Rudy Zarden, our hero from the beginning of the article. An artist from
New Holstein, WI, who worked primarily in cedar and redwood, Zarden saw
the potential in Lawsons laser and anted up the money for LMI to
produce their first machine.
recalls his first sight of a laser engraving system like this. It
was unbelievable, he says today, I traveled to Somerset, Wisconsin
to see Bill Lawsons invention. The machine was in the basement of
Bills home, with parts all over and wires running everywhere. In
the meantime, Im looking to see some engraving, but the machine
just sat there and did nothing. Finally, after 15 or 20 minutes of checking
things, Bill discovered that one of the components was unplugged. Bill
plugged it in and the machine started engraving. Ill never forget
the smell of the laser-generated smoke that day, which filled the air
in Bills basement.
now remembers with some nostalgia his decision to go ahead and buy the
worlds first turnkey laser engraving machine, which
at that time was little more than a prototype. We hee-hawed
quite a bit, he recalls, about spending $50,000 for that machine,
which was more than we paid for our house. In doing so we scraped-up every
penny we could lay our hands on and borrowed $25,000 from a family member.
That still wasnt quite enough, and we wound up owing Bill some money.
of Zardens 150 watt Coherent laser-equipped machine took 6 or 8
months, during which time Zarden had the companys phone number
memorized, as we continued calling for the latest updates on our order,
as Rudy remembers the period.
only sold the one machine that first year, says Pop Lehner. The
next machine we sold was to a guy who gave us his down payment (cash)
in a coffee can. He was an airline pilot who wanted to change careers
and get into laser engraving. From there, business gradually built up.
designing LMIs original machine, Lawson came up with a better way
to laser-engrave items, by using a system that could read
black and white artwork directly and simultaneously engrave that image
on a piece of material. Remember that computers really werent
available at that time, he says. So we created a direct-scan
method, where youd put the black-and-white artwork on one side of
the table and the wood on the other side. Everything was mounted to a
table that moved back and forth. The scanner looked at the art while the
laser engraved it.
Pop Lehner, Lawsons uncle and LMIs product/sales
manager starting in 1981, explains the machines function this way:
It had an optical scanner with a white-light sensor. The scanner
looked for any black in the art, and when it saw black, it would trigger
the laser to come on. Then when the scanner saw white, the laser would
turn off again. You could also set it vice-versa. You had to be really
careful when you pasted up your artwork, he explains. If the
sensor saw even a shadow from the edge of the tape that held down the
art, or the shadow from a cloud that passed by the window when the sensor
was operating, it would trigger the laser. Eventually we started using
a red LED sensor, so you could mark up your copy with red pencil and the
sensor wouldnt see it. That worked better.
plaque was featured on the cover of EJ when LMI's "Laser
Graver," the industry's first turnkey laser engraver, was reviewed
in The Engravers Journal, November/December 1981.
lasering using LMI's Laser Graver involved this $5,000 attachment
which utilized three interchangeable artwork drums, a vacuum-operated
roundwork holder and a mechanical drive shaft to rotate the two round
items in unison. 1985 photo.
first laser engraving machine was known as the Model 101. Soon LMI realized
that they needed to resolve a timing issue with the laser. A small lag
of milliseconds existed between the moment the scanner read the artwork
and when the laser beam turned on or off. This created a misalignment
in the image on the finished piece. Thus, when the table oscillated to
the left, the image being cut was shifted to the right a tiny amount,
and when it moved to the right, the image would be shifted to the left.
On fine type, this created the appearance of the jaggies.
counter this problem, Ed Eloranta, one of LMIs engineers, invented
the anticipator, which repositioned the optics so as to read
slightly ahead on the artwork as the table oscillated back and forth,
anticipating the forthcoming cuts and enabling the laser to
produce perfectly aligned engravings during this photo-mechanical raster
80-watt laser could engrave about three square inches per minute, with
a small plaque taking about ten minutes to engrave. The operator could
alter the depth of the cut by slowing down or speeding up the rate at
which the table moved. The lasers lens could also be adjusted to
accommodate various thicknesses of material (up to 6"). The
Model 101 was a flowing gas laser, which differs from todays
sealed tube lasers in one important respect: the gas inside the laser
tube was provided by an external cylinder and flowed through the laser
tube. Todays lasers use sealed tube technology, so the
gases are trapped inside the tube and remain there for the life of the
tube. Says Lehner, The biggest advantage to a flowing gas laser
is that its repairable. With the sealed ones, if the laser goes
down, youre down until the manufacturer brings you back up. We had
technicians that we could send out to a site and get a problem fixed.
