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What's Happening in the Laser Market

Copyright © 2011 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in January 2011, Volume 36, No. 7 of The Engravers Journal
   
  The FiberMark Laser Engraving System from Epilog Laser, Golden, CO, utilizes a fiber laser which can directly mark uncoated metals.  

   The laser cutting and engraving market is an exciting field these days and getting hotter. What are the emerging and changing trends in laser equipment? What are consumer attitudes and market segment growth? Is this an area of the industry that is still growing as it has for some 20 years?
   Present day laser engraving has consistently held a major presence in the R&I industry ever since it came on the scene in the early 90s. It is an area that has continued to grow and provide profit potential for business owners even during the recent economic downturn. So what is happening today?
   I recently had a Q&A session with major laser engraving machine manufacturers to learn about the latest in laser engraving trends, technology, marketing potential and more. Their responses were interesting and enlightening.
Is the interest in purchasing laser engraving machines and laser engraving in general growing, remaining the same or declining?
   Laser engraving is definitely a hot spot in the industry that only gains momentum as time goes by. Many people new to the engraving or award business instinctively ask about laser engraving equipment first before any other marking method, and that is one of the reasons why interest in laser engraving remains high. “There is a misconception that CO2 lasers will do everything that a rotary machine will do and do it faster and better. That fuels interest,” says Jonathan Cohen, Engraving Equipment and Software Product Manager for Gravograph, Duluth, GA. “In many cases the laser will be an appropriate solution, but it is important to discuss the customer’s scope of work and to educate them on the differences between rotary and laser engraving.”
   That said, the majority of the manufacturers say that interest in laser processing systems and laser engraving is growing for a variety of other reasons, including improvements in technology, developments in laserable materials and more applications arriving within the market.
   Most manufacturers are reporting a marked increase in demand as the economy continues to recover. Epilog Laser,
Golden, CO, saw record laser sales in both 2009 and 2010. Epilog provided 1,200 laser systems to a single supplier for marking pet tags, but that is not what will fuel future growth for the company. “We find the laser industry to be in an incredible growth stage,” says Mike Dean, Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “We’ve seen a lot of growth in industrial markets, consumer and entrepreneur markets and, surprisingly, in the awards and engraving market. 2010 has been especially strong in the awards market.”
   Escalating interest in this market is also attributed to the versatility of laser engraving systems and that, consequently, opens up many new applications that fuel growth across many industries. The more that people become aware of the machinery capabilities, the more interest is generated, and that feeds on itself. “To those of us who have been in this business for twenty years or more, it’s surprising how many people we run across that are just now seeing their first laser. There are still a lot of new opportunities out there,” states Dean. “For example, we’ve recently seen an increase of custom cabinet makers who laser engrave their logo and contact information on the inside of high-end custom cabinet doors. They’re not only providing a service for customers, they’re helping gain exposure for their brand each and every time that door is opened.”

   
  Lasers can be used to create unique and intricate products. Photo courtesy of Epilog Laser.  

