Is There a Desktop Laser in Your Future?

Copyright © 2007 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in September 2007, Volume 33, No. 3 of The Engravers Journal
 

      Okay. You’ve made the decision to purchase a laser engraving machine. Whether it’s your first laser, your second or even your third system, the crucial decision remains: What kind of laser should you purchase?
      In the past year or so, we’ve seen an influx of “desktop” laser engraving systems enter the marketplace as most of the major industry manufacturers have introduced at least one model. These units are essentially “miniature” versions of standard floor model laser engraving machines that bundle lots of laser engraving capability into one small parcel with an equally small price tag. Is one of these desktop lasers in your future?
Good Things Come in Small Packages
      The new mini lasers have a lot of appeal from several different perspectives. At the top of the list is cost. Conventional laser engraving machines typically start at around $15,000, whereas desktop lasers are priced in the $7,600-$15,000 price range. You can essentially purchase a desktop laser for half the price (and sometimes less) of a larger model, making this an extremely affordable option for even the smallest shop. Because of the lower purchase price, your return on investment should be shorter, and maintenance and upkeep costs are also typically lower with desktop units. All of these factors add up to significant cost savings.
      Another advantage of desktop systems is their small footprint, which makes them ideal for small shops and retail environments. Some models measure as small as 2' wide by 11/2' long and weigh as little as 70 pounds. Their compactness requires little, if any, floor space as many are designed to be tabletop units. In addition, because of their small size, these units are portable, making it easy for you to transport the equipment to on-site locations like mall kiosks, home shows, wedding shows, craft shows, sporting events, etc.
      Although most lasers used for standard laser engraving and cutting applications are inherently user-friendly, desktop lasers are specifically designed for simplicity and foolproof use; many are as easy to use as an ordinary desktop printer. Cherie White, Marketing Manager for Universal Laser Systems, Scottsdale, AZ, says that the company’s VersaLaser system has a variety of features that illustrate this point: “VersaLaser has a unique, friendly materials-based print driver that takes the guesswork out of complex power, speed and materials settings. This means that you do not need to be experienced in laser cutting or engraving to get excellent results. You merely print the file from your graphics software to the VersaLaser; the driver will then pop up and prompt you to choose the material you are processing and to enter its thickness. Click ‘OK’ and then press start—that’s all there is to it,” White says.
      The features found on today’s desktop lasers put these units on equal footing with many larger systems when it comes to basic engraving and cutting applications in most materials. Some lasers have even more advanced features and options. LaserPro Venus II is a very versatile system featuring a Standard Auto Focus gauge for precise focal length and delicate laser output. The 30 watt Venus II can achieve cuts as thick as 1/2" on acrylic and wood, depending on the type. It is also a full-featured engraver that is great across many applications including gift marking, personalization, plates, small tags, awards and plaques and stamps.
     In many cases, depending on your application and system configuration, a compact laser system can provide the same cutting and engraving quality as a larger system. Most small lasers have power ratings in the range of 10-45 watts, which is sufficient for most engraving and cutting applications. If you do find yourself in need of more power, you can upgrade the wattage on many of these systems. For example, some of these lasers are available with up to 50 or even 80 watts of power (at an additional cost). (For more information about current desktop lasers and their features, see our 2007 Buyer’s Guide For Laser Engraving Machines in the August 2007 issue.)

 

