Editor's Note: It seems as if low-power CO2 lasers have been around forever. Commercialized in the late 1960s for marking and engraving applications, this laser—one of the first to be a considered ubiquitous, as they began to turn up everywhere—reached a market processing buttons in China. In this century, annual shipments of low-power CO2 lasers reached the tens of thousands and as the product became more sophisticated, sealed-off, and more powerful, the range of applications served grew. Here, Dr. Louise May of Luxinar, formerly Rofin Sinar/Coherent, builds on the ubiquitous theme by selecting a few of the most common applications of these lasers that touch readers'’lives every day. One of these, denim engraving, will be addressed more fully in a 2020 issue of Industrial Laser Solutions.—David Belforte, Editor in Chief
In the almost 60 years since lasers were first developed, they’ve revolutionized the manufacturing landscape. As industry becomes increasingly automated, particularly in the era of Industry 4.0, sealed CO2 laser technology, for example, is being incorporated into production systems to deliver greater production flexibility, alongside significantly heightened levels of quality and consistency. In practice, that helps manufacturers to remain more agile and competitive in the fast-moving, consumer-driven global marketplace.
These core benefits of sealed laser technology make it suitable across almost all manufacturing sectors, including automotive, packaging, and food and beverage. In practice, this breadth of application types enables laser technology to touch the daily lives of people around the world. Let’s take a look at how lasers are used in the production of five products that are seen on supermarket shelves every day.
Food marking. One of the more surprising uses of laser technology is in precooked meat products. Often appearing to be served fresh from the grill, most of these ready-to-eat options aren’t actually grilled at all. To deliver consistency of taste, visual appearance, and overall product quality, products like burgers, fish, and chicken are typically oven-baked and may later be branded with a grill pattern using a laser. As well as ensuring consumer expectations are met, this process gives manufacturers greater control over the production process to deliver consistently high levels of product quality and safety. With laser marking being a noncontact method, the need for frequent cleaning and maintenance of tools is significantly reduced, and because the product isn’t pressed, more moisture is retained for greater taste.
Keeping food fresher for longer. With volumes of food waste around the world increasing year on year, keeping fresh food items—from fruit and vegetables through to meat and bread—fresh for as long as possible is a key priority for many food manufacturers. To do this, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) technology is often utilized to create the optimum conditions for each product, regulating levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and other gases inside the packaging. With different products requiring different conditions, packaging must be tailored to each product type, and that’s where lasers come in. By precisely perforating packaging according to the specific needs of its contents, the shelf life of fresh food can be increased (FIGURE 1). In turn, that gives consumers more time to enjoy fresh food, ultimately reducing wastage and giving consumers better value for money.
Genuine product coding. While consumers will be used to seeing product information such as batch numbers and use-by dates on some food and drink items—often emblazoned onto the neck of a bottle or the side of a packet—they may be less aware of the significance of similar codes on higher-value products, such as fragrances. In this instance, indelible and tamper-proof marks are commonly made using laser technology, enabling consumers to distinguish authentic products from counterfeit goods. Commonly copied and sold to unknowing consumers at lower rates, counterfeit fragrances and other luxury items not only detract from the authentic brand, but also create potential health concerns amongst consumers, particularly where products have direct contact with the skin. Of course, for more desirable and expensive products, the flexible nature of laser coding means it can be applied discreetly so as not to detract from the products’ appearance.
Creating the perfect pint. As well as marking best-before dates and individual product codes on bottles and labels, CO2 laser technology is widely used within the glass industry. Beer glasses, for instance, are a fantastic example where laser marking is used to modify the glass in order to retain the perfect head of a beer for longer. Utilizing laser technology to etch ‘head keepers’ onto the bases of glasses—which can be personalized with graphics and logos—facilitates the creation of bubbles of carbon dioxide (FIGURE 2). In practice, that means that beverages can retain the perfect just poured frothy head and stay fizzier for longer.
Technology in fashion. Whether it’s everyday gym clothes, favorite dresses and overcoats, or go-to shoes and accessories, laser technology enables manufacturers to deliver uniform quality and consistency on a mass scale. Take jeans, for instance. While they might once have been stonewashed or bleached, their production now utilizes laser technology to finish individual products with effects like fading, patterning, and tearing. Not only does this method enable manufacturers to significantly reduce production time, it also reduces the volume of chemicals used during the process, lessening its environmental impact. This technique also ensures that all products have consistent detailing, while the adaptable nature of sealed CO2 laser technology enables manufacturers to quickly fulfill orders in-line with shifting consumer trends.
To find out more about the uses of sealed CO2 lasers in manufacturing, visit www.luxinar.com.