a laser etching machine

What Can a Laser Etching Machine Do?

June 13, 2023 - Ellie Gabel

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A laser etching machine plays an important role in manufacturing by allowing people to add identifying marks to parts. It’s under the umbrella of other methods that get similar results but vary in how they achieve them. 

How Does a Laser Etching Machine Work?

A laser etching machine alters a product’s surface by melting and expanding the material. A laser beam delivers a concentrated burst of energy to a small area, resulting in a raised mark that’s black, gray or white. 

What Other Methods Exist?

Using a laser etching machine is only one way to change part of an item’s surface. Although it’s the option we’ll focus on here, it’s also useful to know about other possibilities. One of them is laser marking. It occurs when a person moves a low-power laser beam slowly across the material’s surface, creating discoloration. The laser’s heat causes oxidation under the surface, creating a darkening effect. However, this method differs from etching in that it keeps the material intact. 

Then, laser engraving is a high-heat method that vaporizes the material with each pulse of the laser. This is a physical surface removal technique that creates cavities in the surface. People can also make  progressively deeper, more visible markings with additional laser beam passes.

This is perhaps the biggest difference in how a laser etching machine works versus equipment that does laser engraving. The results of laser etching are typically no more than 0.001 inches below the surface. However, engraving could be up to 0.005 inches.

How Do Industries Use Laser Etching?

Laser etching is a highly versatile method suitable for most metals, including anodized and plated surfaces. Some manufacturers use it on ceramics and polymers, too. Here are some specific things professionals can do once they ensure there’s at least one laser etching machine among their equipment. 

Giving Patterns to Molded Plastic Parts 

Many people love the look and feel of a texture on molded plastic components. Sometimes, that distinctive appearance also has functional benefits. For example, if a car has a molded plastic door handle, the associated pattern could help their fingers keep a strong grip on the material. 

Similarly, many molded plastic items help people remain steady on slippery surfaces, such as through anti-slip mats. The chosen pattern on those products can facilitate better outcomes by giving a person traction appropriate for the traffic type and flow within a building. 

One company offering laser etching for this application creates 2D and 3D flat swatches at 1700 dpi that get seamlessly stitched for a repeating pattern across the surface. This technique can even mimic full-grain leather, adding a luxurious touch to a surface that formerly looked ordinary.

Besides offering tactile benefits, this method helps companies solidify their branding, particularly if they use a distinctive pattern that people immediately notice. The leaders of most successful businesses know the importance of memorable aesthetics. Such characteristics make products stand out and could encourage people to purchase certain items over others. If that happens, the company has a better chance of extending its market reach while supporting the bottom line. 

Aiding Identification Through Marked Dental Prostheses

Since a laser etching machine causes permanent changes to a surface, it can also be used as an identification mechanism superior to inks that could wear off with time or become smudged. 

An interesting 2017 case study involved using laser etching on cast-partial dentures to add numbers to identify the patient. That person chose a string of digits that were then added to the dentures with laser etching. Each numeral appeared on successive minor base denture connectors courtesy of a diode laser. Someone would then need to use a magnifying glass to see the digits on the surface. This outcome occurs when someone uses laser microetching. 

The dental professional who tried this approach noted that others had attempted numerous other methods of adding identifying marks to dental prostheses. However, some involve complicated processes in specialized facilities, making them largely unfeasible on a large scale. Additionally, engraving cuts into the surface, creating opportunities for plaque accumulation and food to get stuck.The medical device sector often uses laser engraving to mark equipment. However, such items get regular, professional cleaning. 

The results showed laser microetching was an excellent solution for this denture-identification case. It provided a precise and permanent method that could allow someone to identify the dental patient if needed. That’s particularly handy if a person has a medical emergency and cannot identify themselves, and does not have any other forms of identification. 

Ramping Up Car Customization

People have long loved to customize their automobiles. Sometimes that means doing something as straightforward as slapping on a few bumper or window stickers or using themed seat covers. But, many individuals would rather do something more permanent that will turn heads wherever they go. Fortunately, a laser etching machine can meet that need. 

General Motors has begun carving a marketplace niche by laying the groundwork for allowing car purchases to factory-customize their vehicles with laser etching. The brand’s representatives recognize that certain more-elaborate customization options may require someone to be without their car for several days. That’s why people might eventually choose the customization they want before the vehicle ever reaches their driveway. 

The process could involve two separate laser-etching processes. The first concerns the car’s metal bodywork before paint gets applied to it. Secondly, a laser etching machine could work on the painted surface. 

People familiar with the matter say the second method is more marketable and that it would likely make customers’ chosen designs more noticeable. As for now, General Motors has only applied to patent these laser-etching approaches. However, something notable about the details in the filing is that they discuss letting people have up to five paint shades in their chosen design. 

Laser Etching Machines Leave Their Mark on Manufacturing

These are some of the many reasons why laser etching machines are so useful in manufacturing. Their versatility and capability of leaving permanent marks appeal to producers who want a reliable and resilient way of adding text, digits or other details to metal and other surfaces. Even if manufacturers primarily use other laser-based methods, they should explore etching, too. That way, they’ll have more options from which to choose for various applications. 

Revolutionized is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more here.


Ellie Gabel

Ellie Gabel is a science writer specializing in astronomy and environmental science and is the Associate Editor of Revolutionized. Ellie's love of science stems from reading Richard Dawkins books and her favorite science magazines as a child, where she fell in love with the experiments included in each edition.

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