A Laser Cutting 101

If you’ve worked with a laser cutter before, you might not find much new in [Maker Design Lab’s] recent post about getting started. But if you haven’t, you’ll find a lot of practical advice and clean clear figures. The write up focuses on a tube-style laser cutter that uses a gas-filled tube and mirrors. Some cheap cutters use a diode, and many of the same tips will apply to those cutters.

You can probably guess that a laser cutter can cut like a CNC and also engrave where the cut doesn’t go all the way through. But it can also mark metals and other surfaces by using a marking solution. If you’ve done CNC or 3D printing, the process is similar, but there are a few unique things to know, like the use of the marking solution.

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Make Your Own MIDI Controller With An Arduino

Engineers create something out of nothing, and no where is this more apparent than in the creation of customized computer hardware. To make a simple MIDI controller, you need knowledge of firmware design and computer architecture, you need knowledge of mechanical design, and you need to know electronic design. And then you need the actual working knowledge and experience to wield a tool, be it a hammer, laser cutter, or an IDE. [Mega Das] brought together all of these skill to build a MIDI controller. Sure, it’s for bleeps and bloops coming out of a speaker, but take a step back and realize just how awesome it is that any one person could imagine, then implement such a device.

The electronics for this build include a printed circuit board that serves to break out the connections on an Arduino nano to a dozen arcade push buttons, four slide pots, two rotary pots, and a handful of screw terminals to connect everything together. Mechanically, this is a laser-cut box engraved with some fancy graphics and sized perfectly to put everything inside.

Yes, we’ve seen a lot of MIDI controllers built around the Arduino over the years, but this one is in a class by itself. This is taking off-the-shelf parts and customizing them to exactly what you want, and a prodigious example of what is possible with DIY hardware creation. You can check out the build video below.

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Custom Inflatables Are Only A Laser Beam Away

Carl Sagan one said “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” It might not be a very accurate description of the relative difficulty level of baking, but the logic is sound enough: there’s often a lot of ground work that needs to be to covered before you hit your ultimate goal. A perfect example of this principle is the inflatable raft that [ralph124c] hopes to eventually create; before he can set sail he has to perfect making balloon animals with his laser cutter.

In the long run, the raft will be constructed from sheets of TPU coated fabric that are fused together with a hot iron. But before he spends the time and money on building the real thing, he wants to do some scaled down tests to make sure his design works as expected. He makes a cryptic remark about learning the hard way that inflatables are prone to bouts of strange behavior, and out of an overabundance of caution we’ll just take his word for it.

He hoped to test his designs with the much cheaper LDPE film, but he found that the hot iron didn’t fuse it together in the way he was hoping. His mind turned to his 60 watt laser cutter, and wondered if the desired effect could be achieved by turning the power down as low as possible and quickly moving across the material.

His first attempts either blew right through the film or did absolutely nothing, but eventually he had the bright idea to move the laser farther from the LDPE. This put the beam out of focus, which not only expanded the area it would cover, but reduced the energy being delivered to the surface. With a bit more experimentation, he found he was able to neatly weld the pieces of material together. He even found that he could increase the power slightly to cut through the film without having to adjust the laser focus. With the ability to create complex inflatable shapes, perhaps [ralph124c] will create balloon version of Carl Sagan or an apple pie to celebrate.

Of course, this technology isn’t limited to birthday balloons and model rafts. The ability to quickly and easily produce custom inflatable shapes could be a huge boon to anyone working in soft robotics, and we’ve even seen similar concepts applied to haptic feedback systems.

[Thanks to Arthur for the tip.]

Eight Years of Partmaking: A Love Story for Parts

Over my many years of many side-projects, getting mechanical parts has always been a creative misadventure. Sure, I’d shop for them. But I’d also turn them up from dumpsters, turn them down from aluminum, cut them with lasers, or ooze them out of plastic. My adventures making parts first took root when I jumped into college. Back-in-the-day, I wanted to learn how to build robots. I quickly learned that “robot building” meant learning how to make their constituent parts.

Today I want to take you on a personal journey in my own mechanical “partmaking.” It’s a story told in schools, machine shops, and garages of a young adulthood spent making parts. It’s a story of learning how to run by crawling through e-waste dumps. Throughout my journey, my venues would change, and so would the tools at-hand. But that hunger to make projects and, by extension, parts, was always there.

Dear partmakers, this is my love letter to you.

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K40 Gets A Leg Up With Open Source Z Table

If you’ve done even the most cursory research into buying a laser cutter, you’ve certainly heard of the K40. Usually selling for around $400 USD online, the K40 is not so much a single machine as a class of very similar 40 watt CO2 lasers from various Chinese manufacturers. As you might expect, it takes considerable corner cutting to drive the cost down that low, but the K40 is still arguably the most cost-effective way to get a “real” laser cutter into your shop. If you’re willing to do some modifications on the thing, even better.

