The Ultimate Fiber Laser Buying Guide

Over the last two decades, fiber laser systems have steadily grown in popularity across numerous industries. Used to mark industrial product quantities, etch codes into parts and components, and cut diverse materials, fiber lasers are versatile machines that can complete today’s most demanding applications.

Fiber laser technology was first developed in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that fiber laser systems became viable options for manufacturing and packaging operations. As fiber laser technology became more cost-effective, large-scale operations began using fiber systems to cut materials and mark their goods with durable text and sharp images. Today, fiber laser technology is becoming increasingly accessible to companies of different sizes and specialties, causing many operations to consider adopting fiber laser systems.

Most commonly, fiber laser systems are used to mark products and packaging in the following industries:

 

If you are looking for a new fiber laser system or are interested in switching over to laser from a different solution, this fiber laser buying guide lays out everything you need to know about fiber laser technology and explains how to select the best system for your needs.

Fiber Laser 101: How Fiber Laser Systems Work and What Makes Them Different from Other Laser Marking Systems

Before we delve into how to select a specific fiber laser system, it’s important that you understand some key fiber laser operating principles.

Click here to jump straight to the Fiber Laser Buying Guide’s section on system specifications and key considerations.

Fiber laser is just one laser technology available on the market today, along with CO2, UV, and other laser system options. These different laser options each have operating principles that influence:

  • Material compatibility
  • Application possibilities
  • Operating expenses
  • Maintenance requirements 

Although specific principles differ from one laser technology to the next, all of these systems generate beams using the same general process.

Every laser system is built with a “gain medium,” which is a material that can amplify light. Also known as a “laser medium” or “active medium,” gain mediums can be solid, gas, or liquid, and these different materials affect the system’s beam qualities. Depending on what kind of material a laser system uses as a gain medium, the system will fall under one of these three categories:

  1. Solid-state laser
  2. Gas laser
  3. Liquid laser

To create a beam, laser systems use “pump sources” (i.e., external power supplies) to energize the gain medium through a process called “pumping.” Laser systems can use various pump sources, including flashlamps, electrical currents, and radio frequencies. By pumping the gain medium, laser systems excite the material into releasing photons.

On a basic level, laser systems take these released photons and use mirrors to increase energy and form a beam. Once the beam is strong enough, the system releases it toward the substrate to complete the intended application.

Fiber Laser Specifics: Operating Principles and Compatible Materials

With the above details in mind, we can examine how fiber laser systems work and explore what they can do.

Fiber lasers are solid-state systems that use fiber optic cables as gain mediums. These cables are lined or “doped” with rare earth ions that are ideal for receiving, storing, and emitting large amounts of energy. Put simply, fiber laser systems mark, engrave, and cut materials by:

  1. Using a laser diode, arc lamp, or similar light source to inject energy into the optic fiber, causing the rare earth ions to emit photons.
  2. Allowing the released photons to bounce within the fiber to increase energy.
  3. Funneling the photons toward a mirrored optical cavity where the photons are focused into a beam.
  4. Emitting the beam towards the substrate to complete the intended application.

These operating principles enable fiber lasers to mark, engrave, and cut a wide variety of materials with reliable speed and accuracy. Other popular laser systems, such as CO2 and UV laser models, can complete similar applications, but not always on the same materials.

Fiber, CO2, and UV laser systems all produce beams at different wavelengths, which significantly influence which materials they are compatible with. See the chart below for a general overview of which materials these systems are compatible with.

Material Category Material Fiber Laser CO2 Laser UV Laser
Wood, Paper, and Board Wood
Thermal Label
Paper
Board
Metallized Board
Glass Glass
Glass Fiber
Ceramic Ceramic
Plastics Polypropylene (PP)
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
ABS
Polyacetal (POM: polyoxymethylene)
Polyamide (PA)
Polycarbonate (PC)
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
Metals Steel
Galvanized Steel
Aluminum
Titanium
Copper
Brass
  • ✔ = Full compatibility 
  • ✔ = Limited compatibility
  • ✖ = No compatibility

Cutting, Marking, and Engraving: The Three Most Common Fiber Laser Applications

As displayed in the chart above, fiber laser systems offer excellent compatibility with numerous materials, especially metals and plastics. Due to these specifications, fiber laser systems are most commonly utilized by companies working with:

Depending on a company’s operational needs, fiber laser systems may be used to cut, mark, or engrave these materials. However, not all fiber systems are capable of completing this full range of applications.

