A Folding Laser Cutter

Want a laser cutter, but don’t have the space for one? How about a portable machine to engrave and cut wood and plastics? A folding laser cutter solves these problems, and that’s exactly what Red Ant Lasers was showing off last weekend at Maker Faire.

Inside the team’s Origami laser cutter is a 40 Watt CO2 tube, shooting its beam along an entirely enclosed beam path. The beam travels through the body of the machine, out into the folding arm of the machine, and down to whatever material you’ve placed the Origami on. It’s a 40 Watt laser so it will cut plywood and plastics, and as shown in the video above, does a fine job at engraving plywood.

This is a Class 4 laser device operating without any safety glass, but from the short time I spent with the Red Ant team, this is a reasonably safe device. You will need safety glasses if you’re within five feet, but after that, everything (according to OSHA, I think) is safe and not dangerous. Either way, it’s a tool just like a table saw. You don’t see commentors on the Internet complaining about how a spinning metal blade is dangerous all the time, do you?

The Red Ant guys are currently running a Kickstarter for their project, with a complete unit going for $4200. It’s pricier than a lot of other lasers, but not being constrained by the size of a laser cutters enclosure does open up a few interesting possibilities. You could conceivably cut a 4×8 sheet of plywood with this thing, and exceptionally large engravings start looking easy when you have a portable laser cutter.

51 thoughts on “A Folding Laser Cutter

  1. It’s not that this is a bad idea, and in the right hands it would be really awesome and usefull, but I think this type of design is limited to ‘home built’ units used in non-commercial situations.

    Explicitly in regards to the commercial manufacture and sales of a laser based product in the US. To sell such a product requires adherence the US FDA/CDRH regulations. This product does not appear to meet those regulations and will result in legal trouble. It’s not the same as a table saw, a table saw is not covered under the FDA DHHS Title 21, Subchapter J, a laser is. I won’t bore you with the details, but check out sections 1000,1002, 1003, 1004 and 1005, as well as section 1040.10 in regards to the required documentation and qualifications to sell a high power laser product in the US, and what your responsibilities are when doing so (Hint, if you sell a product that does not meet the standard, you are required to pay to upgrade every device to meet the minimum standards or refund the cost of the unit.. this does not include legal and federal fees/fines.) If you can survive all of that, and still get your product out, more power too ya!


    This is why you don’t see so many of the great laser products you might expect like tree limb trimmers, or lawn edgers, etc. Because it’s not allowed by law, not because someone didn’t think about it.

    1. I think they would be more successful selling the laser head and arm assembly along with “examples” of designs it could be used with.
      I agree that the saw blade analogy is a poor choice for lasers unless the saw blade is invisible and can suddenly jump up off the table and go spinning around the room.

  2. It’s interesting, but laser engravers should have some kind of system to absorb fumes or ventilate to the outside. This doesn’t appear to have either, unless you run it outside or in a paint booth.

    This seems to be one of those ideas which is too great of a liability to build a business from.

    1. There certainly doesn’t look like there’s enough ventilation. It either needs a fairly sizable hose to the outside or some serious filtering. Even with decent extraction my laser can smell enough that my wife complains (especially when I accidentally ducted it back through the cooker extractor hood into the kitchen).

      It does seem like a nice idea. Defiinitely worth taking as inspiration for a home project even if it is deemed too dangerous to sell commercially. A fold-out enclosure would negate a lot of safety concerns and shouldn’t be too hard to add. Clear acrylic would be enough.

    2. As Brian Benchoff noted there is a ventilation system which moves along with the cutting head and ducts through an activated carbon filter. Unlike conventional laser cutters which need to evacuate an entire enclosure, our unit extracts fumes directly from the cut site and as a result doesn’t need to move such a large volume of air. We have found that the extraction system and filter are quite effective.

      Also, as you mentioned, of the great things that is exclusive to this device is that it allows for outdoor use when cutting particularly noxious or toxic substances.

