Laser Cutter Resurrection Uncovers a Magnificent Machine Beneath the Ash

Trash is relative. When my coworker accidentally lit an ABS-barbecue inside the company laser cutter, he made trash. The wreckage was headed for the dump, but I managed to save it and pass it on to my friend [Amy]. Four months later, she phoenixed it back to life from the trash-it-was to a glorious new system more powerful than the original. This is her story, carefully told in detail in a three-part series (part one, part two, part three) that takes us on a journey from trash to triumph. She even recorded video of the entire process (also embedded below)

Get your notes out because while [Amy] spares every expense to keep this project cheap, she spares no expense at laying out the details for anyone’s path to success when working with these beasts.

Free Laser Cutter Starter Pack

As far as origin stories go, our story starts at my last employer’s office. I was in the machine shop asking one of our MechEs a question when the intern points a finger towards the corner of the room and asks: “hey is that supposed to be on fire?” I turn around to see billowing flames coming from our budget Chinese laser cutter. “Nope!” I say. “We need a fire extinguisher!” But our MechE was already on it. In half a moment he returned with an extinguisher. With one squirt the fire was out, but the machine was caked with a nasty powdery debris. It turns out another coworker had committed the almighty sin of laser cutting: he turned it on and walked away. Better yet, it was cutting ABS with a disconnected air nozzle.

This cutter was headed to the dump, but a few shenanigans later, I managed to divert this heap to [Amy]. The paint job was an absolute disaster on the outside, and the gooey ABS-and-powder mixture had caked over the inside. [Amy] dug in, stripping off the paint flakes and re-coating it. Apart from the belts, she salvaged every other part inside the machine. Her secret: “IPA and steel wool.” From there, she built her own fume extractor and lofted the whole system onto a frame she welded herself so that she could push both extractor and cutter around her wood shop as a unit. These days, it’s seeing some mileage for cutting out jigs for her woodworking projects.

Perhaps what’s truly special about this project is that she restored it with the camera rolling. As if building projects isn’t hard enough, getting the right lighting and camera angles while you’re doing the work is even more work! There’s no drop-down lofted camera setup in her garage, so each documented step is carefully set up so it captures what’s happening onscreen. While the IPA-and-steel wool might’ve been one nifty trick, by the end of these videos you’ll find that there really aren’t any secrets: just one engineer who sees the dignity in a project done well and has the patience to carry it out.

Get to know [Amy] on her blog, and you’ll discover the true finesse of her scavenging and engineering wielded hand-in-hand. From Ukuleles borne of fallen tree branches to a garage woodshop bootstrapped from a series of Craigslist adventures, it’s no surprise that a broken laser cutter would find a new life when it landed in her hands.

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Video Shows Power Isn’t Everything In Laser Engraving

When it comes to power tools, generally speaking more watts is better. But as laser maestro [Martin Raynsford] shows, watts aren’t everything. He shares a brief video showing his older 100 W laser being handily outperformed by a newer 30 W machine. Shouldn’t the higher power laser be able to do the same job in less time? One might think so, but wattage isn’t everything. The 30 W laser engraves and cuts a wooden tile in just under half the time it takes the 100 W machine to do the same job, and with a nicer end result, to boot.

Why such a difference? Part of the answer to that question lies in that the newer machine has better motion control and can handle higher speeds, but the rest is due to the tubes themselves. The older 100 W machine uses a DC-excited (big glass water-cooled tube) CO2 laser, and the newer 30 W machine uses an RF-excited laser that looks a bit like a big metal heat sink instead of oversized lab glassware. Both tubes output what is essentially the same beam, but the RF tube is overall capable of a more refined, more stable, and more finely focused point than that of the glass tube. Since engraving uses only a small fraction of even the 30 W laser’s power, the finer control that the RF laser has over the low end of the power scale results in a much higher quality engraving.

Embedded below is a short video showing both machines engraving and cutting the same tile, side by side. You may wish to consider watching this one full screen, to better see the fine details.

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Hacking The ZH03B Laser Particle Sensor

Laser particle detectors are a high-tech way for quantifying whats floating around in the air. With a fan, a laser, and a sensitive photodetector, they can measure smoke and other particulates in real-time. Surprisingly, they are also fairly cheap, going for less than $20 USD on some import sites. They just need a bit of encouragement to do our bidding.

[Dave Thompson] picked up a ZH03B recently and wanted to get it working with his favorite sensor platform, Mycodo. With a sprinkling of hardware and software, he was able to get these cheap laser particle sensors working on his Raspberry Pi, and his work was ultimately incorporated upstream into Mycodo. Truly living the open source dream.

The ZH03B has PWM and UART output modes, but [Dave] focused his attention on UART. With the addition of a CP2102 USB-UART adapter, he was able to connect it to his Pi and Mac, but still needed to figure out what it was saying. He eventually came up with some Python code that lets you use the sensor both as part of a larger network or service like Mycodo and as a stand-alone device.

His basic Python script (currently only tested on Linux and OS X), loops continuously and gives a running output of the PM1, PM2.5, and PM10 measurements. These correspond to particles with a diameter of 1, 2.5, and 10 micrometers respectively. If you want to plug the sensor into another service, the Python library is a bit more mature and lets you do things like turn off the ZH03B’s fan to save power.

These sensors are getting cheap enough that you can build distributed networks of them, a big breakthrough for crowd-sourced environmental monitoring; especially with hackers writing open source code to support them.

