“Ichiro”

Ever since we could see on the web video clips showing badass lasers cutting metal or plastics at speed light, I’ve always wanted to own my laser machine.

Currently, you can find great laser cutting services like ponoko, but when you are prototyping an idea, you can’t wait for days for design iteration, you must have your own tools at home. And besides, I just can’t wait!

A Chinese made laser machine?

Browsing along the web, I found out discussions on the CNC-zone forum about low cost Chinese laser machines and even if impressions were mixed, it was obvious that a lot of people took this opportunity to own their own laser machine.

I finally found out at York Laser an A3-sized machine, with a 50W CO2 laser tube, and with all the common options (air flow, red dot, USB connection) for a “reasonable” price, that is 1500euro (without customs/logistics costs).

The model is the 350D.

After a lot of exchanges about the product, the buying and importing process, etç… I decided to go on with that project and sent the amount by wire to York Laser. Two weeks later, the machine was waiting for the next cargo ship…

And Richael, my contact from York Laser sent me some photos.

The machine was then boarded a few days later on the “CMA CGM Don Carlos”, and 1 month later, it had made the trip from Xingang (Beijing’s main port) to Le Havre (France).

Well, at Le Havre, the machine was close to its final destination, but it still took more than a month to get rid of the customs procedures and to have it delivered, mostly because the French logistics service provider did not do his job… until York Laser called them.

For importing this kind of machine into the EU/France, you’ll need the invoice, the CE certificate and the bill of lading for the machine. The logistics service provider should handle the rest.

The cost for importing the machine was of 1000 euro, about 500 euro were for the logistics service provider, and about 500 euro were for customs. It brought the total cost of the machine to 2500 euro, which is almost what I had planned initially. If that seems expensive to you, you can check the entry prices for western-made laser machines, EPILOG for example… You’ll get the idea! (^_^)

Finally, 2 months and a half later, the machine was in my courtyard…

I unpacked it with care… nothing seemed to be broken.

I installed the driver/software, watched the tutorial videos and put on the CO2 laser security glasses I bought for the first tests… The laser fired as I hoped, that was great !

Then I took some time to understand how the machine was working and made a lot of tests…

I took the time to inspect everything, the wiring, I double checked the optical path, and in the end, the machine was working, but I was encountering some strange problems with circles that were rendered as ovals… My contact at York Laser always answered and tried to help, but it finally turned out that the back of the X motor was rubbing against the cable drag chain, and that friction was giving the X motor a hard time, while the Y motor had no problem, hence ovals instead of circles…

Yes, that’s it… it should not rub here…

I sandblasted the cable drag chain (about 1mm was enough), and there were no more contact and no more problems… perfect circles !

After that, I had other minors difficulties (mostly software issues), but York Laser answered quickly to my mails.

One last bad point was about one of the mirrors that was heavily scratched (the other mirrors and the lens were in great condition). I made a photo, asked and had to wait for a while before Richael told me they were sending me a brand new one…

Holy shit! What did they use to clean that one, emery paper!?!

So, that’s it for the whole story…

In the end, I can say I’m very, very pleased with the laser machine I bought from York Laser.

But keep in mind that for this price, you won’t get the quality of manufacturing you would get with an EPILOG machines for example… that’s obvious! For example, most of the locks put on the panels are totally useless on my machine, since their holes were drilled too far to allow them to lock properly the panels… I smiled when I saw that…

In fact, I don’t really care about those details, I just focus on all the core components (linear guides, motors, electronics), and they are to me of good quality and well assembled (I spent a lot of time checking the linear guides, the optical path and the worktable placements and assembly).

As an example, let’s take the controller module: I was lucky to choose a model/manufacturer that was selling his machines with this great controller. It seems to be the best controller a Chinese laser could come equipped with, and it seems to perform very well, but I didn’t know that until I bought this machine.

