How to Schedule Time on the Laser

[Updated. Change of plans as requested by Colab managers.]

There is now a short online form to fill out to schedule time on the laser, which you can find by clicking on Schedule at the top of the web page. The form goes directly to a Colab volunteer, who will try to respond promptly (usually within a few hours). The volunteer will try to arrange for a Colab key holder to be available to open the building for you. If that’s not possible at your requested time, they’ll work with you to find a mutually agreeable time when you can use the laser.

The Google Calendar is now read-only, and gives you a view of what times have already been reserved or blocked out. You can view the calendar by clicking on Schedule at the top of the web page, or directly by following this calendar link. On that view you’ll find a button to add the calendar to your own calendar, if you wish.

The Google Group I previously set up to provide access to the calendar is no longer needed for that purpose, since the scheduling volunteer will update the calendar.

Please schedule the time you need, as far in advance as you can. The Colab key holders are happy to arrange a convenient time for you, but they can’t be expected to show up right away without advance notice. If you’re already at Colab and the laser isn’t already scheduled for someone else, you can ask any key holder who happens to be available if they can let you use the laser.

If you can’t make it at the scheduled time, please do your best to let us know. The scheduling volunteer will let you know who to contact if you need to cancel.

In the future, we hope to have regular open hours when you can be sure Colab is available, and a fully automated way to schedule time on the laser during those hours. In the meantime, and for hours when Colab wouldn’t otherwise be open, going through the scheduling volunteer lets you get time on the laser and access to the building in a single step.

Laser is Fixed!

The replacement mirrors and lens arrived this morning, and I got them installed and working this afternoon. The laser is functional again, maybe even a little better than before. Let the artmaking resume!

I replaced mirror 2 (which might have been OK), mirror 3 (which was trashed), and the focus lens (which was destroyed). Did a full alignment on the optics, and a rough spot-check on the table leveling.

People have noticed that the laser seems weaker on the lower right and works best in the upper left region of the work area. It’s normal for there to be some small differential, because of the longer beam path to reach the lower right, but it was much worse than normal. I think it’s improved now. A cut that worked at speed 17 in the upper left required a speed of 13 in the lower right.

The new lens has a slightly different focus point than the old lens, for whatever reason. I have adjusted the autofocus probe to what seems to be the best focus point for the new lens. If you prefer to measure, you’ll find the new focus point is several millimeters longer than before. That is, the table is a bit lower with respect to the cutting head.

People have had trouble cutting half-inch plywood. I was able to cut a small square out of half-inch plywood today, in a single pass at speed 17 (or 13 in the lower right corner) at 100% power. There was some charring on the edge of the wood, but nothing that wouldn’t sand off. The only trick I used was to focus a bit down into the material, instead of at the surface. The Z axis setting I used was about where the autofocus probe touches the material, but that was just an educated guess. You’ll still need to experiment with settings and focus heights to find a configuration that works with your specific plywood.

I still think we can get better cutting of thick plywood (half-inch and maybe thicker) by getting a stronger air-assist compressor. I’ll look into that soon.

I hope to see you and your laser-cut art at YOUtopia!

Laser is broken

The laser is offline for repairs. Replacement parts are expected to arrive on Wednesday, October 8, and if all goes well I’ll get them installed on Thursday. Apologies to those of you planning to use the laser in the next few days for last-minute YOUtopia projects.

In the photo gallery below, you can see the damage. The zinc selenide lens has a hole blasted in it, and most of the surface of the final mirror (a few inches above the lens) has been ruined, with the worst damage in one localized area. These parts need to be replaced (about $300). Besides that, there’s a notch out of the aluminum mirror holder at the top of the cutting head. That won’t cause any problems, as far as I know. There was also a coating of reddish powder on the inside of the tube between the mirror and lens, which I presume to be oxides of the material blasted out of the lens.

I am not sure exactly what happened. Clearly, the laser beam itself did all this damage, but what went wrong first, and are all three types of damage the result of the same sequence of events? I don’t know. There are basically two things that can go wrong: gross misalignment, causing the laser to hit the holder instead of the mirror, or crud on the mirror and/or lens. I didn’t find any gross misalignment when I checked, so I suspect there was crud on the mirror and lens.

If there was crud on the optics, it was probably a build-up of smoke deposited by burning plywood. If there’s crud anywhere on the optics when the laser passes through, it gets hot, possibly burns, and damages or destroys the optical surface it’s on. Once the optics are damaged, the laser beam can bounce around unpredictably and cause additional damage. Once the surfaces are no longer pristine, the heat left behind by the laser beam causes the damage to accelerate quickly.

