History Part 6

Copyright © 2004 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in August 2004, Volume 30, No. 2 of The Engravers Journal.
By Kristin Huff

     During the 1980s the upheaval in the engraving business centered on the massive transformation from the use of manually operated pantograph engraving machines to computer controlled (mechanical) engraving equipment. But at about the same time, the equally fascinating high-tech process known as laser engraving was quietly being spread by Bill Lawson and his staff at Laser Machining Inc. of Somerset, WI. LMI’s laser weighed 1000 lbs., took up a lot of space and cost more to buy than the average house. They also engraved by photo mechanically scanning black and white artwork.
    All of these reasons helped to explain why laser engraving never really caught on with the masses of small engraving shops. Then as the 1990s began, a number of new players began unveiling the early "desktop" lasers which were directly driven by a computer and priced near the $20,000 level. Often these early systems would do only a particular type of lasering such as vector cutting. Then the market began to explode with new development and new players introducing an increasingly sophisticated generation of new machines. Now let’s continue with where Part 5 left off in the evolution of lasers.
    By the early 1990s, both Epilog and Universal Laser Systems (ULS) introduced machines that could perform both raster and vector cutting. "1993 was a time when more and more people really started to realize that these low-cost, small-format machines were something they could easily use and really make some money with. Epilog and ULS machines started looking more and more alike in terms of features and capabilities, and that’s when competition between the companies really heated up," explains Epilog’s Mike Dean. It was also at this point that LMI, the granddaddy of laser marking equipment, started to fall behind the times. "In hindsight," sighs LMI’s then president, Bill Lawson, "we listened to our customers, which was a big mistake. We said to them, our machine can scan artwork and raster-engrave pieces. What do you need from a laser? Anything other than this? No one indicated an interest in a machine that could cut out things, so we built a raster-only laser. It worked great. But we found that many buyers who were brand-new to engraving and knew nothing about the machines would go and talk with Epilog or ULS, which offered machines with both cutting and raster engraving. People were thinking, "Well, I don’t know what I’ll use it for, but I’ll take the one with more options. It might come in handy."


In the late 1990’s, LMI introduced their SE2100 series line of computerized desktop laser engravers, ranging from 25-100 watts and priced from $26,490-$55,950. However, by then the increasingly-crowded market had refocused on smaller and less expensive equipment and LMI withdrew from the mainstream engraving market. Photo circa 1998.

Roy Brewer, circa 1994, owner of Brewer Sales is currently a sales rep for both Epilog and Xenetech.

    Between 1993 and 1998, ULS and Epilog were the main manufacturers of laser engraving machines in the United States, but other companies were anxious to try their hand in the market too. Newing-Hall also began selling LMI’s lasers. And Meistergram, once its deal with ALT was over, connected with a company in Nebraska called Idea Engineering to come up with a laser engraver of its own.
Enter New Hermes & Xenetech
    Though New Hermes was known by nearly everyone in the mechanical engraving world, the company was virtually unknown in lasering. Nevertheless, New Hermes threw its hat into the ring in 1996. Ted Heffernan, who joined New Hermes as Field rep in 1987 and became National Sales Manager in ’89, recounts the company’s strengths as it entered the field: "New Hermes had a huge customer base and a very popular trade name. They were the giant of the engraving business. They had a huge customer file and had been selling machines since the 1930s."
    Like many other sellers of computerized engraving equipment, New Hermes had noticed that the growth curve of those machines was not as strong as it had been in past years. Sales were still there, but the curve had flattened out a bit.
    "New Hermes’ sales of computerized engraving machines got a big shot in the arm in the early 1990s with the new ADA signage regulations," explains Heffernan. "We had a large market base in institutions, colleges and hospitals… all the places that had to meet ADA requirements. That boost carried forth in the 1990s and at that point, the company still had a good 30–40% revenue generated by their core market. When lasers started to get big, New Hermes noticed a slowing of sales in that market more than in anything else."
    New Hermes, which had long been a direct-sales-force-driven company, started receiving feedback from its sales team saying the core market was turning to lasers. "All these customers were already at capacity with one or two computerized engraving machines," remarks Heffernan, "and they were increasingly turning to lasers as the up-and-coming thing. These guys used to pound their fists on the table at meetings, trying to convince management: New Hermes needs to get into lasers! We’ve gotta do something!" Despite the arguments of the sales force, Heffernan says, it was three years before the company decided to take the plunge.


