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Today's Trends in Laser & Rotary Engraving Equipment

Copyright © 2015 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in March 2015, Volume 40, No. 9 of The Engravers Journal
Rotary engraving is an excellent method for engraving metal and odd-shaped items. Photo courtesy of U-MARQ USA Corp., New Milford, CT. The Express Engraver from Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, Phoenix, AZ, is a low-cost entry level rotary engraving machine.

   In a time when our industry is evolving, it’s interesting to take a look at different areas of our business to see what’s happening. One of the most important areas, of course, has to do with the methods we use to personalize the merchandise we sell. Sublimation is more popular than ever, thanks to some recent significant advancements in technology and the availability of new products, and direct inkjet printing is coming into the picture at a very fast pace.
   Still, the core of our industry lies in laser engraving and rotary engraving as they are still the top two marking methods being used by most businesses involved in personalization. So what’s happening in this area of our industry?
   This month’s feature article focuses on equipment, so I recently had a Q&A session with the major laser engraving and rotary engraving machine manufacturers to answer this question and learn about the latest in 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 has been on an upward climb for many years, so one has to wonder when the interest will slow down, or at least wane a little. But it doesn’t appear it will be anytime soon. Many manufacturers report continued steady growth in sales and interest, and some are predicting marked growth and the continuation of the “laser boom.”
   “Laser engraving is definitely a growing industry,” says Derek Kern, president of sales, Kern Laser Systems, Wadena, MN. “Every economic forecast that I have read shows demand for lasers growing rapidly over the coming years. Here at Kern Lasers, we have personally seen laser sales quadruple over the last few years.”
   A major reason being attributed to the ongoing interest in laser engraving is that people in the field of personalization are realizing that a laser provides an excellent opportunity to increase productivity, expand product lines and, ultimately, increase profits.
   According to Kern, “Every year we are able to help new customers increase their manufacturing efficiency by installing a laser. We also see many new markets emerging where old technology is being replaced with lasers. This is typically a good sign that lasers will be here well into the future.”
   The fact that laser engraving allows business owners to venture into so many different markets is another major factor in its continued growth. According to James Stanaway, director of marketing for Epilog Laser, Golden, CO, “The interest level is definitely growing, especially as this technology expands outside the awards industry. As soon as people really understand what the lasers are capable of, they see a need for it in so many markets. Lasers are everywhere—fabric/apparel, the maker community, woodworking, signage, architectural model-making and a variety of other industries.”

The LS1000XP laser from Gravograph, Duluth, GA, features speeds of up to 158 inches per second. The PLS 4.75 is part of the CO2 line of lasers available from Universal Laser Systems, Scottsdale, AZ.

