Laser Etching & Laser Engraving

When choosing a laser, etching and engraving are often confused with one another. After all, they’re very similar processes that can be performed using the same laser. Understanding the difference is critical to picking the right laser marking process.


Laser etching data matrix
Laser Etching

Laser engraving data matrix
Laser Engraving

The main difference between laser etching and laser engraving is the marking’s depth. While the small bumps generated by laser etching can be felt by touch, the deep crevices generated by laser engraving can easily be seen by the naked eye.


Laser etching elevation Up to 80 microns (0.08 mm, or ~0.0032 in)
Laser engraving depth Up to 500 microns (0.50 mm, or ~0.02 in)


As a result, laser etching is faster, and laser engraving is more resistant and durable. To choose between them, you’ll need to figure out the middle ground between durability and marking time.

What Is Laser Etching?

Laser etching is a process that generates small bumps on parts by allowing heated surfaces to expand. It’s usually preferred to laser engraving as it’s a faster process that can be used to mark a wide variety of materials.

During the laser etching process, many physical reactions take place very quickly (within milliseconds). Here’s a breakdown of how everything happens:

  1. The laser beam, which is divided into pulses, hits the surface.
  2. Its energy is absorbed by the material and converted into heat.
  3. The heat changes the malleability of the surface, which expands as it cools off.
  4. Where the energy intensity is higher, the resulting surface roughness absorbs light, creating black areas.
  5. Where the energy intensity is lower, the resulting surface roughness diffuses light, creating white areas.



Using fiber laser technology, it’s possible to etch high-quality marks on almost any metals. Alternately, a CO2 laser can be used to etch organic materials. However, laser etching should not be used with stainless steel, regardless of the type of laser, to preserve the material’s resistance to corrosion.

Laser etching is completely different from other etching methods like chemical etching, a chemical process that uses strong acids to cut into parts, and intaglio etching, where designs are incised into metal plates to be used for printmaking.

Read more on the subject: How Does Laser Etching Work?

What Is Laser Engraving?

The laser engraving process creates deep markings in parts by vaporizing their surface into dust. The engraving depth requires longer marking times than laser etching but provides unmatched readability rates after surface treatments like shotblasting and e-coating.

Engraving materials requires a powerful and high-heat laser process. Here’s how it works:

  1. The laser beam, which is divided into pulses, hits the surface.
  2. Its energy is absorbed by the material and converted into heat.
  3. Because pulses are more concentrated than laser etching, the energy intensity is high enough to dig inside the material.
  4. The roughness at the bottom of crevices is altered to absorb light, creating black areas.



Fiber laser engravers are mostly used to engrave metals and are less common with organic materials. The carbon-based nature of organic materials might also represent a limitation, as they could catch fire at high energy levels.

Read more on the subject: How Does Laser Engraving Work?

Do You Need a Laser Machine?

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Find out what you need for your metal: Metal Engraving and Marking With Fiber Laser Machines (for aluminum, steel, stainless steel, anodized aluminum, magnesium, lead, and other metals.)

What Are the Other Laser Marking Processes?

All laser marking processes can be used for the same purpose: to implement product traceability by creating high-contrast, permanent markings including data matrix codes, barcodes, and serial numbers.

Engraving and etching are the most widely used laser processes, but annealing and ablation are two other interesting processes that offer different possibilities.

Laser Annealing

Laser annealing heats the material surface, causing a chemical change under the surface. This process can be used with ferrous metals, including steel, stainless steel, chrome, and titanium.



Laser Ablation

Laser ablation, also known as laser cleaning, is the process of removing paint (or other coatings) from the surface of the material. As the coating is vaporized, the underlying material is left intact. For example, it’s possible to mark identifiers by removing paint.




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