Drop-in Controller for eBay K40 Laser Engraver Gets Results

[Paul de Groot] wrote in to let us know about a drop-in controller replacement he designed for those economical K40 laser engravers that are everywhere on eBay. With the replacement controller, greatly improved engraving results are possible along with a simplified toolchain. Trade in the proprietary software and that clunky security dongle for Inkscape and a couple of plugins! [Paul] felt that the work he accomplished was too good to keep to himself, and is considering a small production run.

Laser engravers are in many ways not particularly complex devices; a motion controller moves the head in x and y, and the laser is turned on or off when needed. But of course, the devil is in the details and there can be a surprising amount of stuff between having a design on your screen and getting it cut or engraved in the machine. Designing in Inkscape, exporting to DXF, importing the DXF to proprietary software (which requires a USB security dongle to run), cleaning up any DXF import glitches, then finally cutting the job isn’t unusual. And engraving an image with varying shades and complex dithering? The hardware may be capable, but the stock software and controller? Not so much. It’s easy to see why projects to replace the proprietary controllers and software with open-source solutions have grown.

Cheap laser engravers may come with proprietary controllers and software, but they don’t need to stay that way. Other efforts we have seen in this area include LaserWeb, which provides a browser-based interface to a variety of open-source motion controllers like Grbl or Smoothieware. And if you’re considering a laser engraver, take a few minutes to learn from the mistakes of other people.

Convert that Cheap Laser Engraver to 100% Open-Source Toolchain

laserweb-on-cheap-laser-squareLaserWeb is open-source laser cutter and engraver software, and [JordsWoodShop] made a video tutorial (embedded below) on how to convert a cheap laser engraver to use it. The laser engraver used in the video is one of those economical acrylic-and-extruded-rail setups with a solid state laser emitter available from a variety of Chinese sellers (protective eyewear and any sort of ventilation or shielding conspicuously not included) but LaserWeb can work with just about any hardware, larger CO2 lasers included.

LaserWeb is important because most laser engravers and cutters have proprietary software. The smaller engravers like the one pictured above use a variety of things, and people experienced with larger CO2 laser cutters may be familiar with a piece of software called LaserCut — a combination CAD program and laser control that is serviceable, but closed (my copy even requires a USB security dongle, eww.)

LaserWeb allows laser engravers and cutters to be more like what most of us expect from our tools: a fully open-source toolchain. For example, to start using LaserWeb on one of those affordable 40 W blue-box Chinese laser cutters the only real hardware change needed is to replace the motion controller with an open source controller like a SmoothieBoard. The rest is just setting up the software and enjoying the added features.

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Robot Arm Wields Laser, Cares Not For Your Safety

Here at Hackaday we’ve covered a bunch of DIY laser diode projects. And for good reason, they are just cool. We’ve seen people add lasers to their 3D printers, stick one in a milling machine, use a highly modified scanner and even build a simple XY gantry specifically for the task. To say the least there is definitely a wide range of methods for moving around a laser but we’ve never seen anything like what [Sp4rky] sent in to us. He and his friends outfitted an old educational robot arm with a laser.

The robot arm is a 5 axis Armdroid 5100 picked up from eBay for a couple hundred dollars. It didn’t come with a controller but all of the stepper drivers were housed in the base of the arm. After a little tinkering around with the inputs the team was able to get the arm to move by sending serial commands from a PC, through an Arduino Mega which then sends the appropriate signals to the uni-polar stepper drivers. That was the easy part of the build.

The hard part was getting the arm to hold the laser at a consistent angle and height above the table. Inverse Kinematics to the rescue! Since the desired position of the laser, as well as the length of the arm segments is known, mathematical formulas can be derived to determine the necessary arm segment and joint positions while moving the laser around. The process flow starts out with an image in Inkscape, g-code is then generated with this plugin, then sent to the Arduino running a modified version of GRBL that has the inverse kinematic formulas. The Arduino directly controls the stepper drivers and the robotic arm moves. The Arduino also controls 3 constant-current laser drivers made from LM317 regulators. Three laser drivers, why?

Triple Laser Robot[Sp4rky] got his laser diode modules out of surplus medical equipment and, unfortunately, the rated optical wattage was quite low. Since he had 3 diodes, he decided to try to combine the 3 low power beams into one high power beam. This can be done using a prism. A prism splits sunlight into a rainbow of colors because each wavelength(color) of light that passes through the prism is bent a different amount. Since the laser diodes only put out one wavelength of light, the beam bends but does not split or diffuse. A 3D printed bracket points each laser diode at a 3-sided pyramidal prism which sends the combined beam of light straight out the bottom towards the object to be cut or engraved.

