Laser Etching Vs Engraving: What is difference?

Manufacturing processes can be confusing, particularly to people who are not overly technically-oriented. It is not surprising then that laser etching and laser engraving are among the terms that most people confuse or use interchangeably.

While the two processes are essential in manufacturing, it is important to differentiate laser etching vs engraving. This guide highlights the difference between the laser processes of etching and engraving so that users can have a more effective experience with both engraving and etching.

What is Laser Etching?

Laser Etching

Laser etching is a laser marking technique that uses a laser beam to alter a material surface to form a mark of about 0.0001 inches deep for aesthetic or information value. The energy from the beam flows through the material immediately the beam hits and electrifies the material’s surface itself. The material reflects some of the energy and absorbs the rest. 

When the material absorbs the energy and gets hot, it becomes malleable and expands. Consequently, this changes the texture and color of the affected surface. Whether the etched portion of the material will be white, black, or grey depends on the ratio of energy reflection to absorption.

Special software provides the design used to produce the laser mark. Once the design has been created and stored in vector file form, it is sent to the laser etching machine. To print the design, the machine first reads the vector files using a CNC router. It also identifies the laser movement pattern to get the final design.

The Characteristics of Laser Etching

Quick operation and precise results: This is one of the advantages of laser technology of etching. It makes the process suitable for the mass production of small detailed designs, such as jewelry.

Versatile: It can be applied to many materials and objects. The method suits the formation of marks for both thick and thin materials.

Affordable:  Since the machine requires lower power per area in comparison to other laser machines for engraving, it is relatively affordable. The overall operating costs of the machine are lower than engraving per area.

Less durable: A disadvantage of laser engraving etching, is that the method is less durable because its markings are not as wear-resistant.

Restricted to fiber laser machine: The process can only work with a fiber laser marking machine. Metals absorb the 1064nm wavelength of the laser heats this machine more than they do on other types of laser markers.

What is Laser Engraving?

Laser engraving is a process of engraving a logo or picture on a material using a subtractive approach. A powerful laser is directed on the surface of the material so that it can burn or evaporate the selected surface. The result of laser engraving is a cavity that can be felt and seen.  

This laser marking process is usually performed on metals, particularly stainless steel. Apart from metals, chemical process of laser engraving can also apply to organic materials such as wood and fiberglass.

The Characteristics of Laser Engraving

Laser engraving

Fast and easy operation: the Laser engraving process is relatively fast and easy when compared to the conventional engraving process. Many manufacturing firms choose the method for its ability to engrave items with accuracy and speed. 

Visual and tactile: Given that laser engraving creates an indentation into the material, the markings are easy to touch or see.

Durable: From the above characteristic, laser engraved markings are less prone to wear and tear.  

Costly to Operate: This technique tends to be relatively demanding in power consumption. This is due to the high-intensity performance of fiber lasers in the laser engraving machine. The energy demands are higher for tougher materials such as stainless steel.

Why Do You Need Laser Etching & Laser Engraving?

Laser etching and engraving offer precise and permanent marking solutions for a wide range of materials and industries, allowing for customization, identification, branding, and traceability.

These processes provide high-quality, detailed, and durable markings that are resistant to wear, fading, and tampering, making them essential for product labeling, part identification, personalization, and decorative applications.

Laser Etching vs. Engraving: What Is The Difference?

laser-engraving-vs-etching

When choosing between the two processes, a thorough comparison is necessary. Next up is a review of several points to help analyze etched vs engraved methods:

Materials

There is some difference between laser engraving and etching concerning the materials they can handle. This is about the material hardness and the surface type.

While laser etching is ideal for softer materials, laser engraving is better suited for harder materials. Laser etching is popular for paper, plastics, wood, and ceramics. Others are leather, glass, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), and metals. On the other hand, laser engraving does good markings on wood, glass, metal, and other hard materials.

Etching vs engraving metal surfaces is different. Laser etching tends to be more effective for curved surfaces, while laser engraving is perfect for flat surfaces.

Cut depth

The depth of cut is another major distinction between laser engraving vs. etching. The depth of cut in laser engraving is up to 0.05mm, while etching can reach depths of up to 0.5mm. 