  3. OMG, that is a catastrophy by design.
    No safe housing for CO2 laser radiation (~10000nm), no fume extraction, no interlock circuigtry that interrupts the beamwhen the (non existing) housing is opened and so on.
    For the Europeans: DIN-EN60825-1, DIN-EN60825-4 and so on……
    Who ever is going to sell this is either veeeery brave and has gigantic balls or is simply very naive.
    The idea itself is not bad, having a portable laser cutter.
    The only ‘maybe’ way to somehow legally operate this machine, is to have a laser safe room where the machine is taken into a larger safety system and can be remote controlled from the outside.
    Sorry for the harsh words, but I work in this field and simply know too much.
    :-) Sarah

        1. Does being coherent matter for burning things? And even if the beam split, say, 40 ways, that’s 40 people you could blind! Even a small fraction of 40W is dangerous. Perhaps some sort of fold-out booth would help, covering the whole thing and it’s workspace. You could make it lightweight, I suppose, if you used something reflective for the inside.

          1. He means that there is diffuse reflection. Instead of a laser “beam” the light is scattered into large large solid angles. 40~W scattered into 2*pi sr and with a wavelength of ~10 microns is probably pretty safe after 5 ft, even if it is initially collimated.

          2. Ah, okay. Still it only takes the odd glint from, I dunno, an unexpected staple or even a water drop? I confess I’ve no idea what materials reflect 10 micron light, but enough of a beam might escape at some point after the light leaves the head. Maybe some mechanical error makes the head tilt outwards. It’s the chance cases that safety precautions are for, not when things are running normally. The more dangerous, the more unlikely the things you have to cover.

    1. That’s a great question. The collimated laser beam is fully enclosed inside the folding arm and only exits the enclosure after travelling through a convex lens after which the beam diverges rapidly. With the current focal length the Nominal Hazard Zone is 1.7 meters from the aperture after which the irradiance will have decreased to a safe level.

      -Mike from Red Ant Lasers

      1. Don’t let the crowd here troll you too much. Mentioning the word Laser, fire, sharp, spinning, toxic or any of the numerous other “safety hazard” buzzwords around here and a certain (rather loud) subset will always begin to regurgitate wikipedia articles and anything else they can google. Because nobody fact-checks you when you’re encouraging safety…. think of the children :D You’ve made a product and it’s clearly not something cobbled together from napkin drawings. You understand the theory behind what you’re doing and, having sunk this much time and money into making this product successful, have likely already consulted real experts to make sure your product is safe. Keep up the good work!

        1. Rather than just accepting anyone who questions this as a troll, why not show the maths that you’ve used to suggest that the beam is divergent enough to be safe.

          40w is quite powerful,
          consider that 5mW (some ten thousand times less powerful) of visible (and collimated) laser light is enough to blind pilots at thousands of feet, (and the light is barely focused at that distance, and lost a lot of power etc…)

          IR is obviously more dangerous as there is no blink reflex to something that can’t be seen!

          What is being defined here as a “safe level” how does that fit with existing laws regarding lasers?
          Someone above suggested that all lasers must be enclosed (no matter what?).

          Also, 5 feet safety area around a machine in all directions is a pretty large room.
          it essentially means that if the machine is in the middle of an average “shed” or single car garage then nowhere inside the structure/workshop is safe… (I envisage that the machine is meant to be used in these environments as it is specifically created for places where space is premium!.

          Personally, I’d rather just avoid all the questions of safety and have some kind of screen or cover around the cutting area.

          1. The lens of the eye doesn’t focus in the infrared spectrum, so it diverges more rather than collimating the laser point further onto your retina. That’s why visible spectrum lasers are technically more dangerous.

          2. Nooo!

            You can’t blink at the speed of light. Whether the beam is visible or not doesn’t make any difference at all. A Class IIIb laser is from 5-500mw and can blind in 1/100 of a second regardless of frequency. Ok, that is a direct hit, but…

            Class IV lasers, above 500mw can blind you unless filtered. Period. There might be a combination of circumstances that might allow exposure to the output of a 40 watt laser of any frequency that won’t blind your unprotected eyes, but it would be a gamble.

            Your blink reflex would not be one of those.

            There is a persistent myth about visible light medical lasers being safer because of the blink reflex. It is a myth.

