Table of Contents
Laser Cutter Operation Manual
RULES FOR USE
- Always follow any posted notices.
- Do not use if there is an out-of-order sign posted, even if everything *looks* OK.
- Always wear the correctly-rated laser safety goggles.
- Only use materials on the Laser Cutter Approved Materials List. If something you want to cut is not on the list, ask a member of the Laser Cutter Committee *first*. Most likely if it's not on the list, it is TOXIC or CORROSIVE!
- Do not operate when the lid or any hatches are open. Do not attempt to defeat the interlocks.
- Do not leave the laser cutter at any time while the laser cutter is in operation, for any reason. It must be carefully observed to mitigate and suppress fires, which are a frequent occurrence.
- No alcohol near the laser cutter, do not use the laser cutter after drinking.
- Do not attempt to use materials that may splutter or explode (e.g. anything with high water content).
- Do not use for scarification or laser tattoos.
- Do not attempt any repairs, calibration, or maintenance of the laser cutter under any circumstances! The laser cutter is not treated like the other tools at VHS in this manner. The laser cutter is not a do-ocracy.
- Do not use the Emergency Stop button to power-off the laser cutter in non-emergency situations.
- Do not use more heat (a combination of power and speed) than is necessary to accomplish a cut or etch.
- Do not allow un-trained users to operate the laser.
- Do not use the control panel on the machine. Incorrect use of this panel can damage the machine and/or cause injuries.
The laser cutter is a RedSail model CM1080; it has a bed area of 100cm x 80cm (1000mm x 800mm, approx 3.2ft x 2.6ft, 39“ x 31”) and uses a 80W CO2 laser tube. It is capable of both cutting (with vector shapes) and engraving (with vector or raster images), both of which may be used together in a single job.
The Laser Cutter Committee oversees its usage and ensures correct maintenance. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a member of the LCC.
The VHS Laser Cutter is an industrial machine that has the potential to cause serious injury and damage.
The laser cutter is not a printer, it is not an appliance, and it is not a peripheral. It must be treated as such; a potentially very dangerous device. You must remain within 1 meter of the Emergency Stop button at all times. It must never be left unattended, even for a minute. Fires in laser cutters are very common, the operator must be ready at all times to extinguish a fire as soon as it occurs.
“We know of four people who have had to essentially replace their laser cutting machine because it caught on fire unattended. One person had their entire shop burned down because they cut acrylic and left it.”
There is a zero-tolerance policy for leaving the laser cutter unattended while in operation. Laser cutter privileges will be revoked immediately.
The single most important aspect of safety when it comes to machinery is respecting the machine. This means taking care of it, being careful in your configuration, testing, and usage, ensuring proper maintenance happens, and closely monitoring its operation. Careless behaviour causes tools to deteriorate fast, which is the primary cause of safety issues.
Laser cutters work by heating the material to the point of burning or vapourization. Your job can change in seconds with the accumulation of energy (heat) in your material. Always monitor your lasing job!
At 80W, this is considered a Class 4 laser device - the most dangerous rating possible. It is in fact 160x the minimum rating for a Class 4 device. This is very, very powerful and dangerous.
To make matters worse, CO2 lasers emit completely invisible IR (infrared) laser beams at 10,640nm. There is no way to know where the beam itself nor any reflections are going. The only thing you can do is completely avoid any possibility that the laser energy will leave the laser cutter.
At 80W, it will instantly vaporize the cornea, lens, and/or retina of your eye. You will instantly and permanently lose your eyesight - and while it scars over it will be complete agony. It will boil your eyeball. According to Wikipedia, “A pop or click noise emanating from the eyeball may be the only indication that retinal damage has occurred i.e. the retina was heated to over 100°C resulting in localized explosive boiling”. Even indirect exposure to the laser beam (or a scattered part of it) can result in blindness.
To reiterate, this laser cutter is 160 times as powerful as the maximum safety-class that is worth differentiating between; well and truly into the realm of lethality if mistreated.
In short, this is a very dangerous device and must be treated with utmost respect and care. It is absolutely the most dangerous tool most people will ever use.
SAFETY AND EMERGENCY EQUIPMENT
We have special safety glasses that are specifically rated for use with CO2 lasers. They are completely transparent to visible light, but are opaque to the band of infrared light that the laser cutter operates on. Do not use any other safety glasses with the laser cutter, as they will not provide any protection.