This means that the effect of laser etching on a material is minimal as compared to that of engraving. Instead of vaporizing the material like laser engraving does, laser etching simply melts the material.

Durability

Given that the cut depth in laser engraving is typically deeper (about 0.005 inches or even deeper than this for deep engraving), the results in this process tend to be more durable than for laser etching. The vaporizing process produces deep cuts that can last for a component’s lifetime. For etched marks, the duration is typically up to a decade.

Production Volume

Laser etching offers a higher production volume compared to engraving, simply because it is more efficient and faster. Laser engraving is preferable for smaller production volumes that go with its slower and less efficient operation.  

Color

Laser etching produces white, black, and different intensities of grey. Black and white are prominent because of their high contrast quality. They are popular in areas where part traceability and superior markings are a priority.

As for laser engraving, marking in a wider range of colors is possible. The catch here is that color engraving doesn’t work for all materials. Color engraving is executed through either the use of a coloring agent or the application of oxidation. Plastics and metals are the most popular materials in color engraving.

Cost

Laser engraving is costlier to implement than laser etching. The technology for engraving metals is more powerful and the process tends to take longer.

On a whole, the cost for laser etching vs engraving varies based on production volume, design complexity, and material being marked. For instance, harder materials are generally more expensive to engrave or etch than softer materials are.

Application

Laser engraving

Laser etching creates shallow markings through localized heating, vaporization, or material removal, while engraving achieves deeper and more prominent markings by removing or vaporizing material from the surface.

Both processes can be used in a variety of industries:

  • Automotive industry

  • Primary Metals Industry

  • Medical Device Manufacturers

  • Electric/semiconductor industry

  • Jewelry and Accessories

  • Personal Electronics

  • Apparel industry

Laser Etching vs. Engraving: What is better for your project?

There is no absolute process in engraving versus etching for any project, but the details of the specific project determine which is better etching or engraving. One needs to consider the project timeline and the level of results expected.

There are many dynamics to consider because the optic properties of materials can vary widely. Such properties can make etching behave differently from engraving on the same material. Depending on the laser marking method you choose, the marking speed may be slower or faster. Ultimately, both laser etching and engraving are feasible depending the project details.

If you are looking for the most effective laser marking process for your parts, Aria Manufacturing Limited offers custom laser engraving and etching services. Consult us also for different types of services in sheet metal fabrication, injection molding, and CNC machining, plus more details on laser etching vs engraving.

FAQs

Q1: Can etching be removed?

A: Yes, laser etching can be removed by sandblasting and related abrasive treatments. As long as the treatment is non-abrasive, the mark from laser etching can remain on the part permanently. Not even heat treatment, e-coating, and related treatments can get rid of the mark. If you want the mark to stay even when exposed to such strong treatments, there is the option of shot blast-resistant marking.

Q2: Do laser engravers use a lot of electricity?

A: Yes, laser engravers use a lot of electricity, but this depends on the power intensity needed for the job. If you are a beginner using the machine for simple tasks at home, you probably don’t need a high-powered laser engraver.

However, you may need a more powerful one if you are operating a small business. Generally, the amount of power required for the laser engraver depends on the speed of the process and the material you are engraving.

Q3: What should you not laser engrave?

A: You should not laser engrave PVC containing Vinyl Chloride and Hydrogen Chloride, which can cause significant damage to the laser system of the engraving machine. Any material that contains PVC should be identified and cut or engraved using alternative methods.

Q4: Can aluminum be laser etched?

A: Yes, it is possible to laser etch aluminum. Since this material’s melting point of 1216°F is relatively lower than for other metals, it is easy to take it through this process.  The material has superior thermal conductivity and reflectivity.

However, it is important to consider the composition of the aluminum before etching. Different aluminum alloys may behave differently when laser etched. For safety, it might be necessary to test a specimen or consult a laser etching expert for guidance on aluminum laser etching.

Author

Gavin Leo is a technical writer at Aria with 8 years of experience in Engineering, He proficient in machining characteristics and surface finish process of various materials. and participated in the development of more than 100complex injection molding and CNC machining projects. He is passionate about sharing his knowledge and experience.

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