Leonard Shih has been the president & CEO of Taiwan-based GCC since August 2000.

The 1720 C ALT was one of the first lasers brought to market by Applied Laser Technology (now Universal Laser Systems) and came with 25 watts of power. Photo circa 1990.

    Universal Laser Systems had been selling to the market for several years by this time, and the ULS machine was a proven success. In order to quickly enter into the laser machine field, New Hermes contracted with ULS to resell a ULS laser. They repackaged it with the New Hermes name and the NH Laser 2000 was born.
    Although New Hermes was still virtually unknown in the laser market, they had a strong name and reputation in the engraving field, and these two factors combined to help make sales of the NH Laser 2000 a success. "People who had been in the engraving field for a while and wanted to buy a laser would see the New Hermes machine and think, ‘Well, Grandpa bought from them. Why not me?’ and they’d buy that machine on that basis alone," says Heffernan.
    Although many core market buyers were apprehensive about trying out the new technology, New Hermes’ entry into the field helped give lasers legitimacy, essentially lifting the entire market. It also helped New Hermes that they had an established base of field technicians to go out and aid customers who encountered problems with their new lasers—a luxury that many new laser machine companies could not afford.
    Despite New Hermes’ relative success in the laser industry, the company still encountered problems. Since the company was reselling an existing product and had a large organization to support, they had to charge more to make a profit. Also, the software was not all that easy to learn. New Hermes’ vaunted sales force, which had long been required to buy their own demo models, found that the lasers were too large to be easily portable, so they had to rely mainly on trade shows to demonstrate new machines. And, although lasers were the next big tool, there really weren’t many laser-specific materials out there for people to use.
    To counter this last issue, New Hermes jumped aggressively into the laser materials market. Says Heffernan, "The great thing about New Hermes is that for many people they were a one-stop shop company. Most of their clients could get everything they needed just from New Hermes—the cutters, the machine and the materials. It would all show up on one invoice, no hassles." In an effort to maintain this ease-of-shopping experience and keep their clients in the New Hermes fold, the company quickly began offering laser-specific materials such as gift items, engravable plastics and acrylics.


Bill Lawson founder and former president of Laser Machining, Somerset, WI, is one of the true pioneers of laser engraving. He created the direct-scan method of laser engraving. Photo circa 2004.

Epilog pioneers (from left) John Doran, Tom Garnier, Steve Garnier and Mike Dean in 1991 at a trade show.

