We all face it from time to time: What should we do next in our business? Should we spend our resources expanding into brand new areas, expand what we are already doing or bank our cash and hope for the best? These decisions aren’t easy because there are no clear cut answers. What is easy is making the wrong decision, losing our cash reserve, wasting a lot of time and ending up worse off than when we began.
OK, you have worked hard. Your business is doing OK or at least you’re holding your own. But you know you can’t just sit still—especially in today’s soft economy. A business that isn’t growing is moving backwards. In order to survive, you must stay competitive, offer the latest technology and do it with greater skill and quality than the guy down the street.
The options for doing that, however, can be pretty overwhelming and so can the price tag. So what should you do? The safety conscious may tend to stick their money in the bank and hold onto it for a “rainy day,” and that may not be a bad idea—especially with the uncertain economy and political climate we live in today. But companies don’t grow and thrive by stashing money, they grow by investing it. Once all this economic evil settles down, it will be the company with the best technology in place, the highest skill levels and the most “go get ‘em” attitude that will lead all the others.
There are a couple of schools of thought for keeping your business moving forward. One approach is to expand and diversify your business into a totally new market where there are new customers, new equipment and new learning curves. For example, a business involved in primarily engraving awards and gifts might spread out into screen printing and the wearables market. However, the problem with this approach is you run the risk of investing your time, money and resources into a brand new (and unfamiliar) area. Sometimes this is a perfect solution but sometimes the new venture does not go as planned, or the success of it is at the expense of your core business.
A better approach might be to expand within the realm of your core market. This involves using or upgrading your existing equipment to market more profitably to your existing customer base. It might also involve investing in new equipment—without too much of a stretch. An engraving and awards business, for instance, might invest in sublimation equipment to offer a broader product selection to customers. When you expand into a better-connected market niche like this, you really don’t run into the problem of putting your core business at risk.
Of course, expanding and diversifying your business in any direction is a decision you have to make for yourself. I can’t tell you what to do. Your financial advisor or CPA can’t tell you what to do.
What EJ and I can do is eliminate some of the guesswork about your expansion options. We can help you become an educated buyer, help you eliminate the technology that isn’t right for you or your business and give you insight into those areas of expansion that might be right for you. No two companies will be the same and no decision is without risk. Yet, the more information we share with each other, the easier it will be to make a decision that brings about growth and increased revenue.
Two other computer-related upgrades you should consider include a good UPS (uninterrupted power supply) and a dependable backup system. These can save you a ton of frustration and thousands of dollars yet cost very little to install. They both fall under the category of “insurance.”
Have you ever been in the middle of designing a job only to have the electricity flicker? That won’t crash your computer with a decent UPS system. A UPS will not only smooth out the AC electrical input to your computers, it will also keep your CPU running for a period of time while the power is out. The bigger the UPS, the more computers it can handle and the longer it will keep them on. The idea is that if the power goes out for more than a minute or two, the UPS actually shuts down the computer safely so no files will be lost and no damage will be done to the computer(s). Small units cost about $100 to $150. Putting a UPS on your laser engraver isn’t a bad idea either!
The other critical component that many of us overlook is a means to automatically back up the information on our computers. I recently paid almost $500 to retrieve data off a damaged hard drive when I could have backed it up for free. I was just too lazy to do it!
There are all kinds of backup systems available and what you chose is up to you, but I think the best thing to come along in years is iCloud. This is a remote, highly secure bank of computers scattered across the country that allow you to upload your computer’s data as often as you tell it to and stores it so you can recall it in the case of a crash. You can access it from your laptop or home computer anytime you need it! The service is not free but it is very inexpensive, depending on how much storage you require, starting at about $10 per year; most engraving shops would be hard pressed to need more than 100 GB which runs about $50 per year. iCloud is available from a number of sources, including AT&T and Amazon.com.
If you already have a laser, I don’t have to sell you on them. If you don’t have a laser engraving system in your shop, perhaps it is time to bring one in. I run three in my shop and I am highly prejudiced. I believe that if you can’t make money with a laser engraver, “you just ain’t tryin’.” That doesn’t mean they are for everyone, however. Lasers are expensive and technical. They can be intimidating and come with a learning curve that some people just aren’t willing to invest in.
