Large and In Charge
If you’re a print service provider (PSP) that offers wide-format signage services, chances are at this point, you’ve explored digital textile printing, mailing and fulfillment services, and more as additional sources of revenue. But what some PSPs may not have considered is offering engraving services.
Most commercial and wide-format printers are accustomed to working with printers and ink. While engraving machines don’t utilize printers and ink, the basic premise of taking text or an image, editing it in software, and applying it to a substrate is extremely similar. If you haven’t previously considered adding engraving to your services, specifically large-format, or you aren’t sure where to start, the following article has some insight.
What Qualifies as Large-Format Engraving?
To start, there are a few different engraving technologies: laser, rotary, and fiber. For the purposes of this article, laser engraving is the primary focus. As a versatile engraving method that’s available in a variety of machine sizes, it offers quite a few opportunities for PSPs.
The most common size is 24x12", but if you’re in the business of wide-format, there is equipment for that. While there is no formal, dictionary definition of what large-format laser engraving is, there are generally accepted parameters.
“When thinking of large-format laser engraving, I envision a machine that can engrave 48" or larger and have enough Z clearance to handle a large variety of items,” says Braden Todd, owner of Boulder, Colorado-based GS2 Awards. “I have always considered large-format to be machines that are larger in size, power, and capabilities.” For example, large-format jobs might include headstones, murals, and more.
But just because something isn’t a huge stone slab doesn’t mean it doesn’t fall under the large-format classification. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of whether an item fits in a traditional-size laser or has to be put on a larger machine. “Large-format laser engraving requires a larger table in both depth and width,” explains Bob Hagel, retired owner of Eagle’s Mark Awards & Signs in Murrieta, California. “Width is particularly important if what you are engraving is long such as baseball bats, paddles, or hockey sticks. Some would consider a laser table [that’s] 36" wide to be large-format. Others are labeling a 48" or wider table a large-format engraver.”
For those who currently only deal with printers and ink, it may seem like the only connection here is that there are parameters that define wide- or large-format production. But if you’re a PSP producing signage via printing, large-format laser engraving can open a new avenue for signage creation, particularly for outdoor usage.
“If you are in the sign business wanting to produce outside signs, you will likely want an engraver at least 48" wide or wider,” Hagel says. “Most 48"-wide tables are 24" or more deep. Laser table size will be the first consideration in selecting a laser as you will want to match it with the types and sizes of jobs you intend to take on.”
The important word here is “intend.” A PSP should think carefully about the future when looking to purchase. “Always buy the largest and most powerful laser your budget and space will allow for,” says Amy Dallman, marketing communications specialist at Epilog Laser, based in Golden, Colorado. “It is virtually unheard of that a [shop] will say, ‘I wish I’d gotten a smaller laser.’ Inevitably, laser operators will purchase their equipment with a particular application in mind; however, because laser engraving/cutting machinery is so versatile, they find themselves tackling new jobs and projects beyond their original ideas.”
But don’t limit yourself to just signage. Even if an item isn’t classified as huge, these machines can also be used to process large quantities of smaller items. “We have seen large-format engraving cross over multiple sectors, from art to mass production and even axe-throwing targets,” Todd says. “With a large-format laser there aren’t many items that can’t be done. If you’re open to being flexible, you’ll have all the work you can wish for. Beyond being able to run larger pieces, your production capacity jumps up a lot without needing to add more employees. In a single day, one machine can engrave hundreds of awards, some signage, and more.”
Going Beyond Size
While it’s clear that adding a large-format laser engraver to a print shop can be beneficial, there are a few major considerations other than size to keep in mind, though that absolutely must be examined. “Depending on the size of a laser, the main challenges are most likely going to be space, venting for fumes or in-room filtration, and available power,” Todd says.
Overall, though, it’s not difficult technology to embrace. “Laser systems themselves are very easy to use,” Dallman states. “What most people find challenging is learning to design for the laser, especially if they don’t have a background in graphic design. Once you learn your design software, such as CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator, the learning curve becomes far less steep.”
PSPs must also educate themselves on safety, both in substrate and operation of the machine. Todd points out that there are items that are safe to engrave, and some, like certain plastics, that are not. “You will always need to watch your laser when it is running,” he adds. “Do not add a camera to work elsewhere, do not leave the room, do not become lax on watching your machine! When a laser cuts, it does so with
extreme heat and a fire can start and ruin your machine faster than you’d be able to see it happening from another room.”
Hagel points out that in addition to basic operation safety, machines must also be cleaned. “Keeping them clean is important to the health of the moving parts,” he states. Not only does this benefit the health of the machine, but it does play into filtration. “Wood, followed by acrylic plastics produce the most gas and residue. Exhausting your laser is important and you will want a fan to pull the gas and residue out of the laser and either exhaust it to the outside or use a filtering system inside.”
Dallman points out that, overall, patience is key. “The laser is an incredible tool, but it’s not an instant business,” she says. “Just like any other service, you need to perfect your craft, determine your audience, and promote and market your customization capabilities.”
“Growth is always hard and sometimes scary, but with engraving equipment being so complementary to printing services, it tends to be an addition that blends well and doesn’t cannibalize from your existing sales,” Todd says. “I recommend looking at your current customer base and assessing if they use other engraving services. If so, there may be a large market already needing what you’d be able to offer.”