Laser Longevity: Do You Have a Plan?

Copyright © 2013 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in October 2013, Volume 39, No. 4 of The Engravers Journal
Photos Courtesy of (L to R) Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, Phoenix, AZ; Gravograph, Duluth, GA; and Trotec Laser, Canton, MI.

 

 

   If you have been involved in laser engraving for a few years, you may have concluded that your laser is the next best thing to owning a gold mine. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration but, in general, with a laser you can crank out tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of profitable work year after year.
   And if you’ve been lasering for a number of years, you probably have also discovered that your laser, like any other piece of equipment, can go down—usually at inopportune times. If you have avoided a major laser outage, you have probably been lucky and the odds are that one of these days your luck will run out and you’ll be faced with the situation of deciding what to do to get back up and running as you sit there watching the work pile up in the shop! How long will it take to resume production? How much will it cost? Will you need to have a technician to make a repair? So how can you best protect yourself?
   Given the importance of lasers today, even in a small shop, we decided to ask a number of experts—both among the laser suppliers and among retail users who have gone through the whole process. The consensus of opinion is that your best protection against a costly laser outage is to understand your laser and to formulate a plan so that you always land on your feet, making an eventual outage merely a minor inconvenience and not a financial disaster. In essence, it’s good to know what to expect and to have at least a rough game plan in place.
   While there are a number of variables which affect the service life of a laser engraver, often times a laser (which is kept clean and well maintained) has a life cycle which goes something like this. Most lasers provide relatively trouble-free service during their first five years of operation with service issues being minor, such as replacement of “consumables” such as lenses, bearings and belts.
   Laser sources (laser tubes) are rated at a stated power level (wattage) such as 25, 35 or 50 watts. In most cases, the original power level will be higher than the rated level, e.g. a 25 watt (rated) laser might have an actual output of 32 watts. The manufacturer’s job is just to supply a tube which provides at least the minimum rated value. Thus a new laser tube will typically perform very well due to its overage in wattage.
   Laser tubes become degraded over time and their output wattage will decline. For example, the 25 watt rated tube which originally output 32 watts might have dropped to 20 watts after five years, or less if the mirrors and lens have also become degraded. As a result of this power degradation, you’ll find yourself reducing the speed setting to compensate for the reduced wattage. It will take longer to engrave a particular job than it did when the laser tube was new.
   As your laser ages past the five year mark, and especially at about seven or eight years, it’s not uncommon to experience a breakdown due to a major component failure. Three fairly common components which sometimes fail include the laser tube, the power supply and the mother board. Sometimes the laser tube merely needs to be recharged, while other times it might need to be replaced. The cost and complexity of replacing or repairing these major components can vary, but in general, these are expensive repairs that may require the involvement of a technician.
   One of the agonizing choices that laser owners encounter, particularly when their equipment is around seven to eight years old, is the cost effectiveness of making the repairs. For example, is it wise to spend $2,000 replacing the main board when the machine itself is only worth that much, particularly if the tube is on its last leg and the power supply could go at any time too?


Fiber laser technology is a recent development in the industry that can expand your capabilities even further. Pictured here is the FiberMark fiber laser from Epilog Laser.

