In this article I’ll introduce the equipment I use extensively and will talk about more on Inhale 3D. In a separate article, I’ll discuss some of the software tools.
First thing to note is that whenever possible, I am biased towards open source solutions. That said, not all open source is worthy just because it’s open source, so I take what I think is a better approach for making physical objects with digital tools: use the right tool for the job even if that means it will cost some money.
I’ve found that using either consumer or hobby level tools can often produce professional results and definitely “good enough for the girls I go with” in every case. So, while I’d love to have my own copy of SolidWorks, for example, alas, I don’t do this stuff quite enough to justify the multiple thousands of dollars for a license and all the yearly maintenance fees that software entails. I’m not suggesting you need it either in order to get a lot done. So, the “right tool” doesn’t always mean the most expensive or even the best available tool.
Hardware – it all comes down to this
The three main pieces of fabrication equipment I own are those you can find in your local Hackerspace - a CNC router, a laser cutter, and a 3D printer. With the exception of 3D printing, I got my first exposure to this type of equipment and what it can do through Club Workshop in Denver. Club Workshop is a great place that sells memberships to use its shop equipment like a health club sells memberships to use its exercise equipment – a facility, equipment, and community. If you’re in the Denver area, you should check out Club Workshop.
Whether you’re talking about a CNC router, laser cutter, or 3D printer, you pay for quality and size. You can get equipment that is high-quality, but has a smaller working area and this is generally where I find myself – constrained by space and budget.
While it’s possible to buy all this stuff more cheaply directly through Chinese sources, it was worth it to me to find a regional or national (USA) sources for this equipment since I was new to buying it and it seemed like I’d get better response and service. This strategy has paid off in spades as every piece of equipment has taken some amount of support from the manufacturer that would have been have been difficult to obtain from an off-shore, particularly far-east source.
Despite some of the hype surrounding “personal fabrication” trends, most of this equipment is a long ways from being off-the-shelf, but it’s also well within reach. Therefore, it behooves to find a source that has a good reputation for support. All three of the companies I bought this equipment from were chosen partially for that reason and I haven’t been disappointed.
CNC routers are great for cutting larger pieces of wood, acrylic and other materials. They come in a lot of different sizes including those large enough to cut a 4X8′ sheet of plywood. My Fireball Comet is a medium size and can cut up to a 25″x25″ sheet. It’s said to have a 5″ Z-axis but I’ve found, practically speaking, 3/4″ material is about the thickest I like to cut on the Comet. This class of machine is also referred to as a horizontal milling machine.
CNC routers can cut profiles and route grooves but can also carve and engrave if you’re patient enough and have a machinists precision mindset. You need to provide a dust collection system for the router otherwise the dust created will quickly overwhelm your surroundings. I use a combination of collection tubes and a Shop-Vac with a Dust Deputy which collects most of the particles in a bucket before clogging up the shop-vac filter.
Full Spectrum does itself a disservice calling this a “hobby” laser. It’s only hobby in the sense that it’s working area is 20″ x 12″ and the laser wattage is 40W. I first learned laser cutting on a full-up Epilog laser at Club Workshop. Other than the smaller size, the Full Spectrum New Hobby laser is everything the Epilog is.
Sure if you’re a production shop, you need a bigger laser just for sheer volume, but this guy is plenty for many, many projects and even small manufacturing runs.
Of the three pieces of equipment, this one was the hardest to get going and it mainly came down to needing to do laser alignment out of the box. Shipping of a piece of equipment like this will jar and jostle it so hard that nothing stays aligned correctly. It took me the better part of a week to both learn how to align it and subsequently get it aligned well enough to start cutting with it.
Once aligned, it’s been working like a champ with small adjustments over time. Just plan to spend some quality time at the beginning with whatever laser cutter you buy. It will take time to integrate it into your workflow.
At 40 watts, this laser can cut up to 1/4″ acrylic, MDF, and plywood. I have even cut foam products like Fomular on it which I use for packaging some items for shipping. The print drivers for it let you have quite a bit of control over the laser power and speed so generally, you can dial it in pretty quickly to most materials. Besides the normal materials you can’t cut with any laser because of chlorine gas emissions the one thing I couldn’t cut with this thing besides metal is masonite.
Besides cutting, this is the tool you need for etching and drawing graphics onto material in a precise way.
There are two other considerations with installing a laser cutter and those are the cooling for the laser tube and the ventilation system for evacuating the vapors and smoke created by the cutting process. The cooling is supplied by a submersible pump that I put into a 5-gallon container of distilled water and hook it up to the recirculating ports of the laser cutter.
The ventilation requirements mean you need to supply a vacuum or blower to attach to the 4″ port on the laser cutter and forcibly pipe it outside. I ultimately had a dryer vent installed in my shop and pipe it out that way using a Harbor Freight industrial dust collector motor as the suction. It’s not a great deal of smoke, but it’s very important to remove it as it can cause inhalation problems…homage again to Inhale3D.com namesake.
The laser is incredibly precise as I hope you’ll see in coming projects and articles.
The LulzBot AO-100 is an open source, RepRap-based 3D printer from Aleph Objects in Loveland, CO. Jeff Moe and the folks there have done a great job making an affordable 3D printer that can crank out cool stuff. I love all this equipment, the CNC, the laser, but I have a special soft-spot for my 3D printer. My wife calls him “Angelo” and it’s a great name – it’s stuck. Angelo is small enough and quiet enough that it has a spot right on my desk whereas the laser cutter and especially the CNC router are definite shop tools.
Aleph Objects sponsors work on the open source software, Slic3r (pronounced “Slicer”), used to take 3D CAD files and generate the code needed to print the object, so besides the open source lineage of the AO-100, they’re very involved with helping the 3D printing community through their open source sponsorship of Slic3r.
Also, you may or may not be aware but one of the badges of a 3D printer is its lineage and whether it’s possible to print the plastic parts for itself or its successors – true RepRap, in other words. According to Jeff Moe, president of Aleph Objects, “The AO-100 parts were printed on a LulzBot Prusa. The LulzBot Prusa parts were printed on a LulzBot Clonedel. The non-Clonedel parts on the LulzBot Clonedel were printed on a “standard” Prusa, build by us. The original parts for our first Prusa were sourced off eBay. (We also had a Huxley, a Sell’s Mendel (never worked), a Shapercube, MakerBots, etc.)”
In true RepRap fashion, the AO-100 is being used to print the parts for their new TK-0 which is the up and coming printer with an expanded work area much like the Fireball Meteor is a large version of the Fireball Comet.
In the next articles I’ll talk about the software I use to design parts for each of these machines and how the tool chains for 3D fabrication work together.