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Large-Format Laser Engraving

The world of laser engraving evolves continuously, and as technology advances, so do the many applications this service renders to our industry. From personalizing mobile devices to branding a storefront through signage and design capabilities, it’s certain that staying in front of the laser engraving movement is a must. In this issue, we take a closer look at the benefits and advantages of large-format laser engraving, and discuss with experts how to utilize these techniques and what products they offer to expand any retailer’s repertoire.

In order to determine whether large-format lasers would prove an ideal fit into existing infrastructure, discussing the best substrate candidates are the first step.

According to Derek Kern, of Kern Laser Systems in Wadena, Minnesota, “Acrylic, wood, anodized aluminum and natural stone are just a few of the more popular materials processed on large-format laser equipment. These types of materials are used in a variety of products such as commercial signage, murals, name plates and monuments.” As he notes, monuments are often too large and heavy for smaller equipment to handle. In this case Kern’s Z12 monument machine features a steel frame which can handle heavy stones up to twelve inches thick. In addition, Kern’s HSE machine will handle full 4’ X 8’ sheets of acrylic. These panels are often etched for LED back-lighting applications.

“Large-format lasers are generally considered to be 48” wide and larger. Many substrates that sign makers use come in standard sizes,” adds Warren Knipple, Trotec Laser, Ypsilanti, Michigan. With large-format lasers, such as Trotec’s Speedy 500 or 1500, the work area determines the size product one can process, the larger the bed size, often the less pre-production work needed. “For example, Trotec’s Speedy 500 equipped with the pass-through feature will accommodate all materials up to 4’ wide, no matter the length, making it perfect for this industry.”

The applicable substrate list will only continue to develop alongside the technology, says James Stanaway of Epilog Laser in Golden, Colorado. “Many material producers are expanding their product line to include more laser-friendly substrates, so the choices are seemingly endless when it comes to materials you can put in a large-format laser.”

“Laser engravers have become commonplace on production floors, and consequently, applications have driven a need for larger engraving areas,” explains Harris Goldstein, Gravograph, Duluth, Georgia. “In some cases, larger capacity simply gives you the ability to engrave a larger piece of material, a benefit a sign maker will take advantage of. In other cases, larger allows you to place and engrave several items, such as award plaques or machine parts, on the engraving table, giving more efficiency to the marking process.” Finally, lasers are ideally suited for cutting shapes out of material, such as acrylic, wood and laserable engraving stock. A larger laser table is advantageous when cutting, because it allows users to maximize yield from each sheet of engraving stock. “Examples of applications for large-format lasers, from the more traditional to the more obscure: wooden three-dimensional signs, stainless steel elevator panels, multiples of award plaques, gift items, badges, plant labels and machine rating plates, boat oars, denim clothing, all the way to tackle twill for embroiderers.”
Speed and power capabilities are another point of consideration when weighing in on large-format engraving opportunities. The industry experts explain just exactly what that means in terms of selecting what’s best for any engraver’s expected outcome:

“The principles for selecting the proper power (wattage) are the same when purchasing a small table top laser or a large-format laser, says Goldstein. “However, it is safe to assume, applications for large-format systems may be demanding and may require more powerful systems. One must select the appropriate laser power when shopping for a laser engraver.” Typically, the price of the laser increases as the laser power increases, so the price-conscious consumer wants to focus on their application(s) and purchase the power that will efficiently complete the task at hand. “In other words, a pet store owner that is engraving anodized aluminum dog tags would not want to invest in a more costly 80-watt system when a 30-watt system would work fine. At the other end of this spectrum, a plastic fabricator cutting .25” acrylic would be wise to invest in more power, because a more powerful system will cut the acrylic more quickly, saving time and saving money.”

Kern adds that the industrially built gantry on the company’s HSE (High Speed Engraving) laser system is able to be equipped with up to 400 watts of laser power. “I speak with many customers frustrated with the fact that they are unable to increase their product throughput, due to the fact that they lack the laser power needed when processing materials at higher speeds. In this situation, we can recommend a high-powered laser source of 150 or 400 watts.”

However, he notes, high-wattage lasers are not exclusively associated with large-format machines. “Many of our customers are using our machines to etch on materials like natural stone and laser engraving plastics, which require only small amounts of laser power to get a good etch. In these cases, the smaller-wattage lasers do a fine job on the large-format machines.

