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How to Evaluate Laser Marking Software

Given the wide use of laser marking systems special care is always given to evaluating the hardware, system specifications and performance. What is often overlooked is the software that runs them.

If the hardware is the heart and the limbs of the system, the software is the brain. Simply put “If the brain doesn’t work, the body doesn’t perform”. There is a myriad of laser software features to consider. In this article I’ll try to zero in on some of the most important aspects to consider as well as why one item may be more attractive to you, based on your individual needs or wants.

Firstly, there are two basic kinds of software that drive laser marking systems. One is a print driver/post processor type that functions very similarly to the driver you have on your printer. The other is commonly referred to a “scripting” type where the marking program is developed within the software and launched directly to the marker. There are 3rd party scripting packages such as ProLase and SCAPS but also many laser manufacturers like Kevron and Control Laser develop their own proprietary software which functions with their equipment only. In evaluating software, I like to break it down into three elements; Machine control, user interface and image manipulation.

Machine control is defined as the flexibility to easily adjust lasing parameters such as wattage, speed and frequency, interface with external I/O, interface with programmable axis drivers and the ability to communicate with databases and host networks. Machine control is all about power and productivity.

User interface refers to the GUI (Graphical User Interface) or more clearly the look and feel of the software. This entails the visual interaction between the operator and operating system. The tools included relate specifically to the efficiency of setting up programs and initiating the marking cycle.

Image manipulation is the access to the image to be lased and how that image can be adjusted for optimum output. This can include things like font selection, font sizes, editing barcodes and fine tuning graphics to be run. Image manipulation is the most important part of the final marking quality result.

As we compare the print driver type with the scripting type of packages, the first question that should be asked is “what do you yourself, deem to be the most important features of the software”. In other words what is the key feature that you absolutely, must have? Consider your application. Is the most critical thing the final appearance of the marking or is speed the biggest issue? Do you have a lot of graphics to apply or do the parts in question need to be lased with a great deal of variable information?

Generally speaking the benefits of the print driver type are that often these packages have extensive graphical editing tools embedded. This means you can quickly and easily adjust the image settings for logos, photos and other objects. The editing tools could be similar to those you see in a traditional graphics package like CorelDraw or Adobe and the screen display provides a true depiction of what the actual part will look like. When you are satisfied with the result the final job is sent to the print driver which then communicates with the laser control unit. This compiling and demand on the PC itself does not lend itself as well to high production processes in that the program is working hard to develop the marking file and then force feed it through the print driver. Print driver packages are best suited for high part changeover job shops and marking where the aesthetics are the most important criteria.

The opposite is the scripting type. These usually have the communication attributes in place that make them the better choice for high volume applications. Integrators prefer scripting type packages because of the vast number of tools included that allows them to interface with automation, PLCs and networks. It is very common, for instance, to have the actual data to be marked automatically downloaded from a host computer directly into the laser controller and automatic initiation of the marking sequence to be triggered by a command from a PLC. In some cases there is not even a PC at the machine. The tools for automatic serialization, date coding and barcode development are usually better constructed within scripting type packages. Scripting software can certainly be operated in a standalone fashion however the image manipulation tools are usually not as sophisticated as the print driver packages.

So all this being said laser suppliers are recognizing that their software must be user friendly, flexible and powerful. Consequently there is a crossover happening between the two types. The print drivers are becoming leaner and meaner and the scripting packages are adding more graphics manipulation tools. Where does this leave the potential buyer in his purchasing decision?

The very best advice I can offer is to get a real time demo of the software where the salesperson shows you some “canned” programs but then lets you have some hands on time also. If a salesperson is reluctant to demonstrate the software this should throw up a red flag. Some important questions to ask during the demo include;

• Is the software developed by the laser supplier or a 3rd party and who provides the support?
• How good is the documentation for the software package?
• Can programs be generated offline at a remote location?
• Can portions of the program be password protected at different levels?
• If programmable axis control is required, how many axes can be programmed and is it limited to certain motors or motor types?
• What kind of graphic file formats can be imported?
• What barcodes are supports and can they be edited and manipulated?
• Are proprietary fonts required or can the software accept standard True Type fonts?
• What programs does the post processor recognize if a print driver?
• Does the program require a dongle or software key?
• Demonstrate program development in “ring mode”?
• Does the software allow the lasing parameters to be saved with the job?
• What operating systems does the software run within?

There are certainly other factors to consider in your decision, but don’t discount the importance of the software. The goal should always be to get the most out of the laser system and the software and user interface are keys to meeting that all important goal.