We humans love engraving. We’ve been doing it for at least 300,000 years, a sizable portion of humanity’s existence on this earth. Luckily, these days we have much better technology for it: the laser etcher.

Lasers are impressive, at times seemingly sci-fi tech, and have reshaped manufacturing by leaps and bounds in recent years. One of their benefits is the ability to cut through metal–or etch it with precision.

When you decide to outsource a laser metalworking project, you will have a high-powered laser at your disposal. The question then becomes: do you need a laser cutting machine, or a laser etching machine to get the job done?

In this guide, we’ll ll discuss these two technologies. We’ll talk about their specific use cases, and when you should use one over the other.

Laser Etcher vs. Laser Cutter: What’s the Difference?

As the name implies, laser marking or engraving burns only a tiny portion of material–in our case, steel and powder-coated surfaces–off the top. This allows for imprints or relief designs that look great. A laser cutting machine uses much higher power and more heat to melt through the material and leave a very clean cut.

Believe it or not, what differentiates laser cutting from laser engraving isn’t clear-cut–no pun intended. Depending on the thickness of the material you are working with, a laser etching machine may be able to cut through it as well. But with a sufficiently thick material, you would need both machines–a laser cutting machine and an etching machine–to get the job done.

For example, a laser engraving machine could easily cut designs into thin stainless steel. But introduce 3/4 inch or 5/8 inch steel, and you will need a laser cutting machine to handle the job. Even half-inch aluminum, which tends to be a softer metal, still requires a cutter to get through.

Factors That Affect Metal Part Etching

Whether you use steel or aluminum is only part of the equation. There is a lot more that goes into laser engraving and laser cutting than thickness alone. Let’s discuss some of the factors that influence your decision to use either machine.

Design File Type

The type of design file that you upload for machining will determine which machine is best. Cutting machines only need vector files, since they will be making a clean cut in a singular trajectory. No further data is required since the only relevant factor is the thickness of the metal.

A laser etching machine, on the other hand, requires additional raster data. This is what allows it to perform an engraving, rather than slicing straight through.

Laser Power

Naturally, the laser pointer that you used as a child to play games with the cat can’t even burn a mark into a wooden desk. The lasers that perform laser engraving and marking are many magnitudes more powerful. That, and they’re not accessible to the average civilian.

They work in contained environments to keep an unshielded human from looking straight into the radiation beam. And they consume a considerable amount of power to do so.

However, there is a difference in power concentration between a laser cutting machine and laser etching machine. The laser engraving machine produces 60W of power or less. This prevents it from cutting too deep and keeps it energy-efficient for its designed purpose.

Cutters, on the other hand, use 60W of power and above. This isn’t to say that they blast the material with the highest intensity that they can achieve. Rather, their intention is for cutting, so they lock the modulation to cut through a particular thickness and expend no further energy.

The Speed of the Cuts

Laser cutting is blazing fast. You can watch for yourself as the laser bangs out clean cuts in record time compared to a human. That said, there is a noteworthy time disparity between an engraver and a cutter.

Engravers are only removing a small portion of metal off the surface of the sheet. It logically follows that this takes less energy and time, and therefore a machine can move at a faster pace. Laser cutters calculate their speed based on how fast they can slice through a section, which slows them down a noticeable amount.

That said, more complex engraving designs will take more time than a cut through the material. But as the material gets thicker, the cut naturally takes longer. It’s impossible to give an answer that applies across the board, but generally, engraving is faster.

Granted, the time difference between the two is negligible in the grand scheme of things. Lasers are jaw-droppingly fast as it is. The delay between the two won’t make a meaningful difference in terms of project turnaround.

Auxiliary Gas

Laser cutting quality and speed improves when compressed gas enters the equation. Cutters use it to drive out the resultant molten metal from the cut, keeping it clean and smooth–and enabling higher cut speeds. 

Gas doesn’t work so well for engraving. It can actually harm the quality of the new surface, so laser machines did not employ it for this purpose.

That said, gas does come in handy on surfaces that burn–such as wood and leather–to blow away smoke and charred material.

A Laser Cutting Machine or a Laser Etching Machine: Which One Do You Need?

The main determining factor will be the thickness of the metal. If you are cutting and engraving thin sheets, then the engraving machine will be able to handle both tasks. However, the thicker metal generally requires an engraving first, with a cut after.

Of course, these are just the largest factors. The type of file you are using, the material, and the speed will vary between these methods.

Engrave and Cut With ACE Laser Cutting

Lasers allow manufacturers to perform precision etching–or cutting–on all sorts of materials and with all sorts of thicknesses. Generally speaking, the typical job requires both machines: a laser etcher to etch, and a laser cutter to cut. But with very thin metals, it’s possible for the etching machine to perform both tasks.

ACE Laser Cutting is your source not just for laser cutting and etching, but welding jobs and sheet metal forming. Take a look at our services and get the job done right.


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