I discovered early on that a service problem becomes a people problem
real fast if youre not on top of it.
strength of LMIs early machines was that they were relatively
portable, at least compared to the industrial lasers of that era.
Any place that had a 2' x 6' door, we could get the laser inside,
explains Lehner. The Model 101, which when assembled measured 4' wide,
7.5' deep, and weighed half a ton, could engrave a maximum image area
about 16" left to right and 12" deep.
was giant! exclaims Mike Davis, publisher of The Engravers Journal.
It was really an industrial-strength machine with massive, welded-steel
components. It had an industrial feel to it, too. The aluminum engraving
table was covered with holes drilled through it, and to hold your material
youd use bolts and clamps with the holes. There were no holding
was huge compared with todays desktop lasers, but it was smallerand
more affordablethan the industrial machines used by Laser Craft.
And, most important, the engraving it produced looked great: in many cases,
laser engraving done on wood with an LMI machine in 1980 would be indistinguishable
from a job done today on any manufacturers system.
of the early problems LMI encountered was figuring out how to exhaust
the smoke from the system. At first we had problems generating the
right kind of vacuum system. Its not that the gases produced were
hazardousit was more like burning wood in a fireplace. So at some
places we had trouble with the installation, explains Lehner, who
as LMIs salesman, had to contend with the problems customers encountered.
I remember once, in Pennsylvania, this guy and his wife were looking
at the equipment, and her concern was that her boy was going to be running
this machine. She felt that we were bringing a hazardous machine into
their plant that would affect her sons health. I had to convince
them there was no way that was going to happen."
"Pop" Lehner (center), became LMI's product manager/sales
manager in 1981. Pop is flanked by customer Neal Schlee of Lasertech
Alaska and LMI marketing manager, Arline Zdrazil. Photo circa 1988.
laser engraved business card was sent by LMI with all of the early
laser engraving literature to show off its ability to laser precise
Model 101 was a breakthrough in many ways; it was not only new technology
that was oriented toward everyday engravers, but it bypassed the many
steps that were required to produce a laser-engraved item by Laser Crafts
machines. As EJs Mike Davis explains, LMIs machine
scanned the art directly, so all the peripheral and expensive steps, such
as creating negatives from the art, doing a UV exposure and chemically
engraving copper masks, could be skipped. It became a turnkey system that
went directly from camera-ready art to an engraved piece.
business increased, LMI quickly found they were out of room. When
Pop joined us, we were still in our basement, says Lawson. Soon,
between our industrial business and our engraving business, there were
15 people out in our pole barn. In the spring of 1983, we moved into our
first building in Somerset, Wisconsin. LMI continued to grow, and
continued advertising in EJ and exhibiting at trade shows to spread
the word about the laser engraver.
says Lehner, it was difficult to make people see the potential of the
laser engraving machine. The machines were expensive: LMIs 50-watt
lasers sold for $45,000, and the 80-watt machines were $65,000. In addition,
to really realize the full benefit of the machine, you needed a full scale
graphics department with a typesetter, process camera, etc. This, too,
was expensive, adding perhaps another $25,000 to the price of entry. It
took someone who was willing to take a chance to buy our machine,
says Lehner. To help people understand what the laser could do, Lehner
used solution sellingselling solutions to peoples
problems. One guy, for example, lived in Alaska. He was a sharp
guy. I said to him, Neal, youre in the craft business up there.
You should be making things out of Alaskan materials. This laser marks
wood like you wouldnt believe. I hear theres lots of birch
up there, and people just look at it as junk. Why not make your craft
pieces from birch? He picked up on the idea real fast and ended
up sending me some of his finished products. It worked! He made some really
neat stuff and ended up with two of our machines. It took that kind of
planting ideas in peoples heads so they could take off with the
thing we had and make it useful to their endeavor.
machines were primarily good for engraving on wood, though Lawson explains
that it could also mark glass, mirrors and some plastics. Since no laser-specific
materials were available yet, LMI also encountered some resistance from
customers who wanted to work in more than just wood.
lasers slowly began to catch on, and the look of finished pieces went
a long way toward piquing the interest of the buying public. The
ad specialty industry has an amazing word-of-mouth communications network,
says Lawson. They make money because they know how to get things
that other people dont. We had interesting-looking products, so
when someone needed a unique look, the ad specialty people helped to spread
the word about us.
several years, LMI was the sole player in the field. Things were about
to change, though, as technology unfolded and two new upstarts decided
they wanted a piece of the laser pie.
utilizing the same photo-scanning principle as earlier LMI machines,
the company's E-50 began to "anticipate" the self-contained
desktop lasers which would soon become commonplace in the industry.
pioneers (from left) John Doran, Tom Garnier, Steve Garnier and
Mike Dean in 1991 at a trade show.
