Rotary and Laser Engraving

Inexpensive investments to broaden sign work and add specialty products.
Tech Review: Rotary and Laser Engraving

It’s almost a chicken or the egg situation. Did a shop start out doing awards and engraving and then add signmaking, or vice versa? Many signshops have some type of engraving capabilities today. It’s a great way to add to the bottom line as well as to expand into specialty products. Engraving can also be a necessity if you are providing informational signs for businesses. ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations typically require that informational signs be presented in braille as well as letterform. Engraving is the tried-and-true method of performing that task.

So, how easy is it to get into engraving? That really depends on your needs and budget. You could do everything by hand but in today’s world, who has the time? That leaves you with two choices for technologies, rotary or laser engraving. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, so only you can determine which is better for your company. Let’s take a look at some of the pluses and minuses of each technology.

Rotary engravers have been around for a very long time. The machines operate on three axes (X, Y and Z). Many of these engravers have small footprints and can easily fit on a desktop. Different tools are typically available that will match the media and engraving depth. Rotary engravers can handle plastics, wood and soft metals such as aluminum, brass and copper.

Because rotary engravers are like mini CNC routers, they only work with vector artwork. This is typical for name badges and informational signs, so it’s normally not an issue. Table sizes are generally less than 6 in. x 1 ft. but can go as large as 2 x 4 ft. for more industrial engravers. Be aware that rotary engravers can make a lot of noise and will produce dust from the engraved material. Some desktop models are enclosed to mitigate these issues.

This type of engraver shines in a few areas. First, the pocketbook. You can get a desktop engraver for less than $5K and even get a well-equipped model for under $10K. If you need braille capabilities, rotary is the best way to go. The manufacturer should have the tools and knowledge to get you going.

LASER SHOW

Most people today think of lasers when they think of engraving. As the name implies, a laser beam is used to burn the surface of the media (i.e., perform the engraving). There is very little dust but some soot and, depending on the media, fumes can be produced. In most cases you will see laser engravers fully enclosed to contain fumes and also protect people from the lasers while the machines are in operation.

The media, speed and cutting depth are controlled by a couple of factors. The power of the laser will affect the speed of engraving, though this may also be a function of media type (e.g., wood, plastic, etc.). For example, going from a 40W to a 75W laser may double your speed. The type of laser, CO2 versus fiber, can determine the types of media you can engrave. CO2 works well with nonmetallic media like woods, plastics and leather. Fiber lasers work best with metals. There are manufacturers that offer dual-laser models that suit the best of both worlds. 

Laser engravers are typically larger than rotary, offering beds that range from 1 x 2 ft. to 3 x 4 ft. A major advantage of laser engravers is that they can produce not only vector images, but also raster artwork. Grayscale images can easily be used to customize a variety of products from signs to leather purses. Prices start below $10K but will be dependent on options.

Engraving can be a cool and logical addition to almost any signshop. You can offer a wide variety of specialized custom-engraved products, supply name tags or use them for informational signage. If ADA is a must, rotary is probably the better choice. If you desire more media flexibility and want to offer raster images, then laser is the way to go.