   Josh Stephens, applications expert for Trotec Laser, Inc., Canton, MI, agrees that the number of people utilizing lasers for engraving and cutting applications is growing at a steady rate. “The versatility of a laser allows for both existing businesses and start-up companies to expand their product lines and, in many cases, increase profit margins,” he says.
What has happened with the price of equipment recently?
   All of the manufacturers say that equipment prices have remained stable over the past few years, with no big increases or decreases in pricing. Prices for laser machines are, of course, relative depending on the type of equipment the manufacturer is introducing.
   Gravograph, a Gravotech Group, Duluth, GA, recently introduced a small footprint, low wattage system with a 12” x 18” engraving area and 25 watts of power for those customers interested in a low-cost equipment option. “Laser prices have remained fairly constant among manufacturers in the United States, although systems from Asia have driven manufacturers to offer less expensive solutions,” explains Don Kirch, business manager for Gravograph.
   On the flip side of that, Kern Lasers is seeing an increase in demand for larger lasers with more power and although these lasers may cost more, manufacturing costs in general have not increased. “The price of our laser machinery has been very stable over the last ten years,” states Kern. “We have seen our average sale price increase in recent years, but this is because we are now offering larger table sizes and higher laser wattages. In addition, I see many equipment manufacturers bringing their CO2 laser tube production in-house. This has allowed Kern to offer lower replacement costs and more flexible warranties.”
   Trotec’s Stephens adds that while equipment costs have not increased, there are more options available today for buyers to consider. “Luckily, the pricing of the equipment has not seen any increases,” he says. “However, there are a growing number of accessories for the equipment to make processing more effective.”
   An example of one of these accessories is known as an optical recognition system that typically works with a camera that reads registration marks printed on the substrate and then relays that information to the computer to provide pinpoint registration for the laser to accurately cut out the image(s). Today, this option is being offered by all of the major laser manufacturers, and the prevalence of it continues to grow, most likely because of the increasing popularity of digital printing in this industry.
Where are you seeing buying activity?
   The types of equipment and the business areas that people who purchase the equipment are targeting really hasn’t changed much in recent years.
   In terms of types of equipment being purchased, manufacturers say it runs the gamut, reporting strong demand for entry level equipment in addition to more sophisticated large format, high wattage machines for those who have existing businesses.
   As far as the market areas being sought out for laser engraving services, there are continuing trends for awards, signage, personalization and part marking but there is also activity in a variety of niche markets. “We’re seeing lots of activity in new markets like maker/DIY spaces (i.e. the maker movement), schools, promotional product vendors and artists/artist spaces, in addition to continued buying activity from our traditional markets like awards, woodworking and signage,” states Epilog’s Stanaway.

The GEM-CX is a versatile rotary engraving system available from U-MARQ USA Corp. Kern Laser Systems, Wadena, MN, offers a line of large format laser engraving machines.

What feedback do you receive from first-time laser buyers?
   As in the past, people who purchase lasers are initially impressed with the versatility and user-friendliness of the equipment. “First-time buyers often remark about a laser’s ease of use, the engraving speed, especially when compared with rotary engravers, and the flexibility it gives them when engraving detailed images and photographs,” says Gravograph’s Kirch.
   Software options play a part in a laser’s ease of use and flexibility, as well. Trotec’s Stephens points out that first-time laser buyers often comment on the benefits of having the option to use their preferred graphics software to draw and create designs, as opposed to having to purchase unique and separate software to run the laser. “This gives the buyer flexibility and the ability to create their designs using software with which they are already comfortable,” he says.
   Kern Lasers specializes in large format laser systems and, as such, customers are often upgrading or adding lasers to their business when buying a system from the company. “Customers frequently say, ‘We should have made the investment into a large format laser system years ago. We are able to price our jobs more competitively due to the increased production and added value that our large format laser system offers,’” Kern states.
   Similarly, after first-time laser buyers have had their equipment for a while, they often remark that they should have gone with a bigger system and/or with more power. “Oftentimes after a new owner gets up and running with their laser they say, ‘I wish I would have gotten more power.’ Or sometimes, ‘I should have gone with the larger table.’ This is why all of the members on the Epilog Laser Fans page always tell new buyers: Get the biggest and most powerful model you can afford,” says Stanaway.
   The ability to be creative is a huge advantage for laser engraving, as evidenced by projects ranging from engraving Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to building working Ferris wheels to branding jeans. According to Joan Kang, product manager for GCC, Walnut, CA, buyers are motivated by the prospect of being imaginative and want to learn more. “Once they purchase a laser, their creativity is spurred and they want to know more about the applications and possibilities for laser engraving systems. In response to this, our GCC LaserPro application team shows a different application each month to inspire buyers’ creativity and enrich their basic knowledge,” says Kang.
What does it take to be successful in laser engraving today?
   One of the keys to success in laser engraving is learning and becoming an expert at the technology itself. “It’s important to understand how speed, power (watts) and DPI settings relate to one another and how various combinations of these settings affect engraving quality and engraving speed,” Gravograph’s Kirch points out. “It’s also useful for an engraver to have an understanding of how to manipulate graphic images so they can engrave high-quality images in a timely manner.”
   Kern says that knowing your local competition and what your company is strong or weak at providing are important factors to the successful laser engraving business. In addition, it can be beneficial to be flexible when taking on jobs. Kern explains, “Many times a small or complicated job that a customer brings to you might lead to a more profitable job down the road. I have heard many customers say that their best repeat customers started as a small account and grew as they earned the customer’s trust.”

