Visit to Low Cost Hybrid Laser Marker Suppliers in China

In March, my wife and I made a tip to Guangzhou, China to visit FocusLaser, the supplier of the hardware and laser components of Jimani’s Low Cost Hybrid Fiber Laser Marking System. The laser module, scanhead, optical and workstation components of that system are supplied by FocusLaser in Guangzhou. Jimani adds the computer, control board and software to those components in order to turn them into a complete laser marking system. I was interested in getting a firsthand look and the company that we are doing business with.

low-cost-fiber-laser-marking-system.jpgThere are dozens of galvo driven (steered beam) fiber laser marking system integrators in China. There are at least 5 in close proximity to FocusLaser in Guangzhou alone. What all of them have in common is that they purchase the core components of a marking system (laser, scanhead, lens, workstation, software, control electronics) from the same vendors and then integrate those components into a functional marking system. Most of the systems from the various integrators look remarkably similar and perform in a similar fashion.

The Chinese integrators have a larger selection of domestically manufactured major components such as laser modules, scanheads and optics than is available in the US. The laser modules have similar, if not identical, form factors and interfaces to that of IPG and Nufern fiber laser modules and Chinese made scanheads seem to have used Scanlab scanheads as their model.

There is also a range of quality and performance capability of these components and that becomes evident if one just researches the wide range of fiber laser marking system prices from the various Chinese integrators. In many cases, this all seems to be a race to the bottom with the lowest priced system winning the race. The various integrators will add their own special features to their own products in an effort to achieve product differentiation from their competitors. In some instances, these features have usefulness but in other cases, they just add complexity to the system.

I think that it is important to realize that the US and Europe are not the primary market for the Chinese made fiber laser marking systems. The vast majority of their sales are within China. US distributors of those systems have very little influence over the design. The influence comes from China. In my initial investigation of a Chinese made marker some years ago, I complained to the integrator about the bugginess of the EZ Cad software that most of the Chinese systems use. I was told the following:

“In China, if a software program has bugs and crashes, the user simply avoids using the features and functions that cause the crash. In the US, if a software program has bugs and crashes, the user expects it to get fixed.”

That statement alone spoke volumes about what I could expect if I simply imported and resold complete systems from China.

Ryan Wang is the owner of FocusLaser. I have known Ryan for several years and dealt with him during my first, unsuccessful investigation of Chinese made fiber laser marking systems when he was acting as Sales Manager for a different laser system integrator in China. When Ryan left that company and started FocusLaser, he contacted me and we began a discussion about a lower cost fiber laser marking system that I would feel comfortable offering for sale in the US. My interest was in a system that could take advantage of some of the lower cost major components from China but still have a reliable control and marking software platform that was in English and could be supported by Jimani. The result of those discussions was the development of the Low Cost Hybrid Fiber Laser Marking System that is offered for sale by Jimani. After selling a handful of these systems and becoming comfortable with the product, I wanted to take my relationship with Ryan and FocusLaser to another level.

FocusLaser is a relatively small fiber laser marking system integrator in Guangzhou, China. They produce about 250 fiber laser marking systems a year. There is almost no actual manufacturing inside of the Focus Laser facility. Major components arrive there from various vendors and FocusLaser techs and engineers integrate those components into complete systems. The facility is clean, well organized and seems to have a steady flow of product passing through. Systems that are made for Jimani are wired differently than systems for other customers. FocusLaser tests them using a Scanlab RTC 4 board and Leopardmark software to ensure functionality. Before shipping to Jimani, the RTC 4 board and computer with Leopardmark are removed and those things are added back in when the system arrives at Jimani. The system wiring, computer, RTC board and Leopardmark are the things that make our system a “hybrid”….It has Chinese made laser and beam delivery hardware but a control and software front end that are added at Jimani. FocusLaser offered, and we considered having everything added to the system in China but we discovered that the price of an RTC control board in China is about double what we pay here in the US. It just makes more sense for us to finish the system at Jimani since we must do final testing, configuration and calibration anyway.