   As a laser reaches nine or ten years old, the machine’s risk of component failure is increased, and you might also encounter a problem with the availability of replacement parts. As a general rule, manufacturers are only obligated to supply parts for seven years and if a major part fails and no replacement is available, the broken laser can be relegated to the scrap heap!
   Nowadays there are plenty of users out there who have experienced these issues first hand over a period of 10-20 years. Hindsight is 20/20 and here is what a few of these EJ readers have to say.
   Last year, Peter Clarke, owner of Clarkes Recognition Products Ltd., Vancouver, BC, Canada, had a mid-sized laser and a smaller desktop laser, both of which ran pretty hard during his busy season. When one of his best clients increased his regular order to 500 pieces of glass and shortened the deadline to four weeks, it caused Clarke to stop and think. The seven-year-old laser ran fine and, in fact, Clarke had recently replaced the tube. “But I was thinking about reliability,” he explains. “I absolutely couldn’t risk not satisfying this customer and losing his confidence. I needed productivity and I needed reliability.” That prompted Clarke to replace the older laser with a new, higher wattage model. “I whipped through that order on time, with high quality and very little stress. That in itself justified the cost of the laser.” Clarke points out that if you haven’t replaced your laser during the last five years, you will be impressed with how laser technology has advanced. “The new technology is faster and less expensive. I still have my old laser as a backup, but my new laser has increased my productivity two to two and a half times.”
   When aai Trophies & Awards, Plano, TX, first started, they had a New Hermes Vanguard Laser 2000 that the staff affectionately called “Grandma.” For around ten years Grandma did her part with little maintenance and few problems. “Of course, by having just one laser we ran into the problem that we could just do one order at a time and when the machine was busy, rush orders or customers who we did on-the-spot engraving for had to wait,” explains Lenny Alvarez, lead engraver. When Grandma did break down, there were frantic calls to their rep., overnight packages with parts and general panic.
   In 2005, aai Trophies & Awards expanded and Grandma just couldn’t handle the work (it could take 20-25 minutes to engrave a single plate) so they acquired a second laser. According to Alvarez, “We set the machines side by side and engraved the same file on each of the machines. The difference was astonishing. A plate that would take ten minutes to engrave on the older machine would take six on the new one. Four minutes per piece might not sound like a big deal but when you engrave 100 plaques, those four minutes savings turned into six and a half hours.
   “The extra machine not only saved us when one of them was out of order—and that did happen—but it increased our production at a big rate. We could whip out jobs sometimes even three times faster than before which helped our shop and employees by cutting extra work hours and helped our customers by reducing deadline times. Plus, with the newer machine technology, we have more speed which also increases our production.” aai Trophies & Awards currently has four CO2 lasers and one fiber laser. Grandma was retired in 2010.


Higher powered lasers can cut through thicker sheets of acrylic and they can cut faster than lower powered lasers. Photo courtesy of Gravograph.

Upgrading to a laser with a larger table size allows you to engrave several items in one job setup. Photo courtesy of Gravograph.


   Charlie Drago, owner of Monarch Trophy Studio, San Antonio, TX, started with one laser but today his business operates ten lasers. “Monarch is outside the norm in this industry because we have ten lasers, but I would certainly recommend having two lasers. The reason is that these machines print money, and if I only have eight to ten hours a day to print money, the more machines I have, the more money I can print in that time frame.”