Bill Lawson and his staff were building and shipping LMI lasers in Wisconsin,
an electrical engineer named Steve Garnier was doing motion control work
for a company called Melco, manufacturers of embroidery equipment in Colorado.
A friend of his, John Doran, was a rocket scientist (no pun intended)
working for Lockheed-Martin who had built a laser in his basement. The
two wanted to combine their talents, and they came up with a moving laser
that could create graphic images.
two men knew laser engraving machines were already in existence, but they
also knew that the existing machines were very large, non-computerized,
expensive industrial-type machines. At this point (the late 80s
and early 90s), computers had become more viable, and the pair thought
they could improve on the laser machines that were out there by incorporating
computers into the equation. As Mike Dean, who joined Epilog in 1991,
explains, Steve and John created a desktop-size laser that ran directly
from a computer. It was a fraction of the cost of laser equipment available
at the time and of equal importance, it eliminated the need for a bunch
of expensive add-ons like typesetters and cameras.
and Doran sold the rights to their machine to Melco, and the company produced
and sold their design in the late 80s and early 90s. Known
as the Melco LE1, the machine used the same basic software that was used
in Melcos embroidery equipment. Instead of scanning art, the
laser used a computer program like CorelDRAW to electrically send the
image to the laser. Then the laser worked like a computer printer,
says Mike Davis, but instead of laying down dots of toner, it burned
into wood, plastic, acrylic, etc.
may not seem like a big deal these days, but back then the way this laser
worked was revolutionary. And while LMIs machines continued to be
very expensive, these new machines were in the $20,000 to $25,000 range.
Suddenly, people who had been dreaming about owning a laser found they
could actually afford one, as they were selling in the same price range
as computerized engraving machines.
Melco LE1 was not perfect, by any means. It had a 10-watt laser, so it
didnt have nearly the power that the LMI machines had. Also, although
using the same software for both embroidery machines and lasers was perhaps
understandable from Melcos customers point of view, it was
a poor decision when one looked at the quality of the finished piece.
Roy Brewer, owner of Brewer Sales and currently a sales rep for both Epilog
and Xenetech laser machines, explains the problem. That software
was okay for embroidery, but they insisted on running the same software
with the lasers so people wouldnt have to learn something new. The
software built each line like it was a stitch in embroidery, which was
very impractical for our industry. It was good in theory, but the lines
were jagged and it just didnt work out in the end.
1991, Garnier and Doran were working on the second generation of their
laser in Garniers basement when Melco was purchased by a large Swiss
textile company. This changed the dynamics at Melco, leading to Garniers
departure and his subsequent formation of Epilog the same year.
first laser Epilog brought to market was the second-generation laser the
two men had been working on in the basement, called the Eclipse. The Eclipse,
which was capable of raster engraving, improved upon the pairs first
laser by upping the wattagethe Eclipse contained a 25-watt laserand
decreasing the price to about $18,000. While this was still a lot of money
for most shop owners at the time, the new Eclipse was one step closer
to becoming an attainable piece of equipment in mom-and-pop shops across
LE1, circa 1991, used the same basic software as their embroidery
first laser Epilog brought to market was called the Eclipse. It was
capable of raster engraving, used a 25-watt laser and was priced at
staff at Epilog spent 1991 continuing to develop the Eclipse and attending
trade shows. While it wasnt hard to convince people that the look
of laser-engraved pieces was fantastic, convincing them that the Eclipse
was an easy tool they could operate in their own business was an enormous
obstacle, says Dean. Educating people on how the laser would
create stunning graphics on a variety of materials was so far beyond most
peoples imagination that it was difficult for them to understand
what a laser did, even when they were standing right in front of it. People
just had a hard time believing that they could produce this sort of product
in their own shop, using nothing more than a scanner and a computer.
