The need to permanently laser mark parts for tracking and tracing continues to grow, with the latest impetus coming from Washington regulators monitoring ghost gun kits and components. In May, the Department of Justice proposed a rule to require serial numbers and identifiers on such kits and components in efforts to regulate their sale.
“I went to a conference about this about a month ago and it was quite enlightening,” said Pat Grace, general industry sales manager for Trumpf Inc., Farmington, Conn. “Their intent is to stop people from building guns from kits which have no identifiable parts.”
If approved, the kits and components will join other firearms, high-end electronic, medical, defense, oil and gas, auto and aerospace parts requiring permanent serial marking.
“In the food and beverage industry, you can find cereal boxes marked with CO2 lasers,” said Josh Christley, laser engineering manager at Mecco, Cranberry Township, Penn. “If you really start looking around on your daily items you would be surprised. Even my toothbrush I used this morning had a barcode on it with a lot code. These marks would typically be made with a fiber or UV laser marker.”
The rise in demand for marked, traceable parts leaves a shop owner to wonder: What questions should I be asking if I’m considering buying a laser marking system? Experts from Mecco, Trumpf and Beamer Laser Marking Systems offered their input.
The increased demand for laser marking has led some shops to buy systems online — raising the possibility of buying a product of dubious quality because it’s cheaper.
“The drive is to sacrifice the quality of the equipment and compete solely on price point,” said Nicholas Kaczmarski, national sales manager, Beamer, Flushing, Mich.
Kaczmarski cautioned against buying from such companies. He said some of his customers who did so were hacked, and the pirated software in the cheap laser was found to be the entry point or source of the malware or ransomware.
Besides, the experts said, you’re not just buying a laser. You’re picking a partner for a long-term relationship. “Anytime you’re buying or investing in a new technology, it’s important to consider the support and availability of the system,” said Christley. “The technology itself can be intimidating; there are many different types, and it can be overwhelming trying to find the tool for your exact problem as well as a good partner who will help you make the appropriate selection.”
Trumpf’s Grace agreed that vendor support is critical. He advised asking suppliers if they buy laser system pieces and assemble them or if they build everything in-house. “We build everything,” he said. “If you have an issue with your system you have one phone call.”
Also ask how experienced the vendor is, Grace said, noting Trumpf has thousands of systems installed in North America. “It’s fairly easy to become a laser marking company these days,” he said. “You can buy the laser from three or four different companies, the scan head from three or four different companies, buy software, buy power supplies.”
Grace’s colleague, Jay Drew, regional sales manager for Trumpf in New England, said a thoughtful salesman can offer useful suggestions to a customer. “They might say, ‘I have this one project where I have to laser mark these widgets for XYZ customer,’ ” he said. “We’ll usually take a walk around the shop because there’s other things that can be marked, especially when you have to justify your budget. I always ask them, ‘What other customers do you have who could potentially ask you to mark parts?’ Once they find out you have a marker, they’re going to pin you down and ask if you can mark parts for them. Or if you’re already machining these parts, they’ll ask if you can also mark them; if you’re already heat treating, they’ll ask if you could also mark them.”
When additional customers come calling, shops that take Grace’s advice to buy an expandable system may have the edge in taking on the additional work.
“I always recommend going a little higher, if your budget allows, to allow room for growth. Alternatively, if you’re trying to mark more parts at once, you could look at a little more automation,” he said—for example, an x,y table or rotary table so the operator can load a tray of 50 to100 parts vs. loading and marking them one at a time. “That’s one thing you want to look at before a purchase, because they’re a lot more expensive to retrofit.”
Once a shop has decided on a vendor, work begins on choosing a laser system.
“Marking technology is complex, and there can be many different variables that affect the outcome: materials, processes and connectivity,” said Christley. “Does the mark need to meet certain industry standards? Will the customer meet their productivity times? The right type of laser marking solution, or any marking solution, is usually not something you can select casually.”
Kaczmarski said the vendor must understand the shop’s process flow, including cycle times, as well as any cycle time variations, and throughput.
Beamer helped a customer save tens of thousands of dollars a year when the shop replaced its use of a CNC fitted with a bullnose end mill to mark parts. The process took up to four minutes at a cost of up to $250 per part. The new marking system marks a part in 30 seconds to one minute, he said.
Drew said questions to ask include: What’s the material? What are the parts? How big are they? How many can I fit on a work table? What’s the process (e.g., engraving, ablation, annealing)? Will an operator load the machine or will loading be automated with a robot? “If you don’t understand your parts, you can reach out to somebody like us and we can help,” he said.
The ability for the system’s software to communicate with the central server also facilitates automation by eliminating operator entry, said Grace. The laser marking system can ask the server what the starting serial number and batch size are. The marking system can do its work, confirm when it’s finished and record the work in the central server.
“You can also verify that with a vision system as well,” he said. “If it’s built in and you don’t need it fine, but if you need it and it’s not there you’ve got a problem."
Check out the software for the system to see how easy it is to use, Grace said. The vision system is also controlled with software, which can help with correct marking on parts that may be slightly askew on the work table.
“There’s a vision program we have that can actually locate the part and adjust the program accordingly so the mark is on the right spot on the part,” Grace said.
New from Trumpf is TruTops Mark 3D, software that wraps a mark across irregular 3D surfaces such as slopes or curves. The application corrects for the depth of focus and angle of the mark.
Because of the high-risk safety issues surrounding lasers and their use, they’re highly regulated, according to the website for The Laser Institute, a professional society based in Orlando. Guidelines focus primarily on the use of safety enclosures and interlocks, along with particulate and gas vapor extraction, said Kaczmarski.
“The laser is a powerful tool,” said Christley, the abilities of which should not be underestimated. “Direct exposure to the emitted energy can be severe to both skin and eyes and cause permanent damage. The light or welder’s flash that can be seen at the part during lasing isn’t just the emitted laser light. It’s also a reaction between the light and the material, he said. “It’s doubly dangerous to look at directly, also having the ability to cause damage,” Christley said.
In addition to the skin and eyes, the nose and lungs are vulnerable. The interaction between the laser and material being marked causes the release of fumes and debris, which make fume extraction necessary. Plastics can release noxious gases when heated that can be deadly; metal particles in the lungs can cause long-term health issues.
A properly engineered machine and solution will take these concerns into consideration. “When shopping for a laser system, you’ll want to ask what class the laser system is,” said Christley.
The two most commonly sold units are Class 1 and Class 4. With Class 1 machines, all safety has been taken into account and no additional protective measures are required for the machine to operate. Operating a Class 4 requires safety glasses for the operator, possibly in a shielded room.
A reputable vendor will be knowledgeable about safety measures and able to guide customers on a system’s proper use.
Different types of lasers have advantages and disadvantages.
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