Challenges for the laser job shop

Jan. 28, 2014
The need for laser job shops has never been greater than it is today as companies that cannot invest in laser technology for precision machining are looking to laser job shops for help.

Attention to The details of laser marking jobs is critical

Gary Niemenski

Editor's note: Laser marking is becoming ubiquitous in manufacturing products today. ILS asked Gary Niemenski, owner of a busy laser marking shop, to give readers an idea of what the technology has wrought. -- D.A.B.

The need for laser job shops has never been greater than it is today as companies that cannot invest in laser technology for precision machining are looking to laser job shops for help. For example, there is more emphasis on product identification, anti-counterfeiting protection, permanent marking without inks, adhesive labels, and personalizing or customizing industrial and consumer products. These applications are becoming the norm in most manufactured products where laser job shops are involved. Because of the need for identification in medical, automotive, and military applications, the demand for laser job shops will increase.

Laser-marked brass piece and laser-marked mustang

General challenges of ownership

Owning a job shop doesn't require that you carry much inventory, which lowers operating cost. This helps to better address the growing needs of your industrial customers.

However, one of the main concerns laser job shops have is being able to engrave or cut a component they have never seen before. It is the job shop owner's responsibility to consult with the customer on how his product should be processed. Some job shops provide a guarantee or insurance if the laser process does not work.

There are additional costs that a laser job shop needs to be communicating to their customers. You will be required to unpack the customer's product and repack it as well. We sometimes spend more time with the logistics of the project than actually using our lasers. In such cases, a nominal handling charge is usually acceptable to our customers. Another cost that needs to be discussed with the customer is setup charge. Time is money, whether you are running a short or long run. This is an important challenge that a job shop deals with every day. Today's laser job shop is under extreme competition for laser processing services and sales. Thus, job shops are now expanding their services to differentiate themselves from competitors by offering added-value services such as welding, forming, painting, barcode reading and verification, bending or forming.

Today, more laser job shops have upgraded to fiber technology to perform innovative applications. Companies have started to realize the advantage of fiber laser processing and are comfortable outsourcing their work. Job shops that used traditional cutting methods, for example, are replacing those with fiber lasers. Besides laser cutting contract work, these fiber lasers can weld, mark, and engrave. Using fiber laser technology and innovative ways to process the work, medical device manufacturers, for example, are outsourcing their work to the laser job shop. Even though these opportunities exist, fiber laser processing has not reached full potential for the average job shop.

Laser marking

One of the most requested job shop tasks is laser marking. Laser marking systems have made it possible to achieve fast, permanent, non-contact marking of a wide range of materials, including metals, plastics, semiconductors, ceramics, marble, and glass. Clean, crisp markings can be made with high accuracy as a result of extremely small spot diameters, some as small as 0.003 inches. Laser marking is fast, flexible, permanent, and doesn't require the job shop to have consumables on hand. Laser marking is a non-contact process for any material needing this method. Metals such as stainless steel can be marked, annealed, or engraved cleanly. Over 75% of our customers require 2D data matrix barcodes for direct part marking (DPM), especially for traceability so job shops are now being asked to provide laser marking for 2D DPM.

Part marked with a barcode

The most common reasons for DPM are:

  • Traceability is required after the product is separated from its temporary identification.
  • The part is too small to be marked with bar code labels or tags.
  • The part is subjected to environmental conditions that preclude the use of add-on identification means.
  • The use of DPM methods may be more cost efficient than individual item labels.
  • Identification is required for at least the anticipated life cycle of the part, as defined by the manufacturer.

The use of DPM may also be beneficial in the following manufacturing related processes:

  • production automation,
  • inventory management,
  • traceability/part path history,
  • lot control,
  • select fit,
  • error proofing,
  • serialization,
  • product identification, and
  • quality control/defect containment.

Quality control

Customers require lasers for marking mainly because of the quality and resolution of the mark. The fiber laser provides the ability to produce high resolution for text, serial numbers, and data matrix barcodes based on the small beam diameter and the close focus of the marking area. The marking area of an item should be perpendicular to the laser beam, and the focal distance or item shape should not vary by more than 0.250 in. or the mark may appear out of focus.

Manufacturing processes and material property variations in the item being marked can also affect mark consistency, for example:

  • differences in metallurgy between lots or between suppliers,
  • variations in coating thickness, and
  • consistency of surface finish.

Unique identification marks and device identifiers

Customers that are awarded military contracts rely on laser job shops to mark unique 2D matrix identification code issued for tracking. This code is known throughout the military industry as a UID or a unique identification mark. Complying with the military standards is essential for the laser job shop that wants to work with the US defense industry. The job shop needs to encode proper data strings into the 2D Barcode and are required to provide the correct encode. All parts or products must be registered for full compliance. Laser marked parts or products from the job shops are then shipped to their customers with the unique identification codes.

More than 50% of laser marking in a job shop may be associated with UID marking. This identification is necessary for traceability, better maintenance records, and asset tracking. Laser job shops offering UID marking and verification need to invest in verification equipment, software, and fiber laser technology for quality marking. Quality marking assists in 99.99% verification of the barcode marking. A quality laser marking from a job shop will need to be tracked from cradle to grave. It is the goal of the laser job shop to produce high quality marking that is legible and permanent for the life of the part.

Medical devices being sold in the US are required to provide traceability to improve consumer and patient safety. The FDA mandate for a unique device identifier (UDI) offers an opportunity for laser job shops to be involved. According to the FDA, a UDI is defined as a unique numeric or alphanumeric code specific to a device model, acting as a key to identifying device information: name of manufacturer, type of device, its expiration date, batch and lot number, etc. The laser job shop can provide permanent marking to meet traceability concerns and demands on medical products. The laser job shop would need to develop a process that passes all corrosion, passivation testing, salt baths, or other medical durability tests.

There are many new demands and applications that a laser job shop faces now and in the immediate future. Paying special attention to details will reduce problems. The end result is becoming more profitable and attracting new business for improved growth.

Gary Niemenski([email protected]) is owner of LMG Technologies Inc., Farmington, MI.

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