Copyright © 2008 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in January 2008, Volume 33, No. 7 of The Engravers Journal
 

GravoStyle5 from Gravograph.

  Xenetech's XGW-32 software offers custom shouldering for rubber stamps and embossing seal dies.

     When The Engravers Journal published the first engraving software buyer’s guide—2003 Computerized Engraving Buyer’s Guide Part 1: Software (June 03)—we contemplated featuring both rotary engraving and laser engraving software. The problem, however, was that there wasn’t much to choose from in terms of software designed for laser engraving and its unique characteristics. Some software developers were beginning to embed laser engraving features into their existing rotary software programs, but the industry, for the most part, was using CorelDRAW as the primary job layout software for laser engraving. This was despite the fact that CorelDRAW had very few “engraving” features other than those provided within the laser manufacturers’ proprietary drivers.
     With the steady growth and increasing popularity of laser engraving over the last few years, software suppliers have taken note. They’re now making a concerted effort to develop programs with more features—features that allow end users to produce jobs faster and easier. Anyone with previous experience in computerized rotary engraving can attest that software designed specifically for engraving has many advantages over generic graphical layout software when it comes to setting up engraving jobs.
     “The simple fact that the application has been written specifically for a customer’s day-in and day-out production needs is a major advantage,” says Jessica Hoffpauir-Freeman, Marketing Manager for Xenetech Global, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA. “This allows users to be more efficient as opposed to using a generic program.”
     Indeed, it’s been said that engraving-specific software can outpace artistic or drawing programs in engraving throughput by 10-20 percent.
     In most cases, the laser engraving software available from industry suppliers is based on rotary engraving software. In other words, a single software package from a supplier includes both rotary engraving and laser engraving features (and many features that are used for both). The advantage to this is if your business does both types of engraving, you can do so using the same software.
     If you’re new to the industry or if you’ve never used rotary engraving software before, you may be pleasantly surprised at how convenient some of these traditional engraving-specific features can be for laser engraving. Automatic layout features found in engraving programs, for instance, will allow you to instantly create plaque layouts that are graphically attractive. The software will automatically generate columns of names or help you fit long names on small badges without sacrificing quality. In addition, you can use the software’s built-in wizards to guide you, step-by-step, through the process of creating rubber stamps or laser engraving photos. While it’s true many of these tasks can be accomplished with off-the-shelf “graphics” programs, they often involve more complicated, multi-step procedures as opposed to the built-in, one-step functions found in virtually all engraving-specific software programs.
     Of course, there’s still the task of finding a software package that’s best suited for your laser engraving needs as well as the equipment you own and your budget. We hope you’ll be able to accomplish that with the help of this Buyer’s Guide, a compilation of the major software packages available for laser engraving along with prices, important specifications and notable features. (For information about laser engraving hardware, see the 2007 Laser Buyer’s Guide in the August 2007 issue of EJ.)
     Most engraving software is designed to work with the manufacturer’s own laser engraving machines, as well as many other systems available in the industry. The information in this guide is arranged in convenient chart format so you can compare and contrast software easily. The charts are organized alphabetically by the manufacturer’s name, along with the name of the specific software package. All of the information in the charts was provided by the software companies.
     This article supplements the charts by explaining features in more detail. Keep in mind, however, that this guide only highlights some of the major features of each package and does not recognize every feature that may be available. For additional information related to a specific software package, consult the company directly.

 
CADlink's EngraveLab Matrix engraving feature generates multiple plates on one piece of material.   The PhotoLase function in Gravograph's GravoStyle5 helps edit and prepare photos for laser engraving.