    Xenetech, which had established itself in the computerized engraving industry first with Jay Hoffpauir’s specialized software and then with its own line of computerized engraving machines, also decided to enter the fray. Hoffpauir, a computer-programming genius known throughout the industry for designing user-friendly, proprietary engraving software, launched the industry’s first software designed specifically for lasers in 1996. (Most laser engravers use CorelDRAW or a similar graphics program that’s not designed specifically with engravers in mind.) Hoffpauir designed his software so that the same application that ran his lasers could also be used to run Xenetech’s computerized engraving machines, making it easy on Xenetech clients, who only had to learn one software package.
    "Jay and I started programming at the same time," says sales rep Roy Brewer, "and he fell in love with it while I fell in hate with it! It’s an incredible thing to take software that was written for a completely different animal and turn it into something that would create output for a laser, both raster and vector cutting. And he did it in less than 90 days."
    Once Meistergram decided to get out of the laser engraving machine business in 1997, Xenetech bought Meistergram’s engraving division to get a jump start into the laser machine field. "A number of our customers wanted to use our software with their laser due to the productivity inherent in our software that was not found in CorelDRAW," says Guy Barone, Xenetech’s current president and CEO. "Our distributors pushed us to offer the hardware to match our software, so in 1997 we purchased Meistergram’s engraving division and began the redesign of their system."
    Though Hoffpauir and the other principals of Xenetech initially wondered if selling lasers might slow sales of the company’s computerized engraving machine line, they found just the opposite happened when Hoffpauir designed his software to be adaptable for the computerized rotary engravers too. In 1999 the company overhauled the laser again, eliminating all traces of the original Meistergram machine from the product.
    "Xenetech’s technology is quite a bit different from the others. The same guy who wrote the software designed the hardware that powers the machine" (meaning Hoffpauir), says Brewer. "Therefore, it can do things that others can’t, such as engraving from center to center of a piece." Brewer explains why a feature like this is important to engravers. "If you’re engraving on something like a shotgun stock, on most lasers you would have to work from the upper left-hand corner of the object. But a gun stock doesn’t have an upper left corner. With Xenetech’s software you can engrave outward from the center, like you could on a pantograph. It makes more sense to do it that way."


The Epilog Summit hit the market in 1994 and followed the Eclipse.

Ted Heffernan joined New Hermes in 1987 and remembers all of the politics of New Hermes taking the laser engraving plunge. He was the National Sales Manager from 1989 until his departure in 1998.

    Brewer gives another illustration of the "for engravers" mentality that’s built into Xenetech’s software. "Another thing it can do is engrave from the bottom up, rather than top down. It comes in handy. If we were to engrave a piece of plastic that’s red over a white substrate, the laser starts at the top, and the smoke residue (from lasering) is pulled toward the rear of the machine. The white is still sticky from the heat, and the color will stick to it. So then you have to engrave it twice, once to remove the material, and then again to remove the red condensation on the white. If instead you engrave from the bottom up, a clean path is left and there’s no need to do it twice."
    Other companies have since found ways to achieve some of the same features that Xenetech has long incorporated in their software, though they are sometimes cumbersome methods that often don’t work as smoothly as Xenetech’s software does.
    Vision, a company (like Xenetech and New Hermes) traditionally known for selling computerized engraving machines, decided to enter the laser market in 1998 with a laser called the LaserPro. Rather than manufacture a laser from scratch, Vision opted to become the exclusive sales agent for Great Computer Corporation (GCC), a company out of Taiwan. After a year of marketing the Vision name to the laser crowd, owner Dennis Triffeletti decided not to try and compete head-on with desktop lasers and instead chose to introduce a new type of machine: a galvanometer laser, more commonly known as a galvo laser, called the Vision VXL.
    "The galvo laser is extremely fast," says Triffeletti, "but it only works with a small engraving area. It’s between 3 and 50 times faster than conventional flatbed lasers." Rather than the traditional back-and-forth movement of a laser over the work area, the galvo laser remains stationary, and the beam is directed to engrave by mirrors that change angle and direction at each end to guide the light. The galvo laser is still a CO2 laser, but it can engrave a 5" x 7" plaque in about 90 seconds. Its only drawback is that the working range is limited to about an 8" x 8" area.
    "We decided to get into lasers because some of our computerized engraving machine business was already going to lasers," says Triffeletti, echoing the reasoning behind many other companies’ entry into the market. "We decided we wouldn’t compete with the ULS and Epilog lasers, because they are all manufacturers, and by that time they were very well entrenched in the business. We weren’t going to go that route."


Jim Rabideau, demonstrating a laser in 1993, joined the Universal Laser Systems team just as ULS was taking off.

To get into the laser market New Hermes contracted with ULS to resell a ULS laser. They repackaged it under the name NH Laser 2000.

