Mother Nature approved

Understanding the positive environmental impact of laser marking

by Aaron Grimes, national sales and global product manager, Tykma Electrox

 

 

 

As many manufacturers know, the practical and financial benefits of laser marking systems are wide ranging. Not only do these systems offer a variety of marking capabilities, they can also be put to use on a variety of materials in a diverse range of applications.

 

Beyond these advantages, laser marking systems provide a number of key benefits for the environment. In fact, many of the green aspects of laser marking can also profit the companies who implement them.

 

A good example of that is seen through the lack of inks, dies, solvents and tool bits required in the process. Because laser marking and engraving don’t require consumables to produce an effective mark, nor do they require physical contact of the marking surface with tool bits, companies don’t need to constantly replace inks or bit heads. This, in turn, leads to lower production costs and a smaller environmental footprint.

 

This green aspect of laser marking and engraving isn’t necessarily new, but it’s always good to remind business owners of the cost savings that come with processes that require little to no consumables. What is new, however, is a whole slew of eco-friendly marking and engraving developments. From laser marking potatoes to cleaning metal plates, laser marking and engraving are shaping up to be processes of which Mother Nature would approve. 

 

The following developments aren’t all related to metals manufacturing, but the advantages that come from these new technologies will, in the long run, positively affect all people.

 

 

 

Reducing packaging waste

“Natural branding” is an emerging technique that uses laser marking to remove pigment from the surface of the skin of various types of produce, leaving the interior of the food unmarked and unchanged, without affecting the food’s nutritional value.

 

As reported by The Guardian, this type of laser marking has recently been undertaken by Dutch fruit and vegetable provider Nature & More in partnership with the Swedish grocery chain ICA.

 

By utilizing this marking method, companies are able to significantly reduce and potentially eliminate the need for stickers on produce, which can lessen the need for and impact of paper, glue and ink.

 

As outlined by Nature & More, other advantages of using natural branding as opposed to sticker-based branding include:

 

  • Reduction in energy use and other gas emissions
  • Marking and tracking of produce is easier and more efficient
  • Reduction in the use of plastics and other packaging materials

 

So far, produce, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, coconuts and melons, have undergone the process. The latter examples are particularly suited for natural branding implementation due to their surfaces presenting problems for adhesives. Fruits with edible skins such as apples are also being considered.

 

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this news is that using a laser marking system for produce creates less than 1 percent of the carbon emissions that occur when producing a sticker of the same dimensions. That’s a lot of energy savings.

 

Just as lasers can produce marks on metal, scientists have developed a method to laser etch copies of documents, like the Magna Carta, onto coin-size glass discs for long-term storage. 

 

 

Long-term data storage

One particularly intriguing way that laser etching could potentially impact the environment is by helping create materials for long-term data storage.

As reported by Live Science, scientists at the University of Southampton have developed a method to laser etch copies of documents onto coin-size glass discs they’re calling “Opticks.” So far, documents such as the King James Bible and Magna Carta have been stored on such discs.

But these discs aren’t just appealing because of their small size. Some of the properties they’re endowed with include:

 

  • A projected life of 13.8 billion years
  • The capability to withstand temperatures upwards of 374 degrees F
  • Storage space capabilities of 360 terabytes, which amounts to about 720 times the standard storage space found on a home computer

 

It goes without saying that the implications of these discs are staggering. Not only could they greatly reduce the amount of plastics, metals and other materials currently used for DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs, external hard drives and other modes of storage, they could also eliminate the need for the development of future storage methods – all thanks to the help of laser etching.

 

Through etching, lasers can mimic the lotus effect found in nature, which allows metal and other material surfaces to self-clean. 

 


Superhydrophobic surfaces

Another development that holds environmental benefits is using laser systems to create superhydrophobic surfaces.

 

Scientists at the University of Rochester, inspired by the lotus effect found in nature, are now laser etching nested details onto the surfaces of metal plates. These details serve as a type of “coating” for the materials, similar to how nanostructures within the lotus flower allow the flower to “self-clean.”


Applications for this discovery are wide ranging with implementation into smartphone screens being likely. Other applications, which could have a sizeable environmental impact, include:

 

  • Use in the production of toilets, helping to increase the toilet’s hygienic potential and reduce the amount of water regularly utilized
  • Use in the production of solar power, helping to lessen the accumulation of rust and dirt, thereby boosting efficiency


Additional uses are likely forthcoming, so this is one laser etching development worth keeping an eye on.

 

Cleaning metals

While laser marking systems are doing some amazing work in creating new products and applications, through laser “cleaning,” they’re also able to remove unwanted product components. Elements that laser systems can remove from metal and other materials include:

 

  • Paint from delicate surfaces
  • Vulcanizing residue left over within tire molds
  • Insulation from conductors
  • Rust from metallic surfaces

 

All of this is possible through pulsed laser cleaning. The method stands out by being preferable to using harsh chemicals, solvents or baths to clean components. The site Hackaday featured several videos on the process in their post about German company CleanLaser and quoted the company’s website in regard to the process:

 

“Powerful, very short, rapid and moving laser pulses produce micro-plasma bursts, shockwaves and thermal pressure resulting in sublimation and ejection of the target material.”

 

With the ability to remove rust and other materials from parts and products, more recycling of parts will be possible, and parts will be able to have a longer lifespan, creating a sizable impact on the environment.

Laser cleaning is seen as being ideally suited for industries like:

 

  • Aerospace
  • Defense
  • Automotive
  • Power generation
  • Automation
  • Electronics
  • Food processing

 

With all of these potential applications and advantages, companies would be wise to look into laser cleaning for their operations.

 

Going paperless

Beyond laser marking, another interesting way lasers are playing a role in helping companies become more environmentally friendly is though laser templating.
Laser templating allows interior building product estimators to accurately quote a job on the spot and enables highly accurate fabrication of the finished product without complex templates made of wood and other materials.


As an example, an estimate for new kitchen countertops can be provided quickly by using laser templating products and software to measure the space and provide an accurate reading of the amount of material required as well as the shape and size of the material. Countertops can then be cut, finished and installed using only this 3-D digital information, saving money, resources and time.

 

As Green Surface Resource reports, laser templators are being put to use by home fabricators who are doing away with wood templates and keeping everything internal to an electronic system. With this technology, companies can go completely paperless, removing written estimates, contracts and other printed materials from their standard mode of business. According to Laser Products Industries, the company highlighted in the piece, their templators are currently saving over 55,000 trees each year because of these laser systems’ paperless capabilities.

 

Eco-friendly laser marking developments include “natural branding,” the removal of pigment from the surface of various types of produce, and the creation of “superhydrophobic surfaces,” a “coating” of sorts used for self-cleaning purposes.

 


Laser welding

Lastly, laser arc-hybrid welding for manufacturing purposes is another way that lasers are having a positive impact on the environment. While welding isn’t directly related to laser marking, it is an important aspect in regards to using lasers for manufacturing processes.

As reported by Laser Community, a study in 2015 found that by applying lifecycle assessment methodology (LCA), which is used as a standardized method for assessing environmental impacts for products and processes, laser arc-hybrid welding outperformed alternative methods.

 

Their results revealed that manual metal arc welding causes the highest potential environmental impacts with gas metal arc welding following it. For full details about the methodologies and findings, be sure to check out the report.

 

As you can see, laser systems for marking, etching and engraving as well as those tailored to other applications can do great things for product innovation: a healthy bottom line and, of course, a healthy environment.

Tykma Electrox

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