February 8, 2022 

CO2 Laser Marking System Overview: Operating Principles and Common Applications

The CO2 laser is detailed in this laser marking system overview.

Just a few decades ago, industrial laser systems seemed more at home in a science fiction novel than in a packaging facility. Although Albert Einstein’s theories laid the foundation of laser technology in 1917, it took engineers and scientists until the 1960s to create the first functioning laser systems. During this period, an electrical engineer at AT&T Bell Labs developed a technology called the CO2 laser. 

When the CO2 laser was developed in 1964, it was the most powerful laser technology available at the time, and in the decades since, it has become an integral tool to an incredible array of industries. Today, CO2 lasers, which are more efficient, powerful (due to a lower wattage for speed), and cost-effective than other laser systems, are used to perform everything from laser skin resurfacing to automobile manufacturing, with industrial product marking as the most common application.

In this laser marking system overview, we examine how CO2 laser systems are used and why they’re especially ideal for use in the packaging and manufacturing industry. 

Operation and Application Overview of CO2 Laser Marking Systems

Like continuous inkjet printers, CO2 laser systems are ideal for applying small images and text onto products moving at hundreds of meters per minute. As such, they are commonly used in places like food and beverage packaging facilities, chemical manufacturing plants, and pharmaceutical development centers to mark products with variable data and traceable codes.

Let’s take a deeper look into how CO2 laser marking systems operate as well as some of their most common industry applications. 

How CO2 Laser Marking Systems Work

CO2 laser systems are designed to mark, engrave, or etch materials according to directions that are programmed via a computer interface. Although laser marking, engraving, and etching systems all use the same principles to create laser beams, they differ significantly in how they affect the surface properties of their substrates:

  • Laser marking systems use low-power laser beams to heat the substrate in a highly-controlled pattern with the use of galvo motors. The heat from the beam oxidizes the material underneath the substrate’s surface, causing it to remove a portion of the material. This process leaves a well-defined mark while leaving the surface fully intact.
  • Laser engraving systems use higher-power laser beams to vaporize the surfaces of substrates. The beam, which gives off more heat than the beam in a laser marking system, causes a cavity in the substrate that can be both seen and felt.
  • Laser etching systems use even higher-power beams than laser engraving systems to melt the surfaces of substrates. The melting effect causes the marked area to expand and leave raised marks as a result. 

CO2 laser systems create these beams through the use of a glass tube and a series of mirrors. To begin the marking process, the glass tube is filled with carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium, and hydrogen. Next, the machine passes electricity through the tube, exciting the particles to create a laser beam. 

Once the laser beam is formed, it is reflected between two mirrors that bookend the glass tube. As the laser beam is reflected between the two mirrors, it grows in intensity. Once the light is bright enough, it passes through a series of mirrors until it is released to the substrate for marking purposes. 

Common CO2 Laser Marking System Applications

Laser marking systems are widely used throughout the packaging and manufacturing industry for several reasons:

  1. Laser marking is a non-contact process: Laser systems don’t make physical contact with the substrates they’re marking. As such, they don’t experience much wear or damage the materials they’re working with.
  2. Laser marking systems work incredibly fast: Today, the average CO2 laser marking system can create around 2,000 characters per second, making them ideal for industrial marking applications.
  3. Laser marking systems have very low maintenance costs: Other high-speed industrial marking technologies like continuous inkjet printers require users to periodically buy new fluids. This raises operating costs substantially. Conversely, laser marking systems require no consumables, thereby minimizing the need for maintenance and lowering overall operational costs. Generally speaking, users only need to replace bulbs or small parts every couple of years.
  4. Laser marking systems can mark a wide variety of materials: Laser systems can mark both porous materials (e.g., paper, cardboard, and wood) and nonporous materials (e.g., glass, metal, and plastic). As such, they are used to mark everything from glass beer bottles and metal paint cans to paper shipping labels. 

Because of these benefits, laser marking systems are used by some of today’s largest manufacturing and packaging operations. Although the upfront costs of laser systems are quite high, their speed and efficiency make them a great choice for companies like Anheuser-Busch that require top-level marking performance and have the capital to afford it. 

Today, laser systems are most commonly used to mark:

  • Beverage bottles and cans.
  • Food packaging.
  • Pharmaceutical products.
  • Cables and wires.
  • Automotive and aerospace parts.
  • Dairy products.
  • Various electronics.
  • Consumer goods.

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C&M Digest Team

The C&M Digest Team is composed of experts from across the coding and marking world. Comprised of ink developers, hardware veterans, and engineers, our News Team delivers informed coverage that is always free from brand bias.

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