This project is cool enough that we would have covered it even if [Sp4rky] wasn’t burning a Hackaday logo. Although it doesn’t hurt for anyone wanting their project to get covered!

Modern Tools From Old Table Saws

Somehow or another, the modern hackerspace isn’t centered around table saws, drill presses, band saws, lathes, or mills. The 3D printer and laser cutter are the tools of the future. No one has yet figured out how to build a 3D printer or laser cutter out of several hundred pounds of cast iron, so until then [Chad] will lead the charge modifying old table saws into these modern machine tools.

The build logs for the laser engraver and 3D printer are pic heavy and text lean, but there’s enough detail to make a few educated guesses. Both of these machines use Craftsman table saws from the early to mid 1950s for the chassis. Inside each chassis, the rails, belts, and shafts that make up a Cartesian bot are installed, and the electronics are tucked gently inside.

There’s a lot of creativity in this build; the electronics for the 3D printer are tucked away in the shell of the old motor. For the laser cutter, the focus adjustment is the same knob that used to lock the blade at an angle.

While this may look like a waste of two beautiful tools, keep in mind these are equivalent to contractor saws you can pick up at Home Depot for $500 today. They’re not professional cabinet saws, they just look really pretty. They’re still a solid piece of metal, though, and refurbishing the frames into useful tools is probably the best thing you could do with them.

Thanks [Frankie] for the tip.

Paper Cutter Becomes A Laser Engraver

Small and powerful laser diodes are getting cheaper and cheaper, and there are a few commercial products that give anyone the ability to cut paper and vinyl with a computer-controlled cutting machine. What happens when you combine the two? The beginnings of a hacked together laser engraver.

For this build, [Peter] is using a Silhouette Portrait, a desktop CNC cutting machine that’s usually used for vinyl decals and intricately cut paper crafts. This machine isn’t limited to mere decorative crafts – it’s been used for cutting PCB stencils and other pseudo-industrial tasks.

Because the Silhouette Portrait has an interface that allows just about any CAM software to control it, the only thing [Peter] needed to make for his experiments in laser engraving was a mount to hold the laser diode. Luckily, the laser had a similar form factor to the cutting blades for the machine, and a bit of tape held everything together.

Focusing the laser was done by unscrewing the lens, and with a bit of trial and error, [Peter] was able to make a few marks in the material of his choice. This isn’t a laser cutter, but with a little more work it will make a fantastic laser engraver.

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Augmented Laser Cutter Removes Design Technology Barriers

augmented laser

Laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC routers — they’re all great technology in the right hands, but unfortunately the learning curve sometimes puts would-be makers at a distance.  [Anirudh] from MIT’s Media Lab is attempting to break down at least one of those barriers with his augmented laser cutter system called, Clearcut.

The system consists of a webcam, a projector, and a semi transparent work space on top of the laser cutter. By placing objects on the surface, the webcam can identify them, duplicate them with the projector, and then laser engrave them. In addition to the “copy and paste” idea of this, you can also use infrared emitting pens to physically draw your design on the work surface to be engraved. It starts to bridge the gap between complex CAD and pencil and paper, something anyone is capable of.

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Raspi Mini Laser Engraver

If you’ve got a lot of spare parts lying around, you may be able to cobble together your own laser engraver without too much trouble. We’ve already seen small engraver builds that use an Arduino, but [Jeremy] tipped us off to [Xiang Zhai’s] version, which provides an in-depth guide to building one with a Raspberry Pi.

[Xiang] began by opening up two spare DVD writeable drives, salvaging not only their laser diodes but the stepper motors and their accompanying hardware, as well as a handful of small magnets near each diode. To assemble the laser, he sourced an inexpensive laser diode module from eBay and used a vise to push the diode into the head of the housing. With the laser snugly in place and the appropriate connecting wires soldered on, [Xiang] whipped up a laser driver circuit, which the Raspi will later control. [Xiang] worked out the stepper motors’ configuration by following [Groover’s] engraver build-(we featured it a few years back)-attaching the plate that holds the material to be engraved onto one axis and the laser assembly to the other.

Check out [Xiang’s] project blog for details explaining the h-bridge circuits as well as the Python code for the Raspi. As always, if you’re attempting any build involving a laser, please use all necessary precautions! And if you need more information on using DVD burners for their diodes, check out this hack from earlier in the summer