Photo Etching

A low-cost alternative to traditional machining methods that is ideal for simple or complex designs

What Is Photo Etching? What Are The Photo Etching Benefits For Thin Metal Parts?

Photo Etching Benefits

Photo etching is a precision manufacturing process for thin metal parts with simple or complex designs.  In 2019, photo etching is the most popular industry term for the subtractive method, also known as chemical etching. The process is a multi-step operation using photo-sensitive material to transfer part images onto metal sheets before a chemical etchant dissolves the unwanted sections, leaving only the desired part dimensions.  

Other terms for photo etching are metal etching, photochemical machining,  and chemical milling.

The benefits of photo etching for thin metal parts are precision edges with low tolerances.  The chemical metal etching process leaves a smooth even surface that is free of burrs, pits and stress deformations.  Other attractive features of the etching process are speed and low-cost for parts with intricate features and complex designs.

To learn more about how the photo etching process achieves precision with a variety of metals and design features...READ MORE

What are the Photo Etching Benefits Compared To Other Manufacturing Processes?

The main benefit of chemical etching compared to other methods is that it is more cost-effective for parts with complex designs or numerous features. Parts with many small apertures such as slots and holes can be etched simultaneously. For instance, components such as filters, screenssieves and lead frames will not require additional time or cost to etch than step lids or washers or shims. Each hole or slot will cost the same to metal etch whether it is one or a thousand! This benefit makes photo chemical etching a great cost-effective alternative as well as a faster process for larger volume runs than other machining methods.

  • Laser Cutting - Can leave micro burrs on the surface as the metal is blasted away from the point of heat contact. In addition, it is possible to have thermal stress along the edges.  Photo etching - burr-free without stress deformations, metal properties unaltered, less expensive for large production of complex parts than laser cutting.
  • Stamping - Can leave partial burring and stress deformations from the hard tooling.  Because the tooling takes weeks to create, there are longer lead times.  Not suitable for soft or brittle metals.  Photo etching - burr-free, no stress deformations, more suitable for soft, thinner metals and can hold tighter tolerances.   Inexpensive tooling that is faster to create and easily modifiable for design changes compared to stamping.
  • Wire EDM - Can leave micro burrs because there is a point of contact from the electrical discharge to the metal surface.  Therefore, like laser cutting, there can be metal deformation and thermal stress. Wire EDM capabilities do not include conductive metals.  Photo etching - No burring, metal deformation or thermal stress. Can etch conductive metals.
  • Water Jet Cutting - This process can also leave micro burrs and some stress on the edges.  Photo etching - No burrs or stress deformations, and a less expensive option for high volume complex parts with numerous features than water jet cutting.

Metal Photo Etching Advantages

Here are some of the advantages chemical etching has over other manufacturing methods:
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Low-Cost Tooling

Tooling is easy to modify and can be produced within hours.

Low Tolerances

AME can photo etch many types of metals while maintaining tolerances

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Quick Prototyping

Quick turnaround on short runs. Compound tooling combines more than one prototype with the same material.

Stress and Burr-Free

Eliminate costly deburring methods. There is no tooling wear and no metal stress in the finished photo etched part.

Intact Metal Properties

Hardness, grain structure, and ductility remain unaltered

Complex Designs

Manufactured quickly and cost-efficiently with large volume production runs.

Get Started With Advanced Metal Etching

Photo etching techniques

Since the metal etching process is controlled by speed, the etching depth and tolerances can be regulated by the amount of time the metal remains in the etchant depending on the metal thickness.  This control allows us to achieve the lowest tolerance possible. For more specific tolerance information, see our Techincal Guidelines page.

Chemical etching capabilities include chemical machining on both sides of the metal which is perfect for logos, serial numbers, or decorative designs.  Half-etch score lines on parts such as EMI and RFI board shielding make it easier to manually form parts made from thinner metals eliminating the physical stress from machine forming.  Another application of half-etching is the fluidic channel design used to carry liquid and gases on fuel-cell plates and heat exchanger plates.

Photo Etching Complex Designs
Photo Etching
photo etching complex designs

The chemical etching advantages are numerous and cost-effective for many industrial applications from quick prototyping to full production.  Design engineers should consider photo etching in the Design For Manufacturing (DFM) process.

What Are the Applications of Photo Chemical Etching?

Since 1993, we have manufactured a large variety of photo etched parts for many different industries. Therefore, we are familiar with your design challenges, material selection and how to achieve the closest tolerances with precision.

  • Actuator Springs
  • Antennas Battery Tabs / Tags / Contacts
  • Board Level Shielding (BLS)
  • Brackets & Washers
  • Circuit Board Stiffeners
  • Contacts
  • Diaphragms
  • Electrical Connectors
  • EMI / RFI Shielding
  • Encoder Disks
  • Filters, Screens & Sieves
  • Flat Springs & Lead Frames
  • Grills, Grids, Sieves & Meshes
  • Shims & Spacers

What type of metals can be chemically etched?

Our metal etching capabilities accommodate many types of metal alloys required for all types of thin industrial components. We have a variety of metals. Some of the more common metals are listed below.

    • aluminum
    • stainless steel
    • cold rolled steel
    • copper
    • beryllium copper
    • brass
    • phosphorous bronze
    • alloy 42
    • nickel
    • nickel silver
    • Kovar
    • Inconel
    • Invar
    • Molybdenum

General FAQs

What is Photo Etching?

Photo etching, also known as chemical etching, photo chemical etching, and photochemical machining,  is a high-precision, fast turnaround manufacturing process for the production of thin metal parts. In the process, a chemical etchant simultaneously dissolves the unwanted metal areas of parts, leaving only the desired dimensions.  

What are the benefits of photo etching?

Some of the benefits of chemical etching are low-cost digital tooling, and photo etched parts that are stress and burr-free without altered metal properties. Photo etching is ideal for parts with complex designs as it is more cost-effective than other manufacturing processes.

What the applications of photo etching?

The photochemical machining process can produce many types of industrial components that belong to electrical/electronic and mechanical systems in the electronic, R/F microwave, automobile, aerospace, medical, and military industries.  Some common parts include shims, contacts, connectors, EMI/RFI shielding, lead frames, flat springs, encoder disks, screen, sieves, meshes, fuel cell plates.

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