Some of the most common questions I am asked are: Can I afford a laser engraver? What can I do with a laser engraver? How hard is it to learn to use a laser machine? In this post I will try to answer these questions.
In today’s economy, starting your own business with a laser machine has become increasingly popular for people from a wide variety of backgrounds. There are young entrepreneurs who found the existing job market is not enticing enough for them and are looking for new ways express their ideas and abilities. There are also those people who have had enough of stress of working for someone else and want to become their own bosses. Then there are those who are looking to retire but don’t want to retire completely and are looking for enjoyable ways to make their golden years more productive. Laser machines which were at one time exclusively used in large industrial businesses, have found their way into small businesses and many garages, basements and small offices in the home. Whatever your situation is, here are the top 3 reasons that I have found as to why a laser engraver may be the right choice for you.
1. Cost – In recent years the cost of buying laser machines have been reduced dramatically. As laser technology has developed over the years, the cost of many of the components used in building a laser machine has gone down sharply. For example, stepper or servo motor technology used in almost all machines, at one time cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to purchase and implement into a machine. Today, stepper motors can be purchased for a few dollars. Imports from China have also helped to bring the cost of laser engravers down. Machines that at one time cost tens of thousands of dollars are now available for less than the cost of a family vacation.
2. Flexibility – CO2 lasers have the ability to mark or engrave almost any material. Lasers are used for engraving wood, plastics, fabric, rubber, cork, anodized aluminum, leather, bricks, mirrors and paper, just to mention a few. Since lasers have been around for many years, quite a few materials have been developed specifically for laser engravers such as, multiple layered acrylics with various colors, ceramic tiles which can be laser engraved directly, or even spray on coatings for marking most metals directly. Since laser machine costs have been reduced dramatically, the cost of higher powered lasers have also been reduced. 60 watt lasers are quite common place and can cut up to 1/2″ acrylic or wood. With the ability to cut or engrave these wide varieties of materials, the only limitation is your own imagination.
3. Ease of Use – As I explained in my last post, laser engraving machines are really quite simple and anyone very quickly can understand how they operate. The key to using a laser engraver to its fullest extent is the software. Easy to understand software with simple controls is readably available. Just the fact that you are reading my blog post on your computer shows that you have a good understanding of computer software and have all the tools necessary to operate a laser engraver. On top of that, there are also literally thousands of premade files available that are designed already for use in laser machines. Most reputable laser machine suppliers will also include training as part of the cost of a machine.
Since the cost, flexibility and ease of use of laser machines are now within the range of abilities of almost anyone, the market place for these machines is expanding at an ever increasing rate. In every town, large or small, laser engravers are appearing everywhere. Many people have found the idea of going into business for themselves with a laser engraver not only appealing but also rewarding.
Laser machines are used to mark or engrave on almost any material. Not all materials however can be cut with most of the lower power lasers sold today. Most of the CO2 laser machines sold today are in the 25 watt to 100 watt range. For cutting, these lasers are limited to materials like wood, plastics such as acrylic or Mylar and most fabrics.
In this article I would like to discuss the cutting application for laser machines and save the engraving application for a later article. For those of you unfamiliar with laser machines, the engraving process is marking the top surface of a material while cutting is the process of the machine following a line or curved path to separate the material into two or more pieces.
One of the most commonly used materials is wood. Since wood is extremely sensitive to heat and lasers produce heat when contacting a material, wood has become one of the most widely used materials in laser machines. When cutting wood, heat is used to burn thru the wood. Since the cut in wood is burned, the edge cut will be darkened. The darkness of the edge will change depending upon the type of wood. There are many considerations to be taken into account when choosing a wood to be cut. Plywoods can be one of the more difficult materials for a laser cutter because the laser will also have to cut thru various layers of glue. Some of the other considerations would be moisture content and the graininess of the wood.
Another common material used in a laser cutting machine is acrylic. There are two basic types of acrylic, extruded and cast. In general, extruded acrylics will give a better looking edge when cutting while a cast acrylic gives a much better frosted looking surface when engraving. The slower you cut the acrylic the more you will get a flame polished edge. At higher speeds the acrylic will have a more frosted look and also show some striations. One word of caution however, acrylic is flammable and can ignite when cutting at slow speeds. Before cutting plastics, you should read the MSDS (Material Data Safety Sheet) to determine types of fumes the material gives off when burning. For example, when burning PVC or Vinyl, it will give off Hydrochloric acid, which is very caustic and will destroy your laser machine quickly. Most manufactures will void their warrantee if you’ve been cutting vinyl.
The last materials I would like to discuss in this article are fabrics. Most fabrics are made out of strands of materials which are woven together. If you cut these materials by conventional methods, these stands may become loose or frayed. Since the laser machine uses heat to cut the fabric, many times the laser will cauterize the cut, holding these strands together. Again, if you are unfamiliar with a particular fabric, I would suggest checking out the MSDS sheet.
Since most of the laser machines produced in the world today are in the 25 watt to 100 watt range, these lasers will not cut metals. In order to cut most metals efficiently, 500 watts or more is recommended as a minimum. Also, because of the heat many thinner metals tend to warp and not stay flat while cutting, the laser machine will need to have a height sensing unit that will allow the cutting head to move up and down to follow the material as it warps. As you’ll seed in my next article, laser machines can do a great job in marking metals.
