Well I have finally put finger to keyboard on this subject and as the title suggests this subject may well span over a couple of posts, depending on any queries raised along the way. I would confidently offer that I get asked at least once per week about our experiences with laser engravers. The enquiries are probably a 50/50 mix of people from inside the model railway or allied hobbies, and of course people looking to add this technology to an existing mainstream signage, graphics or engraving business or those who are looking to venture into these businesses from start up.
Our business, Harlow Graphics Pty Ltd, commenced trading some 23 years ago and started off as a purely signwriting and sign-making business. During those early years we outsourced our engraving requirements with patchy results to say the least. I should add at this point that we have always been focused on industrial signage and engraving with a leaning towards the petroleum, electrical instrumentation and aircraft industries. Of course these industries are understandably quite demanding in terms of materials, industry terminology, turnaround timeframes and correctness...and so it did not take long to work out, that to control all of these factors meant that we had to move quickly to equip ourselves with all the hardware and software to ensure we were in control of our own destiny...and so we embarked on an expensive "expansion program" to enable us to keep every facet of the business in-house.
With regards to engraving...we purchased our first computerised, rotary engraving machine some 20 years ago and then moved on to the laser technology over 10 years ago. While the graphics and digital print / sign making technology has evolved rapidly over those years...the basic principles of laser technology have moved ahead at a relatively steady pace...meaning that this years purchase is not redundant next year.
So...what is laser engraving?...well I always refer to it as "controlled cremation" and, as crass as that comment may seem...that is about all there is to it. While there are a two distinct classes or types of laser machines...we will stick to the traditional CO2 type of combination engrave and cut machines. While a complete run down of the technology can be researched on the internet and videos can be viewed on YouTube...I will try and stick to the basics and how it relates to our hobby. To explain the overall operation, I have borrowed a very nice little graphic from the internet and will try and keep it simple.
The laser engraver works something like a dot matrix printer but without direct contact with the material or workpiece. There is an X and Y axis gantry with the laser "head" travelling backwards and forwards across the bed and the whole gantry can be moved up and down the table...this is all handled by the controller, software and driver and has no real direct "hand input". The laser beam ( red in the graphic) is generated in a laser tube and is then transferred via a sequence of mirrors and then when above the workpiece...it travels through a lens assembly ( the blue component in the picture) to ensure focus is maintained throughout the process.
There are two main methods to achieve the process of engraving. The first is what is called "raster" and refers to the actual marking of a material, which is achieved by the rapid backwards and forwards motion of the laser head. This operation is again like a normal printer and as the laser head moves backwards and forwards the gantry moves incrementally ( again just like paper moving through a printer )...what portion is engraved is dictated by the graphics package you are using and the colour of the infill you have assigned in that drawing. The second operation is called "vector" and is basically the cutting function of the machine...where the beam follows a computer generated outline or line and cuts through the material. To reiterate...both of these functions are controlled by the software you are using...while the driver interface is used to control the power, speed and frequency of the machine depending on what material you are using and the desired outcome.
On the software front we tend to use either CorelDraw or Pagemaker although many other drawing packages and add-ons can be used.
USES FOR OUR HOBBY.
There is quite literally a myriad of uses that a laser engraver can offer to our hobby. There is also a large assortment of hobby type materials that can be lasered and while the listing is not exhaustive...these include: Acrylic, Styrene, Balsa, Basswood, Most Timbers, ABS Plastics***, Cardboard, Matt Board, Paper and many many others. I included ABS plastic in this list and while I "dabble" in this material it does have some limitations due to the flammability and toxicity when heated. I also certainly warn against any product that contains PVC for the same reasons as ABS.
Apart from the shear versatility of the materials that can be machined is the added intricacy and minute accuracy that can be achieved. It all comes down to your imagination and drawing capability which in reality is no hard slog with the software packages on offer these days. If I had to nail it down to one factor that makes the laser a valuable tool is that it absolutely "eats" repetitious jobs with extremely little or no clean up of the parts required before assembly can take place.
I encourage any reader to take a look back through the older posts on this blog to see what can be achieved and I also invite you to take a look at our "Laser Rail Bits" Facebook page.
THE PROS AND CONS OF OWNERSHIP.
