a separate unit, can it be replaced with more modern units in a few years? Some companies offer annual or bi-annual upgrades that can be downloaded free as an ongoing technical support system. If the computer unit is installed into the cutter and has a limited time warranty (5 years) what happens after the computer is outdated?
Does the software interface with POS software?
When acquiring a CMC that is to be effectively used to sell fancy and elaborate cuts, it needs to interface with POS software at the design counter so the mat may be designed, shown to the customer, and sold, then sent back as a file to be completed in the workroom later.
What about after sale service?
Remember there can be telephone service, local distributor assistance or manufacturers reps that need to be flown in to repair or maintain a unit.
Can the software be individually creative or is it limited to programmed templates?
Pay attention to the direction and size limitations of cut mats. If the software is not capable of setting specifications as a profile or landscape (vertical or horizontal) then a cathedral opening will only be limited to the 40" width of a mat rather than the 60" length (see diagram 1). Cutters may have as few as 20 patterns or as many as 120. And when the corners may be separately selected as many as 400 corner combinations exist, plus clip art.
What is CAD?
Most of the CMCs available have limited templates as mentioned above. When the list of patterns and clip art supplied has been exhausted then the frame designer must turn to the CAD (Computer Assisted Design) system to create the special shape desired. These are not easy to use unless you are trained in computers. The Asian latticework mat can be achieved by creating a multiple opening mat or a CAD design. Obviously a multiple opening design will be much more time effective (see more info in this on Parts Two and Three: SELLING and PRICING).
Do not be fooled into thinking a drawn design may be scanned into the CAD system and magically transform into a pattern that may be sent to the mat cutter. Original freeform designs and logos may be scanned but then must be plotted and manually transformed into a computer language to be sent to the cutter. In fact its more financially feasible to hire it out to the technical service department than to take the time to do it yourself.
Are You Ready for a CMC?
As we embark upon the 21st century its time to take stock in your operation and in keeping up with the Joneses. In order to stay competitive we must be prepared to offer services of higher quality, faster, and more cost effectively than ever before. In this world of virtual reality even the hands-on framer must be prepared to take a giant leap into technology.Perhaps POS software is only the beginning, with frame shops all ending with a CMC.
New CMC technology is wondrous. I quote Mark Eaton, Machine Division Manager of Kaibab Industries who told me "...we have the technology...my goal is to produce a CMC that will cut and carve mats as good as Brian Wolf." The framer should be the brain while the CMC becomes the muscle.
So, when all is said and done, and my wrists are still throbbing, maybe you can teach this old framer a few new tricks after all. Welcome to the millennium and the computer age of framing.
Copyright © 2001 Chris A Paschke
For more articles on mounting basics look under the mounting section in Articles by Subject.
Additional information on all types of mounting is found in:
The Mounting and Laminating Handbook, Second Edition, 2002,
The Mounting And Laminating Handbook, Third Edition, 2008 and
Creative Mounting, Wrapping, And Laminating, 2000 will teach you everything you need to know about getting the most from your dry mount equipment and materials as an innovative frame designer.
All books are available from Designs Ink Publishing through this website.
Chris A Paschke, CPF GCF
Designs Ink Publishing
785 Tucker Road, Suite G-183
Tehachapi, CA 93561