Lasers 101 with LaserEd: What are lasers and are they worth the expense?

Welcome to LaserEd. My name is Ed, and I work with lasers.

I’ll be laser-educating for The Metal Magazine and I hope it results in more metal parts being lasered!

I have a different, often refreshing view on the world thanks to my education in Animal Sciences. If you’re wondering how that could improve the metal industry, I recommend that you listen to podcast 9 from The Metal Guys Talk Business, where I talk in detail about my background, and how I got involved with the metal sector.

Every article will start with essential knowledge about lasers and end with directly applicable and beneficial examples. Sprinkled with some interesting, fun facts about lasers, and topped off with links towards more information.

A very brief history lesson

The word ‘LASER’ is an acronym; it stands for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” (see Wikipedia) and the first laser was built in 1960. However, the MASER, which used microwaves instead of light, already existed for a few years before then and so one could argue that the first laser was a microwave.

The concept of a laser was originally predicted by Albert Einstein, some 40 years before the first laser was built by Theodore H. Maiman.

Lasers were initially developed just for the sake of proving that the theoretical science was correct, rather than for a particular purpose, but they have gone on to become ubiquitous in all variety of applications.

Lasers have found uses in industry, medicine, communications, the military, research and entertainment. Laser applications that you might have come across include barcode scanners, printers, optical discs, speed cameras, and certain types of 3D printing.

In industry, lasers are commonly used for cutting, welding, treating, marking and engraving materials.

Fun fact 1: Lasers today don’t use amplification (the A in LASER), but use oscillation instead. So they should in fact be called LOSERs! I’m glad that didn’t catch on.

A very basic explanation

In practical and simplified terms a laser is an artificial sun. It is an emitter of light. It is different to other sources of light, though, in that it can be focused to an extremely tight spot, and can remain in a narrow beam over great distances.

Anyone who has ever used a magnifying glass in the summer knows how surprisingly powerful light can be when chasing ants, starting a campfire or ‘writing’ on a piece of wood.

This last example is an example of something that a laser can do, but faster, more accurately and precisely, with more energy and thus a higher temperature when focused correctly.

We need that heat so that the laser can be used to cut, weld or mark materials. Wood starts to burn from around 300°C but metals are a different ball game. Aluminium melts at 660°C, titanium at 1670°C and tungsten requires 3400°C. To remove material we need it to boil rather than just melt, which raises the required temperature by around 2000 degrees. For high speed marking, a laser loves to convert metals to plasma.

Now why would you want to evaporate metal? Think about the initial point of contact on some material that has been marked. If a sticker or ink are placed on top of the material to mark it, anything rubbing against the product will first hit the sticker and then the material. That is why more expensive stickers have an additional transparent, sacrificial, layer; to be rubbed off before you rub away the marking.

Fun fact 2: For a few billionths of a second, a few micrometres of the metal get hotter than the surface of the sun!

When engraving, you create your mark below the surface of the material. I’m not saying that this makes it indestructible. Everything eventually deteriorates, even entire mountains. But you can ensure longevity by making your serial number or well-designed logo the last point of contact instead of the first by engraving it into the surface. After all, the saying is “it is written in stone” and not “it is glued (or painted) onto stone”.

A laser-engraved mark should last almost as long as the material into which it is engraved.

Let’s talk about cost

My grandfather used to say that he didn’t mind if something cost him one million, as long as it made him two.

If a laser is to be a worthy new alternative, it should be cheaper or better than the alternative options. Preferably both. In the context of longevity, we’ve already established that when it comes to engraving with lasers, it certainly is better than using stickers or ink and so checks that box.

Calculating ‘cheaper’ is more difficult. Labels aren’t free and ink isn’t referred to as ‘liquid gold’ for no reason. Anyone buying new cartridges for an inkjet printer can testify to that. But what are the costs of a label that’s been peeled off or has degraded? A storage place for boxes of labels? The environmental costs of the materials and waste that stickers or ink create? Someone forgot to order new stock and you run out? Things like that will never happen with a laser, but it is hard to calculate in regard of saving costs.

In my personal experience, as well as customers calculations, the average lasers used for marking and engraving become profitable after around 12 months. On top of that there are multiple, sometimes solution-specific benefits that can bring this number down even further. However important, this should be the last step in exploring if a laser is a worthy alternative and worth investing in. It is first and foremost important that the laser can mark where you want, with the contrast you want, mark what you want and at the speed you need. In that order.

I like to think about lasers in comparison to an electric vehicle. A laser engraver does cost more upfront than a sticker printer, just like an electric vehicle currently costs more upfront than a petrol vehicle, but the savings will be earned back over time by not having to buy petrol. And there are advantages too that are hard to express in cash. The engine oil doesn’t need to be checked if there isn’t an engine, no gearbox means fewer moving parts. And what is the price of engine noise?

There are many more benefits to laser engraving that are worth exploring and I’ll address them in the following editions of The Metal Magazine.

My challenge to you

I hope that this introductory article has taught you some of the basic concepts of lasers and their uses. My experience with developing laser engraving machines and my research into the crossover worlds of lasers and animal sciences will be revealed further in subsequent articles.

Between now and then, I’d like to offer a challenge to anyone who is currently doubting the benefits of using lasers to engrave materials rather than using stickers. If you reach out to contact me, I will send you one of my laser-engraved metal business cards, and I challenge you to compare the readability and destructibility of it with your printed card one! I’d love to see your photos or videos of your attempts to destroy both in return!

p.s. To prevent smart comments; a laser does consume electricity, and so do printers and sticker makers. Lion Lasers’ LionAlpha Metal range of laser machines can be equipped with a fiber laser of just 500W to cut through metal. A fairly average coffee machine can use over 1000W.

Remember, this is remarkably low considering it makes stuff hotter than the sun! ☀️

You can connect with Edwin Kroon on LinkedIn, or find out more about Lion Lasers by visiting their website: www.lionlasers.com

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