What is fiber laser engraving?

The word laser is actually an acronym that stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. That should give you a good clue of what a laser engraver is and what it is used for.  Fiber engravers have drastically dropped in price over the years and now, almost any DIY enthusiasts can afford one.

So what is fiber laser engraving? Well, if you have ever used a lens to start a fire, you probably know that the lens simply focuses light from the sun and turns into heat that can cause combustion. Similarly, a fiber laser engraver pumps intense light at the end of the fiber optic cables which then give a powerful laser beam. This light beam is then used to engrave (or even cut) patterns on different materials.

Here is how it works: the fiber laser engraver produces a laser beam by pumping a very intense light through the fiber optic cables. These fiber optic cables are doped with ytterbium which helps to release the energy in the form of photons. The photons then create a laser beam as they are exiting the fiber optic cable.

Which materials are compatible with fiber laser engravers?

Not every material is a good match for fiber laser engraving. For instance, most transparent polymers will not work well with fiber laser engraving techniques. Instead of engraving them, the beam just passes through and engraves the table instead. You can still work with polymers but you must look for ones that have some pigmentation and not the transparent ones. Additionally, organic materials are not well suited for fiber laser engraving. Wood, clear glass, leather, clear acrylic and other fabrics are also transparent to the 1062nm wavelength and would therefore not be ideal for fiber laser engraving.

The following is a conservative list of materials that are commonly used with fiber laser engravers.

  • Aluminum
  • Stainless steel
  • Brass
  • Carbon fiber
  • Carbon nanotube
  • Metal plated ceramics
  • Inconel metals
  • Magnesium
  • Molybdenum
  • Nickel
  • Nylon
  • Plastics
  • Steel

How to use a fiber laser engraver on non-compatible materials

Even though not every material is ideal for fiber laser engraving, you can still pull it off with a couple of hacks. Here are some hacks worth trying.

  •  To enhance a mark, use oxidizers, foils and paint fills.
  • If you place a metal plate under a transparent material, you will get a mark on it. This is because the fiber wavelength passes through the material and marks the metal plate and then reflects the beam right back to the bottom side of the transparent material.
  • Use a marker to temporarily color a transparent polymer and then do the engraving. You can then use a cleaning agent to remove the coloring and you should have your nicely engraved transparent material.
  • Alternatively, just use an alternative material that is compatible with fiber laser engravers

Types of marks that can be made on a surface

In order to avoid confusion, let’s look at the different types of marks that are typically made on a surface.

  • Ablation

The process by which a surface is removed from an object through vaporization is referred to as ablation. Ablation is usually associated with the etching of anodized metals.

  • Annealing

Annealing is when steel is heated to extreme temperatures and thereafter creating a permanent oxide layer on its surface. Annealing is used when you want to create a high contrast mark on steel without changing the surface finish of steel. 

  • Color changing

Laser radiation can penetrate some plastics and then get absorbed by the color pigments. The pigments are then modified chemically which leads to a change in the color of the plastic. This technique is often used to modify the colors of plastics without damaging their surfaces.

  • Foaming

Foaming is the process through which the material melts thereby forming gas bubbles that get trapped as the material cools down. This results in the formation of an elevated pattern. Foaming is common with plastics and stainless steel.

  • Engraving

This is the process of making incisions into a surface like wood, gold, steel, etc. Laser engraving is a preferred method of making engraved objects. Engraving is usually done for industrial purposes (e.g. staff IDs) or for aesthetics (e.g. customized jewelry).

How to engrave with a Fiber Laser System

In order to use a fiber laser system to make marks on your material of choice, you need the fiber laser engraver, a computer, and the software. Fiber laser engravers can be bought from Amazon or you could also buy them directly from the manufacturer. There are two kinds of software that you can use with your fiber laser engraver; proprietary and open architecture.

Proprietary software refers to the software that you get from the manufacturer of your laser engraving machine. The main advantage of this software is you are guaranteed that it will work with your laser machine. This is mainly because the software was specially designed for the fiber laser engraver and will, therefore, work even after the installation of updates. The main disadvantage of proprietary software is you will have to spend a lot of time to learn it and any bug fixes and updates to the software are 100% reliant on the company.

You could also just go with your favorite open architecture software like Photoshop, Illustrator, AutoCAD, etc. Since these software are specifically designed for graphic manipulation, they will have lots of reliable features. They also have an awesome community of creatives so you can always ask for help if you get somewhere. As long as your device is compatible with windows print drivers, you can send the image to the fiber laser engraver through the usual print command.

How to “print” using a fiber laser engraver

Printing your design is as easy as executing the normal print command and selecting your fiber laser engraver from the list of the printers dialog box.   Once you have selected the laser engraver as the default printing device, make sure you have set the properties correctly. Important settings include resolution power, speed, focus, and frequency. The manufacturer usually has a manual/chart with recommended settings for the different materials so make sure to check the chart first. If printing more than one design on the same material at a go, just modify your page size settings accordingly and then duplicate the file size across the page. You can then click on the print command and let the fiber laser engraver do its magic.

3 common uses for fiber lasers

A fiber laser has a variety of applications. In fact, most people who buy fiber laser engravers buy them with one use in mind but then eventually branch out into the different applications. Here are the 3 most popular users for fiber lasers.

  • Serializing and barcoding

Engraving barcodes and serial numbers directly onto tools and parts is one of the common users for fiber lasers. Fiber lasers provide high-quality marks which can be read by a barcode scanner. You can use a variety of code structures for serializing including UPC codes, one-dimensional codes, and data matrix codes. When serializing several parts, you can use the laser engraver with a jig for holding the various parts on the laser bed and then simultaneously serializing them at a go. This eliminates the need of a dedicated operator for switching out of parts.

  • Placing logos on products

If you have a company that is producing high-end products, etching your company logo can help ensure your brand will always be visible to the customer. Laser engraved logos are better than printed labels because the labels can be removed voluntarily and involuntarily by the customer.

  • Making custom products

Customizing products is another popular user for fiber laser engravers. You can actually run a very successful business as a laser engraver specializing in custom items. On the industrial level, you can help companies and startups to engrave their logos on their products. Alternatively, you can offer to make custom products like wall hangings, jewelry, watches, etc.

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