I was very impressed with FocusLaser’s willingness to respond to any small modifications that we asked for such as wire routing, cable lengths, Z axis measurement ruler in inches instead of millimeters. I believe that we have a good partner and they are anxious to build a system that looks good and performs well. I also discovered that FocusLaser is only one of a handful of Chinese integrators that have asked for and received an onsite CDRH inspection in order to comply with US certifications. CDRH (Center of Devices for Radiological Health) is the US government agency that dictates the configuration of laser systems that are introduced into commerce in the US.

It appears as though Chinese manufacturers offer a wider selection of domestic fiber lasers suitable for laser marking than we have in the US. After sampling laser sources from a few different Chinese manufacturers, we have settled in on JPT as the sole source for laser modules that will come to us from FocusLaser for our Hybrid Marker. JPT manufactures both fixed and variable pulse width MOPA type lasers. The JPT factory in Shenzhen was one of the places that we visited.

We were given a tour of the JPT facility by Marvin Liu who is JPT’s Technical Manager. JPT has been in the fiber laser manufacturing business for about 8 years. Over a beer at lunch, Marvin told us that JPT sold about 10,000 lasers in 2016 and he estimated that the domestic market in China for fiber lasers is about 50,000 lasers per year.

Although we were not allowed to visit every area within JPT, we were able to see a high volume of lasers in process on their manufacturing line. We also visited an area where 10 or so lasers of various models were doing nothing except performing application studies of different materials. The laser repair facility was loaded with lasers from different manufacturers that had been sent to JPT for repair. The company claims to offer repair services for IPG, Nufern, SPI and Quantel fiber lasers as well as for all Chinese made lasers. Their literature states that they are able to perform most repairs in 1-3 working days. That sounds pretty impressive if one is willing to send their laser to China.

My personal experience with JPT lasers that have been delivered to us in our low cost systems has been very good. We have not had any issues whatsoever with their lasers. Although I have not had to experience it, it will be interesting to see how things go when I do finally have a JPT laser failure and have to return it for repair.

We also visited GalvoTech in Shenzhen. GalvoTech was one of the first, if not the first, scanhead manufacturer in China. They manufacture the scanhead for our Low Cost Hybrid Marker. The scanhead that we receive from them looks remarkably like a Scanlab Scancube scanhead although GalvoTech calls theirs a Scanbox. Based on our experience, I don’t believe that the Scanbox has the same blazing performance as the Scancube, but, very few, if any, applications that we sell in to require that blazing performance. Although GalvoTech does overnight burn ins and performance testing on all of their scanheads, we still find that there is some fine tuning that we need to do here at Jimani in order to make both scanner axes look identical. I brought this up to the engineers at GalvoTech and they seemed puzzled that we had to go through those fine tuning steps.

The GalvoTech facility was clean and well organized. Critical operations are done in a genuine clean room (I don’t know which class). We were required to wear disposable gowns and booties to enter any of the production areas and we were only allowed to view clean room operations through the windows. They answered any questions that we had. They spoke highly of Scanlab products and were proud of the fact that their Scanbox identically resembles a Scanlab Scancube. Their digital scanheads support both an XY2-100 interface and the newer SL2-100 interface. Nothing about our visit made me uncomfortable about using their scanheads in our low cost marker and, so far, performance of their products in delivered systems has been fine.

We also visited one of the shops in Shenzhen that FocusLaser uses to manufacture workstations for their systems. This was more typical of the “sweat shop” type environment that I expected to see but I can also say the same thing about US metal fabrication shops that I have visited. The shop was relatively small and filled with machines stamping, bending and drilling parts. There were many different models of workstations in process and I was told that they make workstations for many different integrators.

We finished the trip by taking a few days off and visiting Xian with Ryan and his charming wife, Millie. Both of them speak English very well and, since neither of them had ever been to Xian, we were able to see the local attractions from a Chinese tourist point of view.

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