Is laser marking the right solution for your business? Which laser technology will deliver the best results? Our coding experts reveal everything you need to know about laser marking technology.
Not too long ago, laser was considered a specialist marking and coding solution — with a hefty price tag. Today, thanks to the rapid advances in technology, laser coding has not only become more cost effective, it’s also now the number one choice for a wide range of applications across food, beverage and pharmaceutical packaging, right through to heavy industries. And in another massive leap for the technology, lasers can now mark clear and legible barcodes on primary and secondary packaging.
Does this mean lasers will replace inkjet technology? Probably not — there are still some applications for which laser is simply not the best nor cost-efficient choice. But with the lower capital cost and flexibility, it’s worth weighing up laser technology for your application.
Is laser coding right for your application?
Consider these five factors to work out whether laser is the best solution for you:
- What are you coding onto?
Laser coding solutions have come a long way in the last decade and can now apply human-readable text on both primary and secondary packaging, as well as fully compliant barcodes. In fact, they can reliably code onto glass, plastics, metal and cardboard and flexible packaging.
- Do you need a permanent mark?
Laser coding technology is ideal if you need permanent marks, for example, for anti-counterfeiting and brand protection. This is achieved through a two-step process. First the laser ablates the substrate to remove materials from the area to be marked, such as ink on printed packaging or a layer of metal. Onto this clean patch, the laser engraves the substrate with a very fine groove. The result is a permanent mark. In some applications a colour change may occur as well.
- Is high quality a priority?
With the ability to create high quality marks, laser is ideal for applications where product presentation is very important. So it’s not surprise this technology is the number one choice for the wine industry.
- Do you run a high-speed line?
Compared with inkjet systems, lasers offer a more cost-effective solution for high-speed lines. This comes down to the fact that lasers have no consumables, such as solvents or ribbons. Research shows the return on investment (ROI) can be less than three years on medium-volume production lines. So if your line has an output of more than 100 products per minute, laser could be the smart choice.
- Capital expenditure and total cost of ownership (TCO)
Traditionally, laser technology has been most suited for high-volume applications where the equipment’s higher capital cost is balanced by the ongoing lower operational costs. Smaller businesses have simply been unable to justify the high capital outlay. However, today you don’t have to run a high-volume production line to enjoy the benefits of laser technology. Thanks to more compact and lower-cost systems, laser is now a cost-effective solution for lower-volume manufacturers too.
Types of laser technology
Once you’ve worked out that laser coding is right for you, there are two types of technology to choose from. Which one you choose depends on your application and the substrate.
- The traditional way: CO2 laser
CO2 laser technology is the old-school method of laser marking. It uses a carbon dioxide gas mixture, which is electrically stimulated to produce a high efficiency, high quality beam. They are the most widely used laser types because of the cost efficiency, low operation costs, low maintenance and lack of consumables.
CO2 laser coders are also extremely versatile and can be used to mark onto a wide range of materials at high line speeds, including paper, cardboard, foils, coated metals, plastics, wood, glass and more.
- The new way: fibre lasers
Fibre laser is the newer of the two types and comes with some extra advantages. As part of the solid state laser group, this laser technology produces a higher intensity laser which is ideally suited to metal engraving and high-contract plastic markings.
A major advantage of fibre lasers over CO2 lasers is that they can mark flexible packaging material where no special laser field exists. In other words, the original field created for a small character inkjet code will often be sufficient. Because of the beam’s high stability, the fibre laser won’t perforate flexible films, such as those used for snackfood and confectionary packaging. This is a huge benefit for the food and grocery industry.
Another advantage is that this technology is completely maintenance free over thousands of working hours. Choose a fibre system and you can expect a life expectancy more than four times that of the standard CO2 laser tube technology. Laser technology already boasts a low total cost of ownership (TCO), but the extended extraction filter life reduces this even more. Fibre laser technology also doesn’t need factory air for cooling or marking-head cleaning.