Lasercutter

Standard in the basic MIT inventory is the EPILOG 24" x 12" laser cutter with a price around € 15.000 and a bed of 600 x 300 mm.

At the low end there are many chinese lasercutters from € 3000 to even as low as a € 600 on eBay for cutters without basic safely switches.

We ordered a € 1500 one directly from China and it arrived with a broken laser tube. Tough luck. So we looked for an European importer, who can give guarantee and service on such machines if needed
Like HPCLaser in Halifax UK, who sells them under their own brand.

Their smallest cutter is the LS3020 with a bed size of 300 x 210 mm and costs about € 1350. The bigger LS3040 with a bedsize of 300 x 420 is about € 2950

The mini FabLab has a HPC LS3020. It cuts fairly well, though not as sharp as the Epilog with its presumably better optics.
The LS3020 cutter, with its proprietory driver board, will not work without a dongle and its software NewlyDraw is unfriendly, to put it mild. And Windows only.

If you want to set up the machine, you get half-chinese screens, with identical question marks on the two buttons you have to choose from (alway hit the left one...). NewlyDraw itself is a mix of a driver and a drawing program.
It will import .dxf, but will lose layer attributes, which means you have to define again in NewlyDraw what should be cut and what should be rastered.
And you can not export that file back into your computer.
So you have to define it again. And again.

You can learn to live with that, but this is not what you want in a fablab. You want to access the cutter as just another printer in a network. Unfortunately there is no open source laser software that does this.


As these machines are mechanically o.k., some folks in Holland discussed whether we could develop an opensource controller board, that can be dropped in any lasercutter, large or small.
Answer: let’s give it a try. So LaOS,  the Laser Open Source, project was born, which is progressing well.

A stable version of the driver board (rev. 4) is available and for sale at laoslaser.org. It sports a 100 mHz mBed processor, ethernet for network access, I2C, CAN.

Also the firmware is finished and will be honed over the coming months. See the LaOS WIKI for the progress. We have 16 LaOS machines working now (dec12).

Please note that we are not going to build our own laser cutter. There are a some initiatives for that like Lasersaur and Buildlog.net, but we focus on use.

Our aim is different. The HPC’s are mechanically good and with a 'brain transplant' they would offer an affordable A4 lasercutter for anyone who wants to make small things. For under 1500 euros. And on all platforms. But the LaOS board can drive any size lasercutter.

Thomas Oster in Aachen takes a complementary approach. He develops a user interface called VISICUT for the Laoslaser driver board.
It can be downloaded from www.visicut.org. With a small plugin you can directly print from Inkscape.

We learned some practical lessons using the LS3020:
- you can not hand a NewlyDraw machine to a fabber that pops in,
- you need a good outside ventilation and filters are expensive,
- do not operate without air assist as that fouls lens and mirror,
- watercooling is cumbersome if you want to take the cutter to a school.
[mar12: HPC announced the LS3020 LSCT, same machine but with better controls and Lasercut 5.3 software, for just over € 3000]

The original question was: can we at Protospace expand the lasercutter capacity with low cost chinese machines? The answer was: not yet.
Next question could be: are there smaller high end machine to provide this ?
The answer: yes, like the Epilog Zing (406 x 305) and the Trotec Rayjet (457 x 305). But they cost € 10.000

In november 2011 LIONLASER introduced their BabyLion with a bed of 460 x 300. With an inventive closed water cooling system and an expandable front-loading cabinet. High end quality for € 6000. Not open source.