Laser Etching vs Laser Engraving: Which to Choose?

Laser etching and laser engraving are commonly thought of as interchangeable, but there is a difference between the two when it comes to their processes and results. Laser etching and laser engraving both have benefits and drawbacks depending on the project’s desired outcome.

With that said, it is essential to understand the difference between laser etching vs laser engraving to ensure you choose the best option for your particular needs. In the following, we’ll take a look at each process, along with the top industries that utilize them.

Laser Etching Process

Laser etching creates raised marks on metal material, such as aluminum, stainless steel, or zinc by electrolyte absorption. The laser etching process begins with a laser beam hitting and electrifying a metal, resulting in a current running through it. The metal then partially absorbs the energy and also reflects the energy.

Once the metal absorbs the energy and transforms it into heat, the metal becomes malleable, expands, and changes in color and texture. The ratio of absorption to reflection affects whether the etch will be black, white, or gray. You may choose laser etching vs engraving for the stylistic reason of wanting raised marks instead of deep marks or because the process is generally faster.

Laser Engraving Process vs the Laser Etching Process

Although laser engraving creates designs similar to laser etching, the difference between laser etching and engraving lies in how the material interacts with the laser and the versatility of materials that can be used.

Laser engraving works by cutting deep marks into metal, wood, or plastic by removing material through vaporization. With Laser etching, the material becomes malleable and expands when the laser hits.

You may choose laser engraving vs laser etching if a deep, durable mark is desired for a product to withstand environmental conditions. For products that must hold their original material strength and rigidity, engraving is often the best choice.

Why Do We Need Laser Etching and Laser Engraving?

Although there is a difference between laser etching vs engraving, they both are essential for part traceability because of their permanence. Tracing parts, tools, or jigs through a plant or supply chain is necessary for an efficient recall, minimizing damages, extracting and improving management challenges, and ensuring quality management.

There are two types of part traceability—chain traceability and internal traceability. Both of these use etching and engraving for success. Chain traceability traces a part’s progress from raw material to sale, whereas internal traceability tracks parts along the supply chain through a single company or plant.

For traceability, a tool or jig is laser etched or laser engraved with a serial number that correlates with a description of the tool, such as usage, wear limits, plant names, shelf numbers, count, and date or time. Without traceability, a company may struggle with efficiency when attempting to recall or investigate an issue with a product.

Additionally, traceability allows consumers to feel confident in the reliability of their product because they know where their product came from. Although part traceability relates to tools, many industries use this practice for other products.

How Can Laser Markers Be Integrated?

Laser markers can etch or engrave a material without the common issues faced by laser etching and laser engraving. For instance, a common gripe with conventional etching tools is the inefficiency of creating new designs. Since chemical etching tools may use a stencil, creating designs takes time, money, and additional materials. Instead of a physical stencil, laser markers simplify this process by reading and imitating programming based on data loaded from a CAD file.

Chemical etching is generally used for engraving or eliminating resin, but the process can be detrimental to the product because of its harsh nature. Laser markers are a great alternative since the laser radiation does not make direct contact with the product and produces the same result.

Sometimes the deep cut of engraving is desired for a product, but roadblocks like difficulty engraving small characters and rough or curved surfaces can arise from using a conventional engraver. Additionally, conventional engraving machines can add stress to the material and be a tedious process, so using a laser marker rather than a hand-scribe or dot-peen is more efficient and gentle on materials.

Laser markers can also generate characters smaller than 1mm and mark on rough surfaces. Although some laser markers need external equipment to mark curved surfaces, certain "link to laser markers" have this capability built-in. This flexibility is especially beneficial in the automotive industry. As an example, many parts have identification numbers laser marked in them, making part tracing simple and efficient.

What Industries Use Laser Etching and Engraving?

Etching and engraving are used in a variety of industries such as:

Although these are some of the most common industries, many others are utilizing them and seeing the benefits that they offer. Both can be effectively used by anyone desiring permanently marked designs on a product, regardless of which industry they are in.

Making the Decision

Deciding between laser etching vs engraving may seem challenging at first, but understanding your goals for a product, the material you’re working with, and the future use of a product can point to the best choice. Additionally, you may want to consider investing in a laser marker that can cut down overall cost, time, and the number of people needed for a project.

As a leading supplier of sensors, measuring systems, laser markers, microscopes, and machine vision systems worldwide, KEYENCE can help automate your processes, saving you both time and money.

Ready to implement etching or engraving but still have questions? Ask KEYENCE and our knowledgeable team will get back to you quickly. We support our customers from the selection process to operations, with on-site operating instructions and industry-leading after-sales support.