Getting Your Arms Around Engravers

Reviewing the benefits of laser engraving applications for sign shops

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Versatility is beneficial. In baseball, switch-hitters create statistically advantageous matchups. For the handyman, a Swiss Army knife is a valuable, all-in-one tool. Certain Hollywood actors can play a range of characters in different film genres. In these cases, versatility leads to potential gains. But how does it apply in the sign industry?

Consider this. What if there was a machine that could:

  • create indoor and outdoor signage,
  • work well with a wide variety of materials,
  • be viable for both newbies and advanced pros,
  • incorporate advanced technologies, and
  • easily complement other sign jobs?

One would certainly consider this a versatile sign shop machine, or simply put: a laser engraver. Let’s see if we can help you get your arms around that idea.

Laser engravers are becoming more commonly used to create custom signage, as well as for adding unique custom elements to signs. Because engraving techniques can be used in an assortment of applications-and with a variety of materials-it is growing in popularity.

“Laser systems offer incredible speed, precision, and versatility for sign shops,” says Amy Dallman, marketing communications specialist at Epilog Laser. “There are a variety of sizes as well as wattage configurations to choose from. And since CO? systems can engrave and cut all types of substrates, it allows shops to produce all kinds of different signs.”

Applications and Materials

Engraving applications can benefit both indoor and outdoor signage projects including P.O.P. displays, dimensional letters, plaques, directional and ADA signs, nameplates and more. This presents major advantages to sign shops that are looking to expand a customer base or offer more to current clients.

“Expansion into interior signage can help a sign shop highlight more possibilities for their customers,” says Joan Kang, product manager at GCC.

Sign makers need not fear about losing current jobs by embracing engraving work; shops that provide traditional printed signage can find an advantage to adding laser engraving equipment, without taking away from an established workload. 

“Coupled with a registration mark tracking system, like Print & Cut of the CCD module in our machines,” Kang continues, “a laser cutter can also work with an inkjet printer for an optimized performance. For example, if the sign needs inlay effects, precise laser control can accurately cut different-sized layers and complicated graphics without troublesome process, which allows to complete various sign designs.”

Inlays add a visually stimulating piece to an otherwise conventional-looking sign. 

“Depending on the substrate, inlays are a popular application that utilize the laser’s engraving capabilities,” says Dallman. “Operators use the laser to engrave away a ‘pocket’ and then use the laser to cut another substrate to be inlaid. This is a great way to add depth and contrast to signage.”

Even a novice can learn how to use a laser engraver in no time, according to Trish Steding, marketing manager at Trotec Laser Inc. “The best kind of equipment for beginners would include equipment that offers broad system capabilities and pass-through capabilities so that they have the flexibility to work on many applications, and with many different material types and sizes,” she says.

Since laser engraving can be performed on so many different substrates, it can create a unique sign presentation. Using materials from metal to plastic lend to unique appearances of the final display.

“Sign makers benefit from the broad range of materials that can be cut and engraved using laser systems that include plastic, foam, metal and stone,” says Joe Hillman, strategic development manager at Universal Laser Systems. “New textures and colors are constantly being released by specialty material manufactures like Rowmark and Gemini. These materials are ideally suited to laser cutting and engraving.”

Specific to acrylic, Hillman says that “Several new varieties have been developed such as Vario for edge color and contrast and Lumicore® for architectural surfaces. Laser cutting is the ideal technology for all acrylic-based materials.”

And while engraving techniques become more advanced, as do the substrates that are being engraved. This gives sign makers an array of options-and ultimately more creative freedom-while approaching a job.

“Manufacturers are coming out with wonderful laser-friendly materials all the time – wood grain plastics, colored-core engraveable plastics, mirrored/frosted acrylic, coated metals, and much more,” says Dallman. “We recommend checking out different vendors and requesting samples to see if a particular substrate is going to work for you and your laser application.”

Lasers at Work

“The lasers themselves are quite easy to use,” says Dallman.

Flexibility and ease-of-use are elements that make using a laser engraver much more appealing for beginners. According to Hillman, “Laser systems can handle multiple processes including cutting and marking. They also handle a broad range of materials including plastic, foam, metal and wood. Laser systems have a design-to-part workflow so graphic design that is created for the sign is automatically executed by the laser system without the need to create intermediate tooling or fixtures. This makes laser systems very easy to use, even for beginners.”

Steding agrees, stating that “modern laser technology is more flexible and user-friendly than ever, which allows businesses to do more with an existing skill set.” She cites an example that “many retailers are making acrylic signs that are backlit, which would require a lot of post-processing without a laser. ADA-compliant signs are another very popular laser application.”

Speed and precision are two other widely regarded advantages of laser engravers. For those just starting out in the engraving market this is important to note, mainly because engraving techniques can be used as a supplement to other sign-making options.

Customized Signage

“Creating customized signage through a combination of digital printing and laser technology is very popular,” says Steding, pointing to a system’s vision registration feature that allows precise engraving with pre-printed signage. “Whether it is a linear or non-linear distortion or a rotation, the cutting path is adjusted automatically and dynamically, so the cutting lines always perfectly match the printed design on both flexible and rigid materials.”

So, it’s certainly possible-even encouraged-to bring different sign making techniques together and include engraving as part of that solution.

“Many sign shops hang onto traditional sign making (cutting shapes) and adhering to substrates,” says Kang. “In an increasingly competitive marketplace, a sign shop should be looking at how to expand services and keep customers from having to source and support administratively thus offering a one-stop shop source for more in interior signage.”