Keep also in mind that for setting up properly and maintaining your Chinese machine in order, you’ll need basic engineering skills…

Some friend of mine told me such a machine should own a name… I agreed… So mine is now called “Ichiro”! Don’t you know who the real Ichiro is ? (^_^)

Pimp my laser!

I’ve started by making a few modifications on Ichiro, mostly because I like cold war era style panels, so I put some lights and some raw metal switches for every function, just because I like it like that. I added a few fans under the worktable to help to get rid of the hot fumes that can stay under the materials and mark them sometimes, and I switched the neon tube for a led stripe lightning… because it looks soooo cool ! (^_^)

Now, how does it work ? How do you design and burn things, stuff & shit ?

Well, here we go…

Here’s a little video showing Ichiro, the main building blocks of a CO2 laser machine, along with the software used to design and cut some basic square-wave panel project:

A few more details…

The machine comes with 2 plugins, one for Coreldraw, the other for Autocad. Both of them allow you to export your work using colors, and define cut/engrave parameters for each color before sending the file to the machine DSP/controller.

The plugin allows you to read/write firmware parameters too … This is especially useful to perform X/Y calibration easily.

There are 2 main types of engraving/cutting modes : scan and cut.

  • Scan is for engraving, whether a bitmap or some text, with plain engraved letters.
  • Cut is for vector cutting or engraving. Cutting a given form, or engraving the shape of some text…

For each color/layer, you can choose the mode and specify the speed and laser output power. The best parameters are determined by trials and errors…

Usable power output ranges from 20% (under 20%, my laser doesn’t fire anything) to 100%. I personally try to keep it at 80% max when possible in an effort to preserve the laser tube…

For the scan mode, you can specify an interval mode, which is the interval between two scan lines, and use a “ramp” mode, that will create a gradient between a min power value and a max power value on a “ramp length” distance…

The only regret I have is that the driver doesn’t support gray images engraving, just black and white ones (1bit). So you have to deal with various methods to get a correct result. Again, it’s all about trial & error here… The fact that the controller handles the ramp features indicates that it can handle variable power output in scan mode, so it should be able to process directly a 8bit gray bitmap, specifying only the min and max power output… that would be a damn good software upgrade for the driver/controller board!

Here are some samples showing the use of the different modes :

Scan mode (first line) on extruded Plexiglas doesn’t give great results as the material stays transparent.

The vector mode (2nd and 3rd lines) seems to be a better option…

Cast Plexiglas is better for using scan mode…

Even with a very fine font size, it is still readable…

 

A vector pattern engraved on a MDF board…

The same vector pattern cut on paper. Notice that the paper is not burnt at all…

6mm cast plexiglas… it can be cut in one pass but doing it in two passes will give a cleaner result…

If you try to burn directly a bitmap in scan mode, you get this…

Pre-processing the bitmap using photoshop’s halftone B&W conversion really improves the result.

The pattern was described on this curious inventor’s blog post.

Sides fit nicely at first try without further adjustments, but I shouldn’t have put so much acryfix glue !

In fact, a drop put at each square-wave pattern is enough…

One tip : you don’t need to buy a UV lamp to make the acryfix work, you can put your object in direct sunlight, or use some 15w-20w compact fluorescent lamps, they’re emitting enough UV!

Well, that’s it for now…

If you have a similar machine and want to share experience, or if you have questions, feel free to contact me: nio(at)tenuki.fr

And if you want to buy your own laser machine, I suggest you have a look at the cnc-zone laser forum to discuss the issues some people had with York Laser…

Have fun!

Updates

09/2010

Here are a few tests done on 1mm balsa, 2.9mm balsa, 3.2mm MDF and 4.6mm plywood…

The first tests on 1mm balsa went wrong because the beam was too powerfull and caused “backfired” honeycomb reflected beams to cut the balsa from behind.

Ichiro is still working without any problem, and I received a brand new mirror free of charge from York Laser.

Summer 2012

I’m using Ichiro on a regular basis to cut various parts…

After two years, I guess that the laser tube has lost some of its power, but everything is still working fine, that’s great! (^_^)