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Engraving: Laser vs. rotary machines

 

Engravers can help improve a sign shop’s productivity, efficiency and most important profit margins. They handle work that would otherwise need to be outsourced, for example, they enable new revenue streams by allowing shops to offer new products to their existing customers. With the enhanced graphic capabilities of three-dimensional (3-D) design software, engravers not only expand upon a shop’s past capabilities, but also enhance its workflow and allow it to respond to last-minute opportunities with better control of finished product quality and importantly delivery. One of the first challenges, however, is to choose between a laser or rotary engraving machine. This will depend on which technology best meets a specific sign shop’s needs, so it is important to explore and be aware of the differences between them.

Laser


Laser engraving is the preferred process for cutting acrylic for dimensional letters, signs and architectural elements with a flame-polished edge. Its ability to control fine-detail product quality makes it well-suited for cutting tactile lettering for accessibility signage and inlays, without the need to clean up chips after processing.

Laser engravers excel at productivity, achieving processing speeds up to 4 m (157 in.) per second. They are well-suited for producing large quantities of small items, such as name badges—at the same time and enable fast collection of the cut pieces.

In addition to acrylic, wood and other rigid sign materials, they offer the versatility of cutting fabrics and papers. Some sign materials do not lend themselves to laser engraving and will end up with tanned or browned edges. Laminated plastics can show a ‘smoke trail.’ While the level of heat relates directly to the creation of burn marks, ultimately the material itself determines the finish.

The accompanying software can help increase efficiency through ‘nesting.’ This is the process of maximizing the use of the material for the least amount of waste. The optimization of the tool-path is automated and the production time is minimized too. Nesting can also be used when registering and laser-cutting printed media.

Rotary


Rotary engraving machines have also significantly increased productivity for the sign industry. A single router can automate the entire process of producing braille signs, for example, by routing the sign’s pictogram and text, drilling raster braille pockets and, finally, inserting the rasters into the sign.

Routers are well-suited for engraving metal, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), high-density urethane (HDU), medium-density fibre-board and wood. Indeed, they are the best choice for processing the widest range of substrates. And with the use of a long plate, they can enhance workflow further by handling oversized materials.

Besides engraving, of course, routers are commonly used to cut already-printed substrates. Sign shops have also found new revenue streams by using routers for personalisation, promotional and other specialty engraving applications. They can engrave on uneven surfaces, ‘deep engrave’ metal for industrial plates and part marking or even engrave elegant and ornate jewellery and awards with faceted tool-marks.

Routing is the most efficient engraving process for large, filled text. There are ‘2.5-D’ and 3-D options for sign elements. Another advantage is no exhausting or filtration is required.

Conclusion


In the final analysis, while laser and rotary engravers offer different strengths and capabilities, they also complement one another and can prove useful together in a high-volume production environment. They have both proven themselves beneficial. Similarly, productivity can be further increased with the addition of beveling machines, metal or plastic shearing tables, cutter-grinders, saws, corner shapes and engraving enamel. All of these tools and consumables have helped modernize production processes in the sign industry and optimized profits, while still fostering artistic creativity.