   To sum up what most experienced laser owners think, it’s better to purposefully replace an aging laser while it’s still operating, rather than waiting until it totally dies. That is especially true if you have a busy shop and you have only one laser. To add a second laser gives you two fully operational lasers instead of one. This provides a built-in backup plan if either laser goes down. You’re still in business, even if you’re operating at less than full capacity.
   This is also a good opportunity to look at upgrades to your laser engraving capabilities. Until now, the discussion has focused mostly on protecting one’s self against laser outages. When you are looking at buying a new laser, that’s a good time to consider acquiring new capabilities and the ability to do more work faster. For example, if you started with a 25 watt laser and you add a 50 watt laser, a job that you previously ran at 50% speed can usually be run in about half the time. It’s not uncommon for users who followed this path to notice an average 15%-20% across-the-board increase in productivity.
   EJ’s Laser Engraving Buyer’s Guide, which was published in the August 2013 issue, shows the amazing range of equipment to choose from today. Our digital reprint of the Buyer’s Guide (complete with charts) is available on our web site at http://www.en
graversjournal.com/3dissue/dr2992/. So, when is the right time to look at replacing an older laser and what should you replace it with?
   “The need to upgrade is dependent on a variety of factors,” says James Stanaway, director of marketing for Epilog Laser, Golden, CO. “If you’re running an established business and producing a limited and manageable amount of products and services, your current laser may serve you well. However, if you’re like most business owners who are at all interested in growing their operation, providing more services or needing to meet an increased demand for product, it’s definitely time to consider upgrading.”
   Perhaps you have entertained the thought of upgrading your equipment, but are still at a crossroads. Will your business really benefit from spending some extra cash on a newer model laser? EJ asked some experts and here is what they told us.
1. More Power
   This is often regarded as one of the most important issues when buying a new laser. Perhaps your first laser was a 25 watt machine because, at the time, you were only engraving a few select substrates that engraved easily and efficiently with 25 watts, and low wattage lasers (by today’s standards) have always been the most affordable. But be truthful. Could you be doing more to expand your business with a higher powered laser?
   “One of the most frequent comments we hear in this industry is, ‘I love my laser, but I wish I would have gone with a higher wattage,’” says Stanaway. He also explains that higher powered lasers have clear advantages, including the ability to cut thicker materials and overall higher throughput.
   Warren Knipple, president of Trotec Laser, Canton, MI, agrees. “Higher laser power has clear advantages and strong benefits in any industry. It means more productivity, flexibility and profitability for almost all laser engraving and cutting applications. By upgrading to more power, you can engrave faster, cut thicker materials and process jobs like you never have before,” he says.
   A big advantage of higher power is that it allows you to cut thicker substrates. For example, a 40 watt laser can produce superior cut quality on a 1/8" sheet of acrylic or wood in a single pass, whereas a 60 watt laser will produce clean cuts on these materials up to about 1/2" thick and a 120 watt laser can handle materials up to about 3/4" thick. “If you’re making multiple passes to cut through materials, it is time to upgrade your laser to a higher wattage,” says Derek Kern, VP of sales & marketing for Kern Laser Systems, Wadena, MN. “Single pass cutting is critical for getting the best cut edge quality possible. There are now lasers available for cutting up to 1" acrylics and woods in a single pass.”

