A couple of years ago, I was having a conversation with the owner of one of the largest laser engraving machine manufacturers in the country when he made a statement that stuck with me. He said, “Most laser owners don’t use their machines to do more than one or two types of jobs.” I was floored. Just one or two types of work on a laser that is probably more versatile than any machine we have ever seen in our industry? I thought that was an amazing statement.
Since then, I have asked engravers what they do with their lasers and most of them say they do use it primarily for one or two applications, usually either wood plaques or rubber stamps or perhaps plastic signs. Very few gave a litany of applications. That causes me to think that many laser owners are missing out on a lot of easy money!
In this article, I will list some very profitable markets for laser engraved products. I know these sales avenues are profitable because I have sold to all of them and continue to sell to most of them yet today.
Perhaps the most exciting benefit of a laser engraving machine is that it is extremely versatile. It usually requires very little setup to engrave a host of different products and materials, and many jobs don’t require holding jigs. I once was teaching a class and made the statement, “I don’t know why anyone would really want to laser leather, but you can if you want to.” That was a really stupid statement and I knew it almost immediately because there was a woman in the audience who made her living laser engraving portraits onto leather, framing them and selling them for hundreds of dollars. That’s when I learned to never sell the capabilities of a laser engraving system short.
Do you really want to make more money with your laser engraving machine(s)? If so, read on for my list of suggestions for getting the full potential out of your equipment. If there are more than a couple of these applications you aren’t already using your laser for, perhaps you should consider expanding your target markets.
Plastic Signs & Name Badges
I heard someone in the plastic business say that their business was flat (not growing). That is amazing to me. It suggests that we engravers are missing the boat on some good business.
How many businesses can you walk into today and not see at least one plastic sign? They are everywhere. Restroom, exit, line forms here, this register closed, pull, push, no cell phones, no checks, name signs, way-finding signs, warning signs, mailbox signs, door signs, desk easels—and that’s only to mention a few. Engraved plastic signs are everywhere. There is no shortage of need and with the government requiring more and more signs, there is no shortage of demand. The problem is, many potential customers simply don’t know where to purchase engraved signage.
How many businesses have you gone into lately and seen a host of signs, but they were written or printed on paper and stuck on the wall or made into some kind of cardboard easel to indicate “this register is closed” or a perhaps a combination of these types of “homemade” signs? It’s amazing. We see them and walk right past. Those are all sales opportunities! Most business owners are embarrassed by those trashy signs. They just haven’t spent the time or don’t know where to order nice plastic signage.
Plastic engraving stock for laser engraving is available for a wide variety of sign applications, both interior and exterior. Woodgrains, metallics and decorator colors can all be used for everything from way-finding signs to informational signs to counter signs and nameplates. These products are incredibly easy to make with a laser engraver and there is virtually a never-ending market for them. Whether it is a 2"x10" door sign for $15 or a 12"x24" wall sign for $100, there is great profit in laser engraved signage. Remember, most engraving plastic still costs only a few cents per square inch!
While we are talking about plastic signs, let’s take a look at plastic name badges as well. Although some people think they are passé, nothing could be further from the truth! Read any “building your business” book and one of the first things they recommend is the use of name badges. Look at all the big box stores, chains, hotels, restaurants and franchises. Everyone hangs a name badge on their employees and although you may have a hard time getting business from the national chains, there are plenty of other businesses that need name badges. Locally owned eateries, health care facilities, banks and Realtors all use name badges, to name just a few. With the average badge costing about 25¢ to make and selling for $5 or more, this can be a major profit center.
When most people hear the words “laser engraving,” they probably think about laser engraved wood. Laser engraved wood is unique and beautiful. Perhaps even more important, laser engraved wood products can be highly profitable.
There is a great selection of wood gift items available from industry suppliers that are specifically made to be laser engraved: ink pens, key fobs, luggage tags, keepsake boxes, photo albums and many more unique and interesting wood products. These require nothing more than taking the item out of the box, placing it on the laser table and engraving it.
