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The Insider's Guide to SSLE

Subsurface laser engraving (SSLE) has been available for many years, and the process has evolved from a primitive and difficult technology requiring substantial equipment and support into a highly refined yet simple process yielding truly beautiful engraving results that aren’t available with any other technology. Advances developed in Germany have made SSLE systems reliable and straightforward to use. Some of the systems now available are virtually maintenance free.

The Insider's Guide to SSLE

Subsurface Laser Engraving of Glass and Crystal Can Be Brought In-House with New, User-Friendly Equipment

BY SCOTT ERICKSON, GW CRYSTAL

(Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Recognition Review.)

Subsurface laser engraving (SSLE) has been available for many years, and the process has evolved from a primitive and difficult technology requiring substantial equipment and support into a highly refined yet simple process yielding truly beautiful engraving results that aren’t available with any other technology. Advances developed in Germany have made SSLE systems reliable and straightforward to use. Some of the systems now available are virtually maintenance free.

 

This longhorn image was engraved inside a a 3 1/2-in.-by-6-in.-by-3 1/2-in. crystal in just 20 minutes using new SSLE technology that is available to retailers.

A key difference between SSLE and standard engraving methods is that SSLE creates three dimensional images, unlike surface engraving, which is two dimensional. Using all three dimensions greatly broadens the engraving capabilities and ultimately results in more dynamic engravings. With SSLE, there are virtually no limits to the designs that can be engraved; 3D and 2D engraving can even be combined.

Suppliers have offered SSLE engraving services for years. Previously, they had to license this technology, but the family of patents has expired, removing that constraint. Improvements to the technology also have made it easier for retailers to incorporate in-house SSLE. These new machines have less of a learning curve, are more reliable, and require less maintenance. The machines differ in the size of crystals they can engrave. The system pictured, for instance, engraves crystals up to 11.8 in. by 11.8 in. by 5.9 in.

In addition to the care that must be used in purchasing the technology, retailers must choose quality crystal or glass for SSLE. The blanks must have a smooth, polished surface. Any impurities or waves inside or out will negatively affect the engraving results. Most SSLE manufacturers recommend getting glass and crystal blanks from suppliers skilled in providing blanks designed to work well with SSLE technology.

Blanks range from small crystal USB drives and keychains to large awards, allowing retailers to fill orders for recognition products, promotional products, corporate gifts, and more at just about any price point.

A point cloud is created for engraving a longhorn bull within crystal using the Crystalab Pro 2 software native to Cerion SSLE systems. Artwork can be created using 2D and 3D graphics programs, but the point clouds that map all of the points necessary to engrave a 3D images are created with software proprietary to the SSLE technology manufacturer.

Engraving times vary widely depending on the size of crystal, the number of points being engraved, and the type of laser. The system shown, for example, can engrave a small keychain in about 30 seconds or less; the engraving time would increase with the size of the crystal and number of points in the cloud. The bull figure shown, engraving in a 31/2 in. by 6 in. by 31/2 in. took around 20 minutes to complete, a vast improvement over the hours that would be required using older SSLE technology.

SSLE machines, like this system from Cerion, can accommodate multiple pieces of crystal. Engraving time depends on the size of the crystal, the number of pieces, and the complexity and number of points within the point cloud.

HOW IT'S DONE

  1. Create the art. To incorporate SSLE into crystal, you need either vector art for 2D images or 3D art for 3D images. Many retailers are familiar with using 2D vector art in CorelDRAW, Adobe Illustrator, or other graphics programs when creating personalized products for their customers using other processes. Unlike their 2D counterparts, 3D models must be created with design software such as 3DS Max from Autodesk. The 2D aspects of a design can be created in the graphics program of the designer’s choice. The 2D and 3D elements of a design can then be combined in the 3D software or in the next step. The user determines the layout, making choices about what will look best in the finished product.
  2. Convert the art. The design then must be converted into a specialized format that can be utilized by the laser for engraving inside the glass or crystal. These files are commonly referred to as “point clouds” and typically are created by software proprietary to the SSLE machine manufacturer. New point cloud software has advanced features for creating high-resolution point clouds that include lighting and shading effects and offer straight-forward interfaces for ease of use.
  3. Place the crystal. When the point cloud has been created, the crystal is placed into the laser system and settings are adjusted for the size of the crystal and the quantity to be engraved. The placement of the crystal or crystals on the engraving platform determines offset values that let the system know exactly where to position the laser beam. Once that is set, click the start button. The system will move into position and begin engraving.
  4. Please the customer. Once engraved, the finished crystal is ready to package. Like all crystal, it will need to be kept clean for the customer and handled carefully to avoid chipping and scratching, but the SSLE process does not make it more fragile. No postengraving polishing or cleanup is necessary since all of the engraving occurs within the crystal.

Scott Erickson is the cofounder and CEO of GW Crystal, Inc., which has been producing SSLE crystal products since 1999. GW offers thousands of shapes and sizes of crystal for use as fine crystal awards, promotional products, and gifts. Now, GW is the exclusive North American representative of Cerion GmbH, a leading SSLE system manufacturer, and offers domestic sales, support, and training for Cerion systems. More details on the Cerion C-Jet2 system shown and others can be found at cerionlaser.com. For information on SSLE products and purchasing a Cerion system, visit gwcrystal.com, call 877.222.3301 (toll-free), or email us.

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