The How and Why of Laser Cutter Aiming

Laser aficionado [Martin Raynsford] has built up experience with various laser cutters over the years and felt he should write up a blog post detailing his first-hand findings with an often overlooked aspect of the machines: aiming them. Cheap diode laser cutters and engravers operate in the visible part of the spectrum, but when you get into more powerful carbon dioxide lasers such as the one used in the popular K40 machines, the infrared beam is invisible to the naked eye. A secondary low-power laser helps to visualize the main laser’s alignment without actually cutting the target. There are a couple of ways to install an aiming system like this, but which way works better?

[Martin] explains that there are basically two schools of thought: a head-mounted laser, or a beam combiner. In both cases, a small red diode laser (the kind used in laser pointers) is used to indicate where the primary laser will hit. This allows the user to see exactly what the laser cutter will do when activated, critically important if you’re doing something like engraving a device and only have one chance to get it right. Running a “simulation” with the red laser removes any doubt before firing up the primary laser.

That’s the idea, anyway. In his experience, both methods have their issues. Head-mounted lasers are easier to install and maintain, but their accuracy changes with movement of the machine’s Z-axis: as the head goes up and down, the red laser dot moves horizontally and quickly comes out of alignment. Using the beam combiner method should, in theory, be more accurate, but [Martin] notes he’s had quite a bit of trouble getting both the red and IR lasers to follow the same course through the machine’s mirrors. Not only is it tricky to adjust, but it’s also much more complex to implement and may even rob the laser of power due to the additional optics involved.

In the end, [Martin] doesn’t think there is really a clear winner. Neither method gives 100% accurate results, and both are finicky, though in different scenarios. He suggests you just use whatever method your laser cutter comes with from the factory, as trying to change it probably isn’t worth the effort. But if your machine doesn’t have anything currently, the head-mounted laser is certainly the easier one to retrofit.

In the past, we’ve covered a third and slightly unconventional way of aiming the K40, as well as a general primer for anyone looking to pick up eBay’s favorite laser cutter.

Teardown: What’s Inside a Christmas Laser Projector?

In the world of big-box retail, December 26th is a very special day. The Christmas music playing on the overhead speakers switches back to the family friendly Top 40, the store’s decorations get tossed in the compactor, and everything that’s even remotely related to the holiday is put on steep clearance. No more money to be made on the most commercialized of all holidays, so back to business as usual.

It’s in this narrow corridor of time, between the Great Holiday Unloading and the new spring products coming in, that you can find some fantastic deals on Christmas decorations. Not that long ago, this would hardly be exciting news for the readers of Hackaday. But Christmas lights and decorations have really started pushing the envelope in terms of technology: addressable RGB LED strands, Bluetooth controlled effects, and as of the last couple years, friggin’ lasers.

That’s right, you’ve seen them all over the neighborhood, probably took a few stray beams to the eye, you might even own your own. Laser projectors have been one of the most popular Christmas decorations for the last couple of years, and it’s not hard to see why. Just set the projector up in front of your house, and you’re done. No need to get on a ladder and string lights on the roof when you can just blast some directed energy up there instead.

Given how popular they are, I was surprised to see a lone Home Accents Holiday Multi-Color Light Projector on the clearance rack at Home Depot for around $14 a few days after Christmas. This was a 75% price reduction from normal MSRP, and right in that sweet impulse-buy price range. Let’s see what’s hiding inside!

Continue reading “Teardown: What’s Inside a Christmas Laser Projector?”

Laser Cutter Alignment Mod Skips Beam Combiner

A lot of the DIY laser engravers and cutters we cover here on Hackaday are made with laser diodes salvaged from Blu-ray drives and projectors, which are visible lasers in the 400 – 450nm range (appearing as violet or blue). Unfortunately there is an upper limit in terms of power on visible diode lasers, most builds max out at 5W or so. If you need more power than that, you’ll likely find yourself looking at gas laser cutters like the K40. While the K40 is a great starting point if you’re looking to get into “real” lasers, it’s a very different beast from the homebrew builds using visible lasers.

With a gas laser the beam itself is invisible, making it much more difficult to align or do test runs. One solution is to add a visible laser to the K40 which can be used to verify alignment, but making sure it’s traveling down the same path as the primary laser usually requires an expensive beam combiner. Looking to avoid this cost, [gafu] wanted to see if it was possible to simply move the visible laser into the path of the primary beam mechanically.

An adjustable microswitch detects when the lid has been opened.

In the setup that [gafu] has come up with, a cheap laser module (the type from a handheld laser pointer) is moved into the path of the primary laser on an arm that’s actuated by a simple hobby servo. To prevent the primary and visible lasers from firing at the same time, an Arduino is used to control the servo given the current state of the K40’s lid. If the lid of the K40 is open, the primary laser is shutoff and the visible laser is rotated into position so the operator can see where the primary laser’s beam would be hitting. Once the lid is closed, the visible laser rotates out of the way and the primary is powered back up.

Running the cutting or engraving job with the lid of the K40 machine open now let’s [gafu] watch a “dry run” of the entire operation with the visible laser before finally committing to blasting the target with the full power beam.

We’ve covered many hacks and modifications for everyone’s favorite entry-level CO2 laser cutter. From replacing the controller to making it bigger, K40 owners certainly seem like a creative bunch.