    Guy Barone, President of Xenetech Global, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA, agrees that interest in laser engraving continues to spread as the laser engraving process is understood by more people through experience and improved education. According to Barone, “Overall, we’re seeing an increase in laser interest especially from nontraditional users. For example, those who previously would subcontract industrial part marking are now researching and buying lasers and rotary systems as well. These customers are attracted to the variety of materials a laser will mark as well as the productivity it can produce.”
   An improving economy also appears to be a key factor of growth in the laser engraving market. “We are seeing growth most likely due to the financial crisis coming to an end. People are more willing to invest in equipment,” says Mira Wu, MarCom Manager, GCC America, Inc., Walnut, CA.
What has happened with the price of equipment recently?
   A big turning point in laser engraving occurred a few years ago when prices began to dip even as technology continued to improve. “Until 2008 it was impossible to find a U.S.-made entry-level system for under $10,000. Today that price point is about $2,000 lower for a high-quality 30-watt machine from Epilog,” says Dean.
   Today, all of the manufacturers say that equipment prices have remained stable but technology has steadily improved, and that means more bang for your buck. “Both laser equipment and laserable materials continue to be more affordable,” explains Gravograph’s Cohen. “Pricing has remained stable but the equipment has gained features, performance and quality.”
Where are you seeing buying activity?
   As expected, current economic conditions influence buying decisions. Many businesses are maintaining status quo, but laser equipment manufacturers report seeing buying activity across all sectors of the market. This is happening for various reasons: there’s a need for more productivity by doing more work in less time, resulting in less expense; the ability to mark a variety of materials with one machine; or to bring engraving in-house for the first time.
   One market segment that appears to be experiencing significant growth is new business startups. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in people starting their own businesses with a laser. Given the relatively low price points of entry-level systems, buyers are beginning to realize that starting a profitable business with a laser is indeed a realistic endeavor,” says Dean. In addition, he says that existing successful laser engraving businesses receive a lot of exposure. That helps others see how and why a laser engraving business might be a good option.
   New business owners can start with a part-time home-based business without huge startup fees or overhead costs. Learning to use the equipment is generally a quick and easy process. “Given the questionable state of the economy, people feel empowered as they start a new venture that allows them to be in control of their own business,” Dean adds. “You don’t have to worry that the powers-that-be are going to lay you off when you’re in control of the finances and success of your own business.”
   Current business owners looking to increase revenue streams by adding laser engraving capabilities is another growing market area. “Many existing businesses will start offering laser engraving services to supplement their primary business. A case in point is embroidery shops that could use a laser to cut twill or fabric and also offer awards and plaques very easily, or jewelers bringing laser engraving in-house to increase margins,” says Gravograph’s Cohen.
   The same holds true of general engraving businesses that currently have rotary engraving capabilities and want to expand their productivity and product offering. Similarly “business turnovers” are an area where laser engraving is selling. As businesses are sold or future generations take over, the new owners often see a need to modernize equipment and the first priority is usually a new laser.
   There also appears to be a healthy portion of repeat buyers who are adding and/or upgrading equipment to their existing operation. James Hays, Marketing and Technical Writer for Universal Laser Systems, Scottsdale, AZ. says, “The companies that have made it through these tough few years are the best organized and most efficient ones. They’re busy upgrading and expanding their processing capabilities to win new business and keep up with demand, and are taking aggressive positions to protect their market share from upstarts.”
What feedback do you receive from first-time laser buyers?
   Along with feedback about specific machines and features, manufacturers say they also hear many positive comments about advanced technology, machine reliability, productivity and ease of use attributed to laser engraving in general.
   “The typical response is along the lines of ‘I thought laser engraving machines would be much more difficult to program and operate. This laser is much easier to operate than I ever imagined.’ At first, new users focus on engraving the easiest materials to process. Once they learn to think outside the box, they find out just how versatile these engravers are,” says Gravograph’s Cohen.
   Epilog’s Mike Dean concurs. “We receive tremendous feedback from first-time buyers about how their machine allows them to complete more work in less time, that they found it extremely easy to get up and running and that our support structure never fails to help them as they get familiar with the equipment.”

Photo engraving is a major application for lasers. Photo courtesy of Universal Laser Systems. The new Multi-Wavelength laser from Universal Laser Systems, Scottsdale, AZ, features both fiber and CO2 laser technology. The XL Duo laser engraving system from Xenetech Global, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA, does both laser and diamond engraving.
   