If you have a laser already, it might be time to add a second system. There are several reasons why most businesses should have two laser engravers in the shop: First, as a backup. Lasers are just machines. They break down and, depending on the brand you have and the quality of service offered by that brand, you can expect to be “out of business” anywhere from a couple of days to several months when something goes wrong.
Second, lasers have a life expectancy. Most electronic devices are expected to last from five to ten years although most lasers in today’s market last far beyond that. Two of mine are over the ten year mark and are still going strong, although I had to put a new laser tube in one just recently—it was out of service for about a week.
Some think it is wise to bring in a second laser either as the workload demands it or about five years after you buy the first one—and I agree. This not only gives you a backup laser but you then have systems that are spaced apart so you won’t have two machines reach old age at the same time.
The best reason to bring in a second laser is because the workload demands it. When this happens, you might want to consider bringing in a larger, more powerful laser or a laser that offers some feature(s) your first laser doesn’t, such as cylindrical engraving capabilities, air assist, more sophisticated positioning abilities that allow you to easily engrave odd-shaped items or inside deep bowls, or some other new innovative feature.
When it comes to cost, you do have options. For example, if you are buying a laser on a shoestring, there is at least one system that sells for as low as $8,000. More commonly, others are priced around the $10,000-$14,000 price point. Add to this any accessories you might want and an exhaust system, computer, etc., and you are ready to make money. For what they are worth, here are what I consider my absolute minimum requirements for a CO2 laser:
• 25 watts of power or more
• An engraving table of at least 12" x 18" (12" x 24" preferred)
• Air assist
• A metal laser tube (vs. glass; glass tubes are not for raster engraving)
• Purchased from a laser manufacturer that offers support and training, not a supply house (service and support is everything)
Notice that I haven’t said anything about the speed of the laser. Most lasers have a maximum speed of about 80 ips, but for buying a laser on a shoestring, speed isn’t nearly as important as the other points in my list.
If you are tempted to add a cylindrical engraving device or other expensive accessories, invest your money in a larger, more powerful machine and hold off on the accessories until you really need them.
If you don’t have to buy a laser on a shoestring, there are a number of machines on the market to consider. If you think you can make use of a table larger than 12" x 24", then by all means go that way. Also, if you can afford it, invest in a laser with 50-60 watts of power. This will open up the world of wood engraving and cutting that a 25 watt machine might be able to do, but not nearly as fast.
Ideally, I think a shop should have, at a minimum, one 25 and one 50+ watt laser. If you primarily work with materials like self-adhesive foils, thin cap plastics, acrylic and black brass-plated steel, you really don’t need anything more than 25 watts. In fact, more powerful lasers can actually be difficult to control with these more delicate materials. If you want to engrave wood plaques or cut wood, acrylic, etc., you really need at least 50 watts. Your sales representative can help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of buying a laser larger than 50 watts, if that is of interest to you. The price tag for this class of lasers is between $15,000 and $30,000, depending on size, wattage and features.
The larger laser units are equipped with some features that the smaller units don’t have. The most important of these is the depth of the engraving field (referred to as the “Z” field). In other words, what is the maximum material thickness that you can engrave in the laser? You may not need to engrave an 8" thick box very often but it is nice to have the ability when you need it. The same is true with a cylindrical device. The smaller, less expensive machines can’t accommodate very large cups, stemware, etc., making the investment of a cylindrical device for these machines a highly questionable choice.
A final word about upgrading lasers: There are several fiber lasers on the market now that are halfway affordable ($28,000+) that can broaden your engraving applications. Fiber lasers use fiber optics with Ytterbium that are stimulated with LEDS to generate a laser beam which has markedly different characteristics from those of a CO2 laser. A major advantage of fiber lasers is that they can mark on uncoated metal, such as stainless steel, which CO2 lasers can’t do without using a laser-markable coating. They are also good for marking some plastics, such as the plastics used to make medical equipment. My favorite thing to engrave with a fiber laser is gold satin brass—the same stuff we usually engrave with a rotary engraver. The look is fantastic and a fiber laser can engrave gold engraver’s brass much faster than a rotary engraver.