Wood ink pens, for example, should be a staple in every shop. With a cost of less than $3, only 20 seconds of engraving time and a retail value of $20, ink pens are something everyone can use. When I first opened my current shop in 1998, I gave away a bunch of laser engraved wood pens. Just yesterday, I saw someone pull out one of those pens to write a check. That means they have cared for and have been using that pen for over a decade!
Of course everyone thinks about wood plaques when they think about lasers, and rightly so. Plaques bring a huge profit margin and lasered plaques are seen by the public as very special “high-end” awards. The truth is, a lasered plaque usually costs much less to make than a diamond or rotary engraved plaque.
The key to expanding in this area lies in expanding your imagination. Don’t stop with just offering products sold by suppliers. There are plenty of wood products out there than can be purchased for a few dollars and laser engraved. Just a couple of examples include cutting boards, bowls and serving platters. The beauty is, when any of these items are engraved, the value goes up exponentially to $15 or $20 or more.
Trophy plates have long been a mainstay application for many engraving shops but engraving them with a mechanical engraving machine can often be time consuming. A laser can often do the job faster, which saves you time and money. While you can’t use a CO2 laser to engrave uncoated metal, there are attractive alternatives. For example, does a customer want aluminum plates? No problem. Switch your material to anodized aluminum or a laserable aluminum. Do you want to save even more time and money? Try using a laserable self-adhesive film (such as Rowmark Lights) that looks just like gold, silver or bronze aluminum. You can even use your laser to cut out the plates after you engrave them.
Does your customer want a logo or design on their trophies? No problem with a laser. If you can get it on the computer screen, you can engrave it on any number of materials. This is especially nice for those trophies that have space for a 2" disk or a 3"x4" rectangle as part of the riser.
Although CO2 lasers will not mark uncoated metal such as stainless steel, there are laser-fusible coatings that will. A quick spray on stainless dog tags, industrial ID tags, control panels or sheet stock and your CO2 laser will take to that steel like mother to child. The old methods of engraving stainless were limited, time consuming and expensive because they ate up rotary cutters in no time. Lasers never touch the metal and although stainless steel takes longer to engrave than traditional laserable metals, it can also fetch a much higher price.
There are lots of ceramic products out there just calling out to be engraved. Coffee cups, ornaments and ceramic tiles are but a few of possibilities. A few products such as coffee cups and tiles are especially made for laser engraving but even those not created specifically for laser engraving can often be engraved using a laser-fusible chemical spray.
Laser engraved ceramic tiles can be used to create beautiful wall murals in homes, restaurants or other businesses, and around pools and hot tubs. They can also be used as signs in saunas or other hot or corrosive environments.
Find an inexpensive ceramic brooch at a yard sale or thrift shop? Laser engrave someone’s grandchild’s face on it and see what happens to the value.
Making rubber stamps with a laser is easy and is another application that has the potential to be very profitable in your business. A stamp that costs $3.50 to make can retail for as much as $24.95. Specialized stamps or stamps with logos can sell for much, much more. Best of all, there are many businesses that still use lots of rubber stamps so they order continuously. Pre-inked stamps, date stamps, notary stamps and embossing seals all carry a 600% profit margin or more. You will need a laser with air assist and good ventilation to make stamps since the laser rubber brings considerable odor and a potential for flame-ups.
A couple of years ago, EJ published a series of articles about the government’s move to put a 2D matrix code (fancy type of barcode) on everything they purchased or used that cost over $5,000—which meant just about everything. For the few companies that pursued it, this is another market avenue that has proven to be very profitable.
Barcodes, even simple barcodes like the ones we are so familiar with at the grocery store, can be big business. There are many companies and organizations that require barcodes on a regular basis, whether it is marked directly on the product or on a label to be attached. For example, both active and military reserve units all over the country mark tools and equipment with a barcode for tracking and to show ownership. Likewise, subcontractors for all military and government applications must mark their products with a barcode. Although some do this as part of the manufacturing process, many do not have the capability to mark these themselves.
