I’ve been approached by Chinese fiber laser system manufacturers a few times over the last 3 years or so. They wanted to know if I was interested in reselling their systems in the US. When I asked why they were coming to me, the answer was that we had a pretty good reputation for system support and this was the area where they were sorely lacking. It seems as though most resellers and distributors of Chinese made fiber laser markers might as well have been selling knock off phones or watches and knew nothing about the technology and could care less about support once the sale was made.
I was interested because I get a number of sales inquiries from first time buyers who know nothing about fiber laser markers but are interested in having a system. They generally do their homework on the internet and ultimately conclude that the price of those inexpensive Chinese made systems is what the technology should sell for. I really didn’t have anything to sell them at that price and the only time I would hear back from them was several months later when they would sheepishly ask for help getting their low cost system to work. I knew that there was a market for the inexpensive systems but I didn’t know much about them. So I replied to the Chinese company that had approached me that I would let them drop a system off at Jimani.
When the Chinese system arrived, I quickly concluded that, although it looked very nice on the outside, it was poorly designed and built and the software was just awful. If seems as though all of the Chinese manufacturers use something called EZ Cad marking software. EZ Cad has great specs but can’t meet them in performance. In a word, it is crap software. I told my Chinese contact that I wasn’t interested. I wasn’t going to sell something that I couldn’t support and I couldn’t possibly support EZ Cad.
A few years later, I was contacted again by my Chinese friend. He wanted to drop off another system at Jimani so that I could see how much things had improved. By this time the Chinese systems were no longer using imported fiber laser modules or scanheads, they were using Chinese made components. I agreed to let them send me another system.
The Chinese made major components (fiber laser module and scanhead) in the newest system worked surprisingly well. I had no problems whatsoever with them. But guess what still sucked……the software! I was left with the same opinion as I had on the first one. There was no way that I was going to sell this configuration because the software didn’t work well and was unsupportable.
About 6 months after that, my Chinese friend contacted me once again. He told me that he had made an investment in a Chinese fiber laser manufacturing company, Focused Laser, and he was now a partner with some control and say so over the product. He asked me candidly what I thought it would take to sell Chinese made systems in the US. My answer was that he needed to build a system using the low cost major components from China but invest in a GOOD laser marking software package, a GOOD control board and then build a system that ran on a LEGAL copy of Windows. He asked me if I would help him out with software and a control board if he was willing to integrate those things into a system.
He and I had become pretty friendly over the years. He made several trips to the US and we got to know him pretty well. He even had a date or two with my sister-in-law. I had developed some level of trust and confidence in him and so I was willing to gamble a bit.
I sent him a Scanlab RTC4 control board, all of the cabling necessary to connect to the fiber laser module, drawings of how he needed to connect things and a copy of Leopardmark software. So what is Leopardmark software? Leopardmark is a modified version of the last release of Prolase 7 Plus Laser Marking Software from American Laserware. The file names are different and a few features are missing. Leopardmark was actually created to compete with the infamous EZ Cad software that I have been complaining about. Leopardmark never caught on in China because it still cost more than $1.98 and the Chinese focus has been on price, not on functionality, apparently. Leopardmark is only sold through distributors and IS NOT supported by American Laserware. If the distributor that sells it doesn’t know it well then the buyer is just screwed. Fortunately, we understand Prolase extremely well and Leopardmark is just a different flavor of Prolase.
After several months and a handful of Team Viewer sessions and phone calls, my guy in China finished the system. It arrived today. He sent it without a computer but included my RTC board, cables and Leopardmark security dongle. I configured a new Win 7 Pro 64 bit computer for an RTC board and Leopardmark and hooked things up. By the time I left Jimani this evening, I had gone through all of the same calibration and configuration steps that we go through with a new Langolier. Everything is working as advertised. I left the system on to do an overnight burn in and will do the same for the next several days and nights. I am already very comfortable with their interface to Leopardmark and I’m right at home with the software. The hardware is nice and well put together. My gut feeling is that this is going to be a success in the low budget, first time user market. Although I don’t have all of the numbers, I suspect that we will end up in the $12K-$13K price range. I think that we might have a winner. Stay tuned.
A week has gone by and we now have some experience with the system.
The system has been running and marking pretty much non-stop for the week that we’ve had it, including continuous unattended marking overnight. I have found a few minor flaws such as a mis-wired footswitch. I sent photos and a correct wiring configuration and I have been assured by Focused Laser that it won’t happen again. I’m going to build a different computer with a smaller chassis to run the system because our standard Langolier server chassis computer is a bit too large to fit comfortably in the space provided. The adjustments that I have had to make are minor. Any of my marker operators, who have never touched the system, could sit down at it and set up marking jobs easily because the key to it all is the software and Leopardmark looks almost exactly like the Prolase software that they are used to.
Another week has passed. We built a new computer with a slightly small chassis and it fits nicely in the computer compartment on the workstation. I’ve had a few different operators here at Jimani hop on the system and they are immediately comfortable with it. One of the differences between Leopardmark and Prolase is the laser job file extension. The Prolase job file extension is a .laz and Leopardmark job file extension is a .jb1.
As enthused as I am about this low cost fiber laser system, I want to be brutally candid and emphasize that it does not contain the same high end components that are in one of our Langolier marking systems. I keep hearing that goods from China are so inexpensive because of the cheap labor there. A system like this does not have much of a labor content. The materials and engineering are not of the same quality as well made US systems. I don’t believe for a second that it will have the same longevity as our Langolier family of products. Having said that, it is great value for the money and a perfect tool to let a new user “get his feet wet” at an affordable price. It is a system that I would not be reluctant to sell or worry about providing some level of support for. We’ve settled in at a price of $12,500 for this system with a 20 watt fiber laser and a 4.5 inch square marking field. The equipment will ship to Jimani from China and we will add the computer, RTC board and Leopardmark software. We’ll also do all of the system configuration and calibration and then do an overnight burn in. When systems ship from Jimani, they will be ready to mark as soon as they are removed from the shipping pallet and plugged into a 115VAC power source. I’ve been informed by Focused Laser in China that 30 and 50 watt laser sources are also available as well as a 7 inch square marking field.
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