          3. you don’t need to blink at the speed of light!

            and I didn’t say anything about medical lasers, I said low power <5mw (a whole class lower than you're talking about)
            this site is probably more useful for explaining power classifications.

            class 2a lasers -which are very low powered end of the scale the blink reflex is enough to protect.

            which is fairly obvious when you think about how a laser cutter work, you don't just point and move the cutting head as fast as you can, it takes time to cut. very low power lasers (like bar code scanners) can take as long as ten of fifteen minutes of constant exposure to cause eye damage, as power goes up the "time to injury" is reduced.but for most (as I said up to a few milliwatts, the blink reflex of the eye (whilst not at the speed of light is enough to prevent damage.)

            obviously there is no blink reflex or aversion to light we can't see, what this means is that if I have a 5mw green laser pointer (where your eyes are especially perceptive to green light) you'll close your eyes and physically look away.
            if I have an IR laser of the same power I can sit opposite you and take my time burning your eyes until you're blind, and you literally won't see it coming!

            Yes, all class 4 lasers may cause damage to the eye with reflections (including diffuse reflections), this is especially dangerous if you don't know to look away. thought there is a "nominal hazard zone" at which point the laser should be low enough power to be safe…
            All that red ant lasers are saying is stay about five feel back, is that "the" distance to the edge of the hazard zone, or "the distance with a safety margin"?…

            Whilst safety nazism does rather ruin the fun for all, you really do one get one set of eyes… reasonable precautions seem sensible

  4. What you gain in span, you lose (to a certain extent) in accuracy and repeatability as the mechanical linkages get larger and more complex – something like the expandable ShopBot variants that can cycle a sheet of plywood through on rollers (or a laser-cutting Roomba). You could successfully argue that big projects typically don’t need nanoscale accuracy most of the time – if you were cutting a model airplane wing skin, or boat hull panel for instance.

    I’d *love* to hear what Stanley Company (owner of Black & Decker and lots of other tool brands) thinks of this concept, since they could successfully mass-produce an approved model. There’s a price point/design at which this kind of thing could be unstoppable for the home use/construction/small factory market.

  5. If ever there was a candidate for the FAIL category this would be it. This achieves the trifecta of FAIL:

    1. Serves no practical purpose

    2. Blatantly unsafe.

    3. Demonstrating it in a public place, exposing bystanders to potential risks.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this demonstration was actually in violation of laws/regulations.

    The kickstarter really just pushes this over the top, though.

    1. First of all, what is practical purpusose of 40 W laser cutter? Emphatically 40 W. How much you can do with 40 W CO2 laser? Going further with power prices will be skyrocketed. If power will be far less? E.g. 20 W or less – not so much to do, only engraving or cutting thin tings. So practicality is objective thing from many discussions points.

      Second, this laser cutter needs a folding safety enclosure that will be enough compact carrying with laser cutter. Fair enoug?

      Thirdly, I don’t think that, when engraving a plywood is required full laser power. Yes, camera sees laser spot, but harmful risk should be minimal with minimal safe distance.

      1. I do quite a lot with a 30W laser engraver, including cutting up to 3/8″ thick plywood or acrylic, 1/8″ acetal. I have access to a 130W laser at a maker space, but I’ve never felt the need to use theirs, even at no cost other than time & gas.

        Something to keep in mind is that a more powerful laser means a bigger tube, making it less portable, so they probably decided 40W was where they wanted to limit the trade-off in machine size vs. power. There are other ways to generate laser light, but they’re probably a lot more expensive for equivalent cutting/engraving power.

        1. Glass 40W CO2 tubes are about 700mm long and cost $200.

          The more power, the longer the tube (and fatter). A 200W one is about 2 metres (~7 foot) long. Big sucker!

          RF tubes are more compact, but if you have to ask the price…

    2. If they got a variance to run the laser in a public place, then they’re fine. However it’s hard enough to get a variance for light show lasers in a public place, let alone a industrial laser, but, you never know.

  6. You know what innovation we need in laser cutter design? A massive price drop, so that the everyman can afford to buy (or at least build) a practical laser cutter. I’m talking something on the order of $400 to have something that will cut wood and plastic. Until then, we’ve about hit the limit on “consumer-grade” laser cutters.

  7. Hi, we are the Red Ant Team.

    Safety has been a primary focus throughout our design process. With the introduction of any new device, questions and concerns over safety are, and should be, raised. Our portable laser system is no exception. We are aware of, and have carefully reviewed the FDA regulations which apply to our device, and our best estimates are that the device meets those requirements. We have also made a point of discussing compliance with an expert in laser manufacturing and laser safety who has indicated that they see no problems with our device conforming to regulation.