Is Bigger Better?
     Of course there will be some benefits that a larger laser can offer that a desktop simply cannot. Those advantages basically boil down to size and power, two factors that can affect your laser engraving capabilities as well as your productivity. Smaller lasers are inherently less productive than larger, faster systems.
     To begin, larger lasers have larger engraving areas, including not only the left-to-right/top-to-bottom dimensions of the worktable, but also the Z-axis height. Some larger lasers even have “access doors” that can be opened to accommodate items that won’t fit within the confines of the cabinet. “A larger laser system will obviously have a larger engraving table, which allows the user to process a larger work piece; but less obviously, a larger engraving table will also allow more pieces to run in a single job,” explains White.
     Secondly, there’s the issue of power. A compact laser system is limited to mid-level laser power, and though it’s likely that about 90 percent of typical engraving jobs can be run on a compact system without any problem, a larger laser can finish the job faster. And it is true that some jobs that require high power for deep cutting or engraving simply cannot be run on a desktop unit (cutting thick acrylic, for example).
     “Customers who plan on increasing their sales and production needs every year should consider the purchase of a larger laser system,” states Jimmy DuBose, Sales Manager for Xenetech USA, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA. “Customers who need to lower their fixed costs by increasing production should consider a larger laser. Customers who need higher wattage systems should also consider the purchase of a larger laser system.”
     Jeff Lee agrees that productivity and power are two major reasons for looking at larger laser engraving systems. “Larger lasers are ideal for customers who are in dire need of productivity and higher throughput and customers who need to engrave large items.”
First-Time Benefits
     Assuming that a compact laser engraving system provides sufficient power and work area size to meet your needs, this type of system can also be an excellent choice if you are a first-time laser owner. The price of these laser systems is a fantastic benefit that allows you to tap into one of the hottest areas of the industry without a huge investment or high overhead costs, which is especially appealing to businesses with cost concerns, new businesses or part-time business operations.
     “The laser portion of the engraving business is the fastest growing segment. Without some type of laser in-house, the user will miss out on a lot of business. The low-end desktop versions allow a cheaper entry into laser processing,” says Jonathan Cohen, Laser Product Manager for Gravograph, Duluth, GA.
     A compact CO2 laser cutting, engraving and marking system opens up enormous applications for a gift/recognition business. Just a few examples include processing wood, leather, fabric, acrylic, plastics, glass, stone, marble, rubber, ceramic and many other materials to produce a wide variety of products including signage, name badges, desk and door plates, stencils, rubber stamps, recognition awards, architectural models, personalized gifts, corporate identity items, appliqués, scrapbook items and much more.
     Adding laser engraving capabilities to your existing rotary engraving shop will also cut down production times which can lead to greater product selection. Laser engraving will allow you to produce a greater variety of products, which, in turn, should diversify your product line and lead to more potential customers.

 

Repeat Benefits
     If you already own a laser engraving machine, whether it’s a larger model or a compact version, it’s likely that you are already aware of the payback it has provided your business. It’s also likely that you have contemplated purchasing another laser to handle your ever-increasing workload. Here again, a desktop laser can be an excellent choice for existing laser owners.
     “You should always choose and configure a laser system based on the type of applications that you intend to run, both now and in the future. That said, if you’re currently using a CO2 laser system for business purposes, your number one priority is to maximize your system’s throughput speed, which ultimately determines the profitability of your business,” says Cherie White.
     A second laser can be an incredible production booster and the low cost of a desktop laser means it can also be an affordable production booster. A compact laser can take some of the workload off of your main laser allowing you to be more responsive to your customers and offer better service by creating shorter delivery times.
     Even if your original laser is a desktop model, a second desktop model could be just what you need. “The majority of laser system owners start out with a 25- or 30 watt laser, which is an adequate power level for most standard engraving and cutting operations at moderate speeds. In some cases, upgrading to a higher-powered laser can increase production and throughput, but the wiser solution is to invest in a second laser system—including compact laser systems. A second laser system will greatly increase your throughput and make your business much more profitable and productive in the long run,” White says.
     Mike Dean, Epilog Laser Corporation, Golden, CO, says that desktop lasers represent fully featured systems at affordable prices, making them a welcome second addition to existing laser businesses. “We have many awards and engraving users whose first system was a Mini 24 that have gone on to purchase additional Mini 24 systems because it’s so perfectly suited to their engraving needs,” he says.
     A desktop laser engraving machine is also an excellent “specific purpose” or “overflow” machine for businesses already operating lasers. This laser can be designated for extra orders or even for specific purposes without tying up your main laser or losing potential profits.
     “Current owners use the Mini to add additional laser capability to their shops. Our experience is that many current laser users have a single laser that is tied up most of the time and can’t be interrupted for rush jobs or smaller orders. The Mini is so affordable that current users find it useful for their overflow work which in turn reduces worker overtime, overall stress levels and increases their smaller customers’ satisfaction levels. Additionally, since the Mini systems include all of the features of our larger systems, the only drawback to using them is their size,” says Dean.
     Mike Rauch, Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Trotec Laser, Ypsilanti, MI, says that adding a second desktop laser can provide additional production capabilities at a lower entry cost. “A second Mini laser can also act as a back-up to an existing laser in the case of potential equipment failure,” he adds.
     Desktop lasers are also ideally suited for specific jobs. “We’ve seen several types of users, retail and industrial, purchase a compact laser for just a specific big job. Buying a new machine was justified on the return on investment of the job,” says Jonathan Cohen. “A compact laser system is also portable and can be easily transported to sports events, car races, etc., to provide ‘on demand’ engraving services to commemorate team wins, etc., which can be a substantial source of additional revenue to existing engraving shops,” says White.
     Compact lasers are being used for a wide variety of applications, a testimony to their versatility, and many businesses have profited handsomely from such an investment. And while many cite cost as one of the factors in their buying decision, they also are duly impressed with the machine’s high-tech capabilities. Here are just a few examples.