the same time that the minds behind Epilog were working to develop the
Eclipse, another fledgling company was putting down rootsa company
that would prove to be Epilogs stiffest competition. In 1988, a
Russian emigrant named Yefim Sukhman founded Applied Laser Technology
for the purpose of manufacturing, marketing and selling laser marking
and cutting systems. The ALT 2010, a vector-only laser engraver, sold
in the $32,000-$36,000 range. The machine had a large engraving field
at 11.5" x 17", although its software was somewhat difficult
after ALT introduced its first laser in 1989, the company struck a deal
with Meistergram, the embroidery machine manufacturer, to be the exclusive
distributor of all ALTs low-watt machines. Meistergram was looking
to diversify, and the engraving business looked like fertile ground. Meistergram
also formulated an exclusive sales agreement with H-Square to sell H-Squares
line of computerized mechanical engraving machines.
to observers, ALT struck the deal with Meistergram partly to improve upon
its software. ALT had discovered that while Epilogs open-architecture
software was fairly user-friendly, ALTs was complicated and somewhat
difficult for consumers to learn and use. (ALT retained the rights to
distribute higher-watt machines.) Eventually, Sukhman dissolved ALT and
formed Universal Laser Systems (ULS), in the process severing all ties
spread the word about ULS and its desktop-sized lasers, the company began
marketing at trade shows, hosting seminars on how to use laser engraving
machines and advertising in The Engravers Journal. The race was
on between Epilog and Universal Laser Systems to try and control the newly
formed desktop-sized laser engraving market.
1988, a Russian emigrant named Yefim Sukhman (left) founded Applied
Laser Technology, the predecessor to Universal Laser Systems. Photo
ALT 2010, a vector-only laser engraver, sold in the $32,000-$36,000
range. The machine had a large engraving field, at 11.5" x 17",
although its software was reportedly difficult to learn. Photo circa
1989, courtesy of Universal Laser Systems.
Others Join the Fray
there was certainly a rivalry between Epilog and ULS to dominate the market,
competition was not especially fierce at first, because the laser engraving
machine market was still relatively small. Many applications for lasers
had not yet been developed, and the era of laser-friendly engraving materials
had yet to arrive.
word began to spread about what lasers could do, more companies decided
that they needed to get into the market. It took five or six years
for the competition to really heat up, says Pop Lehner. People
werent used to spending that kind of money on new technology, and
it took time to spread the word about lasers through word of mouth. I
think everyone was wondering whether lasers would last for the long haul
or turn out to be a fad. Once people realized lasers were here to
stay, various companies began clamoring to get a piece of the action.
inroads made by LMI, Epilog and ULS, most people in the engraving industry
still didnt know what lasers could do in the early 1990s. The
first time I saw Epilogs laser, I think I was at a show in Long
Beach, says sales rep Roy Brewer. Steve Garnier was there
with just one machine and no literature, and there was really very little
traffic at their booth. No one knew what that machine was.
didnt take long, however, for computerized engraving machine manufacturers
to feel the pinch of the new technology. It became obvious to most
companies in the industry that they needed to get into lasers or fall
behind the competition, explains EJ Publisher, Mike Davis.
You had a situation where the companies that made computerized engraving
machines started to see their market share stagnate. Its not that
shops were doing less mechanical engraving than they had in the past,
but they were not buying new machines, either. Instead, when it came time
to buy a new machine, they were buying lasers.
time periodencompassing the demise of LMI as the cornerstone of
the laser engraving businessmarks the end of the first era of lasering,
according to EJ Publisher, Mike Davis. Over about a 12 year period,
LMI literally single-handedly created the means for do-it-yourself (in-house)
laser engraving. During that time they sold their massive, industrial-strength
equipment to a whole host of laser job shops and to a high percentage
of the large shops in North America. Although LMIs machines were
definitely not for the masses of small dealers, they caused the widespread
proliferation of lasering, such that laser engraving became
a household word even among end users.
fact, according to Mike Davis, the big ticket price tag of
the equipment and all the related typesetting equipment is what made laser
engraving a premium-priced process which is still true today to a large
extent. This combination of highly perceived value (of laser engraving)
and the high profile that laser engraving had attained laid the groundwork
for what was to come as the computer controlled desktop lasers
began to gain momentum.
market was poised for a whole host of big developments on every lasering
front, from the engraving capabilities available to the number of players
in the marketplace, not to mention a growing stream of laser-friendly
products to engrave. The business was about to take off in a way that
hadnt been seen since a decade earlier when computer controlled
mechanical engraving first arrived on the scene. EJs next
installment in this series will pick up on this exciting, free-wheeling
era in the history of the R&I Industry. Watch for it!