Most of us “old timers” cut our teeth on rotary engravers. We thought a computer-driven rotary engraver was a gift from heaven, but just as I am prejudiced for laser engravers, I must admit I am a bit prejudiced against rotary engravers.
Most work that comes into my shop is done with a laser, but to be fair, there are some things you just can’t do with a laser—at least not with a CO2 laser. If you get calls for these items, you should consider buying a rotary engraver:
1. Deep engraving in metal or plastic. No laser in our industry is capable of either of these tasks and, if they were, we couldn’t justify the cost. In addition, a rotary machine can engrave all types of plastic whereas a laser really only works well on laserable plastics. Many exterior sign-
age and reverse-engravable plastic engraving stocks are best suited to rotary engraving because they have a thicker cap layer (e.g. .010"). In addition, there are certain types of plastic, most notably phenolic and PVC, that are not recommended for laser engraving due to the harmful fumes they emit and their overall laserability, e.g. melting vs. engraving.
2. Satin gold brass. Unless you own a YAG or fiber laser, there is no way to get a good mark on gold engraver’s brass with a laser. Since this was the mainstay of the industry for 50 years, most engravers are called on repeatedly to engrave gold perpetual plates or to match previous plaque designs using leaded brass, satin gold brass or nickel.
3. ADA Braille. The new regulations for making ADA interior sign-
age require that the Grade II Braille on the signs have rounded tops. One of the best ways to achieve this is by using the Raster Braille method which involves drilling holes into the material and then inserting small acrylic or metal beads into the holes to create the Braille message. Many experts claim this cannot be done with a laser, but everyone agrees that it’s easy using a rotary machine. If you want to do a lot of Braille, you need a rotary engraver.
4. Cutting out plastic in odd shapes with a bevel. There are a great many reasons why customers might want sheet plastic, such as engraving plastic, acrylic or ABS, cut into irregular shapes where you also want a beveled edge. A bevel on a name badge, for example, creates an attractive border in a different color around the badge. Although you can cut out a badge with straight edges on a laser and then bevel the edges with a beveling machine, this is difficult to do with most irregular shapes and, therefore, a laser won’t meet the need.
Of course, there are many tasks a rotary machine can do just as well as a laser. Some can be done faster and more efficiently, and some cannot. You are the only one who can make the decision as to which type engraver is going to best fulfill your needs. Ultimately, it will probably be one of each.
As with laser engraving machines, there are a variety of systems to choose from and most of the systems available come with proprietary engraving software. There are “entry level” systems available that are basically rotary machines with a small footprint and a small table size, e.g. 6" x 8" or 8" x 10". These machines are designed for applications such as small signs, awards, name badges, jewelry, pet tags, industrial plates, plaques, ID plates and personalized gifts, and have a price range of around $4,000-$6,000.
Medium size rotary machines generally have table sizes in the 12" x 12" to 16" x 24" range and cost around $8,500-$12,000. The larger machines available in the industry, which are designed for larger work and higher production capabilities, typically have a 24" x 24" or 24" x 48" table size and are priced in the $15,500-$17,500 range. And, of course, there are very large routers with 25" x 25" to 25" x 50" table sizes. These are designed for industrial applications and cost around $18,000-$24,000.
Accessories that you will need with a rotary system include diamond drag and rotary cutters (around $17-$20 each) and a vacuum chip removal system ($750 based on one manufacturer) if you plan on engraving plastic. There are a variety of optional accessories available as well, including various clamps, fixtures and vises, a high frequency spindle for deep engraving into metal, table stands, etc.
In addition to standard rotary systems, there are also specialty engraving machines available. For example, there are systems available that will accommodate a flat table, a vise and a rotary fixture for engraving a wide variety of items ranging from flat signs to jewelry to glass. These systems typically cost around $15,000 and are a good investment if you do this type of work.
The newest type of rotary system to arrive on the scene is an “all-in-one” diamond drag system that requires no software or computer to run. This machine is designed to allow you to basically select a template for an item to be engraved, such as a pet tag, type in the text and engrave in minutes—while your customer waits. These machines have a small engraving area, e.g. 3" x 6", and are designed for engraving metal items like pet tags, ID tags, luggage tags, small gifts, etc. At around $3,000, these systems are a very affordable way to add these capabilities to your business.
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