Laser marking: a quick run down on the basics

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 25th May 2015

Laser marking used to be considered a specialist solution. And an expensive one. But rapid technology advances have seen laser coding become far more cost effective — to the point it’s the top choice for a wide range of applications across food, beverage and pharmaceutical packaging, right through to heavy industries. Is it right for your business? What if you want to do barcodes? And human-readable text? Is it the right solution for serialisation? 

Laser Matthews 2D code and text
Lasers can mark a wide variety of codes, including 2D and human-readable text.

Not only is laser coding technology now very cost effective, it’s come such a long way that today, lasers can mark clear, legible and — importantly — fully compliant barcodes on primary and secondary packaging.

So will laser technology jettison inkjet? Unlikely. While its applications are far broader, there are still some times that lasers are just not the best or most cost-efficient choice.

How do you know if it will it suit your application? These five factors will help you determine whether laser is the best solution for you…

  1. What do you need to code?

Lasers can reliably apply human-readable text on both primary and secondary packaging, as well as fully compliant barcodes code onto glass, plastics, metal and cardboard and flexible packaging.

  1. Does it need to be permanent?

Laser coding technology’s two-step ablation and engraving process results is a permanent mark, so it’s perfect where enduring marks are needed; for example, in anti-counterfeiting, serialisation and brand protection. (See here for more information on this process.)

  1. Do you need high quality?

Laser’s pinpoint accuracy means it can create very high quality marks. That’s why it’s ideal for applications where product presentation is very important — no surprises then it’s the wine industry’s number one choice.

  1. Are your line speeds fast?

If your line outputs more than 100 products a minute, laser could be a good choice. That’s because compared with inkjet systems, lasers offer a more cost-effective solution for high-speed lines because they have no consumables (solvents or ribbons). It’s also good to know that research shows the return on investment (ROI) for laser systems can be less than three years on medium-volume production lines.

  1. Cap ex and TCO

While laser technology has previously been best suited only to high-volume applications (where ongoing lower operational costs are balanced by the equipment’s higher capital cost), more compact and lower-cost systems mean laser is now a cost-effective solution for lower-volume manufacturers too. This allows smaller businesses to also take advantage of this technology.

Two types of technology

If you’ve established that laser coding will suit your application, now it’s time to see which of the two types of technology will best suit your application and your substrate.

The ‘traditional’ CO2 laser

This 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. CO2 are the most widely used laser types because of their 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’ fibre laser

This newer type comes with some extra advantages: as part of the solid state laser group, this technology produces a higher intensity laser which is ideally suited to metal engraving and high-contract plastic markings. A major advantage is that fibre lasers can mark flexible packaging material where no special laser field exists — so usually, the original field created for a small character inkjet code will be just fine. Because of the beam’s high stability, the fibre laser won’t perforate flexible films (such as snack food and confectionary packaging) — which 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. A fibre system’s life expectancy is 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. And fibre laser technology also doesn’t need factory air for cooling or marking-head cleaning.

Matthews has a full library of articles, whitepapers and case studies which can help you with information. You can find similar articles to this one here. You can also read our free white paper about inkjet technology versus laser technology.

* Matt Nichol is a laser marking expert and has in-depth knowledge of product ID technologies. He is a regular at international trade shows such as Pack Expo and is constantly looking at emerging trends and technologies.

Tel: 1300 CODING