 

Lasers for Creativity
     Robert Shives, owner of Cascadian Design Studio based in Seattle, WA, purchased an Epilog Mini 35 watt laser in August 2004. He has since nicknamed the laser “Lightning in a Can” and the unit is now the primary engraving system for the entire business. Cascadian Design Studio is a unique enterprise specializing in custom products such as gifts, home and office furnishings, architectural models and signs in a wide variety of materials including wood, glass, ceramic and metal. (Check out some of his work, such as the light boxes with laser cut skyline silhouettes, at www.cascadiandesign.com).
     “I cut, carve, incise and play with multiple objects to see if the system can help me create special, custom, one-of-a-kind objects. As a designer, I have the ability to quickly create my ideas to communicate to the buyers who find me on the Internet or through artists’ networks. My business is not based on trying to compete with China or Safeway for the lowest price, but to build truly individualized objects that are valued as art, not commodities,” Shives says.
     His primary reason for purchasing a desktop laser vs. a larger unit was based on his unique type of work, followed by cost and, lastly, user-friendliness. Shives says that his decision was a good one; the Epilog Mini has met his qualifications and is serving all of his needs very well. Shives creates his artistic designs using his studio drawing software and the Epilog Mini takes it from there.
     “It can create anything I design. If I need capacity, I lease time on other larger systems. The real value of this tool is the accuracy and precision in which it executes my designs. I have learned what it is capable of and I have a long way to go before I run out of new products,” states Shives.
Lasers for Learning
     Around the same time in 2004, Aaron Wecas, a teacher at Lansing High School, Lansing, KS, was searching for a piece of “high” technology to incorporate into the school’s woodshop classes. “When I was a student teacher at Pittsburg High, we had a laser system that would only cut out items and did not engrave. I’m not sure of the brand or even the wattage, but it was pretty clumsy to work with. It had a trigger mechanism you used to fire the laser and a water cooling system that kept the laser tube cool,” Wecas says. Being an educational institution, cost was naturally a primary concern. “We really didn’t need to be too fancy with what we were doing,” he says.
     Wecas found the perfect match for their needs in the Epilog Mini 35 watt laser and, other than a small handheld Dremel tool, this is the only engraver they use. Today, they use the laser for many different applications, such as making jigs and fixtures for other tools in the shop. “My basic woodworking students make checker pieces and coasters to learn how to operate the system,” Wecas explains. “My students use the laser everyday. Today, we cut out a pick guard for a student’s electric guitar from 1/8" acrylic.”
     The laser has even lead to the development of programs within the school and, in the process, has saved them money. Wecas has established a “Lion Awards” program in which they engrave plaques, medals and other awards given by extracurricular activities in the school district. They have engraved footballs for the football team and marked identification numbers on equipment for other groups. Recently, they laser engraved 30 cutting boards for the city of Lansing’s 2nd Annual Brew, Blues and BBQ Cook-off.
     Wecas says the Epilog Mini does everything he expected it to, and more. “I do not see purchasing another engraver in the future. The one we purchased suits us just fine. If I did have to buy another one, I might consider one that has a bit more capacity and is a little more powerful laser wattage wise,” Wecas says.
Lasers For Corporate Marking
     MacMedia, Inc., Peoria, AZ, is a retail store that provides Apple Computer sales and service. When they began offering custom etching services for their products, they found what they needed in a couple of desktop lasers. Brian Georges, an employee with the company, says that they purchased a Universal VersaLaser Model VL-200 and VersaLaser Model VL-300 about two years ago for the purpose of engraving family photos, corporate logos, line art and other custom designs on the company’s iPods and PowerBooks laptop computers. “These are great for corporate gifts of distinction,” explains Georges, adding that they also use the lasers to mark some computer parts.
     And while the company does have a larger industrial size laser for other applications, the VersaLaser machines do their intended job and do it well. “They are little work horses,” says Georges.

