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.
WHAT’S NEW IN LASERS?
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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.
WHAT’S NEW IN ROTARY SYSTEMS?
What does it take for an engraver to be successful in rotary engraving today?
“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.
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