Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Hello, Laser Cutter!

In Hardware, News on Sep 17, 2012 at 00:01

Yep, it has finally happened… it all started in July, when I got this (without the electronics board) and this (called the LaOS board).

The laser arrived like this:


This summer, a couple of early adopters in the Netherlands got together to figure out all the pesky little details that come up when you’re really just in pioneering mode. Make no mistake: this thing is far from ready for mainstream use. The laser itself is quite nice and ready to go, and definitely workable as far as all the mechanics go. But the electronics and software are still work-in-progress (I’m using the VisiCut software – which includes a driver that talks directly to the laser’s firmware over Ethernet).

Nevertheless – early as it may be, the total cost is less than €1,500 and you end up with an A4-sized laserable workspace which can cut up to 5 mm wood panels and 6 mm acrylic (engraving is more involved, but getting there). One of the first things we tried was this:

Image 1

Sure enough, the circle is a snug fit and turns perfectly. Excellent alignment!

I’ll describe a few more details of this setup in the coming weblog posts, but also want to point out that you too can end up with such a laser cutter (just make sure to arrange for ventilation – you’ll quickly get very tired of the burning smell and fumes).

There’s a project by the designers of the replacement electronics, called LaOS (Laser Open Source) – and it’s definitely the best place to go right now if you want to find out what’s going on. Warning: the site is currently undergoing a messy transition to a new wiki – I’ve helped out a bit and am sure they’d love to see more people join in the effort of making this thing more practical for the non-hacker crowd.

One little gotcha: these 35 W laser cutters are produced in China and then tested/resold by a company in the UK, and they are really large and heavy. Having one shipped from the UK to you is fairly expensive, because of the delicate glass laser tube (several hundred Euro, most likely). We got around that by getting organised and doing a “group buy”, with one person actually volunteering to go to the UK, load his car up with a bunch of laser cutters, and driving back (!). Still pricey, but less so, and I think the UK vendor is in fact willing to make arrangements when enough units are being purchased and shipped at the same time. Anyway – it’s an aspect to keep in mind.

But oy, oy, oy, this personal fabbing is fun :)

  1. I’m wondering, can this thing cut aluminium sheets? (to make front panels etc)

  2. Nice demo of the laser cutter! If you want to cut metal, you can use a plasma cutter. Many of the home-built ones are manual, but it could also be a CNC tool. Here’s one simple example:

  3. “engraving is more involved” …why? I assume you turn down the laser power, and/or speed up the rate of travel of the beam(?) Is it possible to modulate laser power (eg. PWM) ?

    • Yes, PWM is possible but not yet accurate/robust. Ideally you want to be able to mix cutting and engraving, which needs a well-functioning PWM. The other issue being worked on is that engraving requires sending bitmaps, which the protocol needs to support. It’s all there, but work-in-progress. There’s also a CUPS-based driver underway, which could make it easier to drive this things from anywhere, like a network printer, basically.

    • Can you PWM a laser tube? My last experience with one was a helium-neon red (of far lower power!) from many years ago which required a great capacitor ladder to step up the 240v mains to over 3KV to get the tube to initially strike, and then provide a running voltage of approx 1.5KV. I did have some fun with that before the 3KV proved too much for the circuit board insulation and it became converted to far more conductive carbon. I really should rebuild it, it’ll drive the cat mental.

  4. Useful tool for the armoury. Odd image though of the Laser Pirates boarding the great ship U.K. and dragging home a trunk full of spoils…

    (All strictly legal of course since the Excise Boys have already taken their cut of VAT)

    • I think they could have claimed their 20% back at the border, and then paid their 19% back home (or anywhere else in between that offered a better deal!).

  5. Wow JCW, I’m jealous! I’ve been looking at laser cutters for over a year now, but never bought one (yet).

    I’m really looking forward to the follow-up posts on the cutter!

    Enjoy your new toy!


  6. Okay, I’m weakening by the second… But I have some questions…

    Re the cutting depth. Could you not do two passes to double the depth, or is the focal distance too close to the end of the lens tip to allow you to focus on the surface on the second pass?

    Also, is the cutter cheaper without the board, and is this a normal buyer option? I can’t see any options on the website.

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