Introduction: Welcome to Laser Cutting
Laser cutting is nothing short of a magical tool for makers. Laser cutters are precise and versatile, allowing you to make a project as simple as personalized drink coasters or as advanced as quadcopter drones. It's also a great way to learn to design things that are made up of 2D panels, and with that skill, you can make just about anything.
If you don't have access to a laser cutter, it's no problem. Ponoko is an online service bureau that will cut out your projects for you in a wide variety of materials. They're reasonably priced and they do excellent work.
In this class, we'll learn laser cutting by making 2 projects...
Project 1: Tissue Box Cover
Using Makercase, a web app that generates a laser cut box panel layout by entering dimensions, we'll make a tissue box cover.
Project 2: 2D Puzzle
Next, we'll learn the basics of 2D design in Adobe Illustrator and Autodesk Graphic by making a 2D puzzle. We'll draw the puzzle piece shapes and overlay a raster image for etching.
What Is Laser Cutting?
“Laser” is an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. Originally theorized by Albert Einstein in 1917, It’s basically just highly focused, highly amplified light. A stream of photons from a flashlight has a phase and amplitude that vary randomly with time and position, meaning coherence only happens over very short distances. A laser, on the other hand, has a high degree of coherence, meaning the light has limited diffraction, is polarized, and has a single, consistent frequency over a long distance.
Think of it this way: a magnifying glass can burn a leaf by focusing sunlight on a single spot, but if you move it out of focus by a tiny bit, it stops burning. The spot you’re burning is about 1/4” across, and you can burn at a depth of less than a millimeter.
With a laser, you can focus the light to a tiny spot about .004” across, and you can burn through 3/4” thick plywood without the beam spreading out.
Laser cutting is basically just a laser on a CNC gantry. The machine takes a set of vectors, points, or raster images in the form of G-code and moves the laser around to cut and / or etch into the material.
Laser cutting was first developed by the Western Electric Engineering Research Center in New York in 1965 as a way to drill holes through diamond dies. Since then, it’s been used for a number of industrial manufacturing applications. In 1988, Epilog founded with the concept of making laser cutting available to small businesses and home craftsmen. With the release of their Zing model in 2008 for less than $10,000, laser cutting quickly became accessible for makers everywhere.
WHAT'S IT GOOD FOR?
With a typical laser cutter, you can cut a variety of materials such as paper, wood, fabric, leather, and plastics. You can also etch these materials, glass, metals, and even food like chocolate or tortillas.
The use of a laser cutter to a maker comes down to three things: precision, repeatability, and speed. Once you've got your design worked out and your settings dialed in, you can produce lots of exact copies of the same piece to your heart's content.
Tools and Materials for Laser Cutting
Here is a complete list of tools, materials, and services that will help you follow along with the class.
Autodesk Fusion 360 (free)
This is a powerful 3D modeling platform that's easy to learn but has endless potential. With it, you can design complex 3D objects for practically any kind of fabrication, digital or otherwise.
- Follow one of the links above to download the app (don't use the App Store on Mac).
- Enter your email and download the free trial.
- Install and setup a free Autodesk ID account.
- When you open Fusion, select the Trial Counter in the upper toolbar (it tells you how many days are left on your trial).
- In the next dialog box, select "Register for Free Use".
- Sign up as a Start-Up or Enthusiast (Free). You can also Sign up as a Student or Educator (Free) if you're a student or educator at a registered institution.
- Select the "I accept Terms and Conditions" checkbox and click Submit.
A browser-only version is in the works, but hasn't been released yet. It's in beta right now, but check this link after November 15 for an announcement about a release date: Project Leopard
Laser Cutter (Optional)
The Epilog Legend 36EXT is the laser cutter model we have in the Pier 9 Workshop. This is a 120 Watt laser that requires 220V power and it costs about $30K, so it's hardly prosumer grade, let alone hobbyist grade. That being said, I find that this machine is commonly owned by maker spaces. Its operation and material choices are representative of most laser cutters within this price range from other companies.
There is a pretty wide array of options for laser cutters, from $200 DIY machines to the $250K Mmtabeam. Unless you want to get into laser cutting simply for engraving, I wouldn't bother with the low cost / low power machines.
If you don't have access to a professional grade laser cutter at a makerspace, I would recommend getting your parts cut by Ponoko. They're affordable, fast, and do high quality work. They have a wide range of materials including wood, plastic, paper, leather, and bamboo to name a few. Please note that they're located in the US and international shipping can be expensive. Their interface is easy, and you can even sell your projects through their site.
Pololu is another Service Bureau option. They're international, have high quality results, and are affordable. This is a great option if you're outside the US.
In this class, we'll cover the Epilog laser cutter to demonstrate the operations, but any one of the lessons can be done through Ponoko. Ponoko has another added benefit: you don't have to clean up your parts and you're pretty much guaranteed to get perfect results every time.
Here are the other tools and materials we'll be using for this class:
1/8" (3mm) plywood($7): We'll use this for the Tissue Box and the Puzzle. The link is for a 24" X 30" (610mm X 762mm) piece, which should be enough to do both of the projects. Remember that the laser bed is 24" X 36" (610mm X 915mm), so it's probably worth it to find a local source and get some pieces that are full-size.
1/4" (6mm) plywood ($8): We'll use this material for the Smart Phone Stand and the Lamp. The link is for a 24" X 30" (610mm X 762mm) piece. Remember to always order extras in case you mess up!
6" Painter's Tape ($50): This will save you loads of time and frustration down the road. It's the quickest way to mask your material and prevent it from getting soot stains, which will make your life much easier. Trust me, it's worth the money!
Digital Calipers ($9): Every maker needs a pair of these. They make it easy to measure complex objects. We'll be using them for the Smart Phone Stand project.