Engraving “Modes”
     Before examining the various features listed in the charts in this Buyer’s Guide, we should explain the difference between various engraving “modes.” This will help explain why certain engraving operations apply only to rotary engraving, only to laser engraving or, in some cases, to both types of engraving. Generally speaking, there are two types of engraving that describe the way an engraving cutter or laser beam moves to engrave an image: vector and raster.
     Vector motion is a series of lines connected together that are formed by simultaneous X, Y axis movement. This is the motion created by the table and spindle movements on computerized rotary engraving machines. Laser engraving machines also utilize vector movement for certain applications, in particular for cutting out shapes. Vector engraving is extremely efficient for engraving images such as a border around a plaque, details in intricate designs or character outlines. Vector motion is also necessary in order to do any cutting/profiling on a laser engraving machine. Using enough power, lasers can cut completely through many different types of materials to produce shapes or create holes.
     Raster motion is a type of engraving utilized only by laser engraving systems. Raster engraving is created by a back-and-forth scanning movement of the laser head. During engraving, the laser beam carriage steps from the top to the bottom of the work area (or vice versa) while the beam oscillates left and right. As the beam moves left and right, it’s turned on and off to engrave a series of evenly spaced, uniform dots that essentially “fill in” an image.
     In laser engraving, often both types of engraving motion (raster and vector) are used within the same job. For example, raster motion is used to engrave surface details such as text, logos and photos on an item such as a name badge. Vector motion is then used to cut the badge blank from the sheet of material.
Software Types
     It’s important to note that all of the software applications included in this Buyer’s Guide can be used for laser engraving, but they can differ in the way that they work and how you actually use them. There are three different types of software included in this guide. A generic graphics package is just that; it is not designed specifically for laser engraving but it has many features and options that can be used for laser engraving. Standalone engraving programs are complete packages designed specifically for laser engraving. One other type is “companion” software. This is a laser-specific program designed as an adjunct to a generic graphics program. Following is a specific look at each of the packages included in this software buyer’s guide and where they fit in terms of these three categories.
CADlink Technology Corp.—EngraveLab PhotoLaser Plus & EngraveLab Laser
     CADlink Technology Corp., Ottawa, ON, Canada, is a developer of design and production software for markets such as sign making, digital printing, engraving and routing. For laser engraving applications, CADlink offers two different packages: EngraveLab PhotoLaser Plus and EngraveLab Laser.
     EngraveLab PhotoLaser Plus is designed as a companion product to CorelDRAW. Essentially, what this means is that you design your artwork, scan images, create text, etc., in CorelDRAW and then seamlessly transfer the job into PhotoLaser Plus. “PhotoLaser Plus is designed to complement CorelDRAW and help make the engraver more productive when it comes to creating nameplates, badges and photographs,” says Tim Benner, Product Manager for CADlink.
     Once in PhotoLaser Plus, users will find a variety of laser-specific, time-saving tools that supplement those found in CorelDRAW, allowing them to fine-tune and prepare their layouts for engraving. For example, PhotoLaser Plus provides support for both vector and raster engraving; text condensing features to automatically fit text into a predefined space; and a variable list function. PhotoLaser Plus also provides a variety of sophisticated tools for laser engraving photographs, including editing and cropping tools. In simple terms, you’re combining two software packages to create one comprehensive laser engraving solution. CorelDRAW provides the graphics and design capabilities and PhotoLaser Plus offers some laser-specific tools.
     CADlink’s other package, EngraveLab Laser, is a standalone, Windows-based graphics/laser engraving application that provides users with graphics tools, text tools, design tools, etc., to create layouts for laser engraving. The program comes with clip art and fonts and features a variety of engraving-specific functions, including automatic layout, columnizing, text manipulation (arcing, underlining), spell check, a rubber stamp engraving feature, distortions and special effects, bar code generation, etc. Essentially, this application can function as a replacement program for CorelDRAW.
CADlink offers these two software packages separately: EngraveLab Laser is $700 and PhotoLaser Plus is $500, or you can purchase both packages for $1,200. “The tools in PhotoLaser Plus can be added to EngraveLab Laser to create one comprehensive laser engraving software package. The combination of EngraveLab Laser and PhotoLaser Plus is an all-in-one comprehensive engraving and graphics solution to meet all laser engraving needs in an efficient and an easy-to-use manner,” says Benner.

 
Matrix engraving is a must-have feature for most laser engravers. Photo courtesy of Epilog Laser.   Xenetech's Laser Engraving Software offers custom hatch filling for TrueType® fonts and logos.

Corel Corporation—CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3
     CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3 (version 13) is a comprehensive graphical design package developed and marketed by Corel Corporation, Ottawa, ON, Canada. This software is not designed for any one specific application such as engraving, but rather has many different features that are appealing to a very wide variety of users, including design professionals, occasional graphics users, students and teachers as well as professionals in government and commercial organizations. It’s also a popular package for many marking processes in our industry, including screen printing, sublimation, embroidery, rotary engraving and laser engraving.
     “Corel recognizes that engravers spend quite a bit of time and resources securing an engraving system itself,” says Kelly Manuel, Public Relations Manager, Graphics. “CorelDRAW provides a low start-up cost, giving people the power and flexibility they need without breaking the bank. Whether it's designing a small job on a laser system, flatbed engraver or on a large CNC machine, CorelDRAW is able to accommodate by providing the power required in a format that’s easy to use.”
     In order for CorelDRAW (or any program) to communicate with a laser engraving machine or other output device, the appropriate driver software is required. Laser manufacturers include a print driver with their systems that allows users to “print” images from graphics software programs like CorelDRAW, Adobe PhotoShop and Adobe Illustrator. These print drivers include laser-specific features that allow users to control output functions like power, speed, resolution and dithering patterns (for engraving photographs). CorelDRAW has been the most popular software choice for many years in the laser engraving industry. As such, laser manufacturers continue to add features to their print drivers that offer users even more control.
     The CorelDRAW Graphics Suite is actually made up of a number of different programs and supporting utilities. CorelDRAW is the main application that gives you the tools for creating text and graphics to design layouts. Corel PHOTO-PAINT is an image-editing application that lets you edit and enhance photos. The Corel PowerTRACE utility has features for tracing bitmaps and converting them to vector images (mostly used in the R&I industry for rotary engraving applications).
     Because CorelDRAW is a generic graphics program, it does not include features specifically designed for laser engraving. However, many of the features work very well for laser engraving (hence it’s popularity), which makes it very easy to create attractive layouts. Engravers who are familiar with rotary engraving will notice that CorelDRAW and similar generic packages lack some useful features they have been accustomed to in rotary engraving software. For example, most rotary packages allow you to input left/right and top/bottom margins and force text to remain within those margins. You can also automatically space text lines either equally or based on the line height, and autocondensing is an automatic feature in most engraving programs, which will automatically condense a text line to force it to fit within a given space. CorelDRAW does not provide these extremely useful engraving features per se, although it often provides a multi-step “workaround.”
     In general, though, CorelDRAW is a very powerful graphics program that can really let your creativity flow. “Our customer feedback indicates that we have a strong following in the engraving industry,” says Manuel. “It’s because of this that it's very easy for our engraving customers to find help on issues they may encounter when using or designing in CorelDRAW. Whether it's help using the product or macros to make certain jobs faster or specialized fonts, engravers can find answers to their questions easily through the many resources available, both as part of the product (our Insights from the Experts) or online (CorelDRAW Community site at www.coreldraw.com).” CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3 can be purchased for $399 while a CorelDRAW upgrade is available for $179.
Gravograph—GravoStyle5
     Gravograph, Duluth, GA, offers GravoStyle5, a complete software package designed for both laser and rotary engraving. GravoStyle5 is a standalone package, offering a variety of features specific to both laser and rotary engraving. This application offers all of the tools you need to create and laser engrave jobs.
     With this software, users have the option of choosing different levels and options, based on their specific needs. “Discovery” is the lowest-level package and includes basic features for creating and outputting jobs. “Graphic” is a step up in terms of design capabilities and includes graphics and scanning capabilities along with features for designing and editing graphics and logos. “Dynamic” is the top level in this package and includes layout and design features as well as 3D engraving capabilities. Another level, “Graphic-Lite,” was just recently added to this software. It consists of the basic level bundled with productive options such as scanning, vectorizing, 2D filling and their Retail Font pack.
     According to Gravograph, GravoStyle5 is easier to use than general purpose drawing software and is optimized for engraving productivity. It’s also one of the first software packages to offer the ability to rotary and laser engrave from one integrated platform. This means one training session for two technologies, which can help reduce errors and boost production.
     GravoStyle5 offers a variety of useful engraving features, including optimized engraving fonts, a symbol library, many different wizards (bar code, nesting, scales, text columnizing, rubber stamps, etc.), comprehensive text capabilities and a copy and paste function that allows quick insertion of graphics from CorelDRAW into a GravoStyle5 job. This software also has a WYSIWYRE (what you see is what you really engrave) feature, which allows users to preview the final appearance of the job (including a photorealistic full-color version of the material). Special laser features include a laser color control manager, the ability to save laser parameters with a job and the ability to adjust the laser focus between passes. GravoStyle5 also includes PhotoLase, a utility that helps to prepare and edit photographs for laser engraving.
     Gravograph touts GravoStyle5 as being a single-solution software for both laser and rotary engraving. This software offers a wide variety of tools to help boost creativity and productivity, making the end user’s job easier. GravoStyle5 software is bundled free with a qualifying system purchase. Software only purchases can vary significantly, starting around $650 for an entry level packages to over $10,000 for the high-end 3D software plus options.

