The K40 laser cutter has become ubiquitous in hackerspaces and well-equipped home workshops over the past few years, as a relatively inexpensive introduction to laser cutting and a machine that is readily hackable. Tokyo Hackerspace have one, but sadly their laser tube failed after relatively little use. Replacing a laser tube might be a routine component change for some readers, but it’s still worth looking at in some detail.
Their tube had failed at its output lens cooling cap, a component that is glued onto the end of the tube rather than bonded, and which had snapped off. There had been no mechanical stress upon it, but it was found that the arrangement of their cooling system caused it to drain between uses and thus air bubbles could accumulate. The resulting cooling inefficiency caused enough thermal stress for the bond between the tube and the end piece to fail.
The in-depth analysis of what caused the failure and step-by-step description of the procedure should be of interest to any K40 owner. Little things such as ensuring that the tube is rotated to the right angle for all air bubbles to make their way out of it, or making sure that when the pump is switched off the water isn’t all pulled out of it by gravity seem obvious, but these are traps that will have caught more than one K40 owner.
The inexpensive Chinese K40 laser cutter has become the staple of many a small workshop within our community, providing a not-very-large and not-very-powerful cutter for a not-very-high price. As shipped it’s a machine that’s not without its flaws, and there is a whole community of people who have contributed fixes and upgrades to make these cutters into something a lot more useful.
[Alex Eames] bought a K40, and since he’s the person behind the Raspi.tv Raspberry Pi business, when he switched from the supplied Corel-based software to the popular open-source K40 Whisperer his obvious choice was to run it on a Raspberry Pi. Since K40 Whisperer is written in Python he reasoned that the Pi’s ARM platform would not prevent its use, so he set to work and documented the process and his workflow.
It’s a straightforward enough process, and his K40 now has a Pi into which he can SFTP his files rather than the inevitable old laptop that accompanies most K40s. With so many K40 improvements created by its community, we find it surprising that some enterprising Chinese manufacturer hasn’t seen the opportunity to make a quick buck or two extra and incorporate some of them into their products at the factory, including one of the many single board computers that could perform this task.
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.
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.
The distinctive blue-and-white enclosure of the Chinese-made K40 laser cutter has become a common sight in workshops and hackerspaces, as they represent the cheapest route to a working cutter that can be found. It’s fair to say though that they are not a particularly good or safe machine when shipped, and [Archie Roques] has put together a blog post detailing the modifications to make something better of a stock K40 performed at Norwich Hackspace.
After checking that their K40 worked, and hooking up suitable cooling and ventilation for it, the first task facing the Norwich crew was to install a set of interlocks. (A stock K40 doesn’t shut off the laser when you open the lid!) A switch under the lid saw to that, along with an Arduino Nano clone to aggregate this, a key switch, and an emergency stop button. A new front panel was created to hold this, complete a temperature display and retro ammeter to replace the modern original.
Norwich’s laser cutter has further to go. For example, while we secretly approve of their adjustable bed formed from a pile of beer mats, we concede that their plans to make something more practical have merit. The K40 may not be the best in the world, indeed it’s probable we should be calling it an engraver rather than a cutter, but if that means that a small hackerspace can have a cutter and then make it useful without breaking the bank, it’s good to see how it’s done.
This year at Maker Faire, laser cutters were all the rage. Dremel announced a 40W laser cutter, but it won’t be available for purchase until this time next year, there is no price yet, and therefore doesn’t deserve further mention. Glowforge was out in full force, but the most interesting aspect of the Glowforge — a compact filter system that sits right underneath the laser — was not to be found. It looks like lasers are the next 3D printer.
Of course, those in the know have already been using laser cutters for years, and there are options for desktop CO2 laser cutters that cost less than a kilobuck. I speak, of course, of the ubiquitous K40 laser, a machine you can get off of eBay or AliExpress for the price of a generic, off-brand 3D printer. There is a downside to the K40, though: the control electronics and software are notoriously terrible. Fix that, though, and you have something really spectacular.
This year at Maker Faire, [Ray Kholodovsky] of Cohesion3D brought out his Smoothie-derived control boards for CNC machines and laser cutters. Of note is his K40 upgrade that turns the eBay special laser cutter into a 32-bit professional machine. This is the cheapest way to start lasing in your workshop.
We saw [Ray] at the Faire last year when he was demoing his Smoothie-derived boards for 3D printers and CNC machines. These are tiny, relatively low-cost boards that use Smoothieware, an Open Source, 32-bit CNC control system that is extremely extensible and very powerful. Basically, if you’re building a normal, ordinary DIY 3D printer, a RAMPS or RAMBO will do. If you’re doing something weird, like a 3D printer with strange kinematics, a 5-axis milling machine, or you’d like awesome engraving on a laser cutter, Smoothie is the way to go.
The Cohesion3D board is a direct, drop-in replacement for the control board found in the K40 laser. Since all of the K40 laser cutters are the same, and they’re really only a power supply and a CNC gantry, this is the one-stop-shop of K40 upgrades. The terrible electronics are gone, you don’t have to use Corel, and for a hundred bucks, you have something resembling a professional laser cutter.
The K40 laser has been around for several years now, but only recently have a few very interesting hacks and mods come out that push this blue light special laser cutter into semi-professional territory for people willing to get their hands dirty. A few months ago [Scorch] published K40 Whisperer, a piece of software that makes the stock electronics tolerable and able to accept normal SVGs and DXFs. The K40 has also been modified for a larger bed, and LaserWeb has been handling the software side of things for about two years now. Things are looking great for the K40 hacking scene, and Hackaday already has a, ‘I just bought a K40, now what?’ series in the works. Things are looking up for cheap laser cutters, and a Smoothie upgrade is just the cherry on top.
The relatively inexpensive K40 laser cutter/engraver machines from China have brought laser cutting to the masses, but they are not without their faults. Sure, they’re only powerful enough for the lightest cutting tasks, but on top of that, their bundled software is inflexible and disappointing. If your workshop or hackspace has one of these machines languishing in the corner, then the release of a new piece of software, K40 Whisperer from [Scorch], is an interesting and welcome development.
He tells us that the reverse engineering process required to understand the K40’s protocol was non-trivial, given that it does not use handy decimal numbers to issue commands. A spreadsheet was used to collate data packets and spot repeating patterns to analyse the inner workings. Feature-wise, the software reads SVG and DXF files, and can split SVGs by colour. It has a halftone algorithm for rendering grey scales, and cuts from the inside of each shape first to avoid pieces of work dropping out of the piece of material. Currently it works with the stock M2 Nano controller board and is available as a Windows download, though it can also be compiled for Linux distributions, or MacOS, and he is asking owners to test it with as many machines as possible to ensure compatibility with other boards.
He has posted a video of K40 Whisperer in action, which you can see below the break.
[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.
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