Lasers for Corporate Awards…and More
     Bobby Smith runs a small engraving shop with his son called B and B Awards and Engraving Inc., in Cummings, GA. Smith specializes mostly in trophies, plaques and corporate awards. In May of 2006, Smith purchased his first laser, a 45 watt Speedy 100 from Trotec Laser to add to his three rotary engraving systems and a pantograph (which, he laughs, they still use on occasion).
     “We really wanted to get into corporate awards, especially acrylics, and we felt in order to do that, we needed a laser. We felt that the functionality of a laser versus a rotary engraver was better and we also thought the engraving looked better, especially on acrylics,” Smith said. His main reason for purchasing a desktop laser was price. “We’re just a small shop.”
     Smith currently uses the laser for plaques, corporate awards and acrylics as well as some specialty pieces such as baseball bats. “We’ve definitely benefited from this equipment. We’ve gotten some more corporate business we haven’t gotten in the past.” The laser has also brought in some unexpected commercial work as well. One job involved engraving serial numbers on stainless steel plates (using Cermark) that are mounted on telephones in prisons. “I really never even knew about this but now we are doing them for all the prisons that have phones,” Smith said.
     Sometime in the future, Smith plans on purchasing a larger laser to handle more production and larger jobs, but for now he is completely satisfied with his desktop laser. “I’m very happy. It’s very easy to use. I have some friends that have lasers and theirs are not as easy to use as mine. It’s a phenomenal piece of machinery,” he says.


The Bottom Line?
     So, when it comes to purchasing a laser engraving machine, which road do you take? Is a desktop laser engraver in your future or should you veer toward a larger system? Ultimately, the decision rests on what you want the laser to do for your business. Here are some general guidelines to help you with that decision.

A larger laser is a good choice if:
     • Your business includes high volumes of wood, rubber or other materials that require a lot of laser power. Larger systems can process these materials in higher volumes and higher speeds than smaller systems.
     • You require a larger work area to accommodate larger pieces.
     • High production is a primary concern.

A desktop laser is a good choice if:
     • You have a lower budget
     • You have modest workload needs and low to medium productivity needs.
     • You are involved in standard engraving and light cutting operations at moderate speeds.
     • Ninety-nine percent of your business is low to medium volume engraving on products such as plaques, trophy plates, name badges, acrylic awards, identification plates, etc.
     Ultimately, of course, the decision should be based on what’s right for your business, both now and in the future. But don’t rule out the power of a desktop laser without some investigation. It’s quite possible that a desktop laser is indeed in your future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

EJ HOME PAGE