1D (top) and 2D (bottom-left) Data Matrix features are available in some laser engraving software packages.

Xentech Global—XGW-32 Laser Engraving Software
     Xenetech’s XGW-32 Laser Engraving Software is part of the company’s flagship engraving package, the Xenetech Graphic Workstation, and is included with the purchase of any Xenetech laser engraving system. This Windows-based software is a complete standalone package, meaning that all of the tools needed for designing jobs and engraving them are included. This software can be used to create text layouts, graphical layouts, layouts containing photos and more, and then it can be used to control the engraving output as well. This software includes features designed for both rotary engraving and laser engraving, so it will work with either or both applications.
     The XGW-32 software has many productivity enhancing benefits specifically designed for engraving production. One of these benefits includes a plate-driven multiple-plate feature. For example, fixed and variable text can be pasted into a saved plate and more plates will automatically be created to fill up the sheet of material. The plates can also be automatically cut out from the material, and round or inverted corners can be applied to each plate during the cut out process. Compensations can also be made between the plates to account for the material lost during the cut out.
     Other features available in the XGW-32 software include: bottom-up raster engraving; dial generation; automatic panel layout; notary seal mode; rubber stamp mode; multiple pass for vector or raster engraving; auto layout features; etc. (These features will be fully explained later in this article.)
     According to Xenetech, XGW-32 is simple to use, and laser owners will find that it’s easier to train new employees on XGW-32 than some of the commonly used desktop publishing software. “Novice users of XGW-32 can open previously saved jobs with all the power and speed settings needed to run the job,” explains Jimmy DuBose, Sales Manager for Xenetech. “Job comments can also be added to give the user specific production information like the type of material. There are also several laser-specific features included in this software. For example, a location for auto-focus can be set in the job before it is sent to the laser. This feature is very useful for laser engraving curved or multiple-level items.
     “The laser can also be set to pause before cutting out individual plates in a matrix job,” adds DuBose. “Many engraving materials raster engrave with no issues, but the material will become scorched or discolored during cut out. The pause set by the XGW-32 software allows the user to apply a protective mask to the material before cutting out the plates.”
     Xenetech’s XGW-32 software can also be used to drive other brands of lasers (and rotary engraving machines). So, if you own a compatible laser, you could use Xenetech’s software to drive that as well. Contact Xenetech to see if your laser is compatible with their software. Registered Xenetech customers can purchase XGW-32 for $750 while the cost for non-registered customers is $1,500.
     Xenetech also has developed a laser print driver that enables users to more efficiently use third-party software packages, such as CorelDRAW, in conjunction with XGW-32 professional engraving software. The driver is included in the XGW-32 software and essentially allows users to bypass XGW-32 and output directly from CorelDRAW to their Xenetech laser engraving systems. That means if you have saved CorelDRAW files, the laser print driver will output them directly to your Xenetech laser system.
Software Specifications
     The first chart in this guide details the specifications for each software package, including the supplier name, name of the software and price (in U.S. dollars). The Type column in the chart indicates the software’s application, i.e. whether it’s strictly laser engraving layout software, a combination of laser and rotary layout software or a graphic design software package that can be used for laser engraving.
     The Compatible Systems column in this chart is important since it lists the brands of laser engraving systems with which the software is compatible. As you can see from the chart software producers have designed packages that can be used to drive their own lasers as well as other brands of laser machines on the market.
     The next two columns in the Software Specifications chart provide the software’s file import and export capabilities which, in simple terms, describe the ability to share files with other programs. For example, you might create a design in your favorite graphics program and then want to import it into your laser engraving software to engrave it onto a product. To do so, your laser software needs to accept the file formats supported by the graphics program.
     The Computer Type column shows the minimum recommended operating system required to operate the software. As you can see, all of the applications work with PCs and the Windows operating environment. The chart also indicates the minimum and recommended RAM for running the software.