It is important that the safety glasses remain functional, so please be very careful with their care and handling. Always replace them in their protective cases, and never put them lenses-down. These are not typical, cheap safety glasses, and must be ordered online (and still aren't cheap!).
Small flare-ups while cutting material is common, and for flare-ups that don't self-extinguish quickly, the spray bottle is the first line of defense.
If the spray bottle is insufficient for extinguishing a fire, the fire extinguisher should be used.
It should only be used as a last resort however, as its use will destroy the expensive ($300+) mirrors and lens in the laser cutter. Don't let the price deter you from using it when necessary though - it's better to pay for new mirrors than to burn down the entire laser cutter, building, VHS, and all our neighbours!
You will never be in trouble for using the fire extinguisher, and will not be responsible for any replacement/repair costs. Use the fire extinguisher when necessary.
The software used for interfacing to the laser cutter is called LaserCAD. It is recommended that LaserCAD only be used for the final steps of setting up the work for the laser cutter, and running the job itself.
The Laser Cutter Computer is only to be used for converting and running jobs on the laser cutter. Use your own laptop to create designs, and load/convert them on the laser cutter PC via USB key or through the network drive. Do not use the laser cutter PC for design work however, as that will stop others from being able to use the laser cutter.
LaserCAD is able to import two file types: .ai (Adobe Illustrator) and .dxf (AutoCAD, Inkscape, SolidWorks, Corel Draw). AI files are preferred as they preserve curves better, but in practice DXF is very usable.
- Use Corel Draw to convert the source .ai file from recent versions of Illustrator to one that LaserCAD can load. Select Illustrator 8 as the format. LaserCAD will give an error that it only supports v7 files, but v8 will still work.
- If you must use Illustrator to save the .ai file, save as pre-CS, no compression, no extra features - however you will lose all colour information, making it almost useless.
* DXF: Save as R13/LT95 or R14/LT98/LT97.
- DXF has no concept of scale, and you have to select a scale when you *export* DXFs. The laser software assumes a millimetre scale. In other words, a DXF will give a unit-less dimension of 1.0; and that could be 1 inch, 1m, 1ft, or 1mm for all the DXF format and/or reading software knows. I've never had scale issues when using mm for export from various CAD packages.
LaserCAD takes BMP/JPG/PNG images. They must be 1-bit (Black & White dithered, NOT greyscale), and will need to be scaled appropriately when imported.
Corel Draw is a good choice for creating files for use on the laser cutter, or converting existing files into formats that can be used, due to its wide variety of import and export formats. Adobe Illustrator may also be used, but it has limited capability for exporting to the older versions of file formats that LaserCAD requires.
- Do not remove the protective film/paper from acrylic before cutting or etching, as the smoke will ruin the finish.
TRAINING AND SETUP
Complete VHS Laser Cutter Training
Upon successful completion of the training, your membership account on the VHS Membership Management System will be granted Laser Access. If you haven't done so already, you need to link your VHS Membership to your Google, Slack, and/or GitHub account.
- Log-in to the membership management system (http://membership.vanhack.ca) using email and password.
- Under User Profile, find the Access tab.
- Click the name of the account you want to link
- Enter your credentials for that account.
- Authorize the Open Authorization connection.
If successful, your User profile will now list the linked account.
OPERATING THE LASER CUTTER
- Wake up or turn on the Laser Cutter Computer (it should be left on)
- Clear the top, bed, and catchment tray of material.
- Check that the flare-up water bottle is full.
- Check that the fire extinguisher is nearby.
- Put on the laser-rated safety goggles.
Ventilation The VHS Laser Cutter has a fume extraction system, but it can be helpful to setup additional ventilation within the Hack Space to minimize odors. It is considered best practice to do the following:
- Open the window
- Plug in and turn on the exhaust fan
- Open the main doors
- Position additional fans to direct air into the space from the main doors
The laser cutter has a software-controlled Laser Access System for restricting access to trained members and automatically controlling power to the laser and peripherals. The Laser Access System has an on/off switch and lights which indicate the status.
Using a smartphone or laptop:
- Connect to the VHS WiFi network.
