FreeCAD is a fairly sophisticated, open-source, parametric 3D modeler. The open-source part means that you can bend it to your will. [Alexandre] is working on a module that lets him easily add tabs, finger joints, and t-slots to models (YouTube link, embedded down under).
Right now the plugin is still experimental, but it looks usable. In the video demo, [Alexandre] builds up a simple box, and then adds all manner of physical connective pieces to it. You’ll note that the tabs look like they’re pieces added on to the main face — that’s because they are! He then exports the outlines to SVG and erases the lines that separate the tabs from the sides, and hands these files off to his laser cutter. Voilà! A perfect tab-and-t-slot box, with only a little bit of hand-work. ([Alexandre] mentions that it’s all still very experimental and that you should check out your design before sending it to the laser.)
Homebrew laser cutters are nifty devices, but scorching your pals, burning the house down, or smelling up the neighborhood isn’t anyone’s idea of a great time. Lets face it. A 60-watt laser that can cut plastics offers far more trouble than even the crankiest 3D-printers (unless, of course, our 3D printed spaghetti comes to life and decides to terrorize the neighborhood). Sure, a laser’s focused beam is usually pointed in the right direction while cutting, but even an unfocused beam that reflects off a shiny material can start fires. What’s more, since most materials burn, rather than simply melt, a host of awful fumes spew from every cut.
Despite the danger, the temptation to build one is irresistible. With tubes, power supplies, and water coolers now in abundance from overseas re-sellers, the parts are just a PayPal-push away from landing on our doorsteps. We’ve also seen a host of exciting builds come together on the dining room table. Our table could be riddled with laser parts too! After combing through countless laser build logs, I’ve yet to encounter the definitive guide that tells us how to take the proper first steps forward in keeping ourselves safe while building our own laser cutter. Perhaps that knowledge is implicit to the community, scattered on forums; or perhaps it’s learned by each brave designer on their own from one-too-many close calls. Neither of these options seems fair to the laser newb, so I decided to lay down the law here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
[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.
[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.