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Laser Marking

Want to learn more about laser marking? Also known as laser engraving, which is a subset of laser marking, is the practice of using lasers to engrave an object. Laser marking, on the other hand, is a broader category of methods to leave marks on an object, which also includes color change due to chemical/molecular alteration, charring, foaming, melting, ablation, and more. The technique does not involve the use of inks, nor does it involve tool bits which contact the engraving surface and wear out, giving it an advantage over alternative engraving or marking technologies where inks or bit heads have to be replaced regularly.

The impact of laser marking has been more pronounced for specially designed “laserable” materials and also for some paints. These include laser-sensitive polymers and novel metal alloys.

The term laser marking is also used as a generic term covering a broad spectrum of surfacing techniques including printing, hot-branding and laser bonding. The machines for laser engraving and laser marking are the same, so that the two terms are sometimes confused by those without knowledge or experience in the practice.

Laser Engraving Machines

A laser engraving machine can be thought of as three main parts: a laser, a controller, and a surface. The laser is like a pencil – the beam emitted from it allows the controller to trace patterns onto the surface. The controller direction, intensity, speed of movement, and spread of the laser beam aimed at the surface. The surface is picked to match what the laser can act on.

There are three main genres of engraving machines: The most common is the X-Y table where, usually, the work-piece (surface) is stationary and the laser optics move around in X and Y directions, directing the laser beam to draw vectors. Sometimes the laser is stationary and the work-piece moves. Sometimes the work-piece moves in the Y axis and the laser in the X axis. A second genre is for cylindrical work-pieces (or flat work-pieces mounted around a cylinder) where the laser effectively traverses a fine helix and on/off laser pulsing produces the desired image on a raster basis. In the third method, both the laser and work-piece are stationary and galvo mirrors move the laser beam over the work-piece surface. Laser engravers using this technology can work in either raster or vector mode.

The point where the laser (the terms “laser” and “laser beam” may be used interchangeably) touches the surface should be on the focal plane of the laser’s optical system and is usually synonymous with its focal point. This point is typically small, perhaps less than a fraction of a millimeter (depending on the optical wavelength). Only the area inside this focal point is significantly affected when the laser beam passes over the surface. The energy delivered by the laser changes the surface of the material at the focal point. It may heat up the surface and subsequently vaporize the material, or perhaps the material may fracture (known as “glassing” or “glassing up”) and flake off the surface. Cutting through the paint of a metal part is generally how material is laser engraved.

If the surface material is vaporized during laser engraving, ventilation through the use of blowers or a vacuum pump are almost always required to remove the noxious fumes and smoke arising from this process, and for removal of debris on the surface to allow the laser to continue engraving.

A laser can remove material very efficiently because the laser beam can be designed to deliver energy to the surface in a manner which converts a high percentage of the light energy into heat. The beam is highly focused and collimated – in most non-reflective materials like wood, plastics and enamel surfaces, the conversion of light energy to heat is more than {x%} efficient. However, because of this efficiency, the equipment used in laser engraving may heat up rather quickly. Elaborate cooling systems are required for the laser. Alternatively, the laser beam may be pulsed to decrease the amount of excessive heating.

Different patterns can be engraved by programming the controller to traverse a particular path for the laser beam over time. The trace of the laser beam is carefully regulated to achieve a consistent removal depth of material. For example, criss-crossed paths are avoided to ensure that each etched surface is exposed to the laser only once, so the same amount of material is removed. The speed at which the beam moves across the material is also considered in creating engraving patterns. Changing the intensity and spread of the beam allows more flexibility in the design. For example, by changing the proportion of time (known as “duty-cycle”) the laser is turned on during each pulse, the power delivered to the engraving surface can be controlled appropriately for the material.

Since the position of the laser is known exactly by the controller, it is not necessary to add barriers to the surface to prevent the laser from deviating from the prescribed engraving pattern. As a result, no resistive mask is needed in laser engraving. This is primarily why this technique is different from older engraving methods.