Turn a Cheap 3D Printer Into a Cheap Laser Cutter

We know it’s hard to hear it, but the days of you being a hotshot at the local Hackerspace because you’ve got a 3D printer at home are long gone. While they’re still one of the most persnickety pieces of gear on the hacker’s bench, they’re certainly not the rarest anymore. Some of these printers are so cheap now they’re almost impulse buys. Like it or not, few people outside of your grandmother are going to be impressed when you tell them you’ve got a personal 3D printer anymore; and we wouldn’t be surprised if even granny picked up a Monoprice Mini during the last open box sale.

But while 3D printer ownership isn’t the pinnacle of geek cred it once was, at least there’s a silver lining: cheap motion platforms we can hack on. [Dani Eichhorn] writes in to tell us about how he added a laser to his $200 USD Tevo Tarantula 3D printer, greatly expanding the machine’s capabilities without breaking the bank. The information in his write-up is pretty broadly applicable to most common 3D printer designs, so even if you don’t have a Tarantula it shouldn’t be too hard to adapt the concept.

The laser is a 2.5 W 445 nm module which is very popular with low-cost laser cutter setups. It’s a fully self-contained air cooled unit that just needs a source of 12 V to fire up. That makes it particularly well suited to retrofitting, as you don’t need to shoehorn in any extra support electronics. [Dani] simply connected it to the existing power wires for the part cooling fan he added to the Tarantula previously.

You may want to check the specs for your 3D printer’s control board before attaching such a high current device to the fan connector. Best case it just overloads the board’s regulator and shuts down, worst case the magic smoke might escape. A wise precaution here might be to put a MOSFET between the board’s fan output the and the laser, but we won’t tell you how to live your life. As far as laser safety, this device should probably work inside an opaque box, or behind closed doors.

Once the laser is hanging off the fan port of your printer’s controller, you can turn it on with the normal GCode commands for fan control, M106 and M107 (to turn it on and off, respectively). You can even control the laser’s power level by adding an argument to the “on” command like: M106 S30.

Then you just need to mount the laser, and it’s more or less business as usual. Controlling a laser engraver/cutter isn’t really that different from controlling a 3D printer, so [Dani] is still using OctoPrint to command the machine; the trick is giving it a “3D model” that’s just a 2D image with no Z changes to worry about. We’ve seen the process for doing that in Inkscape previously.

With this laser module going for as little as $60 USD (assuming you’ve got a 3D printer or two laying around to do the conversion on), this is a pretty cheap way to get into the subtractive manufacturing game. Next stop from there is getting one of those K40’s everyone’s talking about.

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Faux Aircon Units, Made Entirely From 2D Cuts

2D design and part fabrication doesn’t limit one to a 2D finished product, and that’s well-demonstrated in these Faux Aircon Units [Martin Raynsford] created to help flesh out the cyberpunk-themed Null Sector at the recent 2018 Electromagnetic Field hacker camp in the UK. Null Sector is composed primarily of shipping containers and creative lighting and props, and these fake air conditioner units helped add to the utilitarian ambiance while also having the pleasant side effect of covering up the occasional shipping container logo. Adding to the effect was that the fan blades can spin freely in stray air currents; that plus a convincing rust effect made them a success.

Fan hubs, showing spots for fan blades to be glued. With the exception of embedded bearings, the entire hub (like the rest of the unit) is made from laser-cut MDF.

The units are made almost entirely from laser-cut MDF. The fan blades are cut from the waste pieces left over from the tri-pronged holes, and really showing off the “making 3D assemblies out of 2D materials” aspect are the fan hubs which are (with the exception of bearings) made from laser-cut pieces; a close-up of the hubs is shown here.

Capping off the project is some paint and the rusted appearance. How did [Martin] get such a convincing rust effect? By using real rust, as it turns out. Some cyanoacrylate glue force-cured with misted water for texture, followed by iron powder, then vinegar and hydrogen peroxide with a dash of salt provided the convincing effect. He was kind enough to document the fake rust process on his blog, complete with photos of each stage.

Null Sector showcased a range of creativity; it’s where this unusual headdress was spotted, a device that also showed off the benefits of careful assembly and design.

Laser Noob: Getting Started With the K40 Laser

Why spend thousands on a laser cutter/engraver when you can spend as little as $350 shipped to your door? Sure it’s not as nice as those fancy domestic machines, but the plucky K40 is the little laser that can. Just head on down to Al’s Laser Emporium and pick one up.  Yes, it sounds like a used car dealership ad, but how far is it from the truth? Read on to find out!

Laser cutting and engraving machines have been around for decades. Much like 3D printers, they were originally impossibly expensive for someone working at home. The closest you could get to a hobbyist laser was Epilog laser, which would still cost somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 for a small laser system. A few companies made a go with the Epilog and did quite well – notably Adafruit used to offer laptop laser engraving services.

Over the last decade or so things have changed. China got involved, and suddenly there were cheap lasers on the market. Currently, there are several low-cost laser models available in various power levels. The most popular is the smallest – a 40-watt model, dubbed the K40. There are numerous manufacturers and there have been many versions over the years. They all look about the same though: A blue sheet metal box with the laser tube mounted along the back. The cutting compartment is on the left and the electronics are on the right. Earlier versions came with Moshidraw software and a parallel interface.

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3D Printing in Metal: the Laser and Metal Powder Printers We Saw at IMTS

Last week I went to the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) and it was incredible. This is a toy store for machinists and showcases the best of industrial automation. But one of the coolest trends I found at the show are all the techniques used to 3D print in metal. The best part is that many of the huge machines on display are actually running!

It’s probably better to refer to this as additive manufacturing, because the actual methods can be significantly different from your 3D printer. Below you’ll find examples of three different approaches to this process. I had a great interview with a company doing actual 3D printing in metal using a nozzle-based delivery often called cladding. There’s a demo video of powder layer printing using lasers. And a technique that uses binders as an intermediary step toward the final metal part. Let’s take a look!

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