 
An example of the symbol library in GravoStyle5.   An example of a seal created using GravoStyle5.

Font Specifications
     Having access to a large selection of fonts and graphics can boost your creativity and broaden your capabilities to meet the needs of a variety of customers. Most software applications support a variety of font formats, making it possible to build your font library beyond those typestyles supplied with your software. The Font Specifications chart indicates the font types that each software package supports (indicated by a check mark) as well as the number of fonts included with the software and the number available as options for an additional cost.
     The Stroke Fonts column refers to the number of standard engraving fonts included/available. Stroke fonts are vector-based fonts, sometimes referred to as “stick fonts.” TrueType Fonts are compatible with many programs (many are included with both Macintosh and Windows operating systems) and there are thousands of these types of fonts available. PostScript is a font format developed by Adobe in the 1980s prior to TrueType fonts. These fonts are compatible with many graphics programs, although you do need to install Adobe Type Manager (a free Adobe utility) to use them if your computer operating system predates Windows 2000. OpenType Fonts, developed jointly by Adobe and Microsoft, are the latest format to be introduced and can be used on either Macintosh or Windows operating systems. The last column in this chart, Clip Art/Graphics, indicates any stock graphics (logos, symbols, etc.) that are included with the software or available as options.
     The next group of charts deals with specific software capabilities. These charts list the manufacturer and software name along with each of the major software features that are offered. Note: In some cases, the software offers the feature as a “workaround,” which means the feature is not an automatic, built-in function but the end result can be accomplished through a series of steps.
     Each of the following headings in this article directly correspond to the chart headings. The subheadings in the charts describe the specific features.
Text Entry
     The Text Entry chart details the features and commands related to inputting text.
     Software programs with the Display Numeric Line Length feature will display the numeric value for the length of a text line as it’s being entered. This is helpful in determining if a text line will fit within a given area or if it will need to be compressed.
     The next two columns indicate the method the software uses to specify the text size for a job. Typographic Measure is a system where the character height is measured from ascender to descender, sometimes including “built-in white space.” In other words, the character height is measured from the top of the capital letters to the bottom of the letters which extend below the baseline, such as with the letters g, j and y. Engraving Measure refers to measuring character height as a “capital letter” height, which is the traditional method used by engravers, e.g. from the top to the bottom of a capital “E” or other capital letters. Although either can be used, many veteran engravers prefer the traditional method since it leaves no “guesswork” when it comes to fitting text into predefined spaces. Most orders for signs and other products also specify the letter size using capital letter height.
     The next three columns indicate the text measurement units available for copy entry, i.e. points, inches or metrics. Although largely a matter of personal preference, it can be convenient to have various formats available, e.g. if your U.S. business receives job specifications in metric measure from a customer in Europe or vice versa. Points and picas (typographical measure) are typically used by graphics-based businesses (and software).
     Autocondensing is a must-have feature for many engravers because it addresses the age-old problem of fitting a long line of text into a narrow space. This handy option automatically condenses (compresses) a text line to fit within a given space, usually as governed by a set of margins. With most systems that offer autocondensing, you have the further option of compressing an individual text line only as needed or compressing all lines equally (indicated by Autocondense Equalization in the chart) to create an overall uniform look in the layout. Most engravers who are familiar with this feature would consider it a “must-have” as well, especially where you have several short lines of text which fit easily into the line length available and one long line which must compress significantly to fit. Autocondense equalization is generally a user-definable parameter which allows you to cause all lines or all lines of a given height to condense. Gross differences in condensing obviously can affect the balance and look of the layout.
     The Character Manipulations column is a general heading that encompasses various ways to change the appearance of text. This includes features such as extending, condensing, reversing, italicizing, bolding, etc. These types of controls give you a great deal of flexibility when it comes to changing the look of text.
     Most of the engraving-specific software packages available offer kerning capabilities, i.e. the ability to modify the inter-character spacing between “weak” letter combinations, such as “AV” and “LT.” Manual Kerning offers users the ability to insert a partial backspace or forward space between characters by using the keyboard or mouse. Software with Automatic Kerning capabilities automatically corrects the spacing between certain problem character combinations.
     The next five features in the Text Entry chart all relate to how text lines are placed within a layout. Vertical Text Entry can be a very convenient feature for certain types of jobs as it allows you to automatically place characters one on top of the other. This is handy for engraving initials on key tags and other gift items and can also be useful for architectural signage applications.
     Variable Line Slope is used to slant or tilt a text line in a layout by changing the baseline. This is often used for special effects, e.g. when creating sign layouts and logos or when engraving diagonally on items like tankards.
     Engraving text on an arc (Text Arcing) remains a popular and useful option when working with plaques, awards, dials, embossing seal dies, etc. With most of the software available today, arc engraving is as simple as inputting the dimensions of the arc. For example, you can enter the beginning/ending angles and the radius of the arc to place text anywhere along the imaginary circle, from 0 to 360 degrees, and orient it in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. With some software, you can also create arc layouts visually, e.g. by using the mouse to drag a text line into an arc.
     Automatic Text Columnizing is a useful tool for those who often engrave items such as plaques with columns of text. With most applications, the user simply inputs the basic layout information and the text for each column and the software will automatically generate the columnar layout. In most cases, columnar copy is organized alphabetically or by date going down each column and then continuing at the top of the next column. Automatic columnizing software arranges the text in that way so the names (or dates) will be correctly laid out.
     Fit Text To Shape is a special effect that offers some creative assistance to those working with text in a layout. For example, you can create a shape, such as a heart, and automatically force text to conform to that shape. Some programs also include “pre-made” shapes (distortions), e.g. a globe or a wave, to which you can automatically conform text.
     The last feature in this chart, Spell Check, is handy for those of us who didn’t score an A in spelling class. Spell Check comes as a standard feature in most software available today and, if used, can help to avoid some costly, if not embarrassing, mistakes.

