Laser cutters are an amazing tool to have. They can make precise marks on almost any material. Cut through all different materials at different thicknesses. And engrave into most materials also.
As far as Subtractive Manufacturing goes Laser Cutting can be considered as important as CNC Milling. It may not be as versatile as CNC Milling or an Additive Manufacturing process like 3D Printing. But Laser cutting is so precise that for a Subtractive Manufacturing tool it hardly creates any waste or scrap material unlike CNC Milling and is much faster than Additive Manufacturing processes like 3D Printing.
One thing I know for sure, is that when you first get a laser cutter, or start working with one it can be difficult if you don't have someone to help you. I just recently got what is known as a "Cheap Chinese Laser" it is specifically a 50W Orion Motor Tech Laser Cutter that can be purchased from Amazon or even Walmart. I did tons of research from about 15 different sources so I was prepared with getting my laser and I still ran into some hiccups.
I hope this helps people that are having troubles with their laser cutter, or helps people who are considering purchasing one make up their mind. I will be covering the different kinds of lasers and why you may or may not buy a certain one. The problems that come with each (focusing primarily on the type I got). The primary components of Laser Cutters. If the winner of the Epilog Laser Contest takes a look at this, I hope I help you out on starting your journey into laser cutting!!!
Step 1: SAFETY
Laser cutters come in all shapes and sizes. No matter what shape, size, power or type of laser you have, they can cause some serious harm. Even some of the lowest wattage laser diodes can blind you, burn you, shock/electrocute you, or start a fire. Always ALWAYS research what kind of laser cutter/engraver you have so you know the proper safety equipment to get.
This can include safety glasses, a fire extinguisher, and higher quality lasers require water cooling systems and gas assist that require a water chiller and air compressor.
Make sure to use GFCI outlets. Surge protectors. Proper rated safety goggles (what works for a blue or green diode laser might not work for one that uses infrared light). Keep a fire extinguisher handy. Research the best accessories for your machine, too low or too high quality may damage your laser (like your water chiller and air compressor, lenses, mirrors, laser tubes and so on). Research the main components of your machine and what might go wrong, like electrical arcing, overheating tubes, faulty power supplies, improper focal distance, dirty mirrors and lens, power output too high, etc.
Have fun, but be safe.
Step 2: LINKS
These are links to the other tutorials I have made about important subjects of laser cutting.
Step 3: Which Laser Cutter Is Right for YOU?
There are three lasers that are primarily purchased.
- Diode Lasers (also Diode-Pumped Solid-State Laser, which is just as complicated as it sounds)
- CO2 Lasers
- Fiber Lasers
Diode Lasers are very simple lasers that use a high powered light emitter to burn material. They usually use Blue Diodes that run at about 445 - 450nm (1.6W - 4.5W) or Red Diodes that run at about 200mW - 300mW or 700mW. The Red Diodes are cheaper and weaker than the Blue diodes. Diodes do not use mirrors or lenses and therefore are rather weak compared to the other two laser cutter types. They are primarily used for engraving and marking items more than cutting but they are still able to cut with multiple passes.Usually used for paper and thin organic material.
Fiber Lasers use a optical fiber and use a rare earth medium like neodymium, thulium, erbium, ytterbium, dysprosium, praseodymium, or holmium to make the laser more powerful. Fiber lasers are incredibly expensive (the MOST expensive) but require much less maintenance and are much more durable and efficient with its power usage. They can be used for cutting, marking, welding, engraving, cleaning and more. Fiber lasers are the only laser described here that are able to do extensive work with metal, including cutting metal.
CO2Lasers are some of the most commonly bought lasers on the market. Their lasers are created inside of gas filled glass tubes when a large electrical pulse is sent through the tube and excites the molecules into a intense beam of infrared light. These lasers come in a large range of wattage, anywhere from 30W to120W, where the lower wattage is best for engraving and the higher ranges are better for cutting. These lasers require a water or air cooling system to keep the tube from over heating. Once the beam is emitted from the tube it is bounced across three mirrors and shot through a focusing lens before it marks/cuts the material. Because of the use of mirrors, lens and higher power, gas assist is highly recommended to extend life of accessories. They can be used to mark, engrave or cut through most materials excluding metal,
There are three different types of CO2 Laser Cutter companies, American made, Chinese Imported/American Audited, and Chinese Lasers. Each have their pros and cons.
