Plates and Dies: Get to Know Your Tooling

November 2, 2017

In the custom packaging world, “tooling” refers to the cutting dies and printing plates used to print and cut your packaging. These manufacturing tools are custom made for each new order. 

The first order you place for any custom packaging has an additional charge for tooling. That charge covers the materials and labor of carefully crafting the custom printing plate for your order. If you're ordering custom boxes, the tooling charge also covers the cost of a custom cutting die, designed for your exact size and build.

Good tooling is worth its weight in corrugated. Creating these printing plates and cutting dies is an expert skill. When tooling is made correctly, your print is crisp and your packaging is cut precisely for fast assembly and reliable shipping. Let's dive in and find out what these dies and plates are all about. 

 Plates and Dies: Get to Know Your Tooling
 Plates and Dies: Get to Know Your Tooling

Printing Plates

Printing plates are made of various materials. In Flexographic printing, they're typically made of a thin rubber-like material. In lithographic printing, they're made of a thin plastic or metal. Digital printing doesn't use printing plates at all which can make for lower startup costs, but a much higher unit cost. 

Your design is laser cut in the plate, with the negative parts of your image cut out so that they don't pick up ink. If your design uses multiple colors, there will be a different printing plate for each color. The printing plates are mounted to giant cylinders on the printing press and the plate runs through the ink and onto your box, tape, tissue, or mailer.

 Plates and Dies: Get to Know Your Tooling

Cutting Die

After it's printed, your custom packaging is cut. Products with simple, straight cuts like tape, or tissue paper don't require a custom cutting die, but many boxes do. 

Since mailer style boxes have curved lines, and other details, a cutting die is made using molded blades, set into wood. Depending on a manufacturer's machine, a cutting die will either be curved (rotary) or flat. The cutting die is mounted to a cylinder or a plate and it punches your custom box shape out of sheets of printed corrugated to make your box. 

The Cost of Tooling

Since tooling is made specifically for each order, costs can vary. For reference, the printing plate above costs $350 for a box that's 11" × 9" × 4". The cutting die costs around $600. Most plates range between $300-600, and cutting dies between $500 and $1,500, depending on the size and complexity of the design.

While tooling does require an initial investment, it pays off as you reuse it over and over again on future orders. These plates and dies are good for hundreds of thousands of boxes or feet of tape before they need to be replaced. Keep in mind that every manufacturer uses their own type of machinery, so tooling is not easily transferrable across manufacturers.

Pro Tip: You can change the color of your design without making new tooling! Once you have the printing plates, you can run a print job in any color you'd like using your design.

Better tooling equals better packaging. With the right tooling, you can get crisp, consistent print runs. For more on tooling, watch this episode of Shipping Things!

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