 
EngraveLab PhotoLaser Plus from CADlink converts color photographs to grayscale images.   Most laser engraving software has features for 3D engraving. Photo courtesy of Kern Electronics and Lasers, Inc.

Layout/Editing
     This next chart details the layout and editing features that each software package has to offer. Layout features are those capabilities that let you precisely position text and graphics within a job. Editing commands are also necessary because they allow you to easily make changes to a layout in order to make it more visually appealing.
     Automatic Layout is an extremely useful feature that allows users to quickly and easily generate layouts for a variety of jobs involving standard layouts with multiple-text lines, including awards, signage, ID tags and badges. This feature actually encompasses a variety of options that help guide you in creating an attractive layout. For example, you can automatically establish baseline positions for each text line based on the plate dimensions and then evenly position the layout elements from top to bottom and left to right. Typically, this feature also provides programmed line spacing options, e.g. uniform line spacing for allotting even amounts of space between text and proportional line spacing where the line spacing is proportional to the character heights in the text lines above and/or below it.
     Set Absolute Margins is a simple feature but one that can save you time when creating a layout. This option allows you to define the left/right and top/bottom margins for a layout so that when you enter text and images, they’re forced to stay within these boundaries (just as you would in a word processed document). The ability to set margins in this manner means you don’t have to manually measure and reposition the layout elements to ensure that they fit properly on the plate. A lot of users consider this a “must-have” feature because some packages allow you to engrave right off the ends of the plates!
     The Globally Respace Layout feature is similar to the automatic layout functions mentioned earlier in that it offers the ability to respace an entire layout with the click of a mouse. Usually, you have the option of spacing the text lines evenly, proportionally or by some other user-definable criteria.
     The next function in the Layout/Editing chart, Modify Line Thickness, is a feature used primarily in laser engraving. You would likely use this function to add thickness to lines in text and graphics, allowing the image to be raster engraved as opposed to vector engraved. In laser engraving, thin lines will automatically be vector engraved. By increasing the thickness of those lines, you can cause them to be raster engraved. This can be helpful in several different situations. For example, you may choose to use a single-stroke font originally designed for use with a rotary cutter and a mechanical engraving machine because a similar TrueType outline font is not available or perhaps you need an exact match to a rotary font. This feature will essentially turn a “stick font” into one that can be raster engraved.
     The Create Layout Layers/Colors feature gives you the ability to place different elements on different “layers” within a single layout or create the elements in different colors and then assign those layers or colors individual engraving variables. This feature can be useful in many situations. For example, your layout can contain both vector and raster images, which usually require different power and speed settings. By separating the layout elements into different layers or colors, you can associate each layer or color with the power and speed settings as well as other engraving variables. This feature is also useful when you want to make a layout template (e.g. for an octagon-shaped award) for placing text and graphics without engraving it.
     The ability to define the engravable area at the table can be very handy and efficient, especially when engraving odd-shaped items or items with engraving areas that are not symmetrical. With this feature, you can manually jog the laser head to the engravable area and register points in the software that define that area. Some lasers have a spotting beam designed for this. The software will then display the engravable area on your computer screen, where you can input text/graphics. When the job is sent to the laser it knows exactly where to start engraving. This is also a great option for engravers who prefer a “visual” approach to engraving as opposed to a mathematical one.
     Some software programs have the capability of automatically generating dials and ruler-type scales. Depending on the software, these features can be relatively simple or highly sophisticated. For instance, with some programs you can create multi-level dials and scales and automatically calculate and create numbers and characters. These features are particularly useful for industrial engraving applications, such as control panels.

 
The vertical text entry feature is handy for signage, gifts and many other items. Photo courtesy of Gravograph.  

