How to Fail at Laser Cutting

Laser cutters are CNC power tools, which means an operator uploads a job digitally and then pushes START to let the machine do all the work while they lie back in a hammock sipping a margarita, occasionally leaping out in a panic because the sound coming from the machine changed slightly.

Like other power tools, laser cutters are built around doing one thing very well, but they require an operator’s full attention and support. The operator needs to handle all the other things that go on before, during, and after the job. It’s not too hard to get adequate results, but to get truly professional and repeatable ones takes work and experience and an attention to detail.

People often focus on success stories, but learning from failures is much more educational. In the spirit of exploring that idea, here are my favorite ways to fail at laser cutting and engraving. Not all of these are my own personal experience, but they are all someone’s personal experience.

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Raspberry Pi Cluster Build Shows How and What

Raspberry Pi clusters are a dime a dozen these days. Well, maybe more like £250 for a five-Pi cluster. Anyway, this project is a bit different. It’s exquisitely documented.

[Nick Smith] built a 5-node Pi 3 cluster from scratch, laser-cutting his own acrylic case and tearing down a small network switch to include in the design. It is, he happily admits, a solution looking for a problem. [Smith] did an excellent job of documenting how he designed the case in CAD, prototyped it in wood, and how he put the final cluster together with eye-catching clear acrylic.

Of interest is that he even built his own clips to hold the sides of the case together and offers all of the files for anyone who wants to build their own. Head over to his page for the complete bill of materials (we didn’t know Pis were something you could order in 5-packs). And please, next time you work on a project follow [Nick’s] example of how to document it well, and how to show what did (and didn’t) work.

If 5 nodes just doesn’t do it for you, we suggest this 120-node screen-equipped monster, and another clear-acrylic masterpiece housing 40 Pis. This stuff really isn’t only for fun and games. Although it wasn’t Pi-based, here’s a talk at Hackaday Belgrade about an ARM-based SBC cluster built to crunch numbers for university researchers.

Custom Case Lends Retro Look to Smart TV

Refits of retro TVs and radios with the latest smart guts are a dime a dozen around Hackaday. And while a lot of these projects show a great deal of skill and respect for the original device, there’s something slightly sacrilegious about gutting an appliance that someone shelled out a huge portion of their paycheck to buy in the middle of the last century. That’s why this all-new retro-style case for a smart TV makes us smile.

GE 806 restored by Steve O'Bannon
1940s GE 806 restored by Steve O’Bannon

Another reason to smile is the attention to detail paid by [ThrowingChicken]. His inspiration came from a GE 806 TV from the 1940s, and while his build isn’t an exact replica, we think he captured the spirit of the original perfectly. From the curved top to the deep rectangular bezel, the details really make this a special build. One may quibble about not using brass for the grille like the original and going with oak rather than mahogany. In the end though, you need to work with the materials and tooling you have. Besides, we think the laser cut birch ply grille is pretty snazzy. Don’t forget the pressure-formed acrylic dome over the screen – here’s hoping that our recent piece on pressure-forming helped inspire that nice little touch.

This project was clearly a labor of love – witness the bloodshed after a tangle with a tablesaw while building the matching remote – and brought some life to an otherwise soulless chunk of mass-produced electronics.

[via r/DIY]

Converting Kids’ Hand-Drawings to G-Code

[Martin Raynsford] wrote a program that converts a black-and-white 2D image to G-code so that his laser printer could then etch the image. Not satisfied with just that, he used his laser printer to make a scanner that consists of a stand for his webcam and a tray below it for positioning the paper just right. The result was something he took to a recent Maker Faire where many kids drew pictures on paper which his system then scanned and laser etched.

Screenshot of Martin's scanning and G-code maker program
Martin’s scanning and G-code maker program

[Martin’s] program, written in C#, does the work of taking the image from the webcam using OpenGL and scanning it line by line looking for pixels that surpass a contrast threshold. For each suitable pixel the program then produces G-code that moves the laser to the corresponding coordinate and burns a hole. Looking at the source code (downloadable from his webpage) it’s clear from commented-out code that he did plenty of experimenting, including varying the laser burn time based on the pixel’s brightness.

While it’s a lot of fun writing this code as [Martin] did, after the break we talk about some off-the-shelf ways of accomplishing the same thing.

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Two-Sided Laser Etching

[Dan Royer] explains a simple method to engrave/etch on both sides of a material. This could be useful when you are trying to build enclosures or boxes which might need markings on both sides. There are two hurdles to overcome when doing this. The first is obviously registration. When you flip your job, you want it re-aligned at a known datum/reference point.