American Made Laser Cutters are usually high quality machines that cut and engrave faster. The manuals come in english, everything works out of the box, software is reliable and easier to use, and there is a great support to be had by both the manufacturers and community. The main problem is going to be the size of the laser and the costs. The cheapest "decent" laser cutter will be around $4000. A truly reliable and good quality laser cutter will cost you $8000 and up. That will just be for the laser cutter itself, you must also take into consideration how much water chillers for the cooling system will cost, air compressors for the gas assist and new laser tubes for when the old ones die and the cost to have someone come install it. All these accessories will be much more expensive because they are american made. Companies include Glowforge and Full Spectrum Laser (lower quality), Epilog Lasers, Trotec Lasers and Kern Lasers (VERY HIGH QUALITY)
Chinese Imported/American Audited Laser Cutters are Chinese knock-offs that have had parts replaced and the entire system has been checked by american companies. This can include making sure the laser tube and power supply are up to par and working right. That the gantry is in line properly, mirrors are good, servo controller is good, software is not faulty, and everything is safe. Along with this you get warranties on parts and the same customer service you would get with an American Made Laser Cutter. Which means if you have any problems you can ask the company or community about it and get it solved quicker and easier. Lasers like these are not as expensive as American Made Lasers but they are not cheap by any means and usually run about $3500 - $8000. Accessories are cheaper though because you don't need as high quality pieces and can install them yourself most the time. Companies include Universal Lasers, Rabbit Lasers, and Boss Lasers, G.Weike. Each company is good quality but different people have their own preferences.
Chinese Lasers are just what the name implies, laser cutters made by chinese companies and sold in the US or imported to the US. Like most things from China, these lasers are subpar at best. Much of the time the lasers are just put together at the bare minimum, sometimes screws aren't tightened all the way. Tubes are broken during shipping or are sold as a stronger tube than they are. Power supplies are defective. Gantries are not properly square. Mirrors are broken or physically can not be aligned properly. The controllers are not compatible with most software or are defective. Instructions and program are not in English occasionally. These are all problems that COULD happen, not that WILL happen. A lot of the time, if you do your research, you will still get a good machine that can do the same work as the other two types, just slower and with a bit more work put into it. Effectively, Chinese Lasers are for tinkerers. You will not be able to get any useful support from the manufacturer but there is a HUGE community for chinese lasers. All you have to look up is K40 lasers, or K50 lasers, which are references to the "40W" and "50W" laser tubes that the most commonly owned laser cutters use. With that you will find tons of forums, discussions, videos and tutorials about your laser, or at least a laser similar to yours. As far as companies and branding goes, many of the chinese lasers are just referred to as "White and Blue" "Red and White" Lasers and so on. In reality they are all the EXACT same laser, with small differences the company might have made to them, maybe they put in a different controller, or you have a motorized bed, or the power supply is of better quality. Either way most people get their lasers of off Ebay (unreliable cause of so many options) Amazon (Little better Quality) Walmart (almost good quality because they offer warranties) and a number of other websites, but these are the main ones. My laser is available on both Amazon and Walmart, it is the Orion Motor Tech laser, the Dark Grey and Blue one that is 50W. As I was assuming, it actually had a 40 Watt laser tube in it instead of a 50 Watt, but the reason I still purchased it was because it had everything ELSE for a 60 Watt laser!!! All that needs to be done is open up a bracket and install the tube when the initial one dies. I bought it from Walmart and I'd say it is a reliable way to go. Cost for a K40 is usually around $400 while the higher quality one i got was more around $1500. The tubes will be much more cheaper, the pumps and air compressors usually come with the machine (mine did) and it leaves room for adding and upgrading your system.
