One of the many reasons that the laser engraver has become a must-have staple for awards businesses is its unmatched engraving versatility. Lasers can quickly and precisely engrave or mark any text or image or nearly every material a person would want to engrave. They do so without much more effort than is required to operate a printer. They can even engrave an image in 3D relief! In fact, lasers can perform so many technically impressive tasks that some of their more mundane—yet valuable—skills are easily overlooked, such as the ability to mark parts and products with bar codes and serial numbers.
Set beside one another on a table, an industrial part is likely to look plain and dull compared to an award or gift. In terms of aesthetic appearance, one will offer the shop owner a deeper degree of satisfaction upon completion than the other. Yet, in business, profit is the decisive motivator, and in this respect, awards businesses with laser engravers will find the market for industrial marking to be a very satisfying endeavor.
With industrial marking, price isn’t that big of a concern. Rather, they’re more concerned with the mark being good, being permanent and being able to do what they need it to.
The Profit Factor
Industrial clients are the type of clients that companies love to have. They offer professionalism, regular orders and regular pay.
Industrial marking is absolutely a profitable use of a laser engraver, according to James Hays of Universal Laser Systems in Scottsdale, Arizona. “In fact, some of our customers have purchased our PLS6MW Multi-wavelength laser platform expressly for that purpose. It’s never a bad idea to diversify your income stream, especially if your other lines of work haven’t been running as hot as they once did.”
Diversity is indeed a worthy pursuit, not only for the additional avenue to revenue, but also the quality of that avenue. The market for laser-marked products offers a relief from the brutal pricing that sometimes takes place in the awards market.
Bob Henry of Epilog Laser in Golden, Colorado, says that, “On par, most of our customers doing work in the industrial sector are finding a little more profit margin than our customers in the awards side of the business. It seems as though, in talking to both buyers of industrial equipment and the people that are sourcing customers of ours that have industrial marking equipment, price isn’t that big of a concern. Rather, they’re more concerned with the mark being good, being permanent and being able to do what they need it to.”
They also offer more variety than one would expect. Mira Wu of GCC LaserPro in Taipei Hsien, Taiwan, notes that laser engravers are used industrially in many ways. For example, they are used to cut plastic films and mark metallic parts and other products with serial numbers, barcodes and logos, among other applications. In addition, “Industrial clients are usually repeat customers, as they usually become repeat customers as long as they are satisfied with the job,” says Wu.
Hays concurs, “Relationships with industrial customers tend to be longer-term relationships. If they need one batch of parts marked today, chances are they’ll need another batch of parts next month. The work industrial customers want done will also be repetitive. Once you get a process figured out that your customer is happy with, you won’t have too much trouble with the next several batches he sends you.”
Warren Knipple of Trotec Laser in Ypsilanti, Michigan, notes that while the industrial market can be profitable, the degree of that profitability, as with all business, is dependent upon numerous variables. “The keys to obtaining industrial business and being profitable are through reducing your unit costs. This is achieved through cycle-time reductions, reducing machine downtime and productivity. Job setup is crucial when processing orders for industrial clients. The ability to easily organize and incorporate source files to a fixed template for positioning in your laser will improve throughput, saving significant time and labor when processing. Before receiving the order, it is necessary to get an estimate on the time it will take to process the job with your laser.”
Trotec lasers, says Knipple, have special features to help with that. He adds that the impact of regular orders is a definite plus. However, he also notes that, “Industrial clients tend to be more demanding in terms of delivery times.”
Laser engravers are used industrially to cut plastic films and mark metallic parts and other products with serial numbers, barcodes and logos, among other applications.
Industrial clients are usually repeat customers, as long as they are satisfied with the job.
The Quality Factor
The industrial market certainly has a lot of work for laser engravers. However, they also have very high standards that will require a few adjustments for shops accustomed to working strictly with awards.
“It is a tremendously profitable industry, but the industries are vastly different. The only thing in common will be the laser and their engraving techniques. The issue is that there is much more nuance for industrial, durable products than there is for plaques and awards,” says Sam Wainer of Horizons Imaging Systems Group in Cleveland, Ohio. He adds, “Most industrial products are purchased based upon specification. There are basically two types of specifications: global specifications and company-specific specifications.”