The other is your flip axis. If the object is too symmetric, it’s easy to make a mistake here, resulting in mirrored or rotated markings on the other side. Quite simply, [Dan]’s method consists of creating an additional cutting edge around your engraving/cutting job. This outline is such that it provides the required registration and helps flip the job along the desired axis.

You begin by taping down your work piece on the laser bed. Draw a symmetrical shape around the job you want to create in your Laser Cutter software of choice. The shape needs to have just one axis of symmetry – this rules out squares, rectangles or circles – all of which have multiple axes of symmetry. Adding a single small notch in any of these shapes does the trick. Engrave the back side. Then cut the “outside” outline. Lift the job out and flip it over. Engrave the front side. Cut the actual outline of your job and you’re done.

Obviously, doing all this requires some preparation in software. You need the back engrave layer, the front engrave layer, the job cut outline and the registration cut outline. Use color coded pen settings in a drawing to create these layers and the horizontal / vertical mirror or flip commands. These procedures aren’t groundbreaking, but they simplify and nearly automate a common procedure. If you have additional tricks for using laser cutters, chime in with your comments here.

MDF Omniwheel Uses No Metal or Plastic

What’s better than a caster? An omniwheel. These wheels are like a big wheel with little wheels at different angles that can roll in any direction. [Sonodera] built an omniwheel out of laser cut MDF. MDF–or Medium Density Fiberboard–makes up all the parts of the wheel. There’s no plastic or metal at all.

[Sonodera’s] wheel is more of a passive design like a caster. It would be possible to drive the wheel through the center in two directions, but the right-angle rollers are passive.

We’ve seen several robots with omniwheels before. In fact, this tripod-inspired robot also has passive rollers and the three-legged design takes advantage of them (the so-called Kiwi drive). Some schemes combine multi-directional wheels with conventional wheels (usually the standard wheels are in the center). There are other multi-directional wheel designs out there, including the Mecanum wheel. You can see a video of the MDF wheel in action, below.

Clearly the Best Way to Organize SMD Parts

Have some plexiglas (acrylic) leftovers lying around? Well, they could be put to good use in making this SMD organizer. It comes in handy if you deal with a lot of SMD components in your work. No longer will you waste your time trying to find a 15K 1206 resistor, or that BAS85 diode… or any other component you can think of soldering on the PCB. The basic idea is fairly straightforword, which helped keep this short.

2SMD resistors are packed in thick paper tapes that don’t bend easily, and thus need larger containers than other components, which are packed mainly in flexible PE tapes. The first version of this organizer was built with a 96mm diameter space for resistors and 63mm diameter for other components, but it seems that there is no need for such large compartments. If I were to make it again, I would probably scale everything down to about 80% of it’s current size.

The best way to join all plexiglass parts is to use four M4 threaded rods. There is also a 1.5mm steel rod which holds SMD tape ends in place and helps to un-stick the transparent tape which covers the components. At the top of the organizer there is a notch for paper, used for components labels. Most SMD components are packed in 8mm wide tapes, making the optimal compartment width 10mm. It is not easy to cut the 10mm thick acrylic and get a neat edge – instead, you could use more layers of thin sheets to make the spacers. Using 5mm acrylic you can combine more layers for any width of tape, which contains wider components, like SMD integrated circuits. The only thing that you have to be careful about, is to keep the distance between the thin steel rod and acrylic, which is marked as “2-4mm” on the drawing. It is good if this space is just a few tenths of a millimeter wider than the thickness of SMD tapes.

smd_orthoThe CorelDraw file that can be used for laser cutting the acrylic parts, is available for download. If you scale the profiles, don’t forget to readjust the hole diameters and some other dimensions which have to remain intact. If you have 5mm acrylic pieces, you should probably use two layers of acrylic for every tape (red parts on the drawing). The barrier layers would be made of thin acrylic — for instance 2mm (the blue parts). Edge layers (green) are once again 5mm thick, and there are also the end pieces (yellow), glued to the previous borders and used to “round up” the whole construction and to protect your hands from the threaded rods and nuts.

While you’re building this for your bench, make a vacuum picking tool for SMDs out of a dispensing syringe with a thick needle. It’s a common trick for hackers to use an aquarium air pump, just turn the compressor unit by 180°, so that it creates vacuum instead of blowing the air outside. This process is described by R&TPreppers in the video below.

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