    Vision’s sales organization still sells ULS and Epilog lasers, along with computerized engraving machines, which, according to Triffeletti allows its sales force to have lots of options when they come in the door. "It’s good for them as salesmen," he says, "because if a person doesn’t want Vision’s galvo laser, we can offer them a traditional desktop model." Vision also manufactures and sells a YAG laser for industrial-type marking.
Increased Competition
    More companies continued to enter the laser manufacturing field in the late 1990s, with positive consequences on the industry. GCC, a company out of Taiwan that began in 1989 as a manufacturer of PC motherboards and cutting plotters, offered its first laser in 1999. "Since the cutting plotter industry was becoming mature, GCC was ready to enter a new business with greater growth potential," says Alen Lin, from the marketing department at GCC.
    GCC’s first offering to engravers was the LaserPro, a machine similar to the lasers offered by Epilog and ULS. "The GCC systems were (and still are) inexpensive to produce, and they and the other foreign-produced lasers have probably been the biggest factor in forcing down the price of a laser system," says Mike Dean, of Epilog.
    During this same period, a company out of Wels, Austria also entered the marketplace. Trotec started as a division of Trodat, a manufacturer of self-inking rubber stamps. (Trodat was founded in 1912.) Trotec’s first laser offering came in 1998 with the Power Laser and Power Laser PRO. That same year Trotec diverged from Trodat into its own company.


Meistergram connected with a company in Nebraska called Idea Engineering to come up with their own line of laser engravers.

Jay Hoffpauir and Xenetech launched the industry’s first software designed specifically for lasers in 1996.

    It was during this period that LMI, the company that started it all, really got behind the competitive curve. Says Pop Lehner, "Initially our main effort and success was laser engraving. It was the cornerstone of our business for many years. I don’t know how we got behind and didn’t see the changing technology that was coming. But people started making lasers everywhere, all over the world. They finally took us for a ride, imitating and improving on what we had done." The company had made many important contributions to the industry, such as the creation of 3D laser engraving, which was the brainchild of LMI’s Peter Becker. But in 1999, the company conceded that it was too far behind to compete and pulled out of the marketplace.
    "Frankly," says LMI founder, Bill Lawson, "ULS and Epilog owned the small-engraving end of the market by then. Their machines were good and reliable. In the beginning, Laser Craft got interest in the laser market going. Then we came in with a somewhat less expensive but easy to use turn-key machine that solved a problem (making the laser more accessible to everyday engravers). Then ULS and Epilog did the same thing to us. Their machines sold in the $20,000 to $25,000 range. Ours was $65,000. Those companies built on what we had built."
    From the late 1990s to today, other companies have continued to join the laser engraving field. Although companies such as Vision, Rofin-Baasel, Laservall, Kern Electronics, Laser Solutions & Systems and Baublys Control Laser Corp. may not be as well known as the bigger names, they all help complete the industry. "Healthy competition among manufacturers helped bring about more advanced, affordable and suitable equipment for the engraving industry," says Cherie White, ULS’s marketing manager. "Equipment improved over the course of the decade and laser systems became easier to use and maintain, and were less expensive and faster."


Guy Barone, Xenetech’s current president and CEO. Photo circa 1998.

Dennis Triffeletti, president and CEO of Vision Engraving (formerly known as Western Engravers Supply) decided not to compete head on with desktop lasers and instead chose to introduce a line of specialized lasers. Shown here with wife Joan and son Joe in a recent photo.