Graphics & Photos
     The next chart deals with generating laser engraving graphics and photographs. These are extremely important features because they offer incredible creative opportunities which, ultimately, can help sell merchandise. One of the biggest advantages of laser engraving is the ability to quickly and easily engrave logos, intricate graphic images and photographs. Today’s customers look for the most creative options available when it comes to personalizing awards, gifts and even signage, and these tools can help you provide what they’re looking for.
     With the Automatically Create Shapes feature, you can automatically create and edit a variety of standard, predefined shapes such as circles, ovals, rectangles, stars, arrows, etc. This is a very easy way to add graphics to a layout, create profiled shapes for badges, ornaments, etc., and design simple logos.
     Freehand Graphics provides tools for drawing your own designs on the computer. You can digitize lines, arcs, curves, shapes, just about anything. This is another useful tool for creating custom designs.
Most layout programs available today include a host of unique effects that can be used to add flair to many different kinds of layouts. Some examples of these Special Effects include:
     • Extruding—This gives an object or text line a three-dimensional appearance.
     • Blending—A function that flows objects into one another and produces interesting effects, e.g. the word “cold” may appear in the background as it gradually blends into the word “hot” in the foreground.
     • Graphical Fill Patterns—These are different types of patterns you can use to fill an object to give the illusion of shading.
     • Drop Shadows—A text-related feature that creates various types of shadows behind text lines to provide dimension and graphic appeal.
     Automatic Raster Fill is another laser-specific function, which automatically generates a raster fill pattern inside closed vector shapes. This can be used for outline fonts that you wish to raster engrave as well as any graphics that are in vector format. Let’s say, for example, that you’re going to engrave a circle. You can automatically raster fill the circle in order to engrave it as a solid rather than as an outline.
     Similar to automatic raster fill is the Automatically Repair Vectors feature. In many cases, this function will allow you to automatically fill imported vector graphics as just noted even if the image consists of lines that are not connected. Many people have probably experienced the frustration of importing a logo only to find that certain parts of the logo would not accept a raster fill or they would fill incorrectly, most likely because some of the lines in the image weren’t connected. This feature looks for discontinuities like this and automatically repairs them, eliminating the need to manually digitize the problem areas.
     When a customer brings in a logo or graphic design to be engraved on an item, the easiest way to incorporate it into the job is by scanning it into the computer. Although you can import scanned images into most software, the Artwork Scanning feature in the chart describes the software’s built-in scanning capabilities. This allows you to scan artwork directly into the software, saving you from having to import the file into the program later on.
     Although once considered a complicated process, engraving photographs has become quite simple thanks to many of today’s software features. For laser engraving, photographs must be processed as black and white or, in digital terms, “grayscale” images. In most cases, your scanning software will scan a color photo as a grayscale image. However, many software packages, including those listed in this guide, allow you to convert color photographs and other images into a grayscale directly in the software (see Produce Grayscale Images in the chart).
     This feature can be useful in situations where a customer supplies you with a previously scanned color photograph or if you need to use the same photograph with a color marking process such as sublimation. Software applications associated with this feature typically provide additional options for fine-tuning images, i.e. altering the brightness, contrast, sharpness and resolution of the image, as well as a feature that will automatically invert the image (turn it into a negative for engraving). In any case, the end result is a “halftone” or “bitmap” image consisting of a series of dots. Unlike raster images, which are made up of a sequence of evenly spaced, uniform dots, the dots in bitmap images vary in size and spacing. When the image is engraved, the different sized dots produce the overall effect of shades of gray.
     Bitmap Editing Tools in the Graphics & Photos chart refers to a selection of tools available to clean up or change bitmap images. Once you import or scan a bitmap image, these features allow you to manipulate and alter the image in a variety of ways.
     The last feature in the chart, Dithering Patterns, refers to the ability to apply different halftone screens or dithering patterns to a photograph to achieve special effects. For example, you can select different types of halftone patterns such as circular, elliptical or linear. You can also apply special effects, e.g. to create a mosaic tiled effect or an embossed look. These tools offer users the ability to add a whole new level of creativity to their laser engraving products when working with photos and other images.


View Layout
     The next chart indicates the various ways in which you can view a layout on the computer screen. The ability to view a layout in several different formats can be helpful when creating a layout and can save time when editing.
     View Material allows you to actually view your layout on a realistic version of the material you plan to engrave on. This feature simulates the surface color, texture and core color for a wide variety of materials, providing you and your customers with a glimpse of what the final product will look like before you actually engrave it.
     Placement Tools in this chart represents various guideline tools which can be very helpful when setting up layouts. For example, an on-screen grid option allows you to display a user-definable background grid made up of lines or dots that you can use to precisely position layout elements. Some applications also include on-screen rulers and movable guidelines that you can position anywhere in the layout.
     Similarly, many software programs incorporate on-screen Measuring Tools. For instance, you can click the mouse at a beginning and ending point within your layout and the software will measure the distance between those two points, displaying the information directly on the screen. Some programs also allow you to automatically place dimension lines, e.g. blueprint dimension lines, in the layout. Other tools allow you to measure the area and perimeter of an item, including irregular-shaped objects, using a bounding box.