    The primary concern with any laser device are the hazards associated with direct and indirect exposure to the laser beam. We address these hazards in several ways:

    FIrst, the collimated beam, which is the unfocused beam of light emitted from the laser tube, is safely contained completely within the body and folding arm of our device. Under normal use circumstances there is no exposure hazard from the collimated beam contained in the device.

    Second, before the beam exits the cutting head it passes through a lens which causes the beam to rapidly diverge beyond the focal plane (cutting plane). Information regarding the hazard after the beam passes through the lens has been determined using data at https://www.osha.gov/dts/osta/otm/otm_iii/otm_iii_6.html, and is summarized as follows:

    The nominal hazard zone (NHZ) for this particular laser system is 1.76 meters. Outside the NHZ, the irradiance (energy density) drops to 0.1 Watt / cm^2, which has been set forth in ANSI Z136.1-2014 to be the maximum permissible exposure (MPE) for laser radiation with a wavelength of 10.6 x 10^3 nanometers (10,600 nm) at a power level of 40 Watts.

    This means that beyond 1.76 meters, safety glasses are optional, as the device poses no radiation hazard. Within this zone, however, safety glasses are required.

    Third, with each shipped laser system we are providing properly calibrated eye protection and an online laser safety training course to make sure that users have the training and equipment necessary to operate the laser cutter safely.

    We welcome and encourage any suggestions or information which could help us improve the safety of our portable laser system.

    Thanks for your interest and suggestions!

    1. I did repairing and customer training on pro. 1.5KW Co2 machines, perhaps it would be good to have a kind of material sensor, locking the laser if no material is in the reach of the focus point.
      – How do you setup the focus point? Or does it work only at a precise distance? Or a kind of Autofocus?
      High Voltage is more a problem than the laser.

      Laser don’t kill (injuries), HIGH Voltage do (dead).

    2. just because you’ve made a best guess doesn’t mean that you’re exempt from certification lab requirements or lawyers… don’t gamble on the future of your company/personal wealth just to get the product to market.

  8. > You don’t see commentors on the Internet complaining about how a spinning metal
    > blade is dangerous all the time, do you?

    I would disagree. Admittedly, perhaps “complaining” isn’t an accurate word. However, I believe that any discussion re: saws should include a /discussion/ of safety. Plus saws sold these days have safety guards, such as automatically retracting covers and so on.

    And +1 what everyone else said about this appearing to be quite unsafe. Even if it’s safe 5′ away with an assumed perfectly dispersive reflection, the chances of (a) someone trying to cut something reflective, or (b) someone just running up to the thing without even realizing it’s on both feel like significant concerns.

    1. Most people drive around in 2 ton machines everyday that can have a much greater impact when used properly than this machine can. Boiling water can cause blindness at these distances, I don’t hear anyone going out against cooking on a stove, even when there’s a risk of someone running up to it not realizing it’s on. It seems to me, if you’re capable of driving a car safely, you can operate this machine safely. If not, please stop driving..

  9. Putting the legal/safety problems aside, I really fail to see a good niche for this product.

    Portability is great, but it makes several concessions in its design.

    The cutting area is very small, and the cantilevered design will make high acceleration jobs such as a fast raster impossible.

    Any attempts to claim it has adequate ventilation is a joke. Anyone who has used a laser on acrylic will understand the sheer volume of foul smelling compounds it releases.
    I have seen carbon air purifiers being used with laser cutters – they cost thousands of dollars and are the size of a small refrigerator.

    None of these problems are dealbreakers. In fact, I would consider them a fair trade for its portability. The real problem with this design is that a comparable enclosed laser cutter could be purchased on ebay for a fourth of the cost.

    You are literally paying 3000$ for the “wow” factor. If the cost of this product was brought in line with other laser cutters I think it would be in a better place.

    I actually might just try building one myself.

    1. Performance-wise the $500 ones on eBay are better. Buy one of those, you can’t even get the parts for that price.

      Building only makes sense when you want to go past the 40W / A4 size of the cheap Chinese ones.

  10. I would also be concerned by the repeatability of the folding arm.

    While perpendicularity isn’t a big deal for aesthetic applications, just try assembling something cut by a misaligned laser.

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