Basically, a global specification is one which many different manufacturers are likely to recognize and use. Company-specific specifications are just that, specific to one company or even one product line within that company. In either case, however, the specifications are precise and must be met for the product to have any value.
In addition to being profitable, the industrial market is much more interested in quality than price. “Dealing in this type of market, they’re not out shopping for price. These buyers are going to do what’s easy for him, and if you offer service and value, he’ll continue with you,” says Bob Shapiro of Identification Plates in Mesquite, Texas. Plus, “The shop will be using existing equipment to pursue new business. How can you say no to that?”
There is little reason to. However, the industries are different, and the awards shops that are most successful in the market will be those best adapted to its way of business. As usual, that may require a little self-education, such as learning to read the specs.
“In the industrial market, you’re typically dealing with a much more sophisticated buyer. The average awards customer isn’t going to come in with a blueprint complete with Federal standard specs. Industrial companies have a very specific use for this stuff. When that happens, the first thing is to determine what the specs are and whether or not you can work it,” says Shapiro.
Wainer points out that part of the reason industrial clients are not as concerned with price as with quality is that industrial products cannot fail. “It’s not just repeat work. The job sizes are larger. Instead of 20 plaques, it’s 5,000 barcode labels. Because the material has to meet certain industrial engineering specifications, the price elasticity is different. Companies in industrial markets are not dummies. They’re willing to pay more for identification products because identification products can’t fail.”
Sometimes the specs for an industrial project can seem daunting. In those circumstances, Shapiro suggests taking advantage of ID Plates’ and other suppliers resources. “If they have questions about these types of products, they can call and ask us. We have a lot of experience working with these projects.”
Another skill to learn is the use of industry-relevant software. Henry says that, depending on what the shop is trying to do, he will suggest a few different types of software. “If they’re interested in bar coding, and they’re looking for a specific type of bar code, like a datamatrix or 2D barcode or maybe a QR code, we’ll direct them to the program BarTender. Label Matrix is a similar program, but BarTender seems to be the most popular.”
Henry adds, “The job-shop guys who can bring that type of expertise, knowing how to serialize and barcode with software, are going to be able to present themselves as more professional and a one-stop shop for industrial clients looking for that type of marking.”
Shapiro adds that there are plenty of outsourcing options for the industrial market, providing a way for shops to gradually join the market. “They can take advantage of ID Plates’ ability to use chemical etching for jobs for which the laser is impractical to use. There are also very large lasers that are used to cut metal. They’re not typically used in the awards industry. That’s a service we offer.”
Outsourcing of some sort may be a preferable option for some shops. For others, Wu notes that, “Depending on the marking requirements, sometimes if the volume is very huge, adding automation parts may be needed to keep up with the production.”
Companies in industrial markets are willing to pay more for identification products because identification products can’t fail.
The Wavelength Factor
Lasers can mark just about any material that someone would want to mark. One notable exception for CO2 lasers, however, is metal. With the aid of CerMark and TherMark, a CO2 laser can mark metal. There are also a number of painted metals that CO2 lasers effectively mark by removing that paint material. However, to mark metal without aid, a different type of laser is required.
“For us and for other companies that manufacture laser engraving machines, there are really two types of lasers that people are going to use. Those are either a CO2 laser, which is versatile with so many different materials, but what it doesn’t do well is mark bare metal directly. However, there are products on the market, CerMark and TherMark, that can be applied to a bare metal surface and then lasered with a CO2. The laser essentially bonds that surface to the metal,” says Henry.
He adds that many of Epilog’s clients working with both a CO2 and fiber laser often use CerMark and the CO2 on their low-volume metal-marking orders, and use the fiber for high-volume orders. Epilog’s fiber laser engraver is called the FiberMark, and it uses flying optics and even has the ability to mark in color, though Henry adds that most industrial clients, while they think it’s interesting, desire a black mark.