What does it take for an engraver to be successful in laser engraving today?
   “Imagination, creativity and a knack for finding new applications,” says GCC’s Mira Wu in response to this question. Other manufacturers agree that successful laser engraving businesses have these qualities.
   One of the biggest differentiators between marginally- and widely-successful businesses is being able to think outside the box to help customers with anything they need. “It’s really important to have the capabilities to handle a wide spectrum of requests. Satisfying the customer will lead to referrals which are the life-blood of any business,” Gravograph’s Cohen says.
   Xenetech’s Guy Barone states that today’s economic environment has forced engravers to become more efficient and effective in every aspect of their business, and that includes increasing production and adding value to product lines by providing services that competitors don’t. “Engravers need to stay current on designs and materials. Sustainable or ‘green’ materials are exceptionally popular right now as are multimedia projects that incorporate more than one material. Projects need to be clean, crisp and contemporary,” Barone explains. “Engraving businesses also need to be open to expanding the types of customization they offer. When customers will pay upwards of $150 for a laptop engraving, it’s no time to be limited in the services you offer.”
   Warren Knipple, President of Trotec Laser, Inc., Ypsilanti, MI, agrees that in order to be successful, engravers need to become more efficient and effective in their engraving operations. “This means reducing cycle times, improving throughput and reducing down time. Sales diversification into new markets by leveraging core capabilities to new customers and new applications is also key,” he states.
   “The fundamentals of the market haven’t changed,” says James Hays from Universal Laser Systems. “The engravers who succeed are the ones who react quickly to the market needs, have a close eye for detail, seek out new opportunities and manage their operations efficiently. Individuality and a creative streak are any engraver’s trump card.”
Are engravers becoming more creative with their laser equipment?
   One of the major advantages of laser engraving is that this field provides an incredible opportunity to put those creative juices to work, and from all accounts it appears that business owners are doing just that.
   “There is no doubt about this,” says Cohen. ”As technology improves and as people become more experienced and as new laserable materials arrive in the market, owners and operators are doing things that couldn’t be done before or were not previously thought of. It’s also a matter of survival to continue to think and act creatively.”
   Dean notes that every time his company speaks with a customer, they hear of new ways the laser is being utilized. “Engravers have kept their finger on the pulse of the market and since they have seen equipment improve and change over the years, they have a great idea of what types of applications their engraving systems are well suited for,” he says.
What are the most profitable market areas for laser engraved products?
   Versatility comes into play again because there is not one single most profitable market in laser engraving. The profitable shops are venturing into all kinds of markets including gifts, awards, signage, industrial marking and model making.
   Even better is the fact that engravers have been able to use laser engraving technology to branch out into new, and sometimes unique, markets. Examples of new markets and applications include: patterns for quilting; scrapbooking; wooden signs; mirror marking; debossing dies, appliqués; packaging; and stamp manufacturing. Engravers continue to use laser processing systems in new and interesting ways. The rock band OK GO, for example, used over 2000 pieces of laser engraved toast—that’s right, toasted bread—in its video for their song “Last Leaf.” The video production company used laser systems from Universal Laser Systems to engrave a different image on each piece of toast which were then filmed in stop-motion animation. “The versatility of the equipment opens up opportunities in new markets every time you turn the machine on,” says Hays.
   Dean says that they have seen customers move from creating awards and trophies to offering custom photo engraving, memorial engraving, tech gadget engraving, fabric engraving and cutting, and more. “We have several award customers who have also purchased a FiberMark laser for direct metal marking. These customers have done fantastically well by expanding their businesses into an entirely new field of metal engraving for serial numbers and bar codes for the same businesses that they are currently selling awards to.”
What new educational resources are available to laser owners?
   Unlike the early days of laser engraving, there is a proliferation of education and training available today through online tutorials, webinars, classroom training, one-on-one assistance over the Internet and more. Every manufacturer offers a plethora of resources to help laser owners. Universal Laser Systems, for example, offers first-time customers a free two-day training program in addition to webinars, video tutorials and a monthly factory training course at the company’s headquarters. Epilog has an online “Sample Club” that features files and instructions that customers can download to create instant samples. The company also offers a “Virtual Training Suite” that features technical articles, how-to instructional videos and online demonstrations. Additionally, Epilog and its distributors regularly host laser engraving seminars and workshops across the country.
What are the most popular types of lasers?
   All of the manufacturers indicate that CO2 lasers in the 30-50 watt range are still king in the R&I industry. This type of system represents an economical engraving solution that is easy to use and extremely versatile, providing both performance and value. “Buyers, especially new ones, want to get the best possible use of their machine and that includes being able to engrave and cut an array of materials. With the exception of PVC, almost any material can be cut and engraved with a CO2 system–wood, paper, plastic, treated metal, glass, fabric–the list goes on and on,” says Dean.
   As far as table sizes go, manufacturers report the biggest demand is for mid-sized systems with table sizes in the 24"x18" to 29"x17" range. These systems provide a relatively large bed size in addition to the most advanced laser engraving features.

 
Lasers provide engravers with many unique opportunities. This Super Bowl football was laser engraved by Dale Gruver, owner of G.L.G. Custom Engraving, Tampa, FL.

 

The Spirit laser from GCC America, INC., Walnut, CA.

