What to look for in a desktop laser cutter?

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MillenniumFalsehood
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What to look for in a desktop laser cutter?

Post by MillenniumFalsehood » Fri Nov 11, 2016 7:33 pm

I'm going to buy one of these fairly soon. My budget is $500 or less, and I need the machine to be able to cut through 060-080 gauge sheet styrene. But I don't have a clue what I'm looking for... I would hope it would come with software, too. So what would you guys recommend?
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Post by ajmadison » Wed Nov 30, 2016 12:03 pm

Trying to not be a crabby naysayer, but at $500, you may want to rethink your budget. There's alot of information you'll need to digest here. I've been researching this topic for a long time.

At $500, you will have to be satisfied with a Chinese knockoff. And understand that you'll get what you pay for. There may not be enough wattage in the $500 desktop laser to cut through 60 thou stock. You'll need to research how much power you'll need to cut through that thickness. Also, the cheaper the CNC laser system, the shorter the lifespan of the laser itself. The laser has a fixed lifetime, and will need to be replaced after some fixed number hours of usage. They've been upgraded over the years, but research how the CNC will be controlled. The low end CNCs needed an attached computer to supply the g-code instructions, and once upon a time, those CNC machines did not have a USB port, serial only. Think that's been upgraded of late. But if there isn't the ability to plug in an SDCard and an internal computer controller (Arduino based, or similar) then you need to budget an external computer system as the controller.

But if your goal is to cut parts out of 60 or 80 thou sheet, and your budget is $500, you can get away with buying a "Mostly 3D printed CNC machine". For example:

http://www.vicious1.com/

If you know someone with a 3D printer and up for a challenge, here are all the open source parts for it. And if your Home Center doesn't stock the electrical conduit in this size, there are 2 other sets of parts for 3/4" OD and 1" OD.

http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:724999

You'll need to assemble the machine, set up the controller (RAMPS 1.4 -- Arduino based IIRC), level it out, then test shots. More importantly, because you're cutting parts, not detailing them, you can use a Dewalt grinder as the cutter head not a laser, which to be safe, requires an optically safe enclosure. I have actually been thinking of going this route, or similar. Not sure. If I had a machine that could cut out chunks of 3/4" maple, I could go into the furniture making business. *wink*

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Post by DaveVan » Wed Nov 30, 2016 2:59 pm

My 12x18 table 25 watt machine was $10,000. Now they have, like all tech, come down greatly. But you do get what you pay for.
To cut .080 plastic and get a good cut that requires little clean up requires 2-3 passes. Cheaper machines may not be able to replicate the cut lines perfectly. (my machine says repeat cuts are within .001 inch)
To me table size is number one. Many I've seen are just to small for any real work.
Wattage is 2nd.....but you can compensate for lower wattage......table size is set...as is accuracy.
Happy to talk offline as I have been using them for hobby use only for 15 +years. thx
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Post by Leepee » Sun Jan 01, 2017 4:30 pm

What about the Cricut Explore?
https://home.cricut.com/features

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Post by Kylwell » Sun Jan 01, 2017 4:39 pm

Leepee wrote:What about the Cricut Explore?
https://home.cricut.com/features
Those are blade cutters and won't cut anything thicker than 120lb bond paper.
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Post by Leepee » Sun Jan 01, 2017 5:38 pm

Kylwell wrote:
Leepee wrote:What about the Cricut Explore?
https://home.cricut.com/features
Those are blade cutters and won't cut anything thicker than 120lb bond paper.
With the deep cut blade it supposedly can cut material as thick as 1.5 mm according to Amazon.
On their page, it states you can try any material as long as its less than 2.0 mm.

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Post by Disillusionist » Sun Jan 01, 2017 5:40 pm

You get what you pay for....this especially applies to laser cutters/engravers. I've spoken to a number of people that have gone the "hobby machine" route and experienced nothing but frustration and grief.

If you really want a laser, my suggestion would be to save up enough money to purchase something made by a reputable manufacturer such as Epilog. If I remember correctly, an entry level machine such as the Zing can be had for around $6k-$7k. Another good option would be to purchase a used machine.

Actually, you may even want to drop the laser altogether and purchase a table top cnc router instead. They're definitely cheaper and can be incredibly versatile. I keep finding more and more jobs for my Stinger CNC that the laser simply can't do....specifically 3d work. Just a thought.
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Post by Disillusionist » Sun Jan 01, 2017 5:58 pm

I almost forgot to mention....and I think this is something a lot of people miss, while you can safely cut styrene via laser, the results you get aren't exemplary. The edges tend to shrink, melt and char making it difficult to get good clean cuts. Intricate cutting and engraving can be nearly impossible. Don't get me wrong, you can usually get acceptable results with a fair amount of tweaking, but nothing like what you would get with something like acrylic. When I get inquiries from customers about styrene cutting jobs, I usually try to steer them towards other alternatives such as modified acrylic.....which, unfortunately, is more expensive and limited in thickness options.
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Post by Leepee » Sun Jan 01, 2017 7:52 pm

Disillusionist wrote:I almost forgot to mention....and I think this is something a lot of people miss, while you can safely cut styrene via laser, the results you get aren't exemplary. ....
BTW, Can you cut styrene with one of those hot wire cutters used for styrofoam? Does it melt the edges as well?