Engraving Output
     When a layout is completed, it can be sent from the computer to the laser engraving machine. The types of software features associated with engraving are listed in the Engraving Output chart.
     Before any engraving can take place, the laser must be focused in relation to the material being engraved. Focusing involves positioning the lens at a specified distance (focal length) away from the material surface. The distance will vary depending on the focal length and spot size of the lens.
     Most of today’s laser systems have an automatic focusing feature that typically incorporates a sensor-type mechanism for detecting the correct focusing distance. As noted in the chart, laser software that contains the Automatic Focus Before Job feature allows you to embed a command in the job file instructing the laser to automatically focus the lens before engraving. You simply place the material on the worktable and the software tells the machine to automatically position the table so that the work piece is the correct distance beneath the lens. This feature is very convenient and can be a real time-saver. Automatic Focus During Job is a similar feature that causes the laser to adjust the focus as necessary during engraving. This is useful for maintaining even engraving depths when you’re working with materials that vary in thickness.
     Multiple Laser Passes is a feature that instructs the laser to use multiple passes to engrave progressively deeper. The machine automatically refocuses the laser beam a user-definable distance before or after each pass. This helps to maintain a tightly focused beam to concentrate the laser beam power, allowing deeper engraving or cutting completely through thick materials.
     As shown in the chart, many computer-controlled lasers have a feature known as Proportional Power that can be controlled through the software. This control automatically changes the power of the laser beam by linking the laser’s pulses with the speed of engraving. For example, in vector mode the laser operates at full speed when engraving straight lines and slows down when cutting a curve. Without proportional power, the laser would engrave both at the same speed, resulting in deeper cuts on curves than with straight lines. With this feature, the power is proportional to the type of engraving that is being done, which helps to eliminate variations in depth and line widths.
     Laser engravers with Optimized Raster Engraving will automatically optimize the engraving speed based on the layout, i.e. the laser engraves in the areas where an image exists and then skips the blank spaces between image areas. This feature can substantially reduce engraving time since the laser “scans” only those areas to be engraved rather than the entire layout.
     Bottom-Up Engraving, the next feature listed in the Engraving Output chart, offers the ability to engrave a job from bottom to top as opposed to the traditional method of engraving from top to bottom. This feature was developed specifically for engraving materials that generate excessive smoke, e.g. rubber stamps. Being able to engrave these materials from bottom to top greatly reduces the amount of smoke residue that’s drawn over the already-engraved area, ultimately saving you cleaning time. It’s also useful for engraving multi-colored materials, such as white plastic with a bright red core, where red soot could be dragged over the white plastic causing discoloration.
     Engraving software typically allows you to change the orientation of an engraving job, e.g. to engrave it sideways or upside down. This is useful when engraving items that fit in the laser machine a certain way, e.g. upside down.
     Many lasers (and rotary engraving machines) have a set origin, i.e. the reference position on the laser’s worktable. Typically, the upper-left corner is the point of origin on most lasers. Relocatable Origin, the next feature in the chart, is used for changing the origin position. This is helpful when you’re engraving odd-shaped or non-square items, e.g. where’s the upper-left corner of an obelisk? In a case like this, changing the origin to the center, for example, can greatly simplify the setup process.
     The Materials-Based Print Driver function is another great time-saver available in some of today’s software packages. This is essentially a library that lists a variety of different materials along with the optimum power and speed settings for engraving that material. By selecting the appropriate material before engraving, the software will automatically select the power and speed settings recommended for that type of material.
     Air assist is a prominent hardware feature available with laser engraving systems. An air assist setup directs a stream of pressurized air or gas onto the engraving surface to reduce flaming and burning. It also protects the lens and other optics from damage. The Automatic Air Assist feature listed in the chart is a software feature that allows you to preprogram the air assist function to go on and off as needed within a job.
     Many laser manufacturers also offer vector cutting tables and vacuum tables for use with their laser systems. Cutting tables typically consist of an open honeycomb-type grid that, when placed on the worktable, allows the laser beam to pass through the material and allows air to flow beneath it as the material is cut. Profiling on a cutting table creates cleaner cuts and better edge finishes with less melting and burning.
     Vacuum tables have been used in computerized engraving for years and there are some applications for them in laser engraving as well. These tables use vacuum, or suction, to keep flimsy items such as fabric, paper and ultra-thin engraving materials from floating during the lasering process, allowing for more accurate engraving and cutting.
     Both cutting and vacuum tables use a vacuum system in order to operate. As noted in the Engraving Output chart, Automatic Vacuum ON/OFF refers to the software’s ability to control the vacuum (turn it on/off) within a job.