A 60-watt system (regardless of physical size) will do most of the same things as a 120-watt system, but the higher-wattage system will complete the job faster, Stanaway reiterates. Wattage also comes into play when determining the thickness of materials that can be cut. A 120-watt system will produce cleaner cuts on thicker materials (up to 3/4 inch of hardwood and acrylic); while a 60-watt system will do better with cutting materials up to about 1/2 inch.

“In laser theory, engraving and cutting speed increases linearly to increasing laser power,” concludes Knipple. That’s true for non-heat conductive materials like rubber, wood, stone, ceramic, tiles, glass and any plastics—which means acrylics or laserable plastics. In these cases, more laser power enables the laser user to process their materials faster.

“On acrylics, the benefit of high laser power is very obvious. A rule of thumb says 10 watts provides the ability to cut 0.04” thick acrylic. E.g. 40 watts would give superior cut quality and good productivity on a 1/8 inch sheet of acrylic. If you increase the laser power to 80 watts, you can process 5/16 inch in the same time as 1/8 inch with 40 watts. In addition, you can process the 1/8 inch more than two times faster with the high-power system.”

Table size, and using this berth to its utmost potential, also plays a factor in getting the most out of a large-format infrastructure. If the quantity of product output can be increased without jeopardizing the quality, who wouldn’t want to get on board?

“Depending on the size of the item, yes, a retailer can absolutely engrave multiple identical items,” says Stanaway. “Epilog’s largest engraving system is the Legend 36 EXT, and it has an engraving area of 36” X 24”. Operators can fill the entire bed with a particular product and set up their artwork so the system engraves or cuts as many will fit on the table.”

One important aspect to look at when engraving a large number of items is if the laser can engrave with the same quality at the top left corner of the table as the bottom right, he advises. “With a flying-optic system, the laser beam is increasingly divergent across the table, which is why we include beam optimization optics on any table over 24" X 12", “ says Stanaway.

Continues Kern: “Taking advantage of economies of scale can be achieved with large-format machines by utilizing the entire width of the engraving table. Multiple products can be placed in a row and engraved simultaneously on the Kern laser system. A common table size is 52" X 100" but can be built as large as 80" X 144".”

Doing multiples of the same jobs at the same time can be a great time-saver with a large-format laser, and creating a jig for unusual-shaped items is also a good way to ensure that all of the items are lined up and engraved perfectly every time, Knipple adds.

“When compared to engraving items one at a time, and as the cycle time increases, an operator has more time to walk away from the laser, allowing them to perform other tasks on the production floor,” Goldstein points out. “This utilization of time in one engraving cycle is a major benefit.”

With this background knowledge in place, there are a few more factors retailers should consider when choosing a system in order to expand their existing service base in a large-format capacity. Trotec, for example, runs all laser systems, regardless of size, off of the same software and printer drivers, so running large-format lasers should be just as easy to learn as smaller lasers. Owners should also remember that an exhaust system will be needed for every laser, whether it is one they already have or one of Trotec’s Atmos exhaust systems. Also, laser systems above 200w will need to be water cooled, so a chiller will be needed for these machines, says Knipple. “Trotec’s Speedy 500 and Speedy 1500 are the largest flatbed CO2 lasers in their line. The Speedy 500 has a working area of 49” X 28” and can have up to 200w of power. The Speedy 1500 has a working area of 59” X 49” and can have up to 400w of power. Both of these can have the pass-through feature added, making them able to accommodate all lengths of materials.”

Kern specializes in large-format laser systems, and sells a variety of machines that excel in high-speed general engraving, dual laser head-cutting and monument etching. Many of Kern’s customers have already had laser experience with a smaller enclosed-style laser system, and come to Kern to fulfill their large-format needs. “A majority of our customers purchase our HSE100 table, as it will comfortably accommodate a standard 4’ X 8’ sheet of material. The powerful 150W and 400W machines are typically instant favorites with our customers, as these machines feature plenty of power for high-speed engraving and even metal-cutting applications.”

