Introduction: Using a 3D Printer As a Laser Cutter
Recently I have thought about maybe investing in a 3D Printer or a Laser Cutter. Thing is, and I'm sure I am not the only one, I can barely afford one of them so I need to choose which one. When I was in high school I loved to make things with the schools 3D printer. With the 3D printer we would make different parts for our robots competitions, i personally would use them for my hobby robotics trying to make something similar to animatronics. The school's laser cutter at the time was broken so it was only until after I left and got a Sunfounder quadruped robot that I saw firsthand what a laser cutter could do. What I plan on doing, and what this Instructable is about, is using the 3D printer to print out objects similar to the 2 dimensional cuts and making things with them.
Epilog Contest 8
I saw in the past contests we were asked what we would do with the laser cutter. Personally I would like to test different thin materials for robotics. Structurally speaking you can make laser cut material very strong intricate pieces. What I wish to accomplish is use this laser cutter to make structurally strong, versatile parts for advanced mechanics that will be used to make prosthetics. I hope to use it to help others be able to live easier lives with new limbs.
Step 1: Similarities and Differences
3D printing and Laser cutters have several similarities and numerous differences. In the simplest of terms both systems use a cartesian plane system. The caretsian plane system is where the extruder/cutter can go and traverses along the X, Y, and Z axis. The X axis is horizontal while the Y axis is vertical and Z axis moves the extruder/cutter closer and further from the piece. Main difference between the two is one extrudes (pushes out) material, whilst the other cuts material away or engraves it. Both require buying material. All 3D printers need plastic filaments and the laser cutters need the material that will be cut. Another important thing is the digital processing used to design what you are wanting to make. The files must be made in different ways in order to work for whichever system you're using. If you look online though most CAD systems (the Computer-Aided-Design system that allows you to make or cut what you want) will work for both systems.
A laser cutter will have a larger or smaller object cutting area, precision of the cut and what materials it will be able to cut depending on price of the machine. Most laser cutters can cut paper, cardboard, wood, and some plastics and can etch markings into all of them plus metal, stone and glass.
A 3D printer lays down PLA or ABS plastic with different amounts of precision and printable object size depending on the the price you pay for the machine. PLA is not nearly as strong as ABS seeing as it is starch based while ABS is petroleum based. Using either of these materials you can make 3 dimensional objects by melting a layering plastic on top of each other until you have the desired shape. This layering process is more time consuming than laser cutting but has more abilities than just right-angle designs as shown in picture six.
Step 4: Structure and Material
The first thing about using different materials and different machines for making boxes with dove tails is strength and how they are made. To keep things simple the materials used will be ABS filament for the 3D printer and panel ABS for the laser cutter. 3D printing is structurally different than laser cut pieces. If you print a flat piece for a side of the box, most people will make it thin, or hollow, to save on material and therefore save money. Both methods will make it less strong than laser cut material of the same size. When you laser cut something it is solid plastic which can still break but it is more brittle rather than just weak. Even when it is the same size, and same density, 3D printing is a layered process which makes it more susceptible to stress. Its like trying to snap a bunch of layered twigs versus a much thicker branch. The twigs will be difficult to break at first but over a period of time will break. The branch will last a longer period of time compared to the pile of twigs.
Step 5: What You Can Make and How You Can Make It.
This is a very simple design of a dovetail box that I made myself using Fusion 360. The dimensions are about 10X10X10in with each dovetail being .5 square inches. The first file is the bottom piece that has circular symmetry to it so that the second piece can be replicated four times yet all still fit together. If you download Fusion 360 you should be able to view the pieces, download them even, or look at the drawing of it with measurements and replicate it how you would like.
The reason I am displaying this is because the design I made is just the right thickness to be able to cut all the way through using balsa wood at a half-inch thickness. When cut with a laser the pieces would pop out of the original material and you could fit them together into the box, faster and easier but can possibly waste some material. It has very simple and symmetrical measurements and is an easy design to print out too. Once printed out you will have to scrape it off the printing table and then piece it together. A little more hassle but you will save material even if you do spend a little more time because of the printing. This simple design is able to be made by both a laser cutter and a 3D printer. It shows that 3D printers can replicate much of what laser cutters can, up to a point. Laser cutters still have a larger cutting area than 3D printers do.
Therefore it would be more cost effective to get a 3D printer and use it to print smaller pieces because they will still be structurally secure. If you want to make larger designs like perhaps a chair. You would be better off getting a laser cutter and use stronger materials rather than making a jigsaw puzzle of printed parts trying to make something strong enough to use.
I hope this lesson might have given you some insight and helped you decide on whether to get a 3D printer or laser cutter. I've entered this into the Epilog Contest, the CNC Contest, and 3D Printed Contest. If you learned anything or enjoyed the post please vote!