Special Layout/Engraving Features
     The features found in this chart are specific to certain engraving functions. Matrix Engraving, also known as “multiple-plate engraving,” offers the ability to consecutively engrave a series of small plates onto one larger piece of material in a step-and-repeat fashion. Typically, with this feature, you also have the option of generating score lines (Matrix Score Lines in the chart) in between the plates. These can be total score lines, where you can use the laser to cut the plates completely apart, or partial score lines which provide guide lines for shearing or sawing the individual plates. Most software will also allow you to program an offset amount between the plates with this feature. Batch Engraving refers to consecutively engraving the same layout with different text on a series of precut plates.
     Variable Lists and Automatic Serial Numbering are two additional features that work in conjunction with matrix and batch engraving. The variable lists function allows you to import a variable text list, e.g. a list of names, that is automatically inserted into the matrix or batch layout. This is useful for quickly creating a quantity of name badges or nameplates. The automatic serial numbering option generates consecutive numbers or characters, e.g. for machine tags or apartment nameplates. Both of these features save time and reduce errors for users since they don’t have to type the information for each individual plate into the job. The software automatically inserts this information for them.
     Many laser machine manufacturers offer a cylindrical engraving fixture for engraving on round and tubular-shaped items such as wine glasses, vases, pens, etc. The Cylindrical Engraving Layout option is essentially an automatic layout feature for setting up cylindrical engraving jobs. With this feature, you typically input basic information such as the diameter, radius and/or circumference of the item and the software automatically generates an accurate layout for engraving roundwork.
     Part Nesting is a sophisticated feature used primarily for cutting/profiling that allows you to optimize the use of cutout material. For example, by altering the position of triangular-shaped rubber stamps or name badges and nesting them together to fit the size of the material, you can reduce wasted material and save money.
     The next two features, Rubber Stamp Wizard and Embossing Seal Wizard, are two features that take you step-by-step through the process of creating rubber stamps and embossing seal dies. These functions have built-in features specifically related to each process. For example, the rubber stamp wizard allows you to automatically adjust the base of the stamp characters (to create more or less stability) and create a contour cutout for profiling the stamp after it has been engraved. The seal wizard takes you through the process of creating male and female dies that fit together to emboss paper and other documents.
     Bar code engraving is increasingly becoming a common application for laser systems. With the appropriate software, lasers can quickly and easily engrave bar codes which are increasingly required for nameplates where “traceability” is a requirement. 1D Bar Codes are bar codes consisting of parallel lines that provide basic information when read by a bar code scanner. 2D Data Matrix, similar to bar codes, are becoming more common in both business and government. This type of bar code can contain up to 2,335 alphanumeric or 3,116 numeric characters of information, which means it can provide 100 times more information than a traditional bar code. This type of bar code is now being used by the U.S. Government for the UID (Unique Identification) marking program. This mandatory program is designed to label and track just about every high-value part the government owns, uses, drives or flies. (Visit www.uidmarkinginfo.com to learn more about UID marking.) Laser software with these features allows you to automatically generate and engrave these types of bar codes.
     Similarly, Braille Translation will automatically convert text to Braille for the purposes of creating ADA signage. Note, however, that lasers are not commonly used for this application because it’s difficult to achieve the correct dot formation that complies with the ADA guidelines. Rotary engraving machines are still the preferred method for creating Braille signage.
     The next feature in the chart is 3D Engraving. In laser engraving as in mechanical engraving, 3D effects are accomplished by varying the depth of the cut. This is achieved by raster scanning an area and then firing the laser at different power settings at each X,Y position. Greater wattage provides a greater degree of relief. Also, the more depth variations you have, the greater the three-dimensional effect. Most 3D laser software allows you to achieve up to 256 depth levels.
     The last feature in this chart is Combination Laser/Rotary Layout which offers the ability to create one layout with elements for both rotary and laser engraving. For example, you might use a laser to engrave intricate graphics and a rotary machine to drill holes for Raster Braille.


Job Features
     The final chart has to do with executing, saving, printing and managing your engraving jobs. The first feature in this chart is Ethernet Connectivity, one of the newer developments in computer technology. Ethernet capability allows you to have one or more lasers “online” on your Ethernet network, along with your server, multiple work stations, printers, scanners, etc. The advantage here is the ability to set up jobs in one area and route them so you can send jobs to the same or multiple engraving machines from many different computers.
     For example, you can plug your Ethernet-based rotary engraving machines and laser systems into a common router along with other network connections, such as desktop workstations, printers, etc. Once an engraving machine has been wired into the network, there is no need to fumble with cable connections from the workstation to the engraving machine and you’re not limited to having only one “dedicated” workstation for sending engraving jobs. This allows many different users to send jobs to the same engraving machine or one user to send jobs to multiple machines.
     Another sophisticated feature listed in this chart is E-mail Status Report, which allows users to instruct the software to automatically E-mail someone (a shop foreman, a customer, etc.), informing them that a job is either queued up to run or has finished running, among other things. Real-Time Job Monitoring allows you to view, from your computer, an engraving job that’s in progress. You can actually watch an item being engraved right on your computer screen, even if the engraving machine is located in another area. Touch Screen Support allows you to use the LCD touch screen on the laser machine to browse through the jobs stored on the computer. This feature even includes a picture of the job for easy identification. Once you locate the job, you can simply send it to the laser to be engraved without having to go back to the computer.
     Job Pricing is a feature found in some software packages that assists users in calculating job prices. You simply input pricing information, e.g. price-per-letter or price-per-plate, and the software will automatically calculate the total price of the job. Some programs even allow you to input tax percentages.
     With Job Comments, users can save any comments or other information along with a job, e.g. the name of the order, date, material used, etc. Save Job Specifications is a useful feature that will save power settings, speed settings and other job information such as the material size, engraving mode, dpi, etc., along with the job for future use. The Job Timer provides you with the time it takes to engrave a job, which can be helpful for quoting prices and scheduling.
Summary
     As you can see from the details in part one of this Buyer’s Guide, software for laser engraving has come a long way in recent years and, according to manufacturers, you can expect even more developments in the near future. “We see a move towards more application-specific features in the software for different industries, including the awards industry, sign industry, etc.,” notes Jessica Hoffpauir-Freeman of Xenetech Global. “We take specific feedback from customers and apply new features based on their requests.”
     Another goal of software developers is to maintain user-friendliness. “There are new trends in software development toward making it easier to choose the right settings for different materials, thus reducing trial and error,” says Jonathan Cohen, Product Marketing Manager for Gravograph, adding that better photoengraving wizards is another area where users can expect development.
     And, as Tim Benner from CADlink points out, software is becoming more affordable and broader based. “The number of features continues to increase and prices are dropping,” he says. “Customers are looking for comprehensive solutions that will support laser engraving, rotary engraving, vinyl cutting, sublimation and CNC all from one application.”
     Watch for part two of this 2008 Buyer’s Guide for Laser Engraving Software series in which EJ will take a closer look at some of the benefits that engraving-specific software packages such as those detailed in this article can offer your R&I business. We’ll talk to manufacturers as well as end users to find out just how useful some of these packages are and whether or not they are worth the extra cost compared to generic graphics programs like CorelDRAW.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

EJ HOME PAGE