Inexpensive software programs are available that you can use to design the more sophisticated barcodes. Simpler barcodes can be created with CorelDRAW. Verification of the codes you create, except the government 2D matrix codes, can be done using most cell phones.
Glass & Mirrors
Glass and most mirrors love a CO2 laser. The less expensive the glass, the better the laser likes it. Buy eight wine glasses from Target or Wal-Mart for less than a dollar each and sell them as a set for $75 or sell them separately for $20 each. Even if you don’t have a cylindrical device for your laser, you can “fudge” the focus on your laser enough to get a sizable engraving area.
The same is true with all kinds of glassware and stemware. Sell them as gifts for wedding parties, for the bride and groom’s toast or engraved with a simple monogram. They make great gifts year-round.
Glass coasters also make great gifts or promotional items. These can be purchased for next to nothing and engraved on either the front or back. Realtors love these.
Most mirrored glass laser engraves extremely well. In this case, you can engrave the back of the mirror and add color or engrave both the front and back to create a 3D appearance. Mirrored glass is inexpensive, easy to cut and can be mounted in frames to create a really unique product.
Fabric & Apparel
This is the newest wave of laser engraved products. Although a few people have been cutting out sports letters with a laser for years, most of us haven’t given the fabric aspect much attention. In the May 2011 issue of EJ, however, Amy Dallman exposed us all to what can be done with denim, polyester and most manmade fabrics. Although most of us haven’t quite figured out how to market engraved fabrics, the potential here is huge.
Tags & Labels
Making labels for industrial and commercial applications is a huge market. Safety labels, instructional labels, warning labels, control panels, ID tags, anti-theft tags, window stickers, barcode stickers and decorative labels can be made out of just about anything: Stainless steel dog tags, plastic engraving stock, anodized aluminum and self-adhesive sheet stock are just a few options.
Identification labels and tags make up my most profitable product area by far. Although some orders are small ($10), most are for hundreds of tags at a time and are so profitable, there is no way to attach a percentage to it because it is nearly 100% profit. I often make single tags and labels from scrap materials that would otherwise be tossed out, making them pure profit.
Marking, cutting and engraving acrylic opens up a great market for awards, signage and gift items. Ornaments, sun catchers, keepsakes, key fobs and awards of all kinds can be easily made with a laser. These are huge money makers.
Sign companies sometimes need to cut acrylic for channel letters they are making or repairing. The laser does a great job with this since, unlike cutting by hand, every letter is cut exactly the same.
There are a host of metals on the market that laser engrave extremely well. Black brass-plated steel is very popular, but anodized aluminum is great for making legend plates, wiring diagrams and signage. Colored brass-plated steel and the new hi-tech metals are great for making plaques, name badges, signs and engraving plates for gift items.
Most people know you can cut a lot of things with a laser: Engraving plastic, acrylic sheet stock, cork, leather, paper and wood. Over the years, I have taken orders from wood workers, hobbyists and mechanics to cut things out for them.
If you offer your laser cutting services to antique car clubs and hot rod associations, you will find they often need cork gaskets that are no longer available. Although it requires some ability in CorelDRAW to recreate the original gasket, cutting it out is pure profit.
Hobbyists from model railroaders to model airplane and ship builders delight in the fact you can scan a design and then cut it out for them. Woodworkers, toy makers and interior decorators can come up with some interesting challenges. I am currently working on an ornate grille decoration for a church organ speaker cabinet.
Want to make a teacher’s day? Offer to cut out letters for their bulletin boards. It certainly isn’t going to make you any money but it can open doors to many other possibilities.
Although most of the lasers we use in our industry really aren’t powerful enough to effectively engrave stone, marble is an exception. Marble, especially jet black marble, marks beautifully with a CO2 laser. Some other marbles, such as the green and black, will mark but they usually require color filling, e.g. with Rub-n-Buff, to provide contrast. Jet black marble engraves pure white making it ideal for gift items, desk accessories or photographs. Many people love the uniqueness of a photograph engraved on a single marble tile or, better yet, on a wall mural of 4, 8 or 12 tiles.
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