Step 4: Buying, Shipping and Unboxing
From lots of research online I decided I would purchase from Walmart, its a large company, has warranties, others had purchased from there and I actually had a discount from there (I didn't even have to pay tax, possibly cause it was imported already). Next best bet would be Amazon. The machine I got was the 50W (really a true 40W) Orion Motor Tech Laser Cutter the Dark Grey one not the White one that goes for about $1400. The shipping and handling says it will weigh around 300 pounds, it will require a specialized moving company that will be provided already during the purchase and will be delivered in a large wooden box. The shipping company will call a few days after purchase and you will be able to set a date and time for them to drop it off and maybe even move it into your place.
WHEN YOU RECEIVE IT!!!! You have the right to keep the shipping company there while you open up the box and look at what you purchased. First thing you must do is bust open the back and front end of the box so that you can open up the front of your laser cutter. There will be a "key" hanging from inside the laser cutter, use it to unlock and open up the back of your laser cutter to see if the CO2 Laser Tube is intact. The Laser Tube is the most fragile object in your laser cutter and you want to make sure it is not broken. If it is MAKE SURE to get a CLAIM NUMBER because this is what you will use to get a new laser tube instead of having to buy one yourself out of pocket. Once you see everything is fine you can give clearance for the shipping company to go.
At this point the box is already broken open and you see that there is a vent, a bag, and a rotary attachment and under the table will be a air compressor and water pump. In the bag you will find a power cord for the laser cutter, silicon adhesive (used for the laser tube), Ethernet cable, white tape, USB cable, CD, Manual, Allen Wrenches. The power cord is similar to a computer cord and will plugged into the right side of the machine. The silicon adhesive will be used when you change out the tubes, it is the insulator that attaches the wires to your tube. The Ethernet cable I believe is for connecting your computer to the machine, as is the USB cable. As for the CD and Manual I haven't hardly glanced at them. Lastly the Allen Wrenches are good for the hardware on the machine. The rotary attachment is used for engraving on round objects and will be used at a later date.
It is recommended that you get some help moving this, after taking everything apart it is really only about 150 pounds but it is large and bulky and incredibly difficult lifting up three flights of stairs, believe me I should know.
Step 5: Where to Put Your Laser Cutter and What You'll Need
When cutting materials laser cutters will often emit rather bad smelling smoke and occasionally harmful vapors. Because of this it is important to install your laser cutter nearby a window where the vent tube that comes out the back of your laser will be able to expel those vapors out of your house. I personally have my vent attached to the outlet for a clothes dryer and it works perfectly.
If you have a room that has access to multiple outlets this will also help because laser cutters have extra accessories that also need to be plugged in. The laser cutter itself has outlets that you can plug these accessories into. From the research I did I learned the outlets on the Laser Cutter are not always reliable, so I instead attached a surge protector outlet splitter to the outlet in my closet and plugged everything up to it. If possible make sure to use a GFCI outlet and a surge protector to protect from water shorts and power surges.
The accessories you will need will be the Water Pump/Water Chiller for cooling your CO2 laser tube and the Air Compressor for keep your optics clean. (Both were provided with this package that I bought). There is also a tutorial for making an Isobox for your air compressor included in this Instructable, it will require an outlet too. All in all you will need four outlets. The two accessories will each fit into a five gallon bucket, so when planning on placement make sure you have enough room for those two buckets to be in close proximity to the laser cutter.
Step 6: Setting Up
- Do a quick run through of your machine by opening of the side and checking the power supply and seeing that all the wires are connected. Open up the back and check that those wires are connected and the fan is spinning fine. Open up the front/top of the machine and move the laser head up and down and left to right. There will be a nob at the bottom right of the bed twist it left and right and make sure the bed raises up and down and stays level.
- Check the three nipples at the back of the machine, if you want go ahead and hook up the air compressor and turn it on to see if air is blowing through the head feel free to do so.
- Prep the water cooling system by getting some Distilled Water and filling up a five gallon bucket with it (only put two or three gallons in) and filling up some ice cube trays and freezing them.
- Put the water pump in with the water and dump the ice in it
- Attach the tubes for the pump to their corresponding nipples on the back of the laser cutter
- Attach the blue vent tube to the back of your laser cutter and secure it by tightening up the strap.
