Lasers: Ready to Buy-What you Really Need to Know
For those new to laser technology, buying laser equipment can be an intimidating experience. The word laser often conjures images of danger, mystery, impossible learning curves, and high price tags. However, with the user-friendly, increasingly affordable laser engraving equipment of today, nothing could be further from the truth.
By Diane Bosworth
People often think they need to be a laser expert to run a laser engraving system, but a laser engraver works very much like a printer. Thus, it is more important to be computer literate than a laser authority. The best laser engravers we know are also the best graphic artists. If you are competent in a graphic arts program, you will learn how to laser engrave very quickly.
If you do not yet know how to run one, it is recommended that you learn one. Most users do like CorelDRAW products, but there are a variety of others as well. Use manuals and help menus provided with the program to assist you in your learning curve. Also, take advantage of classes offered by local community programs, colleges, computer and software stores, industry trade shows and seminars. Additionally, you can find help online at various websites. Once you are comfortable with the software, your learning curve for laser engraving will be very short. Basically, a laser engraving system works much like a big laser jet printer recreating the information that is sent to it. That is why artwork generation is the key to successful laser engraving. Taking the time to learn to use your graphics program and using it properly will pay big dividends in your overall engraving results.
Once you decide that laser technology is right for you, you will need to make some choices. Machine differences include the manufacturer, wattage of the laser, table size, options and price.
There are an increasing number of companies currently manufacturing laser engraving equipment. You can find them in industry directories, trade journals, trade shows, and online searches. Each of these companies manufacture equipment using the same laser technology but with some variations. Typically, we recommend that purchasers stick with companies that have been in business for some time and that have a good reputation. Over the years, we have seen a variety of laser engraving manufacturers come in to the marketplace and go just as quickly. It is also important to have a sense of what you will be using your system for and what kind of machine you really need. Narrowing it down to the type of laser system you need will limit the number of manufacturers you want to consider. Once you have identified these manufacturers, you can contact them about your needs, request product literature, and ask to see a demonstration. Trade shows can also be a viable option for viewing several machines in the same place for quick and easy comparisons. Whenever possible, have them demonstrate the system on your parts or what you anticipate will be your most common job(s). Ask questions and make sure you understand what you are getting for your money. Whenever possible, talk to current owners and operators of similar equipment. Find out how they feel about, not only the equipment, but about the company they bought it from. Some engravers also start out by using a job shop initially to give them a sense of the process and the market.
Like light bulbs, lasers for engraving are described by their wattage. Simply put, higher wattage means more power, and more power means faster run times and greater capabilities. Unfortunately, it also means a higher price tag. One of the biggest decisions you will make when choosing a laser engraving system is deciding how much power you need. Today’s equipment comes in a variety of power choices, typically from 10 watts to 120 watts and more. When determining power needs, keep in mind there might be a difference between being able to process a certain material, and being able to do it at speeds that are profitable. Make sure you have enough power to do the jobs you want to do now (and consider future growth potential) and invest in the highest wattage machine you can afford. Also, because lasers do periodically need to be recharged, it is best to know upfront the projected life expectancy of the laser, how the manufacturer handles the recharge, and the projected cost.
Options for the machine are equally important. Much of what you will need depends on what you will be using your machine for. Making sure the table size is adequate for your needs is important to consider as well. Again, remember to consider future needs. Additionally, there are several options available that you can purchase with your system and some may possibly be added at a later date.
A popular option is Air Assist. This is an optional attachment, on some systems, that allows for a constant stream of compressed air to cross the engraving and cutting surface at the point of burn. This process is ideal for deep, clean engraving and cutting.
Auto Focus is another popular feature and now comes standard on many models. This allows for the automatic focus of the lens on the area to be engraved.
Another current option is the red dot pointer, which will give you a visual of where the laser beam is focused. You can laser process without one but many users appreciate having them.
For the engraving on curved or rounded surfaces, consider a Rotary Attachment. This is a device that is used to rotate curved surfaces so that the laser beam still acts like it is engraving on a flat surface. This is used widely for engraving on glasses, vases, bats, and other curved surfaces.
Vector Cutting Tables are also popular add-ons. These are tables that allow for the material to be cut through without the laser beam reflecting directly off of the tabletop of the machine into the underside of the material. If you are going to be using your machine to do a lot of vector cutting, you definitely want to consider one of these. You will also want to keep in mind that because of laser engravings increasing popularity, it has become a competitive marketplace and new options and designs are continuously being developed that allow for greater speed, versatility, and user friendliness.
Warranties, training, support, and more
Equally important, you will also want to know how service, warranty, training, and support issues are handled. There is nothing more frustrating than having orders in-house and a machine that is down, and little or not support to assist you. Make sure that you know up-front whom to contact with questions or problems; how to contact them, and how effectively such situations are typically handled.
It won’t be long and you will soon have a sense of the equipment, the options, the company, and the person who is selling the equipment. As with any purchase, feeling good about what you are getting for your money will be the key factor in determining what you buy.