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Etching and Engraving

Despite advances in technology, the methods of engraving and etching have not changed very much. Summer Brooks finds out its key growth areas and how to get involved

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The methods are centuries old, but where are businesses making money in etching and engraving now?

Scratching the surface

Traditionally, iron and copper plates were used for etching whereby designs or messages are incised by acid. From the 14th century, etching was used for decorating metal but by the 16th century, it was used for printmaking. Engraving was also used as a method of decorating objects until the 1430s in Germany, when it began to be used for making prints. Nowadays, the methods are used commercially for personalising items as the technology expands, from jewellery and trophies to vases and knives. 

The Arden Group of companies started its journey more than 50 years ago, when the Poynter brothers launched a die-making business in Stockport, Greater Manchester. Still maintaining its family ownership, the group launched Arden Engraving in 1999 allowing them to offer embossing or hot foil stamping to customers alongside their cutting and creasing package. The group is now made up of Arden Dies, Arden Software and Arden Engraving and today, the company has operations in Germany and the U.S, manufacturing tools and dies for the carton and label sectors.

Arden Engraving manufactures tools and dies for the carton and label sectors

Julian Homer, production manager at Arden Engraving, says that the move into engraving proved wise for the company as it has spent the last two decades supplying embossing and foiling tools to carton manufacturers around the world. “Drawing upon our wealth of experience in the carton sector, Arden Engraving recently expanded into the label market – offering advanced rotary and flatbed tooling solutions to some of the world’s largest label manufacturers,” says Homer.

He says that packaging is proving to be a considerable growth area across the board, with high quality finishes and effects in high demand. “There is a real demand for fine detail and unique effects on packaging, which is driving the market currently,” he says. “Image and brand are crucial in today’s world, so companies are keen to ensure their product stands out on the shelf by investing more in design and marketing.

“The demand for quality, combined with a quick turnaround is also increasing as society has adopted a culture of immediacy. We are finding that job complexity is also increasing, as the packaging market utilises advances in technology, such as developments in foiling and embossing, to enhance their products. The demand for sustainable packaging is also increasing as society moves away from plastics and embraces more sustainable and environmentally friendly options.”

Housing more than 25 CNC machines of various capabilities, capacities and functions at its site, Arden has served both the rotary and flatbed embossing and foiling markets. “With a continued desire to invest in the future of the business, Arden Engraving has built on our portfolio of machinery to include new CNC engraving centres to increase capacity to become the largest facility of its type in the UK,” adds Homer.

Expansion

Arden also introduced an engraving production facility in Charlotte, US, in 2012, and in 2015, the firm introduced a laser engraving facility. “[It’s] capable of producing the finest detail engraving where CNC or the chemical etching process cannot provide the necessary depth to achieve perfect reversed out results, as well as incredibly small text and other delicate detail – it’s ideal for the label industry which was to be the next route of our expansion,” adds Homer.

Having been in the engraving business for more than two decades, Arden has witnessed and embraced changes over the years. “As a family-owned company, our workforce is one of our biggest strengths and we’re proud to say that a lot of employees have been with us from the beginning, many of whom remember the days of hand engraving and early etching methods,” he says.

Royston Labels created a lenticular refraction effect with these foiled labels using a single die from Arden 

“Thanks to the advancements in CNC machining technologies, these old-style chemical-etching processes are being phased out within the industry, due to the dangerous nature of working with chemicals,” Homer continues. “All of our engraving is now produced using CNC machining and we use advanced technology, such as laser engraving, to produce exceptionally fine details, which is demanded by the luxury packaging markets.

“The packaging sector has seen a real surge in demand for embossing, as brands compete for their share of the market and view the packaging as a crucial part of the product to drive sales,” adds Homer. “Engraving can help bring packaging to life, and the additional detail, textures, raised text and effects add a real sense of luxury to a product. Foil finishes in particular can be used to highlight details and help evoke that sense of prestige and luxury that brands need to achieve in a competitive market.”