A good example of where laser engraving technology has been adopted into the industry norm is the production line. In this particular setup, the laser beam is directed towards a rotating or vibrating mirror. The mirror moves in a manner which may trace out numbers and letters onto the surface being marked. This is particularly useful for printing dates, expiry codes, and lot numbering of products travelling along a production line. Laser marking allows materials made of plastic and glass to be marked “on the move”. The location where the marking takes place is called a “marking laser station”, an entity often found in packaging and bottling plants. Older, slower technologies such as hot stamping and pad printing have largely been phased out and replaced with laser engraving.

For more precise and visually decorative engravings, a laser table is used. A laser table (or “X-Y table”) is a sophisticated setup of equipment used to guide the laser beam more precisely. The laser is usually fixed permanently to the side of the table and emits light towards a pair of movable mirrors so that every point of the table surface can be swept by the laser. At the point of engraving, the laser beam is focused through a lens at the engraving surface, allowing very precise and intricate patterns to be traced out.

A typical setup of a laser table involves the fixed laser emitting light parallel to one axis of the table aimed at a mirror mounted on the end of an adjustable rail. The beam reflects off the mirror angled at 45 degrees so that the laser travels a path exactly along the length of the rail. This beam is then reflected by another mirror mounted to a movable trolleywhich directs the beam perpendicular to the original axis. In this scheme, two degrees of freedom (one vertical, and one horizontal) for etching can be represented.

In other laser engraving devices such as flat table or drum engraving, the laser beam is controlled to direct most of its energy a fixed penetration depth into the material to be engraved. In this manner, only a particular depth of material is removed when the engraving takes place. A simple machined stick or angle-iron can be used as a tool to help trained technologists adjust the engraver to achieve the required focusing. This setup is preferred for surfaces which do not vary in height appreciably.

For surfaces that vary in height, more elaborate focusing mechanisms have been developed. Some are known as dynamic auto focus systems. They adjust the lasing parameters in real time to adapt to the changes to the material as it is being etched. Typically, the height and depth of the surface are monitored with devices tracking changes to ultrasound, infrared, or visible light aimed at the engraving surface. These devices, known as pilot beams or pilot lasers (if a laser is used) help guide the adjustments made to the lens of the laser in determining the optimal spot to focus on the surface and remove material effectively.

“X-Y” laser engraving machines may operate in vector and raster mode.

Vector engraving follows the line and curve of the pattern to be engraved, much like a pen-based plotter draws by constructing line segments from a description of the outlines of a pattern. Much early engraving of signs and plaques (laser or otherwise) used pre-stored font outlines so that letters, numbers or even logos could be scaled to size and reproduced with exactly defined strokes. Unfortunately, “fill” areas were problematic, as cross-hatching patterns and dot-fills sometimes exhibited moiré effects or uber-patterns caused by the imprecise calculation of dot spacings. Moreover, rotations of a font or dynamic scaling often were beyond the capabilities of the font-rendering device. The introduction of the PostScript page-description language now allows much greater flexibility—now virtually anything that can be described in vectors by PostScript-enabled software like CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator can be outlined, filled with suitable patterns, and laser-engraved.

Raster engraving traces the laser across the surface in a back-and-forth slowly advancing linear pattern that will remind one of the printhead on an inkjet or similar printer. The pattern is usually optimized by the controller/computer so that areas to either side of the pattern which aren’t to be engraved are ignored and the trace across the material is thus shortened for better efficiency. The amount of advance of each line is normally less than the actual dot-size of the laser; the engraved lines overlap just slightly to create a continuity of engravure. As is true of all rasterized devices, curves and diagonals can sometimes suffer if the length or position of the raster lines varies even slightly in relation to the adjacent raster scan; therefore exact positioning and repeatability are critically important to the design of the machine. The advantage of rasterizing is the near effortless “fill” it produces. Most images to be engraved are bold letters or have large continuously engraved areas, and these are well-rasterized. Photos are rasterized (as in printing), with dots larger than that of the laser’s spot, and these also are best engraved as a raster image. Almost any page-layout software can be used to feed a raster driver for an X-Y or drum laser engraver. While traditional sign and plaque engraving tended to favour the solid strokes of vectors out of necessity, modern shops tend to run their laser engravers mostly in raster mode, reserving vector for a traditional outline “look” or for speedily marking outlines or “hatches” where a plate is to be cut.

