Poor Man’s Laser Scanner Probably Won’t Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid

Yes, laser cutters that come off the slow boat from China are more affordable than ever, and with some tweaks and hacks they can turn out some decent results. But if you just want a laser lightshow that’ll draw boxes on your living room ceiling, this simple X-Y laser scanner might be a good platform to build.

Let’s say right up front that there are more than a few safety issues with [ThingEngineer]’s 3D-printed two-axis scanner. He’s well aware of these potential retina-cooking issues and duly notes that a good pair of laser safety goggles is a must and that the cheap anti-lawsuit glasses that laser module manufacturers often include with their products don’t count.

[Editor’s Note: Glasses are really only intended for alignment operations. Pros enclose lasers beyond a certain power to prevent anyone going blind. Know where your beam terminates, kids.]

With that in mind, there’s a lot to be said for this poor man’s scanner build. Yes, it would be faster with real galvos and low-mass mirrors, but time is money, and the steppers and craft store mirror discs do the job, albeit slowly. We like that everything is so simple, even the method for turning a regular mirror into a front-surface mirror.

[ThingEngineer] proves you don’t need galvanometers to have some simple laser fun. And if steppers don’t do it for you, you can try little brushed DC hobby motors or even 3D-printed cams.

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Better 3D Printing Through Holography

When most of us think about 3D printing, we usually think about a machine that melts plastic filament and extrudes it through a nozzle. But we all know that there are other technologies out there that range from cutting and laminating paper, to printing with molten metal or glass. Many of those are out of range for the common hacker. Probably the second most common method uses photo resin and some light source to build the layers in the resin. Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and several universities are experimenting with a new technique that exposes photo resin using three lasers, printing an entire object at one time. You can see a cube formed using the technique in the video below.

In all fairness, the process really isn’t holography but LLNL refers to it as “hologram-like.” In fact, it appears the lasers project more like an oblique projection (you know, like in drafting) which is considerably simpler. Simple enough, that we can’t help but wonder if the hacker community couldn’t develop machines based on this principle. The key would be arranging for the resin to only cure where laser light overlaps.

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MIT Is Building a Better 3D Printer

Traditional desktop 3D printing technology has effectively hit a wall. The line between a $200 and a $1000 printer is blurrier now than ever before, and there’s a fairly prevalent argument in the community that you’d be better off upgrading two cheap printers and pocketing the change than buying a single high-end printer if the final results are going to be so similar.

The reason for this is simple: physics. Current printers have essentially hit the limits of how fast the gantry can move, how fast plastic filament can pushed through the extruder, and how fast that plastic can be melted. To move forward, we’re going to need to come up with something altogether different. Recently a team from MIT has taken the first steps down that path by unveiling a fundamental rethinking of 3D printing that specifically addresses the issues currently holding all our machines back, with a claimed 10-fold increase in performance over traditional printing methods.

MIT’s revolutionary laser-assisted hot end.

As anyone who’s pushed their 3D printer a bit too hard can tell you, the first thing that usually happens is the extruder begins to slip and grind the filament down. As the filament is ground down it starts depositing plastic on the hobbed gear, further reducing grip in the extruder and ultimately leading to under-extrusion or a complete print failure. To address this issue, MIT’s printer completely does away with the “pinch wheel” extruder design and replaces it with a screw mechanism that pulls special threaded filament down into the hot end. The vastly increased surface area between the filament and the extruder allows for much higher extrusion pressure.

An improved extruder doesn’t do any good if you can’t melt the incoming plastic fast enough to keep up with it, and to that end MIT has pulled out the really big guns. Between the extruder and traditional heater block, the filament passes through a gold-lined optical cavity where it is blasted with a pulse modulated 50 W laser. By closely matching the laser wavelength to the optical properties of the plastic, the beam is able to penetrate the filament and evenly bring it up to nearly the melting point. All without physically touching the filament and incurring frictional losses.