Mind the lasers


Trotec specialises in manufacturing laser cutting, marking and engraving systems. Bryan Jater, national sales manager at the firm, says that using laser technology has allowed businesses to move into offering the service. “Engraving has mainly evolved due to the range of different production methods available,” Jater comments. “Everything from rotary engraving machines to manual hand engraving tools are used within the industry. With the introduction of laser technology, many companies have been able to expand into other markets and improve their service offering. Advancements in technology have also reduced errors in processing, with many computerised engraving methods minimising operator error. These advancements have also led to improved productivity thanks to lasers being much faster than traditional engraving methods, fewer workflow steps, reduced cleaning requirements for materials and easier maintenance of the technologies ensuring that production time is maximised, and maintenance costs are kept to a minimum.”


Laser systems from Trotec allow for a wider range of materials to be cut or engraved into
 


Jater continues: “With the wide range of engraving equipment available on the market, many companies have either replaced traditional engraving methods with newer technologies or have integrated multiple technologies into their workflow. One of Trotec’s customers used to use a manual engraver for processing labels and has recently switched to laser for mass producing these at a much faster rate.”

The manufacturer offers laser cutting and engraving machines in a range of sizes using either CO2, fibre or dual source laser options. Having built its first laser in Austria in 1996, the firm has grown its portfolio to suit a number of engraving and cutting applications. “The signage, display and print sector is constantly changing and evolving,” Jater adds. “In an ever-competitive industry, companies are having to find new and innovative ways to give themselves a competitive advantage, whilst delivering outstanding results for their clients. There is also an increased demand for bespoke solutions, with clients expecting fast turnaround at short notice.”


The scope for sign and display businesses to expand into offering an etching and engraving service is vast

Jater says that by opting for a laser solution, sign and display businesses can easily bring this service in-house. “The scope for sign and display businesses to expand into offering an etching and engraving service is vast,” he adds. “By bringing laser technology in-house, companies can not only expand their service offering, they can also reduce internal and outsourcing costs for increased productivity and cost savings.

Being able to laser cut acrylic letters with ease in-house could prove valuable for sign-makers 
 

“Since purchasing a Trotec laser, one of Trotec’s clients has been able to expand quickly, diversifying from solely processing wooden materials used for a range of applications, including wayfinding signage for county councils and national parks, to forming a sister company focused on creating gift and home products from wood offcuts and slate. Their Speedy laser works hard to generate revenue for both sides of the business effectively.”

In the other direction

Much of Gordon Engraving’s work includes creating trophies like this one for an awards ceremony
 

Gordon Engraving was first established in 1968 by John Gordon as a commercial engraving company which later moved into making signs. The business is now run by William Gunther who took over the business from his father Charles in 2009. The firm was acquired by the SEC Group (South East Coachworks), the UK’s largest bus and coach conversion company which also has its own sign-making business. Chris Bichard is the group chief executive officer and says that adding an engraving business to SEC has allowed the group to offer more of a full service to clients. “All markets can benefit from engraving and especially within our group,” he says. “For example, a local hospital required engraved tags for the X-ray machines, at the same time we quoted for the general signage whilst our parent company was building a new podiatry mobile unit.


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Factoid: The earliest known etching was created by Urs Graf in 1513..  O


“[This was] much the same as South East Coachworks converting a bus for a Carling Premiership experience, Gordon Engraving provided the Perspex display cabinets, with the bus wrap and interior and exterior graphics produced by SEC Signworks.”

Bichard adds that whilst many sign businesses may look to move into engraving, for Gordon Engraving it happened the other way around. “We have always engraved and etched – we moved into the sign business by default and requests.” The firm uses a mix of modern and classic equipment, with many of its machines dating back to the 1960s still in operation. “The market in manufacturing remains tough, even though we have the benefit of a group structure. We do still however enjoy an enviable customer base,” he concludes.


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