The laser module shown cutting shapes out of a piece of cardboard that's lying on the CNC's work surface

Giant CNC Partners With Powerful Laser Diode

[Jeshua Lacock] from 3DTOPO owns a large-format CNC (4’x8′, or 1.2×2.4 m), that he strongly feels is lacking laser-cutting capabilities. The frame is there, and a 150 W CO2 laser tube has been sitting in a box for ages – what else could you need? Sadly, at such a scale, aligning the mirrors is a tough and finicky job – and misalignment can be literally blinding. After reading tales about cutters of such size going out of alignment when someone as much as walked nearby, he dropped the idea – and equipped the CNC head with a high-power laser diode module instead. Having done mirror adjustment on a few CO2 tube-equipped lasers, we can see where he’s coming from.

Typically, the laser modules you see bolted onto CNC heads are firmly under three watts, which is usually only enough for engraving. With a module that provides 5 watts of optical power, [Jeshua] can cut cardboard and thin plywood as well he tells us even 10 W optical power modules are available, just that he didn’t go for one. We reckon that 20 W effective power diodes are not that far into our future, which is getting very close to the potential of the blue box “40 W but actually 35 W but actually way less” K40 laser cutters we cherish. [Jeshua]’s cutter is not breaking speed limits, but it’s built on what’s already there, and the diode is comparatively inexpensive. Equipped with a small honeycomb surface and what seems to be air assist, it’s shown in the video cutting an ornamental piece out of cardboard!

We hackers have been equipping CNCs with laser diodes for a while, but on a way smaller scale and with less powerful diodes – this is definitely a step up! As a hacker, you should have at least some laser cutting options at your disposal, and this overview of CO2 cutters and their availability can get you started. We’ve also given you detailed breakdowns about different sides of laser cutting, be it the must-have of safety, or the nice-to-have of air assist.

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An Open Hardware Laser Engraver For Everyone

Right now, you can get a diode laser engraver on eBay for around $100 USD. That sounds like a deal, but it’ll probably use some arcane proprietary software, won’t be terribly accurate, and the laser itself will almost certainly be fully exposed. Of course there’s no shortage of DIY builds which improve upon this situation greatly, but unfortunately the documentation and instructions to replicate them yourself often leave a lot to be desired.

To get a safe and accurate laser platform into the hands of hackers everywhere, we need more well documented open source designs that are actually built with community in mind. Projects like the Engravinator from [Adam Haile]. This isn’t a one-off design with documentation thrown together after the fact, it’s a fully open hardware engraver with a concise assembly guide that’s built from 3D printed parts and readily available components. You’re free to source and print the parts yourself or, eventually, purchase everything as a kit.

Pen-equipped Engravinator

The microwave-sized Engravinator is built from standard 2020 aluminum extrusion, and offers a workable area of 130mm x 130mm. There’s a hatch on the front of the enclosure for objects that are small enough to fit inside the machine, but the open bottom and handles on the top also allow the user to place the Engravinator directly onto the work surface. [Adam] says this feature can be especially useful if you’re looking to burn a design into a tabletop or other large object.

Outside of the aluminum extrusion and miscellaneous hardware that make up the frame, most of the other parts are 3D printed. Released under the CERN Open Hardware License v1.2 and distributed as both STL and STEP files, the printable parts for the Engravinator are ripe for modification should you be so inclined. The same goes for the DXF files for the enclosure panels, which will need to be cut out of orange acrylic with a CNC or (ironically) a laser.

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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.

Laser Levitation With Scrap Parts

After a year away from YouTube, the ever-energetic [Styropyro] has returned with whiteboard in hand to remind us just how little we actually know about lasers. In the last month he’s really hit the ground running with plenty of new content, but one video of his particularly stands out: a practical demonstration of laser levitation. Even better, unlike most of his projects, it looks like we can replicate this one without killing ourselves or burning our house down!

For those unaware, laser levitation is probably as close as we’ll get to Star Trek-style tractor beams in our lifetimes. In fact, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program has been examining using the technology for capturing small particles in space, since it would allow sample collection without the risk of physical contamination. While the demonstration [Styropyro] performs lacks the “tractor” part of the equation (in other word’s, there’s no way to move the particle along the length of the beam) it does make us hopeful that this type of technology is not completely outside the reach of our home labs.

The trick seems to be with the focus of the laser beam itself. Your average laser pointer just doesn’t have the appropriate beam for this kind of work, but with a diode pulled from a DVD burner and a driver circuit made from parts out of the junk bin, the effect can be demonstrated very easily as long as you can keep the air in the room extremely still. Of course, what you’re trying to pick up is also very important, [Styropyro] has found that synthetic diamond powder works exceptionally well for this experiment. At about $1.60 a gram, it won’t break the bank either.

So how does it work? With a few trips to the aforementioned white board, Professor Pyro explains that the effect we’re seeing is actually electromagnetic. If the particle you want to levitate is small enough it will become polarized by the light, which is in itself an electromagnetic wave. Once you’ve got your mind wrapped around that, it logically follows that the levitating particle will experience the Lorentz force. Long story short, the particle is suspended in the air for the same reason that a projectile is ejected from a rail gun: if you’ve got enough power and the mass of the object is low enough, there will be an observable force.

We’ve been covering the work of [Styropyro] for years now, and are glad to see him back on YouTube creating new content and terrifying a new generation of viewers. Between this and the return of [Jeri Ellsworth], it’s like we’re experiencing a YouTube hacker Renaissance.

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Drop-in Laser Cutter Alignment Beam Works Like A Charm

Every laser cutter enthusiast eventually pops the question: how on earth do I align an invisible beam that’s more-than-happy to zap my eyeballs, not to mention torch everything else in its path? We hate to admit it, but laser cutter beam alignment is no easy task. To greatly assist in this endeavor, though, some folks tend to mix a red diode laser into the path of the beam. Others temporarily fixture that diode laser directly in the beam path and then remove it once aligned.

One deviant has taken diode laser mixing to the next level! [Travis Reese] has added a servo-driven diode laser that dynamically drops into the path of the laser tube when the lid pops up, and then tilts comfortably out of the laser path when the lid closes again.
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