Laser Marking and Printing on Metal Surfaces

Various types of laser marking systems are used to print or etch marks on metal surfaces. These permanent codes are essential to ensuring that genuine products and parts can be quickly identified. They are used in such industries as aerospace and automotive, as well as on consumer packaging such as beverage containers and pharmaceutical product packaging.

Laser etching machines in use today include a variety of CO2, infrared, UV and fiber wire laser systems. Since metals are heat-resistant materials, marking metals originally required high-density laser irradiation. These systems mark surfaces in three ways, by marking, etching or engraving.

A range of laser machines is available today, however, that function with different power outputs to address a range of different metal substrates to be marked and different package or product applications. The metals being marked usually range from anodized aluminum to stainless steel and include coated metals, the surface of which can be removed in precise patterns by a laser to produce clear, permanent marks.

Given that these different laser systems work differently with various metals, it is essential that companies evaluate the different systems by using them to mark samples of their specific materials before choosing the most effective system for their need.

Fiber laser marking is the most often used for placing critical marks or codes on stainless steel surfaces. These higher power systems mark identification codes directly on stainless steel parts and on larger products by etching or engraving the surface. These codes may be numeric, alphanumeric, 2D or conventional bar codes.

CO2 laser marking systems using shorter wavelengths than the traditional CO2 laser wavelengths can be used to create marks on metal surfaces such as anodized aluminum. The process removes the color from the aluminum surface, exposing the bare metal surface beneath, creating precise characters for coding.

Laser systems are also used to mark surfaces that have been previously prepared by being coated with enamel paints, removing the paint surface to create alphanumeric characters and 2D codes in the exposed metal surface. This process has the advantage of using very low power lasers, reducing costs and speeding production. It also, because of its low power usage, produces little or no fumes or residues, creating a safe environment for workers.

Pre-coated and spray-coated surfaces have also been developed for use in laser engraving metals. These coatings apply a coating that is visible to the laser beam, which fuses the coating to the substrate as the beam passes. These coatings, when touched by the laser beam, change the surface of the metal to a different color (often black, brown or grey) to create the desired mark.

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“Aerospace requires 99% of parts to be marked, which was previously done by hand stamping. A Videojet system has saved a great deal of time in the marking process.”

– IT Director, Small Business Aerospace Company