What are the Types of Laser Etching Machines for Metal?

Answered on this page:

  • What are the different types of laser etching machine?
  • How do various types of laser etching machines produce different results?
  • What type of laser etching machine do I need?
  • What are the benefits of each type of laser etching machine?

If you’re new to laser etching and getting ready to start your first project, you might be wondering what type of laser engraving machine is best to use. There are many different types of laser etching machines for metal, so we’ve decided to focus on the most common ones that we use to get the best laser engraving and laser etching results.

In this short guide, we give an overview of how lasers work, explain the key differences between the laser systems that we commonly use to produce amazing laser etchings, and offer our best advice for which laser etching machine you should choose for your next project.

Overview

To begin our explanation of the different types of laser etching machines for metal and how they produce different results, let’s start with a broad overview of lasers.

Laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.  A laser is produced by using electrical energy to stimulate the electrons in special types of gases, crystals, or certain types of glass. When the electrons are stimulated, they predictably emit particles of light that are all the same wavelength (that’s what makes the beam visible, and the reason why a laser beam stays the same color all the time).

Laser light is very different from regular light – at the very least due to the fact that it can cut through solid objects. Lasers produce a tight, concentrated beam of light that is uni-directional – it emanates from the source in a single direction – whereas a flashlight creates light that is diffuse – it emanates from the source in all directions.

There are several different types of laser etching machines available. They differ in how they stimulate the emission of light, or in the different electron source that they use (glass, gas or crystal). Here’s how the different types compare when it comes to laser etching machines.

CO2 Laser Etching Machines for Metal

Developed in 1964, the carbon dioxide laser (CO2 laser) was one of the first types of gas lasers to be created. CO2 lasers are the highest-power continuous wave lasers presently available, producing a steady stream of infrared light whose wavelength bands center on 10.6 micrometers. While the specific proportions vary depending on the laser machine and manufacturer, CO2 lasers typically contain a gas mixture of around 10-20% carbon dioxide, 10-20% nitrogen, a bit of hydrogen or xenon (<5%) and the rest helium. This gas mixture is used as an electron source that can be stimulated by an electrical current to produce a laser beam.

Carbon dioxide laser engraving machines are excellent for marking, engraving or etching a variety of materials. They are relatively lower-powered compared to other types of laser engraving machines, enabling compact and space-saving designs that support versatile artistic and industrial applications. Despite being less powerful than other types of laser etching machines for metal, carbon dioxide laser etching machines have effectively replaced traditional marking and engraving technologies like dot peen, ink jet, and labeling.

Gas lasers are less intense than other types of laser etching machines, and as a result, they are less suited to laser etching metals than a glass or crystal laser might be. Still, CO2 lasers are suitable for etching or engraving a variety of materials, including wood, acrylic, glass, paper, plastic, leather and stone.

Fiber Laser Etching Machines for Metal

Fiber lasers are a high-tech invention compared to the carbon dioxide-powered laser beams that were first invented in the 1960s. Fiber lasers use glass as their principle electron source for the production of laser beams, but not just any glass – the optical fibers that live in a fiber laser machine are made of glass strands that are just slightly thicker than a human hair. Fiber optics have special properties that facilitate the transmission of light – they are immune to electromagnetic interference and exhibit a property called “total internal reflection” which allows photons to travel in a straight line through the fiber optic strand without escaping.

The fiber optics used in fiber lasers are also treated with rare earth metals that give off electrons – these include a variety of elements that you can find in your periodic table: erbium, ytterbium, neodymium, dysprosium, praseodymium, thulium, and holmium. The advanced capabilities of these high-tech lasers make them a major improvement over CO2 lasers – here are just a few of the advantages:

  • In fiber lasers, the light that is emitted by electrons is already coupled to a flexible fiber that facilitates the movement of the photon towards the intended target. This ease-of-delivery helps focus the light and produce higher-intensity laser beams, making fiber lasers better-suited for industrial applications and laser etching metals.
  • Fiber lasers can be built with a more compact design than a similarly powered crystal or gas laser. Light particles must travel the length of the optical fiber before emission, but the fiber can be coiled inside the machine to save space.
  • Fiber lasers offer superior power and beam quality compared to other types of lasers, ensuring cleaner cut edges and faster cutting speeds than other types of laser etching machines.

Fiber lasers produce a wavelength of 1064 nanometers, compared to the 10.6 micrometer wavelength offered by carbon dioxide lasers. Combined with an extremely small focal diameter, this means that fiber lasers can produce laser beams with 100 times the intensity of a carbon dioxide laser. All that extra power makes fiber lasers ideal for applications like laser etching metals.

Nd:YAG Laser Etching Machines for Metal

We’ve covered gas lasers and glass lasers, so the last type of laser we should mention is crystal lasers. Nd:YAG lasers use a crystalline rod made of earth metals as an electron source for the laser etching process. Like fiber lasers, Nd:YAG lasers, like fiber lasers, emit light with a wavelength of 1064 nm that makes their beam intensity suitable for laser etching metal.

Nd: YAG lasers are one of the most common high-power lasers, and are used in numerous applications including range-finding, surgery, tattoo or hair removal, and even providing an energy source to other lasers. Nd:YAG laser etching machines offer numerous benefits, including:

  • High power efficiency and long laser lifetime – low total cost of use/ownership
  • Excellent beam quality which allows the beam to be focused more tightly to produce finer engravings or etchings.
  • Numerous customization options, including integration into production lines to facilitate automation
  • Various enclosure styles to suit any environment
  • Variable output powers to facilitate laser marking and laser engraving on a variety of surfaces

Which Laser Etching Machine for Metal Should I Use?

Whether your next laser etching product is artistic or industrial, choosing the best laser etching machine that can meet your needs is the first step to success.

For laser etching metal, a fiber laser etching machine or Nd: YAG is your best choice. Fiber laser machines consume less power than Nd: YAG lasers, which are typically powered by lamp or diode-pumped lasers. Our fiber lasers use galvanometer beam positioning, so you benefit from fast and accurate laser etching that lets you get more done in less time. Nd: YAG lasers are best suited for industrial applications that require high peak energies and deep engraving, but a fiber laser is easier to use and more suitable for smaller projects.

Carbon dioxide lasers are less powerful than other types and may not be the best option for laser engraving metal. Still, they are the ideal option for marking organic materials like glass and wood and have an extremely low operating cost (using zero consumables) and cost of ownership. Items typically engraved using carbon dioxide lasers include:

  • Gift Items
  • Key Rings
  • Name Tags
  • Small Signage
  • Paper Products
  • Rubber Stamps
  • Plaques, Trophies, and Awards
  • Glass/Crystal

Our laser etching services are an excellent way to take advantage of this technology while avoiding the purchase of expensive laser etching or engraving equipment.

Summary

Choosing the right laser etching machine for metal starts with understanding the differences between the most common laser engraving machines available. Carbon dioxide lasers are good for etching wood, acrylic, and other organics, but are usually not strong enough for laser etching metals. Fiber lasers are an excellent option for cutting, marking and etching metal products. Nd: YAG lasers are one of the most common high-powered lasers for industrial metal marking projects.