Henry continues to explain that industrially, laser shops can use a fiber- or YAG-wavelength laser, which use a different wavelength of light as compared to CO2. Fiber and YAG lasers produce a wavelength of light that is really good for direct metal-marking applications. However, that wavelength is not good for wood, acrylics, textiles, etc.
“For engineer plastic-marking and metal-marking applications, the fiber or YAG wavelength is fantastic. I would think that a savvy shop, where they can, is going to employ the YAG or fiber wavelength laser as well as CO2. That gives them the ability to do virtually any job that comes in the door,” says Henry.
Another difference between CO2 lasers and a fiber laser is the spot size. A fiber laser’s spot size is roughly one-tenth the size of a CO2 laser, allowing for the more precise detail mentioned in the previous section. Henry also notes that potential buyers should consider whether they want a system with flying optics or a galvanometer setup. Typically, galvanometers are faster but have a smaller work area, while flying optics operate a little slower but cover a larger table area.
Regardless of whether the system is a galvanometer or uses flying optics, according to Knipple, “The difficulty of industrial marking is application dependent. Repeatability and consistent part after part accuracy are critical requirements.” He adds that, “Trotec offers a full range of equipment that allows engravers to meet the most demanding industrial marking applications. From flatbed lasers to galvanometer steered laser systems, these can be equipped with either a CO2 laser, a fiber laser or with our flexx concept that comprises both a CO2 and a fiber laser.”
As far as adjustments to the laser machine for industrial projects, that isn’t necessary. “Using a laser system for industrial marking isn’t too different from using it for awards and recognition items. Of course, the most important thing to do is make sure you have the right laser for the job. For a lot of industrial marking applications, a CO2 laser simply isn’t the right fit. You’ll probably need a laser system that can be powered by a fiber laser to achieve the right effects,” says Hays.
Hays notes that as for adjustments to the system (assuming you’ve got the right laser system and the right laser source), most of them will be on the software side. For instance, it is important to fully understand how to use the graphics software’s print-merge function. Trying to make a large number of serial number marks could be pretty slow and tedious without it.
Hays notes that, “The PLS6MW can use standard CO2 laser sources as well as a fiber laser source, which you’ll need to mark directly on metal. The great part about this system is you don’t have to limit yourself to one or the other. If you need to mark on metal, load in the fiber laser source. If you need to cut acrylic or perform other awards and recognition-related tasks, load in a CO2 laser source. The whole process of exchanging laser sources can be completed in under a minute, without tools; you don’t even have to change optics.”
Wu points out that GCC LaserPro offers both CO2 and fiber laser engravers. “The GCC LaserPro Spirit Series with CO2 laser has plenty of features that allows the addition of automation components while the LaserPro S290LS is equipped with a fiber laser source best suited for metal marking applications. Furthermore, GCC Stellarmark models are professional laser markers designed for all sorts of industrial marking processes and available with both CO2 and fiber lasers.”
If you make the decision to purchase a fiber or YAG laser, you will definitely want to put the machine to work on achieving its return on investment quickly. They are much more expensive than the average CO2 laser. Whereas many CO2 lasers can be found in the $10,000 to $40,000 price range, most fiber or YAG lasers start at the $30,000 price point.
Says Henry, “On the fiber side, the laser source is much more expensive than a CO2 laser tube. That’s really where the cost driver is with a fiber or YAG system. We’re seeing the prices come down a little bit, and I expect that the prices will continue to come down over the next five to ten years as more manufacturers enter the market.”
The Product Factor
While there are lasers that can mark metal, there are also, of course, many different types of metal. How does one know which will best for your customers’ needs? In most cases, they already know. However, some clients may introduce new products from time to time, and it’s always a good idea to know what material will work best for different situations.
Shapiro notes that ID Plates offers stainless plates that can be applied in a number of industrial applications. In order to find the proper plate for your client, “Ask your customers questions. Ask how it’s going to be used, where it’s going to be seen or not seen,” says Shapiro. Know the answers to those questions, he says, and they will tell you what materials you will need.