Fiber laser systems may be versatile, but cutting, marking, and engraving all require different specifications to succeed. Cutting is the most demanding application, and success hinges on a few different factors. The two most important elements are:

  • System power: Fiber laser system power is generally measured in watts (W), with models ranging from 10W to 10,000W. The more powerful a system is, the better it is at cutting various materials. While a 10W system will not be able to cut anything, a 40W system may be able to cut thin plastic sheets, a 200-500W system will reliably cut thick plastic, and a 500W system will cut through thin sheet metal. 
  • Material thickness: The thicker a substrate is, the more power that is needed to cut through it. If you are planning to cut thin plastic sheets, you can find a relatively affordable 100W system to complete the application. For metals—especially thicker metals used to produce pipes and other building materials—you will need at least a 1,000W system for reliable success. 

Due to the substantial power requirements needed to cut materials, most fiber laser systems on the market are designed for marking and engraving applications.

As with cutting, marking and engraving requires different power levels depending on what kind of materials you are working with. If you need to mark or engrave images, codes, and messages on metal products, you will need at least a 10W system. To create these markings at an efficient speed, you should highly consider a system around 50W. For plastics, composites, and other non-metallic materials, a 10W-20W system will suffice.

Regardless of whether you are working with metal or plastic, the more powerful and well-built your system is, the better your results. Consider InkJet, Inc.’s F8100F fiber laser marking machine, for example. The F8100F is a 50W system designed to create long-lasting codes and highly-defined images (see the marking example to the right and the engraving example below). Thanks to the F8100F’s 50W power output, well-built design, and high-quality software, the system is able to:

  • Achieve marking speeds up to 2,000 characters/second (when using the high-speed scanner)
  • Operate on lines moving at 200m/min.
  • Create intricate graphics and complex codes
  • Greatly reduce coding errors and misprints compared to other marking methods
  • Offer high-contrast marking for machine-scannable codes

Your Fiber Laser Buying Guide: Key Specs and Considerations When Selecting a New System

With the abundance of fiber laser options available today, it’s important to have a firm understanding of a few key considerations as you decide which system is right for you. These factors include:

  1. What materials you plan to work with (e.g., steel vs. aluminum, rigid PVC plastic vs. flexible PET film, etc.).
  2. What applications do you need to complete (e.g., cutting steel vs. engraving QR codes into aluminum vs. marking plastic with alphanumeric messages).
  3. How many products/materials you need to cut, engrave, or mark per day.
  4. Your budget for initial investment and ongoing cost factors.

The best way to know whether a system can meet all of these requirements is to speak with an expert, such as a member of the InkJet, Inc. sales team. However, you can also gather a general idea of a system’s capabilities by looking at a few key specifications.

Below, we explain what these specifications are, why they matter, and how they influence a fiber laser system’s performance.

Laser Power

As previously mentioned, laser power has a large influence on what applications a fiber laser system can complete, what materials it can work with, and how quickly it can process products.

Given that laser applications have so many variables, it is difficult to definitively state whether a machine can complete specific tasks by looking at laser power alone. A more helpful practice is to examine your application needs, understand the general power range required to complete them, and then search for systems within that range.

The following table is a good starting point.

Fiber Laser Application Required Laser Power Range
Marking/Engraving Thin Plastic Sheets 10W-20W
Marking/Engraving Rigid Plastic  30W-50W
Marking/Engraving Plastic at High Speeds 50W
Marking/Engraving Soft Metal 20W
Marking/Engraving Stainless Steel 30W-50W
Marking/Engraving Metal at High Speeds 50W
Cutting Plastic Sheets 40-80W
Cutting Rigid Plastic  50W-100W
Cutting Metal Sheets 500W
Cutting Metal Parts 1,000W

Marking Area

“Marking area” refers to the space within which a fiber laser system can create codes, images, and markings. Like “print height” with continuous inkjet and thermal inkjet printers, the marking area determines a laser system’s maximum code/image size.

Beyond max code size, marking area is also important because fiber laser systems can be programmed to mark or engrave multiple substrates in one task. For example, if you are placing lot codes on food cans, a large marking area and the right production line setup will allow you to mark multiple cans with one task.

The marking area varies from one fiber laser to the next and can range from a few square millimeters to several hundred. There is no “standard” marking area, so we recommend that you speak with an expert if you are unsure about which size will meet your needs.