- Make sure all the power switches on the side are in the off position.
- Make the Isobox for the air compressor.
- Plug in the fans for the Isobox, plug in the air compressor, plug in the water pump.
- Make sure the water is running through the laser tube fine and there are no leaks. Feel by the laser head and make sure the air is exiting through the bottom of the laser head. Make sure the fans on your Isobox are running nice and smoothly.
- Plug in the laser cutter and switch it on and make sure the exhaust fan is working and lights are on.
Step 7: Software
Because the controller is RUIDA the machine is compatible with most software. The one I use and hear a lot of others use is called Lightburn. It is real simple to use and you can get a 30-day free trial to test it out before paying the $80 for the lifetime access. You do not have to use Lightburn, it is just what I started out using.
To begin, you make a design, using any kind of Cad Software (Fusion 360, Solidworks, AutoCAD, etc) save it as a PDF (like I do) or any of the other five or so compatible files and open it in Lightburn. Once it is opened you have the option to click and drag the design to any place on your machines work area, change the size, add a few simple touches and more. Once you have it placed you can fine tune the settings of what your going to do, like adjust the speed and strength of the laser for either cutting, scanning or cut+scan or optimize the path the head will traverse. Once done, attach the USB to the machine and click the frame button. This has the laser head go around whatever you are going to mark/cut so you can make sure the work piece is in the proper place. Hitting START will set the laser head along the path to be cut, even if you do not have the Laser Tube turned on, it will still go along this path. The PAUSE button will stop it, and hitting the START button will make it continue from where it left off. Pressing the STOP button will turn the laser off and return the head to home.
Step 8: Tests
There are a number of ways running tests on your laser cutter. A main focus for laser cutting tests is to find the FOCAL POINT. The perfect distance that optimally Cuts/Marks your material. Because if the FOCAL POINT is too HIGH then the laser is losing power and will make the Cut/Mark too large and ugly. If the FOCAL POINT is too LOW then you may accidentally cut into the piece, or if your intention IS to cut through the piece, the beam is too strong and will burn the edges of the work piece as the laser goes through. This may not just be any one point either, because you will have different materials that are different shapes, sizes, and consistencies, the FOCAL POINT may vary slightly.
When cutting occasionally you want the FOCAL POINT BELOW the top of the work piece. Because when cutting you are actually carving out an hourglass like shape in the material. Having the focal point just below the work means that you are using the strength and kerf of the laser efficiently. When engraving you usually want the FOCAL POINT EXACTLY ON the work pieces surface so have a nice clean edge.
To find the EXACT FOCAL POINT you can do what is called a slant test. All focal lenses tell you what their focal distance "should be" usually 1in, 2in, or 4in, there are more but these are you main ones. So figure out which lens you have so you can ballpark how far your piece should go down for the test cause it's not exact.
- Now you get a piece of you material and you put something under one end of it and put it at a very gradual angle hence the name of "slant test".
- In your program make a box or a line that goes along the slant and run the program, make sure you are wearing your safety equipment and the housing is closed!
- As the laser moves across the material the laser burns should start of thick and ugly and burn up the material, but as is approaches the FOCAL POINT the laser burns will get thinner and finer unitl it passes the focal point and gets ugly again.
- There will be a point were the mark is the cleanest and finest, that is the right distance for the FOCAL POINT.
- Measure the distance from the bottom of your Laser Cutter head and that point and that is the "PERFECT DISTANCE" and you want to remember that distance cause the rest of your tests are based off that.
- Always do this simple test when working with a new material, just to be sure.
You now have the "PERFECT" FOCAL POINT DISTANCE so set your material to that distance and prepare for the test to find the optimum SPEED, POWER and DISTANCE. Didn't we just find distance? Yes but for cutting, engraving and marking each needs a slightly different distance to work optimally.
Since we already found the distance that makes a nice fine line we will start with LASER MARKING.
- You can look online for a Material Test Code Image or you can design your own.
