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What's the difference between a laser plotter and a galvo laser?

Flatbed and galvo lasers are two widely used types of laser machines that offer a number of features and benefits that can help businesses boost efficiency, broaden capabilities, or improve quality. Some of the main differences between the two include how the laser beam is directed onto the material, and the applications and production environments for which each is best suited. Below is some information that explains the main differences and when each laser type should be used.


The most basic operational difference between flatbed and galvo lasers

The most basic operational difference between flatbed lasers and galvo lasers is how the laser beam is directed onto the material. Flatbed laser machines use motorized belts to move the laser head back and forth along the x and y axes in a plotter to create a mark, cut or engraving, similar to the way a printer operates. The laser beam, directed by fixed mirrors, always hits the material perpendicularly. This set-up (somtimes referred to as "flying optics") is ideal for creating clean, straight-cut edges. They are also generally classified as  laser safety class 2 systems (also referred to as "closed" systems) which means they are fully enclosed and do not require operators to wear protective safety gear.

Galvo laser machines, on the other hand, use high-speed, motor-driven mirrors to steer the laser beam through a lens.  Depending on the position within the laser marking field, the beam impacts onto the material at a greater or lesser angle of inclination. The marking field size is defined by the deflection angle and the focal length of the optics. Since there are no movable parts (with the exception of the mirrors)  the laser beam can be guided over the workpiece at extremely high speeds with high precision and repeatability, making them ideal when short cycle times and high quality markings are required. Galvo lasers are available in Class 2 enclosures, or can be integrated with existing production equipment.  

Watch our video for more information on the key differences.


Which type of laser should you use?

Here are a few things you should consider when you are determining which type of laser you should use.

Different work areas for different applications

Flatbed laser machines: larger bed sizes, larger range of workpieces

One of the most obvious differences between the two laser types is that flatbed laser machines have larger bed sizes, so they can accommodate a wide range of part sizes and shapes, including larger items and groups of parts at one time for batch processing.

Trotec's flatbed laser machines have bed sizes as large as 87 x 126 inches, allowing you to process larger workpieces and larger quantities. As you might guess, in general, the larger the machine, the larger the processing area. Some of our flatbed laser machines can be equipped with a pass-through, which is a door in the bed of the laser machine that allows you to insert longer workpieces which would not otherwise fit in the laser machine's processing area. More about pass-through options.

Galvo laser machines: configurable for specialized applications

Trotec's galvo laser machines generally have smaller marking areas which are optimized for specialized applications. Workstations can be configured with or without housings in different ways such as with housings that have pass-throughs, with housings that have detachable side parts, or without housing altogether. Without housings, even very large and bulky parts can be marked. The laser marking workstations with housings have marking areas of up to 12.2 x 12.2 inches (310x310 mm) for fiber lasers, and up to 19.7 x 19.7 inches (500 x 500 mm) for CO2 lasers. Used without housings, the marking areas are larger. For example, mounting the galvo laser on an axle system (X, Y) of a laser workstation, can increase the marking area to approx. 43 x 23.6 inches (1100x600 mm). 


Production environment and speed

Flatbed laser 

Flatbed lasers are typically operated as stand-alone machines, working independently from other production machines. The materials are taken to the laser machine, processed there, removed and processed further or sold directly depending on the product. Processing times also vary according to the application. It is common for one operator to work several machines. While one machine is processing the jobs, other machines are being loaded, or parts are being removed.

Galvo laser

Unlike flatbed laser machines, galvo laser marking solutions are not commonly used as stand-alone machines, but are instead integrated with other processes in a production environment. They generally offer a number of features such as semi-automated work stations with round tables further maximize production efficiency and capacity, and reduce downtime occurring from loading and unloading. Due to the compact structure of galvo laser machines, they can also be easily integrated into production lines. Conveyor belts or other handling systems enable operators to process large quantities of parts in the shortest possible time.

Speed is a main advantage of the galvo laser. Galvo laser machines can process as fast as 900 characters per second, with a high level of precision approximately 10 to 65 times faster than flatbed lasers, depending on the laser machine model and application. This makes the galvo system ideal for applications such as industrial part marking that require fast cycle times and high-quality markings.


Configurability

Flatbed lasers

Each application requires its own configuration for optimal results. Lenses (different focal lengths) and processing tables, in particular, have a substantial impact on the result. Flatbed laser engravers and laser cutters can be quickly and flexibly adapted to the application. This is an unbeatable advantage when you are working with a wide range of individual engraving or cutting tasks.

Galvo Laser

Galvo lasers are generally purchased for a specific application, for which they are optimized. Integration into ERP systems is just as possible as the marking of dynamic contents (e.g. counting up of serial numbers, time stamps, processing of lists, etc.). A high degree of automation facilitates the marking process and the throughput time.


Laser software

Flatbed lasers

Trotec's flatbed lasers are also equipped with easy-to-use software. The user works with the usual graphics programs (e.g. CorelDraw, Photoshop, Photopaint, AutoCAD, Adobe Illustrator, Word, Excel, etc.) and sends the laser job via a printer driver to the laser machine, where the graphics are converted into a real object.

Details on the JobControl® laser software for flatbed lasers

Galvo laser software

Trotec's galvo lasers are equipped with highly intelligent, flexible, and user-friendly software. Users can quickly and easily create individual, intelligent and interactive program sequences, and even customize the user interface without special programming knowledge. Other handy capabilities include indexing serial numbers, time stamps, processing lists, handling variables, and more.

Details about the SpeedMark software for galvo lasers


Laser cutting

Flatbed lasers

Due to the design of the laser plotter ("flying optics"), the laser beam always hits the material perpendicularly. This ensures a straight cut edge, especially for thick materials (e.g. acrylic, MDF, wood).  Perfectly straight edges are a mark of high quality and precision, and may be a requirement in some cases, for example if parts must be put together correctly after laser cutting.

Galvo Laser

Speed is a main advantage of the galvo laser, and the advantage is especially noticable when you're working with thinner materials, such as paper, cardboard, foils, or thinner laminates. Depending on the application, 10 to approx. 65 times the speeds of a flatbed system can be achieved. Depending on the position within the marking field, however, the beam impacts onto the material at a greater or lesser angle of inclination. In the case of thicker materials, this slope of the cutting edge is clearly visible.



Other facts

Flatbed lasers

  • Trotec lasers are also available as Speedy flexx. This patented technology permits CO2 and fiber lasers to be activated alternately in just one laser machine at the click of a mouse. This provides ultimate flexibility in material selection.
  • Low-priced entry-level machines are available. The laser plotter is economically advantageous even for low quantities.
  • Compatible with all popular graphics programs (laser software works like a printer driver).

Galvo laser

  • High focus tolerance provides tremendous benefits when working with products that are not 100% plane. Examples: Tools, jewelry, watches, machine components, medical implants and instruments, advertising.
  • Deep engraving on metals possible
  • Black discoloration of anodized aluminum possible
  • Capabilities to reproduce colors on steel are possible

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