Marking Speed

If you plan to use a fiber laser system for marking and engraving, it’s essential to find a system that meets your output needs.

For example, if you run a high-volume bottling operation, you need a system that can match the speed of your production line. To meet the requirements of different line setups, fiber laser systems are built with different speed capabilities. The fastest models on the market can operate on lines moving above 900 m/min, although most operations will not require such extreme speeds. Most manufacturing and packaging companies can meet their output needs with a model that operates on lines moving at 200-600 m/min.

Beyond line speed, characters per second is another important marking metric. It refers to the quantity of numbers, letters, and symbols that a fiber laser system can create in one second. Characters per second is particularly important for text-heavy applications and alphanumeric code marking, as it helps companies determine if a system can meet their coding needs.

2,000 characters per second is the standard specification for industrial fiber laser systems, but be aware that this metric is influenced by factors such as code complexity and substrate material. As with other specifications, it’s important to speak with the manufacturer or supplier of your potential laser system to discuss how the system will fit into your operation.

Marking Precision

Marking precision refers to the level of consistent accuracy at which a fiber laser system marks substrates. High precision means that codes adhere to the intended size, position, and shape of the image design without deviation or error. Lower precision increases the risk of distorted characters, misplaced markings, and inconsistent coloring.

Unlike marking speed or marking area, marking precision is not quantified by a standard metric. Instead, it is influenced by various factors, including:

  • The quality and alignment of the optical system (i.e., the lenses, mirrors, etc.)
  • The quality of the motion control system (i.e., the motors, controllers, etc.)
  • How advanced the software is
  • Overall system design quality

Beyond these factors, your facility environment and substrate choice will also influence the precision of any fiber laser system. Speak with your different suppliers to learn how accurate their system options are and how your facility/products may influence marking precision.

Software Connectivity and Integration

You should always seek out fiber laser systems that can be seamlessly integrated into your production processes, workflows, and information systems. Most models offer multiple connectivity options (USB, Ethernet, wi-fi, etc.), interface options (digital I/O ports, Serial RS-232, etc.), and other ways to communicate with a PLC or remote system. Matching a system to your existing processes is an excellent way to ensure an intuitive and efficient workflow.

Maintenance Requirements and Manufacturer Support

Compared to inkjet printers, fiber laser systems have minimal maintenance requirements. Aside from periodically wiping lenses, replacing filters, and checking system alignment, fiber lasers have few or no ongoing maintenance concerns. Of course, all fiber laser systems are unique, so maintenance requirements may change a bit from model to model.

As you consider your different options, make sure to speak directly with your potential suppliers to understand the day-to-day maintenance needs and long-term requirements that will ensure excellent results. You should also inquire about general support options from your supplier, including:

  • Available technical support
  • Provided training and education
  • Warranties
  • Installation services
  • Spare part availability

Fiber laser systems are complex machines, so it’s important to partner with a company that can help you find the right solution for your facility, properly install it, and provide ongoing support throughout the system's years in service.

Upfront Cost

Compared to other marking options, fiber laser systems are known for their relatively high upfront prices. Depending on your power requirements, you should be prepared to spend anywhere from $10,000 to well above $100,000 on a system.

However, higher price tags do not always equal better quality. For example, many coding and marking companies significantly inflate the prices of their laser models to discourage customers from choosing them over continuous inkjet or thermal inkjet printers. The logic is that ongoing fluid purchases are more profitable over time than laser system purchases. As a result, companies like Videojet charge customers close to $50,000 for a laser system, while companies like InkJet, Inc. that do not inflate prices will sell equivalent options for less than $20,000.

To ensure a good deal, you should take an exhaustive look at all of your viable options, compare specifications, speak to an expert, and make an educated decision on which systems are worth the asking price.

Have Questions that Weren’t Covered in Our Fiber Laser Buying Guide? Contact the InkJet, Inc. Team Today to Speak With an Expert

InkJet, Inc. has been creating and distributing high-quality marking systems for more than 30 years. Along with our line of continuous inkjet, thermal inkjet, and case coding printers, we offer a variety of laser marking systems, including CO2, UV, LDR, and fiber laser solutions. Our fiber laser solution—the F8100F—is one of the most cost-effective systems on the market, delivering the same high-quality results as the competition but at a much lower price point.

Contact us today to learn if the F8100F is right for your operation.

Have questions or concerns that weren’t addressed in our fiber laser buying guide? Contact InkJet, Inc. online or call 1(800) 280-3245 today to find answers.