3D printers are the hot new technology all over the news. But so far home 3D printers haven’t lived up to the Star Trek replicator hype. Many of the early companies are struggling as consumers realize 3D printers have severe limitations such as complicated software, slow speed, and a small number of available materials.
While 3D printers take up the spotlight, other technologies have been quietly improving and coming down in price.
Laser cutters. Pew pew pew!
They are a crafter or artists dream tool. They cut and engrave on the same run. If you work at all with 2D materials and haven’t tried a laser cutter, you simply must try one. MUST TRY.
Besides the obvious cool factor of cutting things with MOTHER-F’N LIGHT, what has me swooning?
1. They are surprisingly easy to use. And becoming easier.
Don’t be intimidated by their science fiction reputation. I have used both 3D printers and laser cutters, and if you can work photo-editing software and hit print you can use a laser cutter. This is a stark contrast to the complicated 3D CAD software necessary to create original designs for 3D printers.
The input file format for laser cutters are common drawing or image formats such as a vector, bitmap, or dwg. Create the image using your favorite program, no need to learn something new.
And the software used to run the lasers is becoming more intuitive every year. Glowforge recently made the news with a successful kickstarter. Although the laser itself is a little under-powered and small for serious artists, the software attached is a step up from the primitive programs many laser cutters come with.
2. They cut and engrave common 2D materials.
3D printers for hobbyists use a small number of thermoplastics. In contrast laser cutters are great with a wide range of organic 2D materials. This includes wood, paper, cotton cloth, leather, wool, or cardboard. They also cut many plastics like butter, such as acrylic. AND they etch/engrave all of those materials plus anodized aluminum and glass.
There are materials that should NEVER be cut by a laser, and for good reason. These can start on fire, emit toxic chlorine gas, or even cyanide smoke. Here is a complete list of good and bad materials.
Lasers can’t cut everything (yet, mwahahahah!). The major restriction is power. The higher wattage laser, the thicker material it can cut. Lasers that cut up to 1/4 inch wood or acrylic are fairly common.
3. Iterate a design quickly.
Lasers cut orders of magnitude faster than 3D printers print. In one hour I can cut hundreds of pieces, while the 3D printer has only created a few layers of one part.
Being able to engrave AND cut with the same tool at the same time magnifies the possibilities. Iterations are a snap. While one design is cutting I can edit another on the computer. Or if I don’t like the look when a part is finished I can make a few quick changes in my photo software of choice and upload the new files. BAM!
We use the laser cutter for Lumen Electronic Jewelry‘s new circuit board designs, such as the fox above. We cut and engrave wooden images of our circuits. This give us a much better idea of how the final jewelry will look. We can try different ideas quickly, with less cost and time than ordering circuit boards and waiting for shipping.
4. Lasers are more common than you think.
The laser cutter at my local makerspace Sector67 is the most used tool, and they have a lot of tools. For those of you who don’t know, a makerspace is like a gym, but instead of exercise equipment you pay a monthly fee to use their tools. Laser cutters are quickly becoming the cornerstone of makerspaces, and they are popping up everywhere. No two are alike in size or organization style. Check out this incomplete but huge list to find one near you.
Have a few thousand dollars eating a hole in your pocket? Soon you may also have a laser on your desk like a printer, such as Glowforge. But Glowforge is the new kid in town. Full Spectrum, Epilog, and Boss are some of the better established companies. Here is a good guide if you are considering buying your own. You can also import them from China for less $$$, but shipping and the import hassle usually makes that a wash.
So are you convinced to try a laser cutter? Do it! You won’t regret it.