- To make your own you will need to keep record of your SPEED, POWER, DISTANCE, FOCAL LENS, MATERIAL+MATERIAL THICKNESS, and # OF PASSES.
- Design it so that it showcases at least ten different shades of marking starting with none, to a nice crisp black like shown in the color wheel in the picture or squares in line with each other so you can clearly see where one ends the next begins.
- Put the same line of text in different fonts and different sizes to see how they are affected by the tests.
- Test at different POWERS with the same SPEED, then change the SPEED and test different POWERS and repeat.
- Then test at a different FOCAL DISTANCE and repeat Step 6.
- Only stop when you feel your machine is capable of using ONE setting to make nice crisp edges with good contrasting shades
Speed is often a big issue with marking, because to fast it wont mark, and too slow it will burn. Experiment with masking/painters tape covering the work. Once you peel it off it can get rid of scorching around the work. A 1in lens is good for this application because of its tightened focus.
For ENGRAVING it is best to start out at the "PERFECT" FOCAL POINT DISTANCE
- Repeat steps 2 - 8 but with the Cut and Mark option selected in your software.
- This will turn those marks into engraving.
- The darker the shade will translate to a deeper engraving of the material.
With different materials you can only engrave so much before it does not look good anymore. Engraving on acrylic will take a number of tries before it looks good. Beware working with mirrors because your engraving will also be reflected (really just stay away from them, they suck). For larger vectors, defocus your laser. The tape trick will also work here. A 2in lens works very well for engraving.
For LASER CUTTING you dont need all the extra shading stuff. You will primarily be focusing on cutting out squares to make sure you get a good finish on both sides and the cut is to dimension on The inside and out.
- Consider making a design similar to a ruler. where each measurement nick is actually a rectangle that must be cut out.
- Cut out circles also to be able to make sure it can cut during turns.
- Cut out triangles with different angle sizes to make sure the corners dont catch on the work piece.
- Repeat steps 6 - 8 except with cutting a clean, square piece that is the proper measurement and not burned around the edges.
Adding tape to both sides of your work piece is great for this action. Depending on the material (woods) there may be residue left after the cut around edges that the tape will fix. Don't be scared to make multiple passes to get through a piece of work. However, more passes will not make as clean a cut, so know your limits. When cutting there is a kerf, make sure to account for this and diagnose how much deviation there is on the inside of the cut and outside of the cut when testing. A 4in lens is good for cutting because of the extended focus.
Step 9: Cutting
Take a look at the Aligning the Laser Cutter Mirrors in case you haven't already. This is an important step to do and if you have not then you may be getting mixed results from your tests. If you have aligned everything and have completed you tests then you are all ready to start on an actual cutting job. Feel free to go online and look for a cool design, or perhaps make one of your own. If for whatever reason the Job does not go well go back through your tests and see what fixed similar problems and try those solutions.
Step 10: IMPORTANT TOPICS
There is so much to talk about when it comes to laser cutters but I can only fit so much in without boring your.
- Tons of companies lie when it comes to them saying out powerful their lasers are. They go by the Max power not the Rated power. Check the True Wattage by measuring the length of the tube
- 50 x 720mm = 35 Watt Tube
- 55 x 800mm = 40 Watt Tube
- 55 x 1000mm = 50 Watt Tube
- 55 x 1200mm = 60 Watt Tube
- 80 x 1200mm = 80 Watt Tube
- 80 x 1400mm = 100 Watt Tube
I am not a pro, but I have done tons of research and have been able to fix every single problem I have come across.
Step 11: Questions?
Usually I would have a Common Problems page here. But because there are plenty of things that could potentially go wrong so I ask that you please feel free to ask me specific questions and pay attention to the Important Topics page. I may not have all the answers but I will answer what I can and suggest other places where you may find answers if it turns out I don't have them. Laser cutting is really fun, and I highly suggest for others to give it a try. Many people make good money running a side business with them. Start out by looking for a Hackerspace nearby you to see one in action if you are interested. Or better yet find a buddy who has one of their own. A Laser Cutter paired with a 3D printer, a CNC Mill and a good imagination, anything is possible!