Technology continues to develop and newer model machines can offer increased capabilities. This example of intricate 3D engraving is from Kern Laser Systems, Wadena, MN. Some of the newer model lasers feature a pass-through table that allows engraving items that don’t fit on the table. Photo courtesy of Gravograph.

 


   Another important point to consider is that laser wattage and speed go hand in hand. As mentioned, lower wattage lasers (30-40 watts) will produce nearly identical results to their higher powered counterparts (60+), but the higher wattage machines will do the job faster. For example, you can cut through 1/8" acrylic more than two times faster with an 80 watt laser than you can with a 40 watt.
   This increase in production can be especially noticeable if you engrave different materials. For instance, materials such as acrylic, coated metals and laserable plastic can be engraved with relatively little power at high speeds. Other materials, like wood or
rubber, can be engraved on lower wattage machines but require painfully slower speeds.
   Interestingly, higher-powered and faster lasers are a definite trend in the industry today. Looking at this year’s 2013 Laser Engraving Buyer’s Guide, you’ll see that all of the major laser manufacturers have introduced higher wattage machines with many models offered in a range of 30 watts to 100 watts or higher.
   Note, too, that many of the lasers introduced in recent years can be upgraded with a higher wattage tube without having to purchase a brand new laser. If power is your sole reason for upgrading, and you have a system that has this feature, this might be a consideration for you.
2. Larger Table Sizes
   Perhaps you decided on a small table size for your first laser because of the cost and because you thought you would be mostly engraving small items—things like single-run plaques, small signage and personalized plates. But with the expanding capabilities of lasers, upgrading to a larger table could mean the difference between maintaining status quo and actually making a healthy profit.
   Epilog’s Stanaway explains, “More space—this is the most popular reason to upgrade your laser system. If business is growing, a larger laser system can help produce larger runs of identical projects. A bigger system will also allow you to house larger, uniquely-shaped items for one-off jobs. No one has ever said, ‘I wish I would have bought a smaller laser,’ which is why we see so many people upgrade to a larger capacity laser system.”
   Examples abound of how a larger table size can benefit most engraving businesses. For example, a larger table size can eliminate a lot of preproduction work. A smaller table size, e.g. 12" x 16" or 12" x 18", prohibits you from putting a full sheet of engraving stock in the machine, which means you need to fabricate it or cut it first or purchase smaller sheet sizes which are typically more expensive. On the other hand, with a larger table, you can place a full quarter sheet of plastic in the machine, engrave what you want, cut it out with the laser and return the leftover material to inventory. The accumulated time savings alone are likely just cause for the money spent on a larger laser. “If you spend more time cutting down material to fit on your laser bed than actually cutting it with your laser, it is time to upgrade your machine to a larger format system. Machines are available for cutting and engraving in sizes up to 80" x 120",” Kern explains.
   Just as more power can increase production, so can a larger table size since you can fill the entire bed with repeat copies of a particular product and then set up your job layout so that the laser engraves or cuts as many as will fit on the table.
   “Upgrading to a larger bed size not only allows you to work with larger materials and items, but it also allows you to work on more of the same items at once,” says Trotec’s Knipple. “For example, with a Speedy 300 with a 29" x 17" bed, you can run three 8" x 10" plaques at once. Upgrading to a Speedy 400 with a 39" x 24" bed means that now you can run eight 8" x 10" plaques at the same time, increasing your productivity and, therefore, profitability.”
   A bigger table means you can accommodate more jobs in a variety of sizes and it provides the capability to engrave items like large signage, murals and architectural models. In addition, many of today’s lasers have “pass-through” capabilities by way of a drop-down front/rear door or side panel which allows you to handle oversized material by allowing the item to protrude outside the confines of a conventional cabinet. Many of the larger tables also have a larger Z-stroke which enables you to engrave taller or thicker items than many of the smaller machines can accommodate.
   In addition to higher production and the ability to handle large items, a larger table also gives you the opportunity to take on those unique, odd jobs that can help you establish your business as the “Oh, they can do it. They can do everything,” type of business. Whether it’s engraving furniture, art pieces, skateboards, architectural models, memorial markers, boat oars, golf clubs, baseball bats, custom guitar inlays, gunstocks, etc., a larger table can help make it possible for you to diversify your business and expand profit margins.
   According to Kern, “If you find yourself either jobbing out or turning away more and more work, it’s time to upgrade your laser. Invest the money that you are giving to the shop down the road in a laser that will allow you to increase your current capabilities.”
3. New Technology
   Technological developments in laser engraving technology have been on the fast track for years and that is a trend that continues today. Every year, new technology is introduced making lasers better, more versatile and more reliable than in years past, which means your quality and production are enhanced while the potential for downtime is reduced.
   “Incorporating new and improved technology is another reason laser operators choose to upgrade,” says Epilog’s Stanaway. “Improved technology often goes hand in hand with new features as it allows manufacturers to provide users with more precise results, faster engraving and cutting times, etc. For example, the new motion control system in Epilog’s new Fusion Laser system allows for higher speed engraving as well as the best cutting quality we’ve ever produced. Operators can expect to see true flame-polished edges on acrylic and 150% speed increases when cutting thin woods and acrylics.”
   There are plenty of other advancements in technology to consider as well. For example, not too many years ago many lasers with 100 watts of power necessitated having a water chiller unit to cool the laser. Thankfully, today most engraving lasers are air cooled which saves money and simplifies operation.
   Trotec’s Knipple says that the newest technology in their lasers is the introduction of CeramiCore ceramic laser sources. “They allow the user to upgrade to a higher laser power while still maintaining top engraving quality, even on sensitive materials. They are also energy efficient, saving up to 30% over metal or glass laser sources.”

Large capacity lasers can greatly expand your product offerings. Photo courtesy of Trotec Laser. In this example, several picture frames are being engraved in one job setup on a Speedy 400 from Trotec Laser, which can save a lot of time in labor.