Put this down as a lesson learned about keeping the laser’s optics clean. I will try to do more preventative maintenance, but every laser user needs to be aware of the issue. At the beginning of your laser session, shine a flashlight at the mirror in the cutting head (look sideways at the left side of the top of the head) and see if there’s any visible crud on the mirror. If you see any, you can clean it (if you know how to clean it without causing damage!) or stop and report the issue.

If you end up making a lot of smoke during your laser session, please inspect the mirror again at the end. Make a note in the log. Post a note to warn the next users. Let me know if the mirror needs cleaning.

Unfortunately, the lens can’t be inspected without taking things apart, so I don’t recommend you do that routinely.

If you notice the laser isn’t behaving as expected, please let me know directly. Email is best (my address is on the wall). Make a note in the log book, too. Sometimes we can catch a problem and fix it before it causes permanent damage to the optics.

Rotary Adapter Arrived

We now have the rotary adapter for the laser at Colab. This enables us to engrave on cylindrical objects, including tapered cylinders such as beer glasses.

I’ll update here when I’ve tested it out. If you have an urgent job that needs the rotary adapter, let me know and we’ll try it out together.

Rotary adapter for engraving cylindrical objects on the laser.

Rotary adapter for engraving cylindrical objects on the laser.

CorelDraw X7 Installed

We now have CorelDraw Graphics Suite X7 installed on the Colaser computer. It’s a very full-featured vector drawing program, and it also comes with Photo-Paint (a bitmap editing program), PowerTrace (for converting bitmaps to vector), and a bunch of other stuff.

If you’re still trying to decide what vector drawing package to learn, CorelDraw is a reasonable choice. You can get the Home & Student edition for about $130. We have the full version at Colab, since it supports more import file formats you might want to use, but for original drawings the Home & Student version is probably fine.

Laser Scheduling

Now that we have some people trained and checked out on the laser, we need a scheduling mechanism to reserve time on the laser. Eventually this should be automated and easy, but for now Meg <> has agreed to handle the scheduling manually. Please contact Meg to arrange time on the laser.

Between now and YouTopia, priority will be given to people working on the Temple and art projects for YouTopia. If you have other projects, let Meg know and she will still try to find a timeslot for you.

Laser Classes

Training classes to use the laser will be held at Colab on Sunday, September 14 beginning at noon, and again on Thursday, September 18 at 7pm. These two sessions may already be full; if you need to laser something before YouTopia contact Meg to see if you can get on the schedule. More classes will be scheduled as needed.

Expect to spend about 90 minutes in the classroom, followed by hands-on time in the laser loft.

Souk Table decorated

Dave on behalf of Sol Diego volunteered to construct the furniture for the San Diego presence at the Souk at Burning Man 2014. The table top is to be the centerpiece, decorated with a pattern blended with the Quemaduras del Sol sun. The technique is to mask the wood with masking tape, cut patterns in the tape with the laser, and then spray paint the masked areas (rinse, repeat).

Look! Actual Burning Man art being created on the laser! That’s a milestone.

First test of raster engraving

This 8×8-inch square of plywood was engraved at medium resolution, 529.2×529.2dpi. The original image was a grayscale and resolution test image intended for photography, and it was dithered by the built-in “simple dither” operation. The results are decent, but it took over an hour to engrave. That’s a lot slower than I expected. This machine seems to be quite a bit slower at rastering than the Hurricane laser at MakerPlace.

8×8-inch test pattern engraved at 529.2dpi.

8×8-inch test pattern engraved at 529.2dpi.

Attempt to cut thick plywood

Tried to cut some half-inch and three-quarter-inch plywood. Results, not so good.

Trying to cut 3/4" plywood from the scrap heap with the standard lens. The test matrix of squares increases power top to bottom and increases speed left to right. The slower settings  set fire to everything in the vicinity, which fire was then stoked by the air assist jet. At no speed or power did it actually cut all the way through. I think the problem is depth of focus, and I have a longer focal length lens that should help somewhat.

Trying to cut 3/4″ plywood from the scrap heap with the standard lens. The test matrix of squares increases power top to bottom and increases speed left to right. The slower settings set fire to everything in the vicinity, which fire was then stoked by the air assist jet. At no speed or power did it actually cut all the way through. I think the problem is depth of focus, and I have a longer focal length lens that should help somewhat.