Laser and packaging: the main applications

A group of people in a studio discussing different design solutions

Laser material processing started a revolution in the industrial world. It has brought quantitative improvements such as an increase in production speed, and qualitative ones, such as the possibility of creating customized products with high added value, even on a small scale.

The packaging sector immediately understood that the use of laser could offer endless possibilities for innovation. Packaging is a fundamental aspect of most manufacturing sectors and laser technology is taking a strong foothold in this growing market. Laser reinforces and improves the characteristics of packaging materials, helping them perform their desired function even better.

Packaging in itself performs a wide range of functions:

  • First of all, it has a protective function. Packaging must protect the product from external agents. In the case of food, it prevents deterioration and guarantees the product’s integrity
  • Secondly, it has an aesthetic function. Packaging must convince the consumer to choose a specific product on a supermarket shelf. In a world increasingly rich in consumer goods, packaging can sometimes be a product’s only distinctive factor
  • Thirdly, it has an informative function. Important information such as ingredients, expiry date, production lot or barcode must be visible on the product.
  • Last, but not least, it has a practical function. Packaging must make the product easy to handle and use. Thanks to laser cutting, packaging can be designed in such a way as to facilitate the use of the product itself. Easy to open packaging such as food bags or easy cutting ones such as yoghurt pots are two examples of this type of packaging.

Functional and fast packaging with innovative technology is now easier than ever with laser technology.

Why process packaging with laser?

Laser-based manufacturing is extremely flexible and give the possibility to experiment on a great variety of applications. Laser, and in particular CO2 laser, achieves its maximum levels of efficiency when it processes the most commonly used packaging materials such as:

  • paper and cardboard: used to produce boxes and packaging, these materials can be cut, marked and perforated. The producers can thus create boxes with original shapes that can bring out the abstract qualities of the product
  • wood and derivatives (for example MDF) are used to create innovative packaging. Food crates to transport produce are but one example
  • plastics and derivative: thermoplastic film polymers such as polypropylene, polyethylene and PET are among the most used materials for packaging. Plastic film can be adapted to the most diverse needs through cutting, marking or drilling processes. Food safe plastics benefit greatly from these applications. For example, containers can be perforated, to regulate the passage of air or to create filtering systems, but also be cut into complex shapes. Other applications in this sector include the cutting of plastic films used to make various types of packaging, including aluminised plastic films

Laser technology is also a great asset for the packaging sector because of the possibilities offered by automation. The benefits of a fully digitized and automated manufacturing process are significant. The automated process reduces the possibility of errors, allows changes to easily be made in real time, guarantees extremely uniform results while having standard and repeatable characteristics.

For example, imagine being a manufacturer of plastic parts for the automotive industry. A digital manufacturing workflow would allow you to automatically use laser to engrave a production batch number on a piece’s packaging, centralize this information in a database, as well as have a system that allows you to trace all the logistics, from the production to the end customer. Should there be a defect or a malfunctioning piece, the production batch (or any other information) could easily be looked up directly in the database.

Laser processing in the packaging sector

Many of the advantages derived from laser processing are due to the fact that laser is a no-contact technology. The laser beam is used as an energy source that gets concentrated on a specific area in order to perform an application. Here are some of the main applications laser systems can perform.

Laser cut

In laser cutting, the beam vaporizes a portion of material according to a defined path. The final quality of the cut depends on the material. CO2 laser cut creates extremely clean edges on most materials. The final piece does not need further finishing and is ready for use.

Laser cutting can be used to cut windows and openings on a package, to create details such as tear openings, easy-to-open tabs, filtering systems, to cut pieces of packages for later assembly.

Laser marking and engraving

Laser marking and engraving use laser to imprint a mark on a material. The two processes are very similar.

We speak of laser marking when the transformation of the material occurs only superficially. In the case of laser engraving, there is a deeper transformation of the material.

In the first case the sign, even if indelible, results in a discoloration of the material. In the second case the sign is much deeper and it is also possible to obtain a tactile sensation on the incision.

Manufacturers mostly use laser marking and engraving on packaging. Laser allows them to permanently engrave their logo in remarkable detail. Expiration dates or production batches can be applied on the packaging, taking advantage of the automation capabilities offered by laser systems.

Perforation and laser microperforation

Drilling machines use laser to create holes on a material. Typically the holes are made on sheets or slabs of material. Finished pieces can also be perforated.

The holes can have different dimensions. Indeed, the possibility of varying the size of the perforations in order to adapt them to a specific purpose, is the true advantage of laser perforation.

The term laser microperforation is used when the holes have microscopic dimensions. Laser perforation and microperforation have numerous applications in the packaging sector.

Laser perforation can be used to create filters and other features on the packaging, such as the creation of perspiration holes for food trays.

Laser microperforation can be used to create breathable packaging (such as modified atmosphere packaging). In this case, microperforation can be used to calibrate the packaging to the product and increase its shelf life. The processing of flexible plastic films takes great advantage of this application which allows you to create wraps capable of significantly extending the life of the product.

A sector in constant evolution

Laser technology makes it is possible to decide on a desired result and calibrate the process on it. Many laser applications have not yet been tested which means there is a whole world of opportunities to explore. The tailor made application that could bring numerous advantages to your production system could be just around the corner.

Here at El.En., we have experimented with thousands of laser applications for packaging over more than 35 years. If you work in this sector and are looking for your next personalized application, contact us and let us know what you need. We will be happy to help you build the ideal solution for your application!