So Many Choices … So Many Questions

By Stuart M. Altschuler, CPF, GCF


Just 20 years ago, the concept of automation in the frame shop meant an expensive PC that did little other than keep track of jobs on a spreadsheet or database. These days, however, many previously skilled jobs are replaced by hi-tech equipment. If your production shop is still using antiquated methods—in other words, not using automated mat cutters, joiners and saws—you are woefully out of date and probably struggling to compete.

This article will explore potential choices for each area of shop automation, weighing the pros and cons of each option.

Before thinking about technology you must answer these important questions:

  • What type of work do I produce?
  • What quantities do I produce?
  • What is my typical turnaround time?

If you don’t answer this trio of questions, you will flounder in your research and be hampered in your decision-making. Even further, you must consider other questions: Do you do mostly one-offs or is your production dominated by doing large-quantity multiples? Are your projects months in the making or do you have clients who need things in a week or less? What about space? How big is your facility and can it be expanded, if necessary? Equipment vendors will ask all of these questions as they try to establish your immediate needs. But, of course, you are expecting to grow. What is a realistic growth figure for the life of the equipment?

Computerized Mat Cutters

Computerized mat cutters may be the most popular automation tools used widely in picture framing. When evaluating the different computerized mat cutters—there are few manufacturers and each has just a few models—consider the 4 C’s: cutting speed, capacity, capability and clamping.

Cutting speeds on these machines really only make a difference when you are cutting multiples so no comparison should be made for the entry-level models. Your throughput (number of mats cut in an hour) will be slowed by user entry and mechanical issues such as board insertion. The fastest of these will cut over 80″ per second. That will make a real difference if you have nested several pieces on a large board. Again, value comes from total output per dollar spent, so you must be careful to justify the extra dollars for that speed.

Capacity refers to the size board that can be cut and the size opening that can be cut. While there are some models that have a board capacity of only 32″ x 40″, most handle at least 40″ x 60″.  Gunnar and Zund, both European manufacturers, have machines of far larger capacity. While the openings cut vary, most have a minimum of 1″-plus on all four sides. Clamping can eliminate some, if not all, of this problem and most manufacturers have some workarounds to reduce waste.

Capability refers to two different aspects. What is the angle(s) that the machine cuts and how deeply can it cut? All machines presently marketed can cut at least 6-ply matboard with the majority cutting 8-ply. Some machines can cut 12-ply board, corrugated, foamboard and even gatorboard. (To add sales opportunities, some vendors have included with their software templates for making custom sized boxes from corrugated cardboard. If you ship a lot of individual packages, this might make a difference to you.) Again, match your needs with the vendor model that fits best.  Some of the cutters cut only at a single-fixed bevel. Others have interchangeable or dual heads that facilitate cutting straight or other beveled cuts. There are even optional accessories for French rules and embossed ornamentation. More importantly, for many the ability to cut double mats as a single combined element is essential to productivity. By obtaining a finished product from the machine, labor costs for mat assembly are reduced.

The final variable is clamping. Without clamps, the board would just move along with the blade as it tried to cut. Most machines use some type of pneumatic clamp. This uses compressed air to inflate a blade and secure the board to the cutting surface. Since these clamps are along edges some amount of the board cannot be cut as the cutting blade would hit the clamps. This reduces the capacity of the machine and creates unavoidable waste. Obviously, the less clamp overhead there is, the larger the opening available and the less waste. Vacuum clamps are available on the higher end models of cutters. These clamps use suction to hold the board to the surface of the cutter from behind. There is no clamping overhead and no waste. Cutters with large capacities, capable of nesting mats through software, employing vacuum clamping are the most productive cutters available. They are also amongst the most expensive.

Ultimately, you need to determine how many units of product can be produced with the least labor. To determine costs you must calculate how much it will cost in time and labor to generate a specified number of mats. Consider the following example: With machine A, I can cut 1,000 boards in an 8-hour shift at a labor cost of 15 cents each. Compare that to another machine and you are now starting to understand value. And of course, you must amortize the cost of equipment.

Now that you have focused on the machine its capabilities and cost, one more issue still needs to be discussed: Can your machine integrate with a software system that allows your sales/design people to input job specifics and have that pushed to production machines? Now we’re really talking automation. The ultimate step might be a shop where machines by different vendors, each suited to a particular type of work, use a common interface that allows the shop foreman to seamlessly direct work to a particular machine based on several factors. We can only hope that the industry has the strength to create a demand for that type of production requirement.

Automated Cutting and Joining

The double-headed miter saw is the gold standard in production picture framing. Several companies make these saws, most going about the job in the same way. As you begin to consider your choices, the most important first decision is based on cutting capacity. Capacity is based on the largest width and height molding that can be cut. This ranges from a small of 3″-plus  wide by 5″ tall to over 6″ wide by about 6″ tall. This is primarily determined by the blade size of the saw. Obviously, the bigger the capacity, the more expensive the saw.

