When I got my first 3D printer I was excited, but now that I’m contemplating adding a forth to my collection, I have to come to the terms with the fact that these machines have all the novelty of a screwdriver at this point. Which is fine; getting the cost down and availability up is the key to turning a niche piece of technology into a mainstream tool, and the more people with 3D printers at home or in their workshop the better, as far as I’m concerned. But still, there’s a certain thrill in exploring the cutting edge, and I’ve been looking for something new to get excited about as of late.
Lasers seem like an interesting next step in my quest towards complete in-house fabrication capability, so I started researching cheap setups to get my feet wet. In the course of looking up diode-powered laser cutters, I came across the NEJE DK-8-KZ. At only 1W, there’s no question this device isn’t going to be cutting a whole lot. In fact, it’s specifically sold as an engraver. But given the fact that you can get one of these little guys for around $70 USD shipped, it’s hard to complain.
Now I wasn’t 100% sure what I would do with a laser engraver, but I thought it would be a good way to test the waters before putting serious money (and time) into something more powerful. Plus, if I’m being totally honest, I wanted to start on something on the lower end of the power spectrum because I’m terrified of blinding myself.
It’s a great time to be a hobbyist. No matter how you feel about the Arduino/Raspberry Pi effect, the influx of general enthusiasm and demand it has created translates to better availability of components, a broader community, and loads of freely available knowledge. When people have access to knowledge and ideas, great things can happen. Tools that were once restricted to industrial use become open source, and the price of entry-level versions goes into a nosedive.
As we’ve seen over the last several years, the price of cheap 3D printers keeps falling while the bar of quality keeps rising. It’s happening with laser cutters and carving tools, too. Strolling through Microcenter a few weeks ago, I spotted a new toy on the back wall next to the 3D printers. It was LinkSprite’s desktop mini CNC. They didn’t have one out on display, but there were two of them in boxes on the shelf. And boy, those boxes were small. Laughably small. I wondered, could this adorable machine really be any good? To some, the $200 price tag suggests otherwise. To me, the price tag made it justifiable, especially considering that the next price point for a hobby CNC mill is at least twice as much. I took my phone out and stood there frantically looking for reviews, documentation, anything that was available. It seemed that the general, if sparse consensus is that this thing isn’t a total waste of money. Oh, and there’s a wiki.
According to LinkSprite’s wiki, this little machine will engrave wood, plastic, acrylic, PVC, and PCBs. It will specifically not engrave metal (PCB copper notwithstanding). I’m a bit leery of the chemicals used in the PCB etching process, so the idea of engraving them instead was especially tempting. I pulled the trigger.
There’s an old saying, that in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is. That sentiment could easily be applied to refitting a 3D printer to hold a laser. There shouldn’t be much to it, rig up a laser module to turn on under computer control, mount it to your hot end carriage and off you go. In practice, though there are other considerations to account for. If you have a Monoprice Mini Select, you can start with instructions from [drodrii] for adding a laser to your printer.
Although [drodrii] mentions that you need a second 3D printer to make a bracket for the laser, we think you should be able to print it on the Mini as long as you do it before the first step of removing the hot end. However, since your laser module might not exactly match the one used in this project, you’d have to get it right the first time if you don’t have another 3D printer. Of course, you could remove the laser gear, remount the hot end, print a new bracket and start over, but that’d be a drag.
A few months ago, [Marco] picked up a cheap, cheap, cheap laser engraver from one of the familiar Chinese resellers. It’s a simple affair with aluminum extrusions, a diode laser, and a control board that seems like it was taken from a 3D printer controller designed five years ago. Now, [Marko] is building some upgrades for this engraver and his PCB production skills have gone through the roof.
The laser engraver [Marko] picked up is called the EleksMaker, and lucky for him there are quite a few upgrades available on Thingiverse. He found two 3D printable parts, one that keeps the belt parallel to the aluminum extrusion, and another that provides adjustable x-axis tightness on the belt. With these two mods combined, [Marko] actually has a nice, smooth motion platform that’s more precise and makes better engravings.
These upgrades weren’t all 3D-printable; [Marko] also got his hands on a few Trinamic TMC2130 stepper motor drivers. These stepper drivers are the new hotness in 3D printing and other desktop CNC machines, and looking at the waveform in an oscilloscope, it’s easy to see why. These drivers produce a perfectly smooth waveform via interpreted microstepping, and they’re almost silent in operation. That’s terrible if you want to build a CNC chiptune player, but great if you want smooth engraving on a piece of copper clad board.
This project has come a long way since the last time we took a look at it a few months ago, and the results just keep getting better. [Marko] is making real PCBs with a laser engraver that cost less than $200, and the upgrades he’s already put into it don’t add up to much, either. You can take a look at [Marko]’s progress in the video below.
Now that anyone can go online and get a fairly decent 3D printer for around $200, they’ve officially fallen out of the “Elite Hacker” arsenal and are now normal, if perhaps highly specialized, tools. That’s great for the 3D printing community as a whole, but what about those who want to be on the fringe of technology? Telling people you have a 3D printer at home doesn’t get that wide-eyed response like it used to. What’s a “l33t” hacker to do?
Enter the laser engraver/cutter: it’s like a 3D printer, but easier to build and has a higher capacity for bodily harm! While there are a couple good options for kits and turn-key setups out there, just like the early days of 3D printers, some of the best machines are still home built. In his latest video, YouTuber [MakerMan] takes us through his build which features an impressively low part count.
To start his build, [MakerMan] strips down four printers and salvages seven high quality 8 mm linear rods; a huge cost saving tip in itself. We’ll certainly be picking up any printers we see in the trash for the next couple months hoping to score some rods. With the addition of some cheap LM8UU bearings and 3D printed holders for them, [MakerMan] has a smooth 2D motion platform for just a couple bucks. The frame of the machine is built out of type of aluminum square tubing you can find at the hardware store, no expensive extrusion here.
For the laser itself, [MakerMan] is using a six watt PLH3D-6W-XF from Opt Lasers. This module features integrated driver and cooling, so all you need to do is provide it power and a stable means of moving it over the work piece. They even offer a magnetic “dock” which allows you to remove the laser from the mount without any tools for servicing or tool changes. [MakerMan] reports he’s been able to engrave stainless steel with this laser module, and cut thin wood.
What’s better than a cool build? A cool build with valuable advice! Add a few flashy pictures and you have [Martin Raynsford]’s Reuleaux triangle coasters blog post. [Martin Raynsford] wanted to share his advice about the importance of using jigs and we’re sold. He was able to make 100 coasters in a single day and if he’s like us, after number ten, the work gets a little hurried and that is when mistakes are made.
Jig is a broad term when it comes to tooling but essentially, it holds your part in place while you work on it. In this case, a jig was made to hold the coaster pieces while they were glued together. [Martin Raynsford] didn’t need any registration marks on the wood so even the back is clean. If you look closely, the coaster is two parts, the frame and the triangle. Each part is three layers and they cannot separated once the glue dries. If any part doesn’t line up properly, the whole coaster is scrap wood.
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.