How popular are YAG and fiber lasers today?
   As engravers become more experienced and their needs change, there is a trend to upgrade to larger units and/or different technologies including Nd:YAG, Nd:YVO4 and the newer fiber lasers. All of these types of lasers produce laser energy in the near infrared spectrum which is useful for directly marking most metals. Of the three, the newer fiber lasers seem to be gaining the most ground.
   “Fiber lasers produce the same wavelength of light as YAG lasers and can be used for the same applications, such as marking directly on metals,” says Hays. “However, fiber lasers seem to be gradually replacing diode pumped Nd:YAG and Nd:YVO4 lasers because they are more compact, they can be air cooled and they produce the same energy at a lower cost.” In addition, fiber lasers are much easier to integrate into production lines and the laser power sources last up to approximately 100,000 hours versus 10,000 hours for YAG, YV04 and CO2 systems.
   “Fiber lasers produce energy wavelengths at 1.06µm and CO2 lasers produce wavelengths of energy at 10.6µm,” Hays continues. “For many shops, having both technologies can be a perfect complement because each is suited for engraving on different materials. CO2 lasers can’t mark uncoated metals directly without special optics, but fiber lasers can. Fiber lasers can’t cut or mark organic materials like wood and plastic, but CO2 lasers can.”
   Having in-house metal marking capabilities allows engraving companies to tap into new markets like the lucrative industrial market. “The more widespread availability of machines producing laser energy at 1.06µm, mainly fiber lasers, is the story of the day. These machines provide a cleaner, quicker means to mark directly on metals, which is what many industrial customers are looking for,” Hays adds.
   Mike Dean adds that “Fiber technology is definitely catching on in the engraving industry. As business owners are branching out or determining a specialty, they are realizing a need for a system that works solely on a few specialized materials like bare metals and engineered plastics.”
Are there any new laser technologies being introduced?
   A notable trend in new laser technologies is the combination of multiple capabilities into a single system. Several manufacturers have or are in the process of introducing these types of “multi-use” systems.
   Xenetech introduced the desktop Duo laser this year, a product which combines laser engraving and traditional “diamond drag” engraving into one machine to allow marking on a wide variety of materials including plastics, wood, coated metals and uncoated metals. The Duo allows vector cutting, raster engraving and diamond drag all in the same job or as individual processes.
   Trotec introduced the new Flexx laser system which integrates CO2 and fiber laser sources into one system. This new system allows processing mixed materials in one step and can be used to engrave wood, glass, metal, leather, acrylic and more.
   Universal Laser Systems is also rolling out a Multi-Wavelength laser platform designed to accept three separate, interchangeable wavelength sources: a fiber laser source (1.06µm wavelength) that is well-suited for marking most metals; a CO2 laser source (10.6µm wavelength) with the same energy produced by most standard CO2 lasers and is suitable for engraving materials such as wood, glass, acrylic, anodized aluminum and fabric; and a second CO2 laser source (9.3µm wavelength) which is applicable for efficiently processing a number of organic materials such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic resin and a form of polyester used to manufacture many new products. “I think this is where the market is headed: giving engravers more choices and opportunities in a single machine,” says Hays.
What are some of the new notable machine features?
   All of the machine manufacturers have introduced new features on their laser engraving systems. Here’s an overview of some of those features:
   • Advancements in technology allow incorporating many features previously available only in mid-size and large scale engraving machines into smaller models while maintaining a reasonable price point. This year, for example, Epilog announced the availability of a cylindrical engraving attachment option for its small-format engraver: the Epilog Zing 24.
   • Several manufacturers, including Trotec and Xenetech, have introduced optical recognition systems for mid-sized lasers, an option that was previously available only on large, expensive laser cutting systems. A major application of this feature is to accurately and precisely vector cut items that have been preprinted, such as: sheets of screen printed or digital transfers; screen printed or embroidered labels; printed membrane switches; signs; name tags; models; decals; puzzles; and cards and stationery. In order to cut out items that have not been created in the graphics software, an optical recognition system uses a camera and software to optically recognize the shape to be cut. The camera targets registration marks on the material and applies the cutting data to create a cutting path to precisely cut out shapes.
   • Several manufacturers have also introduced “pass through” options for small and mid-sized lasers that allow engraving to be possible on oversize items such as golf clubs, surfboards, cabinets and other items that can’t be engraved on the standard engraving table. In addition, Xenetech has recently introduced a conveyer option that allows a product to continuously flow through the engraving area.
   • Trotec has introduced a new line of laser exhaust systems to meet the diverse requirements of customers and ensure the safe and clean operation of the laser system. These systems are designed to remove dust and gas from the processing chamber and filter out any odors generated during the laser process.
   • Lasers today are generally less expensive, faster and more user-friendly. Large expensive “chillers” are no longer needed to keep the laser tube cool. Power consumption on these machines is way down from 5 years ago. Laser tube technology means systems are better built to last longer and offer higher power levels. Lasers have also become much safer to use. For example, all of Universal Laser Systems’ models feature enhancements that include over-temperature alarms and software that warns you if you try to cut materials thicker than your laser can safely handle.