Materials That Can Be Engraved

Natural Metals:

The marking of organic materials like wood is based on material carbonisation which produces darkening of the surface and marks with high contrast. Directly “burning” images on wood were some of the first uses of engraving lasers. The laser power required here is often less than 10 watts depending on the laser being used as most are different. Hardwoods like walnut, mahogany and maple produce good results. Softwoods can be judiciously engraved but tend to vaporize at less-consistent depths. Marking softwood requires the lowest power levels and enables the fastest cut speeds, while active cooling (e.g. a fan with sufficient airflow) inhibits ignition. Hard papers and fiberboard work well; linty papers and newsprint are like softwoods. Fur is not engraveable; finished leathers though can be laser-engraved with a look very similar to hot-branding. Certain latex rubber compounds can be laser engraved; for example these can be used to fabricate inking-stamps.

Paper masking tape is sometimes used as a pre-engraving overcoat on finished and resiny woods so that cleanup is a matter of picking the tape off and out of the unengraved areas, which is easier than removing the sticky and smoky surround “halos” (and requires no varnish-removing chemicals).


Metals are heat resistant materials, marking metals requires high-density laser irradiation. Basically, the average laser power leads to melting and the peak power causes evaporation of the material.

The best traditional engraving materials started out being the worst laser-engravable materials. This problem has now been solved using lasers at shorter wavelengths than the traditional 10,640 nm wavelength CO2 laser. Using Yb: Fiber Lasers, Nd:YVO4 or Nd:YAG lasers at 1,064 nm wavelength, or its harmonics at 532 and 355 nm, metals can now easily be engraved using commercial systems.

Coated metals:

The same conduction that works against the spot vaporization of metal is an asset if the objective is to vaporize some other coating away from the metal. Laser engraving metal plates are manufactured with a finely polished metal, coated with an enamel paint made to be “burned off”. At levels of 10-30 watts, excellent engravings are made as the enamel is removed quite cleanly. Much laser engraving is sold as exposed brass or silver-coated steel lettering on a black or dark-enamelled background. A wide variety of finishes are now available, including screen-printed marble effects on the enamel.
Anodized aluminum is commonly engraved or etched with CO2 laser machines. With power less than 40W this metal can easily be engraved with clean, impressive detail. The laser bleaches the color exposing the white or silver aluminum substrate. Although it comes in various colors, laser engraving black anodized aluminum provides the best contrast of all colors. Unlike most materials engraving anodize aluminum does not leave any smoke or residue.
Spray coatings can be obtained for the specific use of laser engraving metals, these sprays apply a coating that is visible to the laser light which fuses the coating to the substrate where the laser passed over. Typically, these sprays can also be used to engrave other optically invisible or reflective substances such as glass and are available in a variety of colours. Besides spray coatings, some laser-markable metals come pre-coated for imaging. Products such as this transform the surface of the metal to a different color (often black, brown or grey).

Industrial Applications

Direct Laser Engraving of Flexographic Plates and Cylinders

Direct laser engraving of flexographic printing cylinders and plates has been an established process since the 1970’s. This first began with the use of a carbon dioxide laser used to selectively ablate or evaporate a variety of rubber plate and sleeve materials to produce a print ready surface without the use of photography or chemicals. With this process there is no integral ablation mask as with direct photopolymer laser imaging (see below). Instead a high-power carbon dioxide laser head burns away, or ablates, unwanted material. The aim is to form sharp, relief images with steep first relief and contoured shoulder supported edges to give a high standard of process color reproduction. A short water wash and dry cycle follows, which is a lot less involved than in the post-processing stages for direct laser imaging or conventional flexo platemaking using photopolymer plates. After engraving, the photopolymer is exposed through the imaged black layer and washed out in the traditional photopolymer process requiring photography and chemicals.