The Speedy 100 flexx from Trotec Laser, Inc., Canton, MI, can be equipped with a CO2 laser, a fiber laser or both.

   A good product selection, quality work and flexibility in taking on work are other areas that can lead to good word-of-mouth and better success. “Some keys to success in laser engraving are versatility in the products being offered, flexibility with both small and large orders, and producing high-quality results,” says Stephens. “These things will ensure that the satisfied customer returns for repeat business, as well as recommending that engraver to other individuals.”
What are the most profitable market areas for laser engraved products?
   Perhaps the broadest and most profitable market area, at least in this industry, has to do with customization and personalization. As our industry moves more and more toward the broad-based personalized product market, lasers have become a key technology for cost-effectively, easily and efficiently offering these products.
   “In general, the most profitable market area for laser engraved products is customization and personalization,” states Trotec’s Stephens. “Being able to take the customer’s vision of an engraved item and bringing that vision to life allows for higher profit margins since the item has a personal connection with the owner. Typically, the personal connection drives higher value as the product has more meaning to the customer.”
   The sign and gift markets continue to rank high on the list of profitable market avenues. Interestingly, part marking was mentioned by several manufacturers as a potential high-profit market area as well, reinforcing the idea that lasers are taking over some traditional marking methods in new markets.
What new educational resources are available to laser owners?
   Manufacturers offer a variety of educational materials that laser users can take advantage of, and there are also outside resources that can be helpful. Some examples include:
• Manufacturer technical assistance, including tutorials, manuals that are application specific, technical support that includes computer log-on sessions, and sections on their websites devoted to educational resources, e.g. maintenance and design tips.
• Outside technical assistance, including online tutorials, blogs, online forums (www.Sawmillcreek.org is one industry-specific forum), social media forums and a variety of YouTube demonstrations.
• Industry trade show classes and independent laser user clinics held at various locations.
What are the most popular types of lasers?
   CO2 lasers and fiber lasers are the most common types of lasers used in this industry, and the choice of which one to purchase depends on the application. A CO2 laser is popular among businesses trying to reach a variety of markets due to its ability to cut and engrave many different types of materials, such as wood, plastic, paper, fabric, stone, etc.
   Demand is also on the rise for fiber laser systems for marking uncoated metals and in industrial markets due to the ability to engrave and mark metal directly, along with plastics. “The fiber laser is more purpose-driven while the CO2 allows for more variety,” says Stephens.
Are there any new laser technologies being introduced?
   Faster, more efficient engraving speed is a laser technology that is continuing to improve pretty much across the board. For example, Gravograph is now offering the LS1000, a CO2 laser system with an engraving area of 24” x 48” and speeds as fast as 158 inches per second.
   Another technology that is starting to gain attention is “green” laser technology which Gravograph recently introduced. According to Kirch, green laser technology allows you to engrave items that interact poorly with YAG/fiber or CO2 lasers. Applications suited for the green lasers are plastic, micro marking on small components, marking reflective materials such as gold, copper and silver, jobs where a very small text size is desired (a green laser has a smaller spot size vs. a fiber laser) and jobs where heat is not desired during the laser mark (such as marking medical parts and electronics). CO2 lasers operate by vaporizing a layer of material. Green laser technology is different because it is a higher frequency laser that uses a small wavelength that applies minimal heat to the material, reducing mechanical stress and distortion to the product. This green marking technology is also known as “cold marking.”
   GCC has introduced a new spin on the “hybrid” laser by combining dual CO2 laser technology into one machine. GCC’s MG380Hybrid utilizes both an RF driven metal tube and a DC excited glass tube in one machine chassis that the system can switch between within one second. “Users will get the best of two worlds: high power cutting capabilities and superb engraving quality at the same time,” says Kang.

