[hackerspaces] Laser cutter: Buy or build? Both?

Nathaniel Bezanson myself at telcodata.us
Fri Apr 13 06:31:08 CEST 2012

About a year ago, a new member joined i3 Detroit, who happened to own a
laser cutter. Our dues were cheaper than the place he'd been storing it,
so he brought it in. Big bed, 100-watt tube, fancy Leetro controller,
quirky LaserCut 5.3 software. We've gotten a lot of use out of it, and the
sheer size of the beast has been both useful and impressive. On the other
hand, the owner's (understandable) reticence to experiment with the
machine has meant, in my mind anyway, a lot of wasted potential.

Yesterday, he announced that he was leaving and looking to sell the
machine. His asking price was well beyond what any of us thought it was
worth, but today he found a buyer who would pay it, so the machine leaves
tomorrow and we're looking for a replacement. We don't have a ton of cash
on hand (figure we could probably mobilize $2-3k) at the moment.

My gut feeling is to buy a little (tabletop 40-watt) turn-key machine, to
get up and running again ASAP, start teaching classes on it again, and
then build a giant (150-watt) one ourselves. We have members with the
expertise to do the mechanical and electrical work, no problem. We know
slides and steppers! It's the software that gives me pause.

I know a number of hackerspaces have built or refurbished their own
machines, using (presumably) LinuxCNC for control. How's that working out
for you? I'm not sure about the laser-specific "creature comforts" of a
CNC package that, as far as I can tell, was meant to control mills and

I'm sure a number of other hackerspaces are using Chinese lasers with a
variety of software. LaserCut, LaserMate, Newlydraw, Thunder Laser, who
knows what else. What are your thoughts?

I'm aware of chineselasersupportforum.com but am looking for a hackerspace
perspective on things. (Most of the users there are sign-and-trinket

How about the various "direct print" drivers? I have no experience with
these, but FSLaser boasts quite a bit about theirs. Do they just eat
PostScript or what? Is it possible to own and use a laser with nothing but
these drivers, or do you need some other means to control the machine for
certain types of work?

My impressions of Leetro LaserCut: Purpose-built for controlling a laser,
has many nice features like separating designs into layers which each have
their own speed/power settings, turning layers on/off, and estimating the
work-time of a job before sending it to the machine. Despite that, it's
missing some of the most basic CAD functionality like dimensions and
offsets, SVG import, and all sorts of machine-control stuff like DRO and
"go here". Drawing-wise it's the vector equivalent of MS Paint, very
basic, with some laser goodies wrapped around it. If DXF import were more
reliable, I'd just do that and call it a day, but it's not. Gets the job
done, but leaves much to be desired.

I'm aware that one can buy just the controller and software (Thunder Laser
in particular seems to love selling theirs standalone), and if I could get
a solid recommendation for a controller/software combo that doesn't
totally suck, I'd look for a small desktop machine based around that, and
then just buy a second copy of the controller to build the big mother
around, to have a unified software front-end for both machines.

Any thoughts, reviews, experiences, tales of woe or wow, are appreciated.

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