Typical operation of these saws is a simultaneous cut by two blades that cut down through the moulding. The blades are activated with either foot power or an air assist. In both cases it is a foot pedal, the manual obviously requires more effort. Some of the saws have safety buttons, which you are required to push in order for the blades to operate. One manufacturer has engineered their saws differently. The two blades cut sequentially. This allows for less waste. (See Illustrations)

If you are using small mouldings this might not be important. But the wider the moulding you use the greater the waste. And, most likely, the greater the moulding cost. If you use lots of expensive wide mouldings this will surely be a consideration.

All of the saws have the ability to use different types of blades. That is important because cutting different materials requires using different blades. Aluminum cuts much better using high-speed steel blades, while wood will cut better using carbide tipped blades. In an ideal production environment you would have a different saw for each type of material being cut. This would eliminate the need to change your setup. However, that may not be cost effective. With a single saw, the ability to change blades quickly and easily becomes more vital.

Once you have decided on the size of the saw, you must focus on measuring systems. Simple measurement is done by means of a manual gauge. These are typically purchased separately so you can make the choice appropriate for your operation.

Manual gauges come in various lengths. If you make smaller photo frames there is no need to buy a 6′ gauge. If you make larger frames a shorter measuring system will only add time and trouble to your production.

Air assisted gauges are quicker to use as you don’t have to lock them in place by turning a screw or handle. Simply press the button to release the air and move the stop into place. Release the button and the stop is locked in place.

Automated gauges and stops allow you to simply type the measurement into a keypad and the stop is automatically set. Most of the automated gauges will take input from a bar code reader. This means that if the moulding is coded with a tag that has the dimensions bar coded, the operator merely scans the bar code and cuts the frame. Fully automated production like this greatly increases capacity and throughput.

Finally, there are several other options to consider with the saw. Various clamping systems are available allowing you to more efficiently hold varied shapes and sizes of molding. Make sure your choice coincides with the type of work you expect to be doing. Automated lubrication for cutting metal can be added to any saw that will cut metal moldings. Various dust collection options should be explored to find the one best suited to your operations. Remember, good dust collection (including air filtration) greatly reduces, but does not eliminate, saw dust from cutting.

As far as pricing, stripped-down smaller models can be had new well below $10,000. Fully equipped large scale automated saws can exceed $30,000. Take time and care in your selection and always be honest with the reps about what you intend to do with the saw. This will allow them to help you choose which is best for you.

High-speed frame joinery offers few options. Most all production systems use a v-shaped wedge driven into the miter joint from underneath the frame. The v-nailers or underpinners are used by framers at all levels of the production spectrum, from the small retailer to the huge production framer. The differences in their machines are speed and throughput. The basic machines are pneumatic using compressed air to clamp frame members and drive the wedges. Higher demand machines add better clamping, the ability to join larger frames, and varying levels of automation. Top-end models have bar code capable computers attached. They have the ability to drive multiple different sized wedges based on pre-programmed patterns in a single step. This allows a lower-skilled operator to merely scan a bar code and press a firing button, yet achieve a perfect join. Machines made by several different manufacturers are primarily chosen by price and support.

Decisions as to what level to purchase are based on ROI analysis. Machinery generally is more predictable than labor in a production environment. Regardless, never purchase equipment that doesn’t meet your basic requirements. Too frequently buyer’s remorse is preceded by a decision to forgo a necessary capability to save a few bucks.

Mounting is another area where production efficiencies can be obtained. While many framers are accustomed to using mechanical or vacuum presses, roller laminators offer speed, cost and functionality advantages. Running at speeds in excess of 10′ per minute, mounting time can be reduced greatly, increasing productivity and reducing labor costs. Roller laminators, long used in the digital output and sign fields, cannot only mount, but laminate, encapsulate and coat. These machines are available in several different widths, which determines your capacity. A piece is attached to the substrate using a pressure sensitive adhesive that is applied to either the substrate or object to be mounted. This sandwich is passed through the rollers permanently affixing the object to the substrate. As with other mounting technologies, various adhesives and laminate coatings are available.

Automated tab machines, canvas stretchers, and infrequently glass washers can make sense in the right shop. Tab machines are very good at handling huge quantities of the same piece, yet provide little advantage to wholesale one-off operations. Canvas stretching machines can turn a 45-minute project into a 5-minute moneymaker. Typical entry-level machines can be justified when stretching as few as 25 pieces per week. Unfortunately, costly glass washers rarely make sense in any picture framing environment.

Throughout our discussion we have alluded to the use of computers and bar code scanners. While many of the machines will accept computer input and are able to use bar code readers, you must have a software system capable of integrating these features. Experience indicates the necessity of a full-time computer person on staff to insure trouble free operations. The complexity of the network infrastructure and the needed interoperability of systems from different manufacturers require attention and specific skills that are not usually found in manufacturing management.

The best advice that anyone can give regarding a heavy equipment purchase is to do your due diligence. If you do your homework carefully, you can navigate the maze of choices and build an efficient and profitable shop.

Stuart Altschuler, CPF, GCF, director and lead educator of Prestige Framing Academy, has been in the art-and-framing industry for more than 30 years. An industry consultant, educator and speaker, he can be reached Altschuler also runs PFA Web Services, a full-service Internet marketing and development firm. For more information, call 617-285-0855, or visit


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