The materials I’ve discussed in this article are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to laser cutting. If you have any questions or concerns about a particular material contact your laser machine manufacturer and they should be able to help you.
I’ve seen it happen several times over the years where someone will turn their noses up at a machine when they hear it has a glass tube laser. Many people have been brainwashed into thinking that these tubes are no good, won’t last, or have bad beam quality. Why do they believe this? Where do these myths come from?
Let me try to explain this by putting yourself in the position of a salesman selling a RF laser machine. You know you’re selling a product that is 5 to 20 times the cost of a glass laser tube. You know that your product actually has worse beam quality and with all the complicated components, won’t give the customer any longer life. You also know that many of your customers won’t be able to afford the repairs or replacement costs when it comes time fix their laser. How do you sell such a product? Well, you start by spreading rumors and keep perpetuating the rumors until they are accepted as fact. Unfortunately, these rumors have led many people down a very expensive path.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say RF lasers are no good. RF lasers have proven themselves to be a very reliable product. What I am trying to say is that glass tube lasers have proven themselves to be just as reliable, with several important advantages.
• Price – The biggest advantage of glass tube lasers is price. At 1/5 to 1/20 the price of RF lasers, these lasers offer huge price advantages. These cost savings not only affect the initial cost of a laser cutter, but also maintenance and repair costs. Because of this, people who have purchased these machines have found their start up and operating cost to be a lot lower, allowing them to offer lower prices on their products. I have talked to many customers who are beating the pants off their competition because of their start up and operating cost advantages.
• Laser Tube Quality – CO2 glass laser tubes have been around since their invention by Kumar Patel at Bell Labs in 1964. Since then, the development of glass tubes has not been stagnant, but they have evolved for almost 50 years. The sealed laser tubes used today are a product of these many years of development.
• Simplicity – As an engineer, I always tried to apply the KISS (keep it simple stupid) theory in my designs. The simpler the design, the lower the cost would be, while the reliability would go up. The simplicity of these tubes and the DC power supplies, which powers them, is one of their major advantages. The complexity of a RF laser and the electronics required for a RF generator is not only expensive but also just begging for something to go wrong.
• Beam Quality – Another major advantage is beam quality. Since all glass laser tubes are round they produce a perfectly round beam naturally. On the other hand, most RF tubes are square or rectangular and require special, expensive optics to convert the beam shape to round.
So the next time you hear someone saying something unflattering about glass tube lasers, try to remember where they are coming from. In most cases it’s from someone who is trying sell a product they know is more expensive than is required and would like you to open your wallets for reasons that they are trying to justify. As glass laser tubes have evolved over the years they can offer you many years of reliable service at a much lower price. This price savings is not only going to save you money in your initial purchase, but put you in a much more competitive advantage over your competition.
Lasers are everywhere, and while many of us think that laser technology is a new innovation, it really isn’t. For years, we have looked to lasers to revolutionize many industries and are still looking to use the technology to better our industries, companies, and institutions. Here are a few of the industries that know lasers all too well.
Engraving, Marking and Cutting – One of the least common known uses of lasers today is for engraving, cutting, and marking. While it makes sense that lasers would be involved in cutting, shaping, and marking our favorite materials like wood, steel, plastic, and soft fabrics, we tend to forget that they place such a huge role in said industry.
Medical Industry – More well-known, lasers are incredibly prominent in the medical industry, as well. Just think about it for a second: We use lasers for oral care, for surgery on newborns, and for skin treatment. The medical field just wouldn’t be what it is today without the help and push of medicinal lasers. Some medical divisions that use laser technology include gynecology, dermatology, optical surgery, and even medical imagery.
Beauty – Aside from medical and commercials, lasers are often associated with hair removal. In a society where we are constantly trying to obtain beauty, lasers are being integrated into the beauty industry, and people are paying top dollar to get the results.
The idea of laser cutting is simple enough. It is a laser that is used to cut materials. But how exactly does it work? Let’s take a refresher course:
Laser cutting works by directing the output of a high-powered laser at the material to be cut. The direction of the laser is controlled by a computer. The laser beam is focused onto the material that is going to be cut. As the laser beam hits the material, it vaporizes and leaves a very fine cut.
The strength of the laser is used to cut material of varying strengths. Laser cutting does not contaminate the material because there is a lack of physical contact.
Laser cutting uses light amplification. The word laser is actually an acronym that stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. A design is first read by a computer that uses the information to automatically guide the laser. The laser then makes cuts to produce an exact physical replica of the design.
Laser cutting is just one of many outlets of laser technology. Laser technology is based on the principal that electrons in an atom release photons when returning to their normal state.
Most lasers can emit a continuous beam or a quick pulse. The beam is used to make cuts while the pulse is used to make small piercings. Laser cutting vaporizes certain materials but melts other materials. The materials can determine the type of laser cutting that is implemented. When the laser is used to cut a melting material, gas is blown across the material to clear out the melted portion. With materials such as glass, a laser can create a small crack and then guide it in a controlled fashion to make a cut.
There are several different types of laser applications that are designed for specific uses. Laser technology makes it possible to cut through all different types of surface materials.