I often ask myself whether I would have purchased a laser engraver purely for my hobby pursuits...and the answer is a definite NO....That may come as a hammer blow to some who are either toying with the idea or are deep in the planning stages of buying. If it were not for the fact that our laser units already have a very hectic "9 to 5" working life and are a registered business item that allows for them to be claimed as deductions under the local tax scheme, then I would be very hesitant to invest in one purely for hobby. Now, that direct answer certainly has wriggle room for someone who is contemplating a commercial venture or is a professional model maker...but the second hand market is littered with examples of someone's superannuation payout and the vision of a burgeoning empire forged on the back of a laser engraver purchase. Certainly industrial engraving is an integral part of our business and so our equipment earn their keep extremely well...but I see many examples where even a well thought out business plan comes a cropper when the unsuspecting purchaser is talked into the Rolls Royce of laser technology, takes out a lease that would make Clive Palmer blush and then witness them attempting to dream up any form of laser produced "trinkets" just to make the lease payments.
And with the above in mind ( and if you are still in the game)...I will attempt to give you some details, tips and running costs that the local laser salespeople will not tell you...
Firstly...consider matching a machine with your requirements v's your hip pocket. As I alluded to earlier in this essay, one of the best features of the laser world is that while the features and power output of the machines have certainly improved...the overall philosophy of the laser engraver's basic function has not changed much at all...so this means that what you buy today will certainly see you through for about 10 years (all things being equal).
Therefore the two combinations that are of importance to any prospective buyer is the bed size (workspace) and the power, expressed in Watts. As an example...and part of our arsenal... we have a 10+ year old machine that has a bed size of 610mm x 450mm and has an output of 35 Watts...and when purchased was probably the flagship of engraving technology. Move forward to today and 120 Watts with a table size of 1200mm x 600mm is fairly common. The irony is that our old unit still plugs away each day providing admirable service and does everything we throw at it....It certainly is not redundant in today's world and will possibly give another 10 years of service with careful maintenance and a possibly overdue rebuild. We are presently exploring the feasabilty of adding yet another unit to our "workforce" but the 35 Watt Epilog Helix will continue to be a handy utility machine and will most likely be our modelling unit for many years to come.
And so to the costs involved in the purchase and operation of a typical laser engraver.
Purchase Price: Anywhere between $45,000 - $150,000AUD ex GST
Service Costs: Somewhere around $500 to $700 ( Labour Only ) every 6 months for a preventative maintenance visit...Most manufacturers advise a 6 monthly inspection...but if housekeeping and user maintenance are kept up...annual service intervals should suffice. ( This is a personal observation...you must make your own decisions on frequency )
NB. The main "consumable" parts that will require replacement are: Mirrors and Lenses ( Say $400 per set complete), Belts ( if fitted) $100.00. The most expensive components that are a possibility are Main Control Board +/- $3000.00
And almost certainly at some point ( anywhere between 2 years and 10+ years ) will be the laser tube and indicative (present) costs to replace the existing tube in our 35 Watt unit and carry out a service...Around $8000.00 total
Running Costs: Variable... but must factor in the extraction fan system as well as the host computer and software upgrades when applicable.
It must be taken into consideration that an extraction ( to atmosphere) will need to be installed and if in a built up area...the extracted fumes may also require filtration or water bath treatment prior to atmosphere...This is a major consideration...and on it's own could would require a separate post for discussion...
For anyone contemplating any purchase of this magnitude...research is gold. I hate to say it but most sales staff from any of the major suppliers will offer performance and profit figures well out of kilter with actual in service use. Of course this practice is not limited to any type of industry where sales are concerned. While most of these guys are well intentioned and mostly reading from a well practiced sales script...The truth is that very few in the industry have had to stand over a machine in a business environment and make it pay for itself.
The local market is best served with Trotec, Epilog and Gravograph brand units and each of these outfits offers service and backup on the products that they sell.
While there is now a plethora of machines emanating from Asia ( and in particular China ) at very attractive up front costs...my personal opinion is to steer well clear of these " bargains" as the honeymoon will truly end if a major component was to expire and the owner was to look for replacements and at the very least a reputable and experienced, local company who would even consider repairing or servicing an "orphan" brand of machine... Like everything...you get what you pay for!
I must state here that everything contained within this post is MY OWN OPINION...and every prospective buyer should conduct their own research. You may find that some businesses that utilise laser engravers will be reticent to openly chat about and offer advice regarding lasers...It is a fickle industry, with many a tad protective of their business. On the other side of the coin...I am quite comfortable chatting to people should they wish to get an owner/operators version of the business or any other facet of the laser engraving "trade"
I hope that what I have written here has been of some use to those with an interest...and to those who are possibly now asleep over their cup of tea...you have my apologies.
Oh and please leave a comment if I have overlooked any issues that require discussion...and I will either answer via return comment...or email, phone...or god forbid...another post!