 

The YAG200 laser from Gravograph, Duluth, GA, is a compact desktop unit.

  The Speedy 300 CO2 flatbed laser from Trotec Laser, Inc., Ypsilanti, MI.

Is there anything new in laser engraving software?
   Regarding graphics and layout software, CorelDRAW continues to be the most popular graphics package used in the laser engraving industry. Other Windows-based packages are also used, such as Adobe Illustrator and AutoCAD. There are also third party add-ons available for CorelDRAW. For example, EngravePro from ThermalMotion Systems Inc., Port Orange, FL, is a CorelDRAW plug-in that has some added functions specific to laser and rotary engraving that are missing in CorelDRAW. Xenetech and Gravograph also offer their own proprietary software designed specifically for laser engraving.
   Manufacturers agree that driver software—the software that controls the laser functions—is one area where laser technology has advanced the most. “Driver software provides numerous productivity tools and is an important and sometimes overlooked part of the laser system. The driver software can dramatically increase the productivity of the laser user,” says Trotec’s Warren Knipple.
   A sampling of new driver software features include: the ability to use a spotting beam to indicate the engraving location and perform a dry run to verify that location; the ability to store all lasering parameters in the job file; a job time estimator to facilitate quotes to customers; color mapping; 3D engraving settings; and dithering patterns. Gravograph, for example, has introduced a calibration utility that allows the operator to specify a range of power and speed settings to test on a material to determine the optimum machine settings for the best looking result.
Has there been any advancement in software for engraving photos?
   “Photo engraving is high on the list,” says ULS’s Hays. “A number of capable software packages, such as our own 1-Touch Laser Photo, have turned what was once an onerous task into a simple point-and-click operation. As the process has gotten easier, more engravers are getting into photo engraving, and the competition is spurring some really interesting developments in the use of the technology.” Hays adds that Universal Laser Systems continuously updates their photo software and in recent months has added new features, new settings for materials like painted acrylic and interface enhancements to make the software easier to use.
   Dean says that photo engraving software has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years. In 2010, Epilog partnered with CADlink to offer PhotoLaser Plus, an intuitive photo processing software that is ideal for beginners but also has many advanced features that more seasoned engravers can appreciate. “It’s a software package that definitely grows and expands as the engraver becomes more advanced,” says Dean.
Is there anything new in laser engraving materials or products?
   According to Gravograph’s Materials Market Manager, Peter Richey, great strides have been made in recent years in the development of microthin foil caps for engravable plastic. “An inferior microthin cap will bleed the surface color into the core which discolors the design. Today’s microthin caps do not bleed color into the core and are extremely durable,” he says.
   Epilog’s Mike Dean says that sustainable or “green” materials are very popular. Bamboo in particular is proving to be in high demand within this industry. Other materials growing in popularity include natural materials like agate and shells, as well as shell veneers which are used for intricate inlay work. Treated metals and certain plastics, like those found on tech gadgets, remain incredibly popular in the engraving world.
   As for future advancements, Gravograph’s Jonathon Cohen indicates that they have talked with vendors about developing laserable metal that is ready for outdoor use without having to add a UV coating after engraving. “This would be an exciting, easy-to-use alternative to current materials,” Cohen says.
Conclusion
   The demand for lasers has increased due to more and better capabilities along with increased education and awareness. Today’s lasers offer an engraver the speed, productivity and efficiency which helps increase throughput. Constant improvement of design and manufacturing processes has produced laser systems that are more durable and require less maintenance than those made five years ago. As technology continues to advance, laser engraving machines remain quite user-friendly.
   By all accounts, it appears that the laser engraving market is continuing to thrive and technology is continuing to advance, and that is good news for everyone in the industry.

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