6 steps to adding a laser
More and more sign shops are finding laser cutter/engravers a perfect fit
Posted on Tuesday, January 5th, 2016
Advances in technology have put a lot of cool tools within reach of sign businesses, including laser engraver/cutters. It wasn’t too long ago that these were priced out of reach of conventional sign shops. But that’s changed, and more and more sign shops have added a laser.
In mainstream sign work, the laser’s ability to cut acrylic graphics precisely with mirrorfinished edges is an asset. It also opens up new markets to the sign shop in marking and engraving, and these customers are also potential sign customers.
So what advice do sign shop owners who have added a laser have to those who are considering one? We asked a few such sign people for their insights on what to think about if you’re looking at adding a laser to your shop.
Identify your market.
What type of work do you expect to be most of your volume? For many sign shops, letter cutting may be a primary use, but do you plan to market engraving, as well? What opportunities are there for this work in your market? Many sign shops find there was a need for engraved graphics that they didn’t realize until they had the equipment.
Determine what power you’ll need.
If you plan to cut acrylic sheet up to ¼-in. thick, which is a fairly common use in a sign shop, you’ll need a laser of 30 watts or more. Engraving requires less power. But cutting and engraving both go faster if you have more power.
“Buy as much power as you can afford,” says Doug Bergstrom, Xtreme Graphics, St. Albans, Vermont. “It lets you cut faster. A 12-by-24 piece of ¼-in. acrylic full of 3- or 4-in. letters takes a little over an hour to cut on our 30-watt laser.
“We bought our laser several years ago, when a 12-by-24-in. table was average for affordable lasers. It’s large enough for most of our work— anything larger we can outsource. Some of the newer lasers have a pass-through door that lets you do a longer piece one section at time, which would come in handy.”
Choose the right size.
Consider the size of your typical project, both in length and height and in thickness. If you want to engrave objects like boxes, stones or gunstocks, you’ll want a laser that accommodates thick objects along with flat stock.
“When I was first looking at a laser,” says Bob Stephens, Skywatch Signs, Zephyrhills, Florida, “I considered a machine with a 4-by-8 table. But they aren’t enclosed so you have an issue with the fumes, and they also are somewhat limited in the thickness of material they can handle—usually to about 2 inches. Machines with smaller tables are typically enclosed and vented. Table size goes up to about 3-by-4-ft. and they handle thicker objects.”
Educate yourself about materials.
There are a variety of materials you can cut and engrave. Identify your sources and learn the recommended uses for the materials. The manufacturers and suppliers are glad to provide help with this because they want you to use their products successfully. The materials are a key part of getting the most out of your new laser.
Plan for support.
As with any new equipment, you’ll need some time (and a little help) getting started. There’s always a learning curve as you get used to what equipment can do and how to make it do it.
“You have to plan on the learning curve,” says Doug. “Find out what support you will be entitled to and how to access that. Lasers aren’t difficult to use but the right help and guidance will have you up and running faster.”
Be ready to market.
To get the most return on your investment in a laser engraver/cutter, you need a steady flow of work for it. Along with letter cutting, you’ll have the ability to make nameplates, switch panels, plaques and many other custom products. Look for opportunities in your market for this work. Much of it is repeat business which can create a steady flow of residual income.