   The relatively recent introduction of fiber lasers to our industry is another area of advancement in laser equipment and is one that many people are realizing can expand your product possibilities.
   A CO2 laser can engrave many substrates, but a major material it cannot handle is uncoated metal. Instead, Nd:YAG lasers have been the standard for marking on all types of metal and various plastics, but today the advantages of fiber technology are causing fiber lasers to take over this foothold. No consumables, air cooled up to 50 watts, faster speeds, smaller footprint and no maintenance are just some of the benefits of fiber lasers.
   Here again, fiber technology is another major trend in the industry right now and all of the major manufacturers now have fiber lasers in their lineup. Trotec and Universal Laser (Scottsdale, AZ), for example, have developed dual-source lasers that can be equipped with both CO2 and fiber laser sources.
   Trotec’s Knipple states, “Expanding your product capabilities with different options in lasers is a great way to open up your business to increased profits. Moving from a CO2 laser to a Trotec Flexx laser means you now have both a CO2 and a fiber laser source in one system. This allows you to mark, cut and engrave a variety of items, from paper to metal. Trotec’s dual-source lasers allow you to be able to switch between both laser tubes in the same job without opening the lid or additional tooling.”
4. New Features & Capabilities
   Another important point to consider when mulling over the upgrade dilemma is the added features of the machine. What features do you need to fulfill your needs now and in the coming years? Maybe you are planning on getting into roundwork, things like glass, mugs, vases, wine bottles, etc. It is possible to engrave some kinds of roundwork without cylindrical capabilities, but the process is limited and it can be involved. If this is a direction for your business, you will definitely want a machine that works with a cylindrical engraving unit—and one that will handle the capacity that you need it to. One laser user reportedly upgraded his laser and purchased a cylindrical engraving unit—and turned out 50 glasses in the first two days.
   Take a look at the 2013 Laser Engraving Buyer’s Guide for a look at just some of the features being offered today. For example, Trotec and several other manufacturers are now offering an optical recognition system which is a feature designed to accurately and precisely cut preprinted items, such as sheets of screen printed or digital transfers, screen printed or embroidered labels, printed membrane switches, signs, name tags, models, decals, puzzles, cards and stationery. “The iCut vision registration system is another upgrade that will make laser cutting pre-printed items using a registration system a breeze. The iCut system reads the printed registration marks on the preprinted material and automatically adjusts the cut file for skewing, scaling and distortions for a perfect cut every time,” explains Knipple.
   Epilog’s Stanaway says that new features are continually being added to laser equipment. “When a laser system or series of systems is redesigned, new and improved operator features are often added. Since these features can positively impact the end result, whether it’s better engraving quality, higher cutting speeds, etc., it can be a significant reason to upgrade your equipment,” he says. Epilog recently launched the new Fusion Laser Series which, according to Stanaway, offers operators a host of new features that will help engravers complete jobs in a more time- and cost-effective way. “For example, the new series includes the Epilog Control Center (ECC), which not only features a job time estimator and recorder, but allows operators to move the lens carriage in real time and send jobs to the laser directly from the ECC,” Stanway says.
5. It Can Be Cost Effective
   More power, larger capacity, better technology, new features—what’s not to like?All of this sounds great, but perhaps the biggest obstacle many of you will have to overcome is the issue of price. It’s easy to base your purchasing decisions mostly on the cost of the equipment, or even on cost alone. But consider the fact that making the investment could actually be a cost-effective move for your business.
   Most people who have been in business for any length of time will tell you that focusing solely or even mostly on the cost of the equipment is a mistake. Spending just a few more dollars can make your life a whole lot easier in the long run. Not only are you taking out some insurance to head off potential problems with older equipment (which usually happens at the most inopportune times), but you are purchasing an asset that can help you advance your business.
   “Upgrading can be a very cost-effective decision for business owners,” says Stanaway. “Newer systems can run jobs faster and with more precise engraving and cutting results. Users can charge more for a higher-quality product as well as faster turnaround time.”
Conclusion
   Take a look at the laser equipment that you have now. How old is it? Is it in good shape? More importantly, what happens if your laser goes down suddenly? What is plan “B”? How do you recover and when?
   Consider some of the points mentioned in this article when you answer these questions. Does your recovery plan also include an upgrade path to add to your creative and productive capabilities, to do more work faster and to tackle jobs that might be a little beyond your reach today? The answer might be somewhat different for everyone reading this article, but no doubt it’s a good topic to consider.

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