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 are 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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3D Printed Microscope Chamber Saves Big Bucks

Optical microscopy is over 400 years old, and in that time, it has come a long way. There are many variations of microscopes both in the selection of lenses, lighting, and other tricks to allow an instrument to coax out more information about a sample.

One proven way to increase the resolving power of a microscope is oil immersion. The sample and the lens are placed in oil that is transparent and has a high refractive index. This prevents light from refracting at the air-coverslip interface, improving the microscope’s overall performance.

The University of New South Wales has a lab that uses such a microscope. They use a special (and expensive) chamber to hold down the glass coverslip and contain the oil. The problem? At nearly $400 a pop, the chambers are a constant expense to replace, and they are not flexible enough to handle custom size requirements.

[Ben Goodnow], a first year student at the university, applied his 3D printing and laser cutting know-how to design and build a suitable chamber that costs much less and can be adapted to different projects. In addition to all the design files on GitHub, there’s also a document (PDF) that describes the design iterations and the total cost savings.

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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.

Laser Cut Mechanical Logic Gates

When you create logic circuits using ICs or FPGAs, you can’t easily visualize their operation without special tools. But if you’ve ever seen a mechanical computer (like the Computer History Museum’s Babbage engine) operate, you know you don’t have that problem. Just like it is fascinating to watch a 3D printer or CNC machine, watching mechanical logic gates work can be addictive.

[Anthony] wanted to build some mechanical logic gates and set out designing them using Inkscape. Unlike some common mechanical gate schemes, [Anthony’s] gates use gears to implement the logic operations. He sent the designs off to a laser cutter service and got back parts cut from 3mm acrylic.

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Show Us Your Human Interface; Win Laser Cutting Time

Our newest Hot List is Human Interfaces. This is anything you’ve designed into your project to interact with people. And we want to see it all! Do you have something bristling with buttons, boasting many LCD screens, hosting controls organized with the principles of Feng Shui, or intuitively voice activated? Show us the user interface you’re proud of and you could win one of thirty $100 gift cards for Ponoko laser cutting service.

We’re in the thick of judging the Wheels, Wings, and Propellers hot list from this week. We’ll be announcing the rankings in the coming days, but for now you need to get your project onto the Your Human Interface hot list. Here’s what you need to do before Thursday, 7/16/15:

Good luck, and per usually we’d like to encourage you to Vote this week. It’s a great way to explore the entries in this year’s 2015 Hackaday Prize, and you just might win $1000 from the Hackaday Store just for voting!

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Laser Engraving in Color?

Here’s a fantastic way to add a new dynamic to your laser cut and engraved parts. Did you know it is possible to color your engravings on acrylic? It’s kind of one of those moments where you go “Why didn’t I think of that?”

[Frankie Flood] works at the Digital Craft Research Lab (DCRL for short), which is kind of like a hackerspace for the University of Wisconsin — complete with CNC routers, lasers, 3D printers, and all your basic manufacturing tools.  [Lionel Rocheleau], one of his lab technicians at DCRL was interested in doing some experiments with the laser cutter, so they came up with this experiment…

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3D Printering: Laser Cutting 3D Objects

3D printing can create just about any shape imaginable, but ask anyone who has babysat a printer for several hours, and they’ll tell you 3D printing’s biggest problem: it takes forever to produce a print. The HCI lab at Potsdam University has some up with a solution to this problem using the second most common tool found in a hackerspace. They’re using a laser cutter to speed up part production by a factor of twenty or more.

Instead of printing a 3D file directly, this system, Platener, breaks a model down into its component parts. These parts can then be laser cut out of acrylic or plywood, assembled, and iterated on much more quickly.

You might think laser-cut parts would only be good for flat surfaces, but with techniques like kerf bending, and stacking layer upon layer of material on top of each other, just about anything that can be produced with a 3D printer is also possible with Platener.

To test their theory that Platener is faster than 3D printing, the team behind Platener downloaded over two thousand objects from Thingiverse. The print time for these objects can be easily calculated for both traditional 3D printing and the Platener system, and it turns out Platener is more than 20 times faster than printing more than thirty percent of the time.

You can check out the team’s video presentation below, with links to a PDF and slides on the project’s site.

Thanks [Olivier] for the tip.

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