Architectural signage is a thriving market for rotary engraving. Photo courtesy of Roland DGA, Irvine, CA.. The M40G rotary system from Gravograph can engrave items that are flat, unusually shaped or round.

   Although not a laser technology per se, Gravotech offers custom holding fixtures for laser machines based on the machine you are using and the product you are engraving. “If it is engravable, we can probably custom build a custom device to work with your machine” says Kirch.
Is there anything new in laser engraving software?
   Although there really were no notable new machine features introduced recently, there were some noteworthy advancements in software.
   Gravotech has introduced GravoTouch, a template-driven software solution that automates the laser (or rotary) engraving process through the use of a bar code scan and a touch screen monitor to easily engrave products in inventory. The laser operator, or the customer, selects a product from the shelf and scans the bar code, which automatically pulls up the appropriate layout template on the touch screen monitor. The operator then simply enters the text to be engraved and engraves the item. GravoTouch is a custom software application that is programmed by Gravograph for a customer’s particular product line. “The process to operate this software is so simple that it allows users with no engraving experience to engrave,” says Kirch. “GravoTouch software is ideal for gift and jewelry manufacturers, large retailers and in-store engraving events.”
   Gravograph’s LaserStyle software now comes standard with a material calibration tool that creates a power vs. speed grid to quickly and efficiently determine optimal laser settings to eliminate guesswork and wasted material.
   Jim Rabideau, market development manager for Universal Laser Systems, Scottsdale, AZ, says the company is continually adding materials to the materials database in their software to make it easy for customers to process the widest variety of materials without trial and error. The latest materials are available in periodic updates released to customers.
   Stephens says that Trotec Laser’s JobControl laser engraving software’s new updates have some unique features designed to make it easier for laser users to produce high-quality work for their chosen application. “Features such as bidirectional communication between the laser and the software itself, the ability for the user to work with their preferred graphics software, a materials database and a job favorites function where settings can be changed, saved, or locked all set the user up for success with every job that is performed,” he says.
   Epilog Laser recently launched Job Manager, a new software available for all of the company’s current production models as well as the Legend 36EXT. The Job Manager gives laser users access to job time recorders, a materials database, permanent job storage, project time stamp, organize and search functions, and much more. “It essentially allows laser users to create their own custom file structure to strengthen their engraving processes and reduce downtime,” says Stanaway.

Gravograph can manufacture custom holding jigs for laser and rotary equipment. Shown here is a baseball bat jig for a laser and a phone jig for a rotary machine.