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Post by Kylwell » Sun Jan 01, 2017 10:01 pm

Leepee wrote:
Kylwell wrote:
Leepee wrote:What about the Cricut Explore?
https://home.cricut.com/features
Those are blade cutters and won't cut anything thicker than 120lb bond paper.
With the deep cut blade it supposedly can cut material as thick as 1.5 mm according to Amazon.
On their page, it states you can try any material as long as its less than 2.0 mm.
They do so-so when cutting thicker plastic and since they're just pushing, not removing material, the edge is sloped and often has a cutting ridge. I've got several friends with them and the thicker you go, the more wastage you can expect. There are also some limits to how sharp a corner you can get.
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Post by Leepee » Sun Jan 01, 2017 10:30 pm

Kylwell wrote:
They do so-so when cutting thicker plastic and since they're just pushing, not removing material, the edge is sloped and often has a cutting ridge. I've got several friends with them and the thicker you go, the more wastage you can expect. There are also some limits to how sharp a corner you can get.
Good to know Kylwell. Thanks. I certainly can't afford either solution, but I'm just a newbie anyway.

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Post by Kylwell » Sun Jan 01, 2017 11:22 pm

Leepee wrote:
Kylwell wrote:
They do so-so when cutting thicker plastic and since they're just pushing, not removing material, the edge is sloped and often has a cutting ridge. I've got several friends with them and the thicker you go, the more wastage you can expect. There are also some limits to how sharp a corner you can get.
Good to know Kylwell. Thanks. I certainly can't afford either solution, but I'm just a newbie anyway.
I have been known to draw profiles out in Adobe Illustrator, print them out, glue them to sheet stock and carefully cut them out.

I also have a friend with a laser cutter. Very handy friend to have.
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Post by DaveVan » Mon Jan 02, 2017 8:55 am

Disillusionist wrote:I almost forgot to mention....and I think this is something a lot of people miss, while you can safely cut styrene via laser, the results you get aren't exemplary. The edges tend to shrink, melt and char making it difficult to get good clean cuts. Intricate cutting and engraving can be nearly impossible. Don't get me wrong, you can usually get acceptable results with a fair amount of tweaking, but nothing like what you would get with something like acrylic. When I get inquiries from customers about styrene cutting jobs, I usually try to steer them towards other alternatives such as modified acrylic.....which, unfortunately, is more expensive and limited in thickness options.
I'll disagree to a point. I have a 25 watt commercial machine. I bought it used but 20 years ago it was a $30K machine. With 3 different power settings with 255 settings within those I can cleanly cut styrene. It took me a good while to find that right mix of power to get there and different thickness requires different powers....but I got it to work. I sold a number of 'kits' to the model car guys of laser cut styrene. There is clean up......not much different than a current commercial injected kit.
I'd love a good CNC machine....but doubt I can justify both just for hobby use.
Current project....laser cut
http://media.fotki.com/1_p,rrbfbtfrdgbf ... UK8-vi.jpg

You are also correct you get what you pay for.....after 20+ years of use my machine still holds a .001 tollerence. thx
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Post by Disillusionist » Mon Jan 02, 2017 10:53 am

I agree completely. You can certainly get acceptable results with a fair amount of speed/power tweaking. I can vary both between 1-100% with my 50 watt machine. It also helps to knock the ppi back to something less than 500. Larger,. thicker panels cut from styrene really aren't a problem, unless you need to raster engrave on them.

I was referring more to requests I get from people looking for small, intricate parts cut from thin styrene as a cheaper alternative to photoetch. The machine can do the motions, but the styrene just can't hold the detail. Modified acrylic "envgraving plastic" works much better, but even it has its limits. I've had tiny parts cut beautifully, only to see them crumble to bits between my fingers when I removed them from the bed.

A completely different alternative to plastic for laser cutting small parts is a material called Polybak. I believe there's a company that re-brands it and markets it to model railroaders as "laserboard". If you haven't already tried it, you might want to look into it. It's neat stuff. In essence, it's just kraft paper that's impregnated with resin. For tiny parts, it beats any kind of plastic I've used hands down. I've cut window openings in model railroad kits with mullions that are only a few thousandths wide that are strong enough to withstand normal handling. It's pretty amazing stuff...although it does leave a fair amount of residue in the machine after cutting that's kind of hard to clean up.
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