Before the year 2000 lasers only produced lower quality in rubber-like materials. In these rubber-like materials, which had a rough structure, higher quality was impossible. Since the year 2000 fiber lasers have been introduced to give a much increased engraving quality direct into black polymeric materials. Also at the Drupa 2004 the direct engraving of polymer plates was introduced. This had also an effect on the rubber-developers who, in order to stay competitive, developed new high quality rubber-like materials. The development of suitable polymeric compounds has also allowed the engraving quality achievable with the fibre lasers to be realised in print. Since then direct laser engraving of flexo-printingforms is seen by many as the modern way to make printing-forms for it is the first real digital way.

As a competitive process, more recently laser system have been introduced to selectively engrave the thin opaque black layer of a specially produced photopolymer plate or sleeve.

Direct Photopolymer Laser Imaging

Closely related is the direct imaging of a digital flexo plates or sleeves ‘in-the-round’ on a fast-rotating drum, or cylinder. This is carried out on a platesetter integrated within a digital prepress workflow, that also supports digital proofing. Again, this is a filmless process, which removes one of the variables in obtaining the fine and sharp dots for screened effects, including process color printing.

With this process the electronically generated image is scanned at speed to a photopolymer plate material that carries a thin black mask layer on the surface. The infrared laser-imaging head, which runs parallel to the drum axis, ablates the integral mask to reveal the uncured polymer underneath. A main ultraviolet exposure follows to form the image through the mask. The remaining black layer absorbs the ultraviolet radiation, which polymerizes the underlying photopolymer where the black layer has been removed. The exposed digital plate still needs to be processed like a conventional flexo plate. That is, using solvent-based washout with the necessary waste recovery techniques, although some water-washable digital plates are in development. This technology has been used since 1995 and is only now becoming more widely used around the world as more affordable equipment becomes available. Trade sources say there are around 650 digital plate-setters installed in label, packaging and trade plate-making houses.

Laser Engraving of Anilox Rolls

Prior to 1980 anilox rolls were produced by a variety of mechanical processes. These metal anilox rolls were sometimes sprayed with ceramic to prolong their life in the flexographic printing press. During the 1980s laser engraving systems were produced which used a carbon dioxide laser to engrave the required cell pattern directly into the polished ceramic surface. Since then Q-switched YAG lasers were used for a period as they provided a more focusable laser beam as well as increased pulsing frequencies capable of engraving the finer cell configuration demanded by the ever-evolving flexographic printing process. Since approximately the year 2000 the direct anilox laser engraving process has been dominated by the use of fibre lasers which provide the high powers of the carbon dioxide lasers together with the finely focusable beam of the YAG lasers. Optical systems providing the rapid switching of multiple beams have allowed the fibre laser system to be dominant in this market. This technology has become known as Multi-Beam-Anilox or MBA.

Sub-Surface Laser Engraving

Sub-surface laser engraving is the process of engraving an image in a transparent solid material by focusing a laser below the surface to create small fractures. Such engraved materials are of high-grade optical quality (suitable for lenses, with low dispersion) to minimize distortion of the beam. BK7 glass is a common material for this application. Plastics are also used, but with far less desirable results when compared to the engraving done in optical crystal.

Since its commercial application in the late 1990’s, SSLE has become more cost effective with a number of different sized machines ranging from small (~US$35,000–60,000) to large production scale tables (>US$250,000). Although these machines are becoming more available, it is estimated that only a few hundred are in operation worldwide. Many machines require very expensive cooling, maintenance and calibration for proper use. The more popular SSLE engraving machines use the Diode Pumped Solid State or DPSS laser process. The laser diode, the primary component which excites a pulsed solid state laser, can easily cost one third of the machine itself and functions for a limited number of hours, although a good quality diode can last thousands of hours.

Since 2009, use of SSLE has become more cost effective to produce 3D images in souvenir ‘crystal’ or promotional items with only a few designers concentrating on designs incorporating large or monolithic sized crystal. A number of companies offer custom-made souvenirs by taking 3D pictures or photos and engraving them into the crystal.

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