When making stuff, the details can make all the difference in the world between looking clean and polished and looking rushed. To get this right involves spending many hours cutting precise holes or edges. But as industrial technology gets ever more accessible, the possibilities for everyday folks get much better. One such tool is the laser cutter, a shortcut to awesomeness that everyone should try out.
This article is one in a series of Instructables articles about DIY technology. The full list can be seen here.
Step 1: Point of Light
Laser cutters work their magic by focusing a high-powered laser onto a material. The beam is focused down to a point as small as one-thousandth of an inch and can burn, melt, or even vaporize the material it hits. What type of material can be cut depends on the strength of the laser. A 30 watt laser can cut paper, acrylic, and hardboard while a 10 Kilowatt laser can cut through stainless steel that's one inch thick.
To control the path of the laser all you need to do is create a vector file and send it to the laser cutter. Many programs can create these files such as CorelDRAW, or Illustrator, or even the free and open-source Inkscape. Once the laser cutter has its path it can cleanly cut out whatever you want. It's a direct path from idea to real object without worrying about making all of the cuts or messing up along the way.
Laser cutters have been around for quite a while for industrial uses, but in the past few years theyve become more affordable. Epilog Laser now sells its Zing laser cutter which retails for $7,995. Thats not cheap enough for the casual builder, but it is affordable for a small business to use and many crafters have invested in them to make their own creations to sell.
Step 2: Laser Cutting for Everyone
One such business gives people the option of getting a file printed somewhere else. The website Ponoko specializes in such printing. Anyone can submit a file, choose a material, and Ponoko will cut it out for them for a fee. The best part is that small, one-off pieces can be made so builders can just upload a file, send it to be printed and get in the mail a short time later.
Beyond just cutting, the laser cutters can also etch materials. In this mode, the laser cutter burns an image into the surface of a material, line by line. The effect is different for each type of material. On acrylic, the etched area can look frosted, while wood can get a textured etched area as the laser burns away different amounts depending on how dense the wood is in any spot. One of our favorite materials to etch is anodized aluminum. Etch that and the resulting image has a ghostly quality about it. Looking lighter or darker than the surrounding area depending on the angle.
Another nice trick is to do a vector cut, but use very little power. This technique can etch grooves into a material so that it easily folds exactly how you want it to. Robert Lang has done this to great effect with his complicated and ornate origami. Not only are the results clean, but the scoring easily saves him hours of folding time.
In many ways, laser cutters are very useful for moving quickly from idea to reality. They are bound to become more and more accessible in the future. We have an Epilog laser cutter in the office and it's used often for cards, enclosures, faceplates, and a lot more. After using it for years it's still by far one of our favorite tools to use.
Ponoko - Get your designs lasercut and shipped to you
Epilog Laser - Laser cutter/engraver manufacturer
Universal Laser Systems - Laser cutter/engraver manufacturer
Thingiverse - A place to share lasercut and 3D designs
Photo below from Universal lamp shade polygon building kit by Dan.