Is the interest in purchasing rotary engraving machines and rotary engraving in general growing, remaining the same or declining?
   What may come as a surprise to some is that interest in rotary engraving is actually showing some growth, mostly because the process has some unique and desirable qualities that other methods like laser engraving don’t have.
   According to Gravograph’s Kirch, “Rotary engraving equipment has seen steady growth as more and more people are looking for items to be personalized.” Adds Elisha Kaufman, COO, U-MARQ USA Corp., New Milford, CT, “Rotary engraving is always a growing market. People can offer a service to their customers that not many others can.”
   Joe Marziano, vice president for Vision Engraving & Routing Systems, Phoenix, AZ, agrees. “Interest in purchasing a rotary engraving machine and rotary engraving in general is growing,” he comments. “A rotary system is capable of many applications, but its ability to permanently engrave a clear, crisp marking on a variety of materials and parts at a specified depth continues to be a growing need due to requirements and standards set by different agencies and industries.”
What has happened with the price of equipment recently?
   Manufacturers report that prices for rotary equipment have remained steady over the past few years. They also point out that this fact makes rotary engraving an affordable engraving solution for many businesses. For example, Rachel Hammer, product manager/rotary devices for Roland DGA, Irvine, CA, says that the company offers a wide range of rotary engravers to meet varying user needs and budgets. Pricing within the Roland lineup ranges from a basic unit (EGX-20) at $2,995 to the advanced EGX-400 and EGX-600 models, which are list priced at $10,995 and $13,995, respectively.
   “Pricing for rotary engravers has remained steady over the last few years, yet more features and software capabilities have been added. This makes the rotary systems an affordable engraving solution for many customers,” says Kirch.
Where are you seeing buying activity?
   Kirch says that Gravograph is seeing notable activity among gift businesses that want to personalize products while the customer waits. Likewise, U-MARQ’s Kaufman notes that activity is always high around retail markets as people are looking to offer their customers a service that others can’t offer.
   The fact that rotary engraving can be used to do work that other methods can’t do well comes into play here as well. “Customers buying rotary engravers are doing so with a specific purpose or application(s) in mind. They come in knowing exactly what they’re looking for in the way of functionality and features, so in most cases, it’s simply a matter of choosing the size of machine needed to best handle the work,” says Hammer.
What feedback do you receive from first-time rotary machine buyers?
   The majority of the manufacturers had the same response to this question: First-time buyers frequently remark on the ease of use of the rotary engraving machine, which counteracts rotary engraving’s reputation of being a difficult process to learn.
   “They are amazed at how easy it is to operate the engraver along with how many different items can be engraved,” says Kirch.
Hammer agrees. “Some are intimidated at first, but once they actually get their hands on the engraver and start using it, they discover how easy this can be. Of course, some engravers are easier to use than others,” she says.
   Vision Engraving’s Marziano says that buyers often comment about the fact that the equipment is going to make their jobs easier. “Many customers purchase a machine to do an application that’s either currently being done manually or outsourced. So we hear a lot of first-time buyers say ‘Wow! This is going to save me a lot of time’ or ‘This makes my job a lot easier.’” From those who are outsourcing engraving, we hear ‘This machine is going to save me a ton of money!’”

Epilog Laser offers a full line of laser engraving systems. The MG380Hybrid from GCC America, Walnut, CA, features two CO2 laser tubes.

What does it take for an engraver to be successful in rotary engraving today?
   Both Kirch and Hammer recommend a two-fold approach involving arming yourself with the right equipment and focusing on what you are going to sell.
   “Optimizing your time with fast, efficient equipment and good software allows for quick growth. Also, focus on products and markets with a low cost and a high perceived value,” Kirch recommends.
   Hammer suggests, “Think out of the box and expand your product offerings. And set yourself up with high-quality, user-friendly equipment and software capable of handling the applications you have in mind.” She also recommends creating templates which will make it easier for engravers to create and repeat commonly requested designs and projects.
   From a marketing standpoint, Kaufman says that generating positive word-of-mouth can be invaluable. “I have found that people who are in high traffic retail areas tend to be more profitable than those who aren’t. Word-of-mouth helps small businesses every day in high traffic areas when people can say, ‘I went there to get this engraved and they did a great job,’” she explains.
   On the technical side, Marziano advises that a successful practitioner needs to be open to learning the different engraving and cutting tools available for the materials being engraved or cut out.
What are the most profitable market areas for rotary engraved products?
   Profitable applications for rotary engraving run the gamut but, not surprisingly, trophies, awards, jewelry and gifts rank at the top of the list. Still, there are many other potentially profitable applications for rotary engraving.
   “Awards are always in demand, but industrial applications, such as employee name tags, asset tags and electrical panels, are also often outstanding revenue producers for engraving operations,” Hammer says.
   “There are many different types of profitable market areas for rotary engraved products,” states Marziano. “Architectural signage, ADA Braille signage, control panels, custom part marking, cutting printed PVC type materials, firearms marking, gift and jewelry marking, metal engraving and glass engraving are just a few highly profitable market areas.”
What new educational resources are available to rotary machine owners?
   All of the major manufacturers offer some unique and potentially very helpful tools for working with their equipment, giving you a variety of resources to choose from. Here’s a sampling of what they have to offer.
   The GravoStyle 7 software from Gravograph now has a “right click and learn” feature that gives an operator the ability to click on an unfamiliar function or capability in the software and learn about it on the spot, without sorting through pages of documents and websites.
   Roland offers an extensive library of webinars, articles and “tips & tricks” on its website, which are free to registered owners. “These are great learning resources, not only for those just getting started, but also for experienced engravers to learn new applications, improving workflow and getting the most out of their Roland engraving machines,” says Hammer.
   U-MARQ is now offering a free forum to all of its customers which includes how-to videos and a chance to speak directly with the people who actually make the machines and develop the software. “This has been an invaluable piece of support for all U-MARQ customers,” says Kaufman.
   For those looking to get started with a rotary machine or even brush up on their current skills, Vision Engraving offers VisionU, a training program for beginners and experts who want to learn how to proficiently operate their Vision engraving or routing machine. Three options are available for training, including online, on campus (Phoenix, AZ) and on site at the user’s location. Vision also has a large selection of videos online for a variety of different applications
What are the most popular types of rotary engraving machines?
   “All-in-one machines” that have multiple capabilities are popular options among buyers according to manufacturers. Engravers are looking for the ability to use one machine to engrave, cut, deep engrave, mill, etc., engrave a variety of materials— from plastic to glass to stainless steel—and to quickly change from flat to cylindrical work.