Wainer concurs and adds that industrial applications cannot fail, and in order to make sure the product doesn’t fail, material selection is absolutely key. “If you make a product for an industrial client, and it doesn’t work the way it should, you are not going to last long in the industrial market.”
As for Horizons’ industrial products, “DuraBlack is our industrial, CO2 markable product. DuraBlack is CO2 laser markable aluminum for durable, on-demand marking for harsh operating environments. In side-by-side tests, DuraBlack outperforms black anodized aluminum and laser markable acrylic tape in select applications. Because of its ability to perform across a range of challenging environments, DuraBlack meets several government, industrial and military specifications including MIL-STD 130N, A-A-50271 (=MIL-P-514D) and MIL-STD-15024F, Type L,” says Wainer.
The Cultivation Factor
Awards shops may choose to tackle the industrial market in a couple of different ways. One is to create an industrial part to be sold. The other, and much more likely method, is to obtain an industrial client who is already producing a part that adheres to strict specifications.
“Local manufacturing companies are a great place to start when looking for industrial marking applications. Some of our customers have had success approaching manufacturers in their areas with a small, inexpensive sample tag that demonstrates their abilities, and a letter describing what they can offer the manufacturer. Generally, you would want to get the tag and the letter into the hands of the purchasing or production manager, whether by mailing it to him or by dropping it off in person, as they will be the ones who have to sign off on your services,” says Hays.
Wainer notes that there are a few different groups of customers to target. “You’re looking at original equipment manufacturers. So, that’s anyone making a piece of equipment. Another big category is anyone supplying the military. The energy market is another candidate. All of the equipment that’s in coal mines, nuclear power plants, wind farms, solar farms, all of those are things that need industrial-standard labels.”
Rather than starting with the clients, Shapiro suggests starting with the materials and going from there. “The biggest thing is picking what types of products you want to mark. That’s a matter of knowing your own capabilities; we have different thicknesses of material for different purposes.”
Wainer also suggests taking advantage of your company’s website. “There should be a place on your website for industrial clients to go. Listed on that section of your website should be something like, ‘We can meet mill standard 15024.’ Then, prospective clients can learn about your capabilities simply by visiting the site. If you Google any mill spec, you can download the spec. The problem is that there are thousands of specs.”
Part of the skill in pursuing the industrial market is finding a niche within those specs. That, however, may be a long process. To get started, ask your suppliers about the specs they are familiar with. You may also want to see what other laser engravers in your area are up to.
“We get calls from people all of the time who are interested in starting a laser business, and they ask, ‘How do I get started?’ I always suggest that they look around and see who their potential competitors are and what they’re doing. Do a Google search or go to the local Yellow Pages and look up engraving, or awards or laser as key words. That will give them a sense of the type of work that they are doing. For instance, somebody may be looking at a certain market segment, and they find that there are only a couple of awards shops that are in the area. Maybe this particular person is more interested in the industrial sector. No doubt those awards shops are doing a few industrial related things when people bring stuff in the door. But, if someone can specialize in industrial stuff, such as anodized aluminum or metal marking or engineered plastic marking applications as opposed to wood plaques, they may find a market to support their business. It’s important to know your local competition,” says Henry.
“The other thing I tell people,” adds Henry, “is that it’s difficult for people just starting a business to start the business and say, ‘Okay, my business is open. Where’s the business?’ They really need to go out and find it. An aggressive company is going to go out and do some cold calling. They’re going to put together a flier or maybe create some samples with their equipment and go visit some companies that they have identified that can use their service. How hard you work it is a function of how good the return is going to be.”
Knipple says that Trotec has seen more and more industrial companies, from automotive to aerospace to consumer products, requiring marking on their products. “The need to meet traceability requirements is often driving this growth in marking requirements. The ability to mark directly on metals with fiber or YAG based lasers is often critical to success in this business. Fast order turnaround times are also a critical factor in obtaining this business,”
The Industrial Factor
It may not be as fun or emotionally rewarding as being involved in awards projects. However, there is no question that industrial marking is profitable. And if these projects pay for the ability to do something a little more fun, then that alone will make their pursuit worthwhile.