With the vast range of available engraving equipment on the market today, finding the right hardware is only half the battle. Given that most of today's equipment is open architecture, selecting the appropriate software may be the real challenge.
Third-party software refers to programs that are designed, engineered, marketed and sold independent of any particular hardware device. In fact, these programs will operate many different devices such as printers, plotters, routers and engravers.
Software is an area where you have a considerable amount of choice. Your choices may be based on issues such as ease of use, applications, system compatibility and cost. This is also an area where the engraving experts disagree, so it's worth taking a few minutes to address these choices in detail.
Ease of Use. Many engraving systems are supplied with a software package bundled with the hardware. Oftentimes this represents a better value than purchasing the hardware separate from the software. It also usually means compatibility between the hardware and software components. Since the equipment manufacturer wants you the buyer to be productive, they generally offer software that has all of the basic engraving features that most engraver operators require. This also means that the salesman more easily understands these programs and that your training time will probably be minimal. I consider this an advantage when getting started. Shortly after your equipment purchase you can be up to speed and generating revenue with your new system. These easier to use programs are often specially designed for production engraving or are at a minimum, a third-party program with a limited feature set making the learning curve much shorter.
If you have an extensive background in more graphics oriented software programs such as CorelDRAW™ you can take advantage of a significantly broader range of features available in third-party programs. This may allow you more creativity and flexibility in addressing the needs of your customers. The difference between these "production" and "graphics" oriented programs are sometimes subtle. I view most software programs designed for engraving as having high productivity tools with features such as auto-layout, multiples, columnizing, cutter suggestion etc. Graphics programs may have less of the traditional engraving features but offer features such as a raster-to-vector conversion, scanning, cut by color, engraving fills and digitizing. Again, these tend to be a bit more difficult to learn if you're just getting started.
Be honest about your needs and abilities. If you select the most feature rich program available but will only utilize or learn 50% of the program, you've probably purchased too much software for the job. If you have limited skills with computers and do not have the time or interest in learning software don't go overboard, pick the program that will answer your business needs 80% of the time.
Applications. One of the most significant features that separate traditional engraving software from a third-party package is the range of devices that may be driven from the software. Should you decide to operate a more "full service" engraving shop and offer other personalized products such as screen printed T-shirts, vinyl signage, sublimation services, laser engraving and color printing, then adding a graphics package may be the answer. This should be an important part of your decision making process. Remember that these packages help your business should you decide to expand to grow in another direction.
System Compatibility. One of the reasons that engraving equipment suppliers provide a bundled system is compatibility of the components. They know what works and what results they can expect from their hardware and software during operation. Anytime you decide to "mix and match" various hardware and software products you run the risk of incompatibility. If you like putting components together to get the best of all worlds that's ok. You need to recognize that when problems arise, suppliers may point a finger at the components they did not supply or specify as being the cause of the problem. Check with the equipment and software supplier regarding compatibility issues before you purchase. They may have experience with limitations and shortcomings of each product.
Third-party Software Costs. If you've recently purchased software for use in your home or business you will agree that the retail cost seems high in contrast to the cost of the box that the product comes packaged in. Most of the cost to reproduce the software is in the colorful wrapping. After a few million sales the developer usually has recovered his engineering cost and reproducing the program and advertising are his only major expenses. In our industry, the number of potential or actual sales is considerably less, maybe only in the hundreds or few thousands of units per year. This means that the developer must make an adequate profit not only to cover his cost today but if he plans to stay in the business for the long haul, he must cover the costs of future development and maintenance. When you look at the cost of third-party software and you wonder why it appears so expensive as compared to other programs sold commercially, remember that it is developed with a particular need and market in mind. You may expect to pay as little as a few hundred dollars for a basic package or thousands for a complete program. Oftentimes you may purchase parts of the program in modules. This gives you the ability to add features, as your business needs change.
In short, weigh your present needs and future plans, and look to software programs that can grow with you.
It may be worth pointing out that most engraving shops now have two significant software programs to operate their equipment. One provided by the hardware manufacturer and the other a third-party program to complement the first. Both programs have their place in the shop and doing a bit of homework before purchasing will allow you to get familiar with each product's strength.
Most industry created third-party software programs require the use of a software protection device known as a "dongle" or "key".
These keys usually attach to the USB or parallel port of your PC. Guard these keys well for they represent a significant replacement cost if lost or stolen and your software will not run without them.
For those customers requiring additional keys, many software developers will sell "site licenses" or "design only" packages that may be used at the same location or at another PC. Check with the manufacturer for details. The savings over purchasing a complete additional package for use on another system can be significant.