Differences Between Laser Engraving vs. Etching in Terms of Versatility, Durability, and Process
Learn more about the differences between these two processes and when to use them.
Lasers have seen broad use in manufacturing since their invention in the 1960s. They are seemingly ubiquitous in the world of manufacturing where laser cutting is used in technologies as diverse as cutting and welding, 3D printing, barcode reading, and engraving and etching.
Laser engraving is a process in which a laser makes shallow cuts into a part to create logos, motifs, and other complex patterns and designs. Laser etching is a similar process and is used for similar applications. Unlike laser engraving, however, it only marks the surface of the part. In addition to creating intricate patterns, both laser engraving and laser etching are also often used to mark barcodes and QR codes onto parts and components for manufacturing traceability. This article will review key differences between laser engraving and laser etching in terms of their versatility, durability of the markings, and process details.
Laser engraving is a process in which a laser removes an area of the workpiece by vaporizing it away to incise patterns or create the background for a pattern. It is used to engrave durable logos, patterns, barcodes, QR codes, and serial numbers onto parts. The process’s ability to assure the traceability of a manufactured product over a long time is perhaps the most important aspect for manufacturers. For more information, see our guide on Laser Engraving.
Laser etching is the process in which a laser is used to heat and melt a surface area of the workpiece. Melting will cause the material to expand and leave a raised mark that has a tactile feel and can easily be seen with the naked eye. Like laser engraving, etching can be used to produce patterns and traceability features like barcodes, QR codes, and serial numbers. Laser etching can also help manufacturers easily trace a product’s manufacturing history.
What Is the Most Commonly Used Technique Between Laser Engraving and Etching in Terms of Traceability of Parts?
Laser engraving and laser etching are both used to mark codes for traceability onto parts and components. The choices of engraving or etching depend on the part application. Laser etching is used for part identification more often than laser engraving for the two reasons described below:
- It is more cost-effective and uses less energy than laser engraving to produce patterns and codes.
- It is a faster process than laser engraving because the laser does not cut deeply into the workpiece.
The main difference between laser engraving and etching is in their processes and the results of the material changes. Laser engraving vaporizes the workpiece material. It requires sufficiently high laser power and energy density to increase temperatures high enough to be vaporized and removed. Vaporization results in shallow cuts as deep as 0.02” into the part. Laser etching, on the other hand, melts the workpiece material. It requires lower power and energy density compared to laser engraving because the process melts material rather than vaporizes it.
Melt temperatures are significantly lower than vaporization temperatures are much higher than melting temperatures. In some cases, the vaporization temperature can be more than double the melting temperature. Table 1 below compares the vaporization and melting temperatures of common metals used in manufacturing:
|Laser Engraving||Laser Etching|
~2800 °C (5072 °F)
~1300 °C (2372 °F)
~2400 °C (4352 °F)
~660 °C (1220 °F)
~2700 °C (4892 °F)
~1400-1500 °C (2552-2732 °F)
2700-3000 °C (4892-5432 °F)
~1500 °C (2732 °F)
~3300 °C (5972 °F)
~1670 °C (3038 °F)
Other materials, such as wood, leather, and various plastics, can also be used for laser engraving and etching. Because of the differences between the vaporization and melting temperatures for different materials, the power required to carry out laser engraving vs. laser etching is much higher.
Both laser engraving and laser etching can be used on various materials. However, laser etching is more versatile because it produces marks by melting. Laser etching can be used on a broader range of materials and rapidly produce marks while using less energy compared to laser engraving. Laser engraving can also produce marks, but its higher power requirements and slower process make it inefficient in many scenarios.
Markings made by laser engraving are more durable than those formed by laser etching. Laser engraving produces more long-lasting markings because the markings are cut deeper compared to the etching process. In laser etchings, markings are only produced at the surface of the part. Deeper cuts lead to more contrast between the marking and the rest of the part. The greater depth of the marking makes it more resistant to wear, enhancing its useful life.
Listed below are the main differences between laser engraving and laser etching:
Cut depth is a critical aspect of the legibility of a marking and the marking’s wear and abrasion resistance. Marks produced by laser engraving have a depth of up to 0.020 inches. This can vary depending on the power rating of the laser system, energy density, and properties of the workpiece material such as reflectivity. Organic materials, like wood and leather, are easier to engrave and etch because they readily absorb energy from lasers and are not highly reflective. Whereas inorganic materials like metals have varying levels of reflectivity that make laser engraving and etching more challenging.
Markings produced by laser etching have little to no depth (about 0.0001”) since cutting isn’t actually performed. Instead, laser etching marks are raised above the surface of the part.
Laser etching is generally more cost-effective for both high and low production volumes. This is because etching requires less power to mark parts and is a faster process.
Laser engraving and laser etching are used in many of the same applications by hobbyists and commercial manufacturers. Both are used to mark parts for traceability purposes and create decorative patterns. Applications of both processes include engraving or etching products to add a personal touch such as pens, nameplates, belts, and jewelry.
In industrial applications, both are used in the automotive, aerospace, and medical industries. In these industries, manufacturers use laser processes to mark parts for traceability purposes with barcodes, QR codes, and serial numbers. Manufacturers also use these laser marking methods to mark parts with their logo or brand.
Industries that make extensive use of laser engraving and laser etching include the automotive, aerospace, and medical industries. Government regulations require components to be marked for traceability since many of the parts fabricated for use in these industries are safety-critical. These markings assist in determining the causes of failures or accidents involving the marked parts. Laser etching and engraving are especially valuable for creating permanent part identification because they can create high-resolution markings even on small parts. Examples of parts that receive identification markings include:
- Automotive: Drive shafts, steering columns, engine blocks, brake discs, and transmission cases.
- Aerospace: Electrical circuit boards, landing systems, turbine blades, bolts, and gear parts.
- Medical: Forceps, scalpels, catheter connections, medical tubes, implantable devices, and electrical circuit components.
Laser etching is a cheaper process than laser engraving because it consumes less power and marks parts faster than laser engraving.
The three best machines for laser engraving are listed and described in Table 2 below:
|Laser Engraving Machine||Attributes|
Laser Engraving Machine
Trotec SP Series
Laser Engraving Machine
Boss Laser™ LS Series
Laser Engraving Machine
Tool D1 Laser Engraver
|Laser Etching Machine||Attributes|
Laser Etching Machine
FSL Muse® Core 40 W
Laser Etching Machine
OMTech CO2 Laser Engraver
Laser Etching Machine
FLUX Beamo® 30 W
Yes, any laser machine that can engrave can also perform laser etching. This is because laser engraving is carried out at higher power levels than laser etching. The settings on a machine capable of engraving can be set to lower power and tailored to perform etching.
Yes, laser engraving and laser etching are safe to use for glass marking. It is recommended to adjust laser settings such as power and speed accordingly to avoid damaging or deforming the glass.
No, laser engraving and etching are not the same as laser marking. In laser engraving and laser etching, the surface of the part is fundamentally changed and deformed. Laser marking is a family of techniques used to mark the surfaces of parts with a low-power laser without deforming the part.
Yes, laser engraving and laser etching are important because both processes provide manufacturers with the ability to trace their parts in the event of a defect or recall.
This article presented laser engraving and laser etching, explained what they are, and discussed their differences. To learn more about laser engraving and laser etching, contact a Xometry representative.
Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including sheet cutting and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.
- Boss Laser™ is a registered trademark of BOSS LASER.
- Muse® is a registered trademark of FSL.
- Beamo® is a registered trademark of FLUX.
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