(image from exactbuilt.com)
Laser technology has a 30 year history of using co2 power as an engraving tool across an ever growing list of materials. In that time span, there have been massive improvements in how the machines work to improve the quality of output — and the price has dropped a lot too.
Laser engraving machinery used to be a curiosity seen only in labs and high-end facilities; now CO2 lasers are both wallet and user friendly. There are even 3D laser engraving machines that create floating 3D images at the push of a button.
Laser Technology Background
Lasers first appeared in labs in the late 1950s. Between 1953 and 1955, teams led by Charles Townes in the US and Aleksandr Prokhorov in the Soviet Union produced a remarkable device called the “maser.” Leading physicists of the time claimed it violated the laws of physics and could not work.
By 1959 a Columbia graduate student named Gordon Gould described the “laser” as we know it today. When Gould filed for a patent, the US patent office turned him down and in 1960 gave the patent to Bell Labs instead. Of course, none of them had actually built a laser yet… that honor went to Theodore H. Maiman, whose 1960 ruby laser design took just a little tuning before it could punch holes in metal.
And the laser business was just getting started!
The first laser engravers used a stencil to mask out the beam of a super-high-powered laser. This was not much of an improvement over acid etching, and carried the key downside requirement of a hulking and phenomenally expensive laser.
The second generation machines were a little better, using a photosensor to scan black and white artwork. They were very much the optical heirs of the engraver’s pantograph. Unfortunately, laser systems were still at the point where they required skilled maintenance on a regular basis. That changed with the introduction of sealed CO2 laser tubes and RF laser excitation.
The combination of sealed glass tubes and RF metal tubes with excitation changed the engraving industry. Sealed tubes were largely maintenance free and lasted a very long time. Combined with Peter Laakman’s RF excitation technology, it was now possible to make lasers that packed tremendous power into a very small package at an extremely low price. That’s precisely what Laakman did, eschewing the $25,000 “fair market” price that was common at the time and instead selling his systems for $6000 directly to the engraver market in 1988 — taking over the market and making himself a fortune.
Engraving has never been the same since.
Laser Engraving Machine Advantages
Engravers almost immediately discovered the advantages that a laser offered. By engraving with a beam of light instead of tools, there’s no tooling to get dull or wear down. There are no lateral forces on the work, which prevents damage and deformation. Laser engraving also has none of the frequently replenished consumables of other methods — at most, the optic must be changed every once in a while due to smoke build up.
Compared with other engraving techniques, laser engraving machine marks are permanent, concise, and clean. They’re also much faster and more convenient than traditional engraving, with much less time to change a design and far fewer limits on material and product.
Laser Engraving By Computer
Computers were the single most dramatic thing to happen to laser engraving. With a computer, it became possible to draw designs on a PC and feed them to an engraving machine with no intermediate steps. Eventually, lasers became compatible with industry standard software and graphics formats, so users had the freedom to choose their design package of choice. The software used to drive a laser became much more user friendly as well.
Today’s computer driven laser systems are very easy to use. The engraver is connected to the computer as if it were a printer. Some specialized software is installed on the computer, which (in larger shops) is usually dedicated to the laser. Vector graphics or illustrations are generated using a suitable program on the PC, and then sent to the engraving system with a ‘print’ command.
The relevant speed, power, and resolution controls are either edited using the driver software on the computer or with the laser’s front panel controls. Most lasers do not require the newest and fastest computers to run, as the computational demands are minimal. If you have any doubts, the laser manufacturer can help you choose a computer that will work best with your system.
Lasers are an extremely intense light source classified as a source of radiation by the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH). As their use in cutting and engraving organic materials might suggest, you do not want to put your hand in the way of a laser beam. Both manufacturers and users of laser systems have certain regulations to comply with.
Manufacturers have to build safe equipment, appropriately decorated with warning labels. Users have to understand the hazards and proceed with suitable caution. Users should also be aware of possible fire hazards associated with vaporizing wood using a ray of heat. Having a fire extinguisher close at hand is a good way to protect your laser investment should a combustion event occur.
The laser also uses high voltage internally. To avoid problems, it’s best to be mindful of this when doing any maintenance or work nearby.
Lastly, a laser engraving system requires good ventilation. To ensure a pleasant breathing environment for users of the laser as well as any visitors or neighbors, be sure to install a good exhaust system. The laser may have specific requirements in this regard. If so, expect the necessary blower to be louder, bigger, and more expensive than those you may be used to — and for good reason.
When working with certain materials and laser processing the fumes produced can both damage the laser optics as well as the lungs of the user. Therefore, it is essential to understand just what happens when you laser process a particular material. Caution is an excellent watchword and the original manufacturer’s recommendations are generally a great guide.
Laser engraving equipment today is very versatile. Many industries make use of lasers. For engravers, common uses of their laser might be:
– Plaques and awards
– Advertising specialty items
– Craft items
– Stationery and greeting cards
– Flexible circuits
– Gift items
– Rubber stamps
– Photography and picture frames
– Memorabilia and point of sale displays
For laser engraver reviews you can see Epilog, Trotec, Universal, or Boss Laser.