A Material World
    With many companies now producing laser engraving machines, the race was on to develop laser-worthy materials. So far, people had had some success with the materials already in existence. But better products were needed to help complete the picture, and companies started popping up to fill the void.
    LaserBits, one of the best-known suppliers of laser materials in the U.S., began in 1999. The company’s creators, Mike Fruciano and Rob Lichtenheld, had experience in the laser industry (Fruciano had worked for ULS for several years as the company’s national sales manager), and the two men were keenly aware of the need for laser-specific materials. "When lasers first started," explains Fruciano, "one of the biggest constraints in the development of hardware was the materials that were available. For example, conventional rotary engraving plastic laminates had a thick cap layer, which the laser melted into a big puddle. It produced horrible results."
    The first big revolution in laser engraving materials came with the creation of plastics specifically engineered for lasers. "Plastics are generally made with two layers, the top layer and the core," describes Fruciano. "The difference is, the older rotary engraving plastics were very thick on the top layer, whereas laserable plastics are super thin. And the plastic has been reformulated for smoother cutting and to reduce smoke residue and odor. Laser-specific plastics have really only been developed in the last year and a half."
    Metals also posed a challenge to laser engravers. Laser engraving on metal had been limited to YAG lasers for years, because the laser light used by CO2 lasers just bounced off the metal. A determined engraver could engrave a sheet of anodized aluminum, but the coating would come off and leave an industrial-looking, dull, matte finish—not the best look for recognition and identification products. Victory Trophy developed a solution in their LaserBrite materials.
    EJ Publisher Mike Davis explains how the new coated metals work. "They take a sheet of highly polished metal and apply a coating of clear lacquer. Then they lay on an overcoat of color. The CO2 laser vaporizes the top colored coating, revealing the nice, shiny lacquered metal underneath. It works well with brass," he says, "because brass develops an unsightly tarnish when it’s exposed to air or moisture, whereas the lacquer protects the shiny metal underneath."


In 2000 Vision Engraving Systems introduced the VXL galvanometer-based laser system.

Lyle “Pop” Lehner (center) became LMI’s product/sales manager in 1981. Pop is flanked by customer Neal Schlee of Lasertech Alaska and LMI marketing manager Arlene Zdrazil.

    Another method was recently discovered for laser engraving on metals. The Ferro Company developed a product called CerMark for marking on ceramics.
     CerMark is applied to the bare metal and when lasered the heat from a CO2 laser turns the coating black and fuses it to the metal permanently. "Suddenly, relatively low-power lasers could mark on bare metals, and the market was blown wide open for all sorts of applications: jet-engine parts, Italian charm bracelets, etc.," says Fruciano.
    Wood, the mainstay material of laser engraving, has also advanced in recent years. Although not much has changed as far as the material goes (wood is still basically wood), many more varieties are available now, says Fruciano. Add to this the advent of thin wood sheets that are affordable and readily available, and even the wood material market has grown in recent years.
    Competition in the materials market has been good for the industry. The processes that have been developed for producing materials have been standardized, and the materials themselves have become more standardized too. The result is more stable and reliable materials for the end user.
A World of Changes
    Lasers have become so commonplace that we tend to think of the evolution of laser engraving machines and materials as something that happened a while ago. But in reality, these changes are actually quite recent. The first turn-key laser engraver was brought to market by LMI less than 25 years ago, and the real explosion in user-friendly, affordable machines and laser-specific materials has taken place in the last 10 -12 years. And the industry is constantly evolving. In 2014, when we look back at where the laser industry stood in 2004, today’s laser industry may very well seem like the stone ages!
    A major change that has taken place since lasers first became available is price. "The single biggest change is in the cost of the systems," says Fruciano. "When I started in the industry in 1994, a 25-watt laser sold for $25,000. Now you can get the same equivalent in a laser for $13,000, due to improvements in manufacturing."


Mike Fruciano, co-owner of LaserBits, Inc., started his career in the R&I Industry as the national sales manager for Universal Laser Systems.

Rob Lichtenheld co-owner of LaserBits, Inc., one of the best-known suppliers of laserable materials in the U.S., since 1999.