Creating LED illuminated acrylic panels is a popular application for laser engraving today. Photo courtesy of Kern Laser Systems. The EGX-600 is one of the most popular rotary engraving machines available from Roland DGA.

   “Customers want to get a good bang for their buck so they are tending to purchase a more expensive machine in order to offer greater services to their customers,” says Kaufman.
   Marziano says that two of the most popular types of rotary engraving machines at Vision Engraving are the Vision Express and the Vision 2550 CNC router/engraver. “The Express Desktop Engraver is a popular entry level system,” he says. “It’s an affordable machine that comes standard with features like a 6” x 8” T-slot table, graphics software, square linear bearings on all axes, Ethernet connection and more. The 2550 CNC Router/Engraver is Vision’s heavy-duty 25” x 50” system. It is a precision machine that is very popular with manufacturers and sign companies.”
Are there any new rotary engraving technologies being introduced?
   Stand-alone engraving machines are a new technology at Gravograph that is expanding and now includes the RingCube, TagCube, M20ABC and M40ABC engraving systems. According to Kirch, these engraving machines are very easy to use and require no additional computer or special training. They can be used with GravoTouch software (mentioned earlier in the laser section of this article) to quickly create personalized messages to be engraved on items in the store. The Dedicace solution is another software development from Gravograph which allows the customer to handwrite a message and in one easy time-saving step, the software will vectorize it and size it to the piece to be engraved.
   U-MARQ has introduced a software development called depth profiling that, according to Kaufman, is unique to U-MARQ machines. The feature is designed to ensure uniform engraving on conical and curved surfaces, such as a champagne flute, in one setup by actually creating a profile of the item being engraved. The company also offers photo software that allows engraving photographs with a few clicks of the mouse.
   According to Marziano, Vision is introducing a tool changer model later this year to speed up production time on jobs that require multiple tools to be used. The company has also added new features to its software, including the ability to automatically create a single-line font from a TrueType font, one click bitmap vectorization, a productivity module for streamlining production and Unicode font support.
   From this Q&A discussion, it appears that both laser engraving and rotary engraving are alive and well in our industry. Sales of equipment are growing and new equipment technologies and software enhancements have been introduced which have broadened your choices in equipment.
   If you are interested in purchasing equipment, you might want to start your research by checking out EJ’s “Laser Engraving Buyer’s Guide” and “Rotary Engraving Buyer’s Guide” on our website at www.engraversjournal.com. These guides list all of the major engraving equipment options and their features in convenient chart format. With all of the equipment options available today, you are sure to find a perfect fit for your business.