One of the shortcomings of the K40 is that it lacks a Z axis, and with thick material that needs multiple cuts at increasingly deeper depths, this can be a hassle. [Aaron Peterson] decided to take it upon himself to design and build an adjustable Z table for the K40 at his local makerspace (River City Labs), and being the swell guy that he is, has made it available under an open source license so the rest of the K40-owning world can benefit from his work.

[Aaron] started the design with a number of goals which really helped elevate the project from a one-off hack to a sustainable community project. For one, he only wanted to use easily available commodity hardware to keep the cost down. The most complex components should all be 3D printable so the design would be easy to replicate by others, and finally, he wanted the user to have the ability to scale it in all dimensions. The end result is a electronically controlled lifting platform that anyone can build, for any laser cutter. It doesn’t even have to be limited to laser cutters; if you have a need for precisely raising or lowering something, this design might be exactly what you’re looking for.

The table is primarily constructed out of 15×15 aluminum extrusion, and uses standard hardware store expanded wire mesh as a top surface. Height is adjusted by rotating the four 95 mm T8 leadscrews with a GT2 belt and pulleys, which prevents any corner from getting out of sync with the others. Connected to a standard NEMA 17 stepper motor, this arrangement should easily be capable of sub-millimeter accuracy. It looks as though [Aaron] has left controlling the stepper motor as an exercise for the reader, but an Arduino with a CNC shield would likely be the easiest route.

We’ve seen a lot of hacking around the K40 over the last couple of years, from spring loaded beds to complete rebuilds which are hardly recognizable. If you’re looking for a cheap laser with a huge catalog of possible hacks and modifications, you could do a lot worse than starting with this inexpensive Chinese machine.

Spring-Loaded Bed for K40 Laser Acts As an Auto-Focus

Laser engraving and cutting has something in common with focusing the sun’s rays with a magnifying glass: good focus is critical to results. If materials of varying thicknesses are used, focus needs to be re-set every time the material changes, and manual focusing quickly becomes a chore. [Scorch Works] has a clever solution to avoid constant re-focusing that doesn’t involve sensors or motors of any sort. The result is a self-adjusting bed that compensates for material height changes, ensuring that the top surface of the material is always a fixed distance from the laser’s head.

The way [Scorch Works] has done this is to make two spring-loaded clamps from angle aluminum and a few pieces of hardware. When a sheet of material is placed into the machine, the edges get tucked underneath the aluminum “lips” while being pushed upward from beneath. By fixing the height of the top layer of angle aluminum, any sheet stock always ends up the same distance from the laser head regardless of the material’s thickness.

[Scorch Works] shows the assembly in action in the video embedded below, along with a few different ways to accommodate different materials and special cases, so be sure to check it out.

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Fail of the Week: Did My Laser Cutter Tube Really Burn Out?

All the cool kids are doing it these days, or more like for many years now: you can get a laser cutter for a song if you don’t mind doing your own repairs and upgrades — you know, being a hacker. The downside is that some failures can really ruin your day. This is what [Erich Styger] encountered with his cutter that is just a bit more than a year old. This Fail of the Week looks at the mysterious death of a CO2 laser tube.

This is the infamous K40 laser cutter. Our own [Adam Fabio] just took one on a couple of months back and [Erich] even references Hackaday coverage of the K40 Whisperer project as what pushed him over the edge to make the purchase. We’ve followed his blog as he acquired the cutter and made upgrades along the way, but after an estimated 500 hours of use, a horrible teeth-gnashing screech sprung forth from the machine. [Erich’s] reaction was to hit the e-stop; that’s certainly why it’s there.

Chasing down the problem is a story well-told, but as is often the case with these FotW articles, in the end what caused the failure is not entirely known. We’d love to hear what you think about it in the comments below.

The investigation began at the power supply for the laser, but that didn’t yield any answers. Next he moved to the tube itself, noticing that the wire connection to the tube’s anode wasn’t soldered. The anode is an unknown material he suspects to be graphite and he found a video showing the “soldering” process for connecting a wire. (We added quotes to that as the video he linked doesn’t actually solder anything but the wrapped wire strands themselves.) The solution he found is a great tip to take away from the story. It’s a socket by TE Connectivity to which he soldered the wire. Assuming it’s power rated for the task, and won’t fall off during normal operation, this is a great way to do it.

But we digress. Even with the connection made, the old tube had to be replaced with a new one. It’s also notable that the portion of that anode inside the bad tube is orange in color when a new tube would be black like the part on the outside. Does this hint at why that tube died, and could this have been avoided? If you have insight, help us learn from this failure by leaving a comment below.