    Fruciano further explains that the development of the laser tube has been one of the most influential factors in bringing down the cost of a laser. "The tube is the heart of the system. It came into being about five years ago. Before that, there was just one sole source for laser tubes, and they controlled the price of the market. Since then, several companies have developed their own laser tubes," which has helped drive prices down.
    Another significant evolution in the industry is the development of the laser as a computer peripheral, like your printer or an external CD-ROM or zip drive. The laser has become something that you simply plug into your computer and start to use—it’s no longer the far-out technology that seemed out of reach to many engravers when lasers first hit the market.
    "Advances in technology have really driven the number of applications for lasers," continues Fruciano. "Now we can work with giant, high-resolution files, all sorts of graphics—stuff that people could only dream of a few years ago. The advancement in opportunities has grown based on the computer technology that’s available."
    Additionally, materials have continued to evolve and lasers have become easier to use. Now that lasers have become a more flexible piece of equipment, people can affordably own a system and make money based on a more reliable result, says Fruciano.
    "When laser engraving machines were first created." explains Epilog’s Mike Dean, "manufacturers only offered one size system that had a fairly small work area, no larger than 11" x 17". Today many companies offer a range of systems with work areas from 12" x 8" to the 32" x 20" range. The speed of engraving has increased significantly in the last decade from about 25 inches per second (IPS) to about 120 IPS today. Image quality, ease-of-use, cylindrical engraving attachments and software features have all made huge strides since the early 1990s." These strides have provided many people—people who otherwise would probably never have given the engraving industry a second thought—with a great opportunity to start their own business.
Into the Future!

 


The LaserPro Mercury was introduced in 1999 by Great Computer Company.

In 1998, Trotec entered the U.S. laser market with the Speedy.

Into the Future!
    So where will the future of lasers take us? Many advancements are being made today that give us a glimpse as to what lies ahead. Over the past 1-2 years several companies, including ULS and Epilog, have introduced small footprint low-cost systems costing under $10,000 that are designed to be extremely easy to use on a wide variety of materials. Some of these lasers are even being installed in kiosks inside shopping malls that can take a digital picture of, say, the user’s face, allow the user to superimpose the image on a piece of jewelry or other item, and engrave it right then and there.
    Another innovation stems from changes in the way lasers operate. Traditionally, the laser beam moves back and forth across the surface of the material, turning on when the image needs to be engraved and off while the laser completes its movement to the other side of the material. LMI’s Bill Lawson describes a new way of moving the laser that will greatly speed up the process. "In the world of marking, there are these little markers being developed. The beam can move in a pattern, and for smaller items, it’s dramatically faster." If you had to engrave something like a signature, he says, "the beam wouldn’t move back and forth; instead it would move just like you’d write it with a pen." The laser doesn’t move over the white areas—just the black areas that need to be engraved.
    "Engraving is a great opportunity to start your own business," says Ted Heffernan. "You can have three engraving shops in a small town, and they each can cater to a different industry: signs, industrial and trophies. And they all will be using lasers, but never even cross paths with the competition’s customers. I think the engraving industry, in general, will continue to grow as lasers evolve."
    Bill Lawson, the "father of laser engraving," agrees. "As technology develops, and as people become more aware of what’s out there, the industry will evolve and grow, and companies will develop new and exciting things." Although we might not know exactly where the industry is going in the years ahead, he says, "someone will take us there. It’s only a question of who will take us, where we’ll wind up and when we’ll arrive there!"
    Publisher Mike Davis agrees with Lawson stating, "I can vividly recall that day in 1981 when LMI’s Pop Lehner backed a large truck up to our office door and started carrying in a stand made of heavy duty steel "I" beams. That was for the original product review of their ‘LaserGraver’ in The Engravers Journal which introduced the industry to laser engraving. It was not easy then to envision all of the profound changes we’ve seen in the ensuing 23 years.
    It’s been a super-exciting period and if my intuition is correct, the excitement will continue far into the future."

 


Branford, FL-based Norstar Corporation introduced their LK 1500 “Lasermatic” hybrid laser engraver in 1992 which consisted of a control unit and a 10 watt laser and sold for $8,500. Available for about a year before the company went out of business, it attached to the spindle carriage of a computerized mechanical engraver. The unit was limited to vector engraving only and could only utilize the fonts and designs available with the mechanical engraver.

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