Laser etching, laser marking, and laser engraving are all applications that can be satisfied by an industrial laser cutting machine. Laser machines vary significantly in their function and properties: there are CO2 laser engraving machines which primarily emit low-powered laser beams and could fit comfortably on your desk, and there are also high-powered fiber lasers that have been purposefully designed to facilitate high-volume laser marking and engraving applications in an industrial setting. Different lasers vary based on the specific chemistry that they use to create the laser beam.
In general, all laser cutting machines have three common components: the laser itself, the control system for the laser, and the marking surface. The operator of the machine uses a software program to modify settings on the laser cutter, including the power output of the laser and the speed of the controller that directs the laser across the material surface. These settings can be used to change the laser cutter application from laser engraving to laser etching or marking.
An image chosen for engraving onto a given material must be produced with graphics editing software. These include well-known applications such as Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, and Adobe Photoshop, and AutoCAD that can produce vector files. Vector files have a special property that makes them ideal for the laser marking application: the images in vector files maintain their clarity and proportions when adjusted to any size.
A saved vector file containing the desired image can be uploaded into the laser cutter software and translated into numerical data. The laser cutter’s own software can take that data and use it to program the laser machine’s controller apparatus to produce the provided image using the laser.
Conceptually, you might think about laser engraving machines as being similar to 3D printers. They both use digital designs to automate a creative process, but while a 3D printer functions by printing plastic blocks in the programmed pattern, the laser machine uses a programmed pattern to take something away from the material–leaving engraved text or a lasting image in its place.
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