And because three-dimensional effects can be achieved using an engraver, this opens up a whole new avenue (and perhaps market) for sign shops. 

“With our regular engraving setting,” explains Dallman, “the laser will interpret grayscale images like a printer does by firing the laser closer together wherever the image is darker. This removes more material at that point, which is why photographs and detailed artwork come out so well when engraved with an Epilog.”

She continues that even though 3D artwork can be time-consuming to create, the end result is worth it. And “with the 3D setting activated, the laser will also adjust the power it applies to the material based on the grayscale value of the artwork, giving it a true 3D appearance with sloped edges to the engraving.”

Advanced Features

For advanced users that have had experience in engraving, they likely already realize these benefits and are using engravers to increase profits. They have, for example, used features such as camera registration mark reader that, “automatically aligns laser cutting paths to printed graphics, providing high accuracy and productivity for print and cut applications,” says Hillman.

Epilog’s camera recognition feature, The eView Camera Module, “makes cutting printed graphics incredibly easy and produces exceptionally precise results from anywhere on the table,” says Dallman. “There’s no need to line up your graphics to the top-left corner of the machine, or even to align it to the X and Y-axes, users simply add registration marks to their graphic and the cameras detect exactly where to cut.”

From there, Epilog’s Job Manager feature provides a real-time photo representation and operators can choose the desired registration marks. The eView has a three-camera design instead of a single-view system which, “sees the registration marks, locates their precise position and feeds your exact project layout back to your computer screen before cutting,” says Dallman.

Other advanced features have helped veteran engravers gain an edge in their work. Manual control, Class 4 Operation (for material safe handling) and SuperSpeedâ„¢ (two parallel laser beams that double the engraving speed) are advances that Hillman points to as fitting for experienced users. “User interfaces have evolved,” he says, “making laser systems very easy to operate. New accessories have expanded the capabilities of laser processing systems.”

Sign makers should also note that the type of work being performed may dictate how a laser engraver is used. For example, Dallman calls for shops to use a rotary attachment if they cross into the personalization and engraving of cylindrical items (mugs, glasses, etc.). Additionally, users will want to employ an extension table when working with larger materials. The type of laser being used (CO? versus fiber) should also be considered depending on the project.

CO2 Vs. Fiber

When considering laser engraver options, there are two different types from which to choose: CO? and fiber lasers. “The main difference between CO? and fiber lasers is the laser source they use,” says Steding. “Both have their own advantages and disadvantages and are suited for use on different materials.”

Typically, CO? lasers are considered the more versatile of the two options because they can cut and engrave on almost anything but metal. “The CO? laser produces a longer wavelength that is ideal for laser cutting and engraving plastic, foam and wood,” says Hillman. “The fiber laser produces a shorter wavelength that is better suited for processing metals.”

The reason CO? lasers have trouble with metal is due to the substrate’s reflectiveness. “In order for metal to be marked in a CO? system it must be coated in some way,” says Dallman. “Instead of engraving into the metal, the laser beam etches away the coating, leaving a contrast behind. If a metal does not have any kind of coating, there are metal marking agents (such as CerMark), that you can apply before engraving.”

That said, CO? lasers are still the most widely used when engraving, according to Steding. “CO? lasers have a relatively high efficiency and feature a very good beam quality,” she says.

Fiber lasers are “solid state” lasers while the CO? version is a “gas laser.” As such, fiber lasers “generate a laser beam by means of the ‘seed’ laser and amplify it in specially designed glass fibers, which are supplied with energy via pump diodes,” explains Steding. “With a wavelength of 1.064 micrometers (versus 10.6 micrometers from a CO? laser), fiber lasers produce an extremely small focal diameter. As a result, their intensity is up to 100 times higher than that of CO? lasers with the same emitted average power.”

Generally speaking, fiber lasers have a long life and require very little maintenance. They excel in power and intricate cuts, like GCC’s FMC280 machine that “can cut up to 3mm stainless steel and aluminum, 2mm copper/ brass with shiny cutting edge,” according to Kang. “Moreover, a rotary option is available to make it more versatile.”

Applying to Signs

Laser engraving provides sign shops with a fast and precise way to create depth and layers in signage. Engraving techniques can also provide overall shapes and custom edges to a sign. 

“Laser cutting and engraving systems in general provide sign makers many advantages over the more traditional methods such as mechanical engraving, printing, embossing, and etching, to name a few,” says Steding.

For some applications, engraving is viewed as the very best solution in sign making. Acrylics, for example, match up extremely well with engraving methods. 

“Laser processing is the ideal technology for creating acrylic signage,” says Hillman. “Laser cutting provides a fire polished edge for acrylic letters and other shapes, without the need for post processing.  Laser engraving creates a frost engraved surface in cast acrylic for maximum visibility.’

Steding notes these same advantages by saying, “Sign makers working with acrylics can drastically reduce processing time by using a laser cutter. Traditional milled edges require a secondary polishing process. With a laser, you can achieve flame polished cut edges without the extra post-processing step. A laser also provides a much greater level of precision, boosting a sign maker’s capabilities for creating logos and other intricate designs.”

A laser engraver’s capabilities extend far beyond what they did in past years. In many cases, it takes the creative ideas from the operator along with the customer’s request to come up with a unique, finely-executed engraved sign. And because lasers are so versatile, sign makers are coming up with new ways to incorporate them into their processes on a daily basis. 

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Ryan Fugler

Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine and has been covering the signage industry since 2006.

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