“With laser systems, you can upgrade the wattage of the laser tube, but there’s no real way to ‘upgrade’ or increase the size of your laser bed,” notes Stanaway. He adds that potential customers need to seriously consider the type of work to be done. If the business plan is to solely engrave laptops, notebooks and other electronics, purchasing a smaller system would be adequate. But, he advises, if there is any chance of expanding the business or taking on custom jobs brought in by customers, companies will be doing themselves a disservice by not starting out with a large-format system.

“Later on down the road, a retailer could incorporate a smaller system for odd jobs or small production items, but it will cost them less in the long run to simply start out with a large-format system.”

Large-format lasers are great for saving time and money by expediting and engraving multiple jobs, Goldstein agrees. “Gravostyle software by Gravograph allows the user to easily prepare numerous items to be engraved in one cycle, utilizing its matrix feature, an easy and efficient way to lay out matrixes and import variable lists. The biggest advantage of large-format lasers is its extreme efficiency.”

Stanaway concurs that this service addition allows retailers to offer a larger variety of wares, and thereby increase their profit potential, because they’re able to accommodate more jobs in a variety of sizes. Large-format systems also help increase throughput, as engravers can fit more items on the bed for a larger production run.

“Epilog’s largest system is the Legend 36EXT, which features a 36” X 24” engraving table and wattage configurations up to 120. It features Radiance High-Resolution Optics, high-speed servo motors, super silent cooling fans and much more. There is a z-stroke of 14” so this machine can accommodate taller objects, and the dual-laser head option allows for engraving two larger identical pieces at once.”

Also, the new Fusion Laser from Epilog features a 32” X 20” engraving table, which meets a great demand for those seeking something larger than a compact machine, but smaller than some of the larger-format systems. The Fusion Laser allows users to engrave larger items (up to 14.25” tall), and features a sophisticated motion control system for faster speeds, cleaner cuts and amazingly crisp engravings.

“High-production facilities would do well to incorporate a large-format laser into their business, as would sign shops who want to increase the size of product they can deliver,” Stanaway continues. Woodworking and custom furniture retailers would also benefit from a large-format system, as they can further customize hand-made pieces with laser precision. To start this process, he says that retailers should determine the size of system that best fits their needs. Second, determine the types of materials they’ll be working with so they can select the wattage that will meet the laser engraving/cutting demands.
“When selecting a laser manufacturer, be sure to consider more than cost—retailers should look for reputable laser producers who provide stellar support before, during and after the sale.”

Kern’s equipment should be especially attractive for those customers looking to bring more work in-house. Increased quality control and reduced costs are just two of the benefits associated with doing the work in-house, notes Derek Kern. Investing in a large-format system will save customers a good amount of money by cutting their own larger sheets to size rather than buying many smaller sheets at a higher per part cost.

“Kern’s flagship large-format system is our HSE model. Standard 4’ X 8’ sheets of material will fit comfortably on our HSE100. This machine is most commonly equipped with a 150W or 400W laser,” says Kern.

The variety of end products created by utilizing a large-format laser engraving system is as wide and imaginative as could be hoped for in this ever-changing and growing industry. By offering services accomplished with this infrastructure, retailers can diversify an existing customer base and expand profit margins in one action.

“Signage and point-of-sale displays are the most common applications for Speedy 500 and 1500 owners,” comments Knipple. But the possibilities are countless: other applications on Trotec’s large-format lasers include furniture, large art pieces, cabinet doors, skateboards, clocks, large wood and acrylic decorative screens and so much more.

Kern notes the manufacturing of LED laser-etched panels as a rapidly rising large-format signage trend. “Large acrylic panels are placed on the laser table and marked with a pattern of dots, lines or other designs, then an LED light strip is snapped to the sides of the panel. When the light turns on, the etched portions of the acrylic sheet catch the LED light, illuminating the panel.” Translucent sheets of acrylic can be placed in front of the etched panel resulting in a consistent glow. These panels are commonly used in backlighting for displays and other commercial signage applications.

In addition to popular large-format applications, such as the aforementioned large-scale signage, Stanaway lists custom cabinet engraving and customizing uniquely shaped items such as golf clubs, baseball bats, custom guitar inlays, gunstock engraving and more as creative and profitable endeavors for retailers to cash in on.

Engraving and signage professionals have big goals, as do the customers they serve. If not held back by any size limitations, imagine the possibilities created by a laser engraving set-up as large as that potential.