There are still technical challenges to face, but this research may well represent the shape of things to come for high-end printers. In other words, don’t expect a drop-in laser hot end replacement for your $200 printer anytime soon; the line is about to get blurry again.

Speeding up 3D printing is a popular topic lately, and for good reason. While 3D printing is still a long way off from challenging traditional manufacturing in most cases, it’s an outstanding tool for use during development and prototyping. The faster you can print, the faster you can iterate your design.

Thanks to [Maave] for the tip.

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Entry-Level 3D Printer Becomes Budget PCB Machine

A funny thing happened on [Marco Rep]’s way to upgrading his 3D printer. Instead of ending up with a heated bed, his $300 3D printer can now etch 0.2-mm PCB traces. And the results are pretty impressive, all the more so since so little effort and expense were involved.

The printer in question is a Cetus3D, one of the newer generation of affordable machines. The printer has nice linear bearings but not a lot of other amenities, hence [Marco]’s desire to add a heated bed. But hiding beneath the covers was a suspicious transistor wired to a spare connector on the print head; a little sleuthing and a call to the factory revealed that the pin is intended for accessory use and can be controlled from G-code. With a few mods to the cheap UV laser module [Marco] had on hand, a printed holder for the laser, and a somewhat manual software toolchain, PCBs with 0.2-mm traces were soon being etched. The video below shows that the printer isn’t perfect for the job; despite the smooth linear bearings, the low mass of the printer results in vibration that shows up as wavy traces. But the results are more than acceptable, especially for $330.

This isn’t [Marco]’s first budget laser-etching rodeo. He recently tried the same thing using a cheap CNC laser engraver with similar results. That was a $200 dedicated engraver, this is a $300 3D printer with a $30 laser. It seems hard to lose at prices like these.

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Hacking A K40 Laser Cutter

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 isn’t the first K40 enhancement we’ve featured. Norwich might like to look at this improved controller, or even extend their cutter’s bed. Meanwhile if [Archie]’s name rings a bell, it might be because of his Raspberry Pi laptop.

Less Than Production, More than One-Offs

We build things we think are cool. Sometimes, other people agree with us and they want a copy of what we’ve built. If you’re lucky enough to have an enviable product but you’re not ready for full-scale manufacturing, you may be looking at a low-volume production run. [Eric Strebel] walks us through one such instance where he makes some custom color swatches for a show. Video after the break.

[Eric Strebel] is an industrial designer so he plays to his strengths by designing the swatch shape, jig, tool, and hangers. He hires out the painting, laser cutting, and CNC machining. This may seem like a simple statement but some of us have a hard time paying other people for things we’re capable of learning. In some cases, we just have to pay the professionals to do it correctly and keep our focus.

The mentality of small runs in this video is perfect for people who sell on Tindie or want to make more than a handful of consistently nice parts. Our own [Lewin Day] recently talked about his experience with a run of 200 mixers called gMix.

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Interference Scanner with Clear Instructions

Meticulous. Thorough. Exacting. These are all words we’d use to describe this video by [BrendaEM] about her Homemade 3D Optical Interference Scanner which can be seen after the break. The scanner uses 3D-printed parts and repurposed materials you might find lying around in your spare parts bin. An old optical drive tray acts to move the laser-wielding sled while a stripped-out webcam is an optical sensor. Links to relevant files such as 3D models and Arduino sketches will be found in the video’s author section.

The principle of operation is demonstrated with a water analog in the video at 2:00 with waves in a plastic container. By creating two small apertures between a light source and a sensor, it’s possible to measure the light waves which make it through. [BrendaEM] uses some powerful visualization software to convert her samples into 3D models which look really cool and simultaneously demonstrate the wave nature of light.

On the left side of her device are the control electronics which don’t need any special coatings since light won’t pass over this area. For the right side, where coherent light is measured, to borrow a Rolling Stones lyric: no colors anymore, I want them to turn black. Even the brass strips with apertures are chemically darkened.

Most of the laser hacks here use lasers rather than measure them, like this Laser Clock and a Laser Projector.

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