- Navigate to http://laser.vanhack.ca
- Select which Linked Account you would like to use for authentication
- If necessary, enter you login credentials for the Linked Account.
- Authorize the connection
- Click the 'Unlock' button
Using the Laser Cutter computer:
- (Turn the computer on and login)
- Navigate to http://laser.vanhack.ca or open the “Laser Access” link on the desktop
- Select which Linked Account you would like to use for authentication
- If necessary, enter you login credentials for the Linked Account.
- Authorize the connection
- Click the 'Unlock' button
You now have ~30 second to toggle the switch on the Laser Access System control panel to 'On'. If the authentication was successful, the green LED will turn on and the laser systems will begin to turn on. If the light remains red, repeat the authentication process.
NOTE: If you are using the laser cutter directly after another member, you can perform the authorization step as soon as they switch the system off. There is no need to wait for the system to power down.
The Laser Access System will automatically turn on the Fume Extraction System, the Chiller, the Air Compressor, and the Laser Cutter. If the HVAC system in the space is currently running, the fan will be shut off.
If the system is off, the power for the laser cutter is over by the fridge in the lounge area
Be aware that when the Laser Cutter is first powered, the head and gantry will move to the home position automatically.
Once the laser is powered up, there are a number of steps required to setup a particular job. These include importing the design, setting up the cutting or etching operations, positioning the material, and adjusting the focus.
Transfer and Import Design
Designs can be copied to the Laser Cutter Computer by using USB, the Network Drive, or using an internet browser. Using a USB stick or transferring to the network drive is preferred because it is faster.
Save any designs to a folder with your name on it in the Laser User Files folder. Files saved on the desktop or anywhere elsewhere will be deleted.
In LaserCAD, go to File > Import…
Once you have imported a design, you need to setup one or more lasing operations (e.g. cut, etch). Simple designs may only have a single operation, while more complex designs can have many operations. It is necessary to indicate which parts of the design correspond to which operation, and to indicate in which order they should be performed.
In LaserCAD, different operations are controlled on a per-layer basis, where an unique colour is considered to be a layer (i.e. all parts that are red have the same settings and are cut together, and all parts that are blue may have different settings and also are cut together).
The order is specified by the order the layers appear in a list (the top layer will cut first), and may be re-arranged as required. Generally when you're setting up a job, you will want to cut the smaller and more intricate/interior parts first, progressively working up to the larger cuts, and ending with the outline of the work. You will quickly get a grasp on what this means and how to identify what parts of a given job must be cut first and in which order to set the layers.
- Use different colours to indicate different layers. Layers are automatically added and removed as colours are selected. In LaserCAD, select the lines in your design first, than select a color along the bottom bar. Ideally, designs should already have color when you import them.
- Set the layer order in LaserCAD to go from small details to large details, ending with the outline cut (if any).
Select Operation Settings
The default settings for each operations almost always need to be changed. To change the settings of an operation, double click the color in the top left list. Generally, there are just two setting that need to be selected: power and speed.
Some experimentation is often required to get the desired results. Refer to the Materials and Settings Chart for reasonable starting points. It is recommended to bring scrap material that has identical properties (type, thickness, colour, etc) to what you want to finally lase. Use this scrap to test and verify that the laser cutter, your material, and your design are behaving as you expect.
The power setting controls the power of the laser beam and ranges from 0-60%. The power output is limited in software to a maximum of 60% to meet the recommended maximum current rating of the laser tube. Higher values will automatically be clipped to 60%. In practice, the minimum usable power is around 7%: anything below that will not actually generate a laser beam.
LaserCAD lists a maximum and minimum power setting. The second power setting is used to reduce the power during cornering to improve cut quality. Generally, it should be set to 70% of the maximum power, however, in practice, these are often set to the same value.
The speed setting controls the maximum speed of the laser head and ranges from 0-300 mm/s.
Position Design and Material to be Lased
Positioning where the design should be relative to the material can be challenging on this machine.
- Use the directional controls in LaserCAD to move the laser head to the home position or out out the way.
- Open the lid
- Place the material to be lased on to the cutting bed
- If necessary, clamps or weights can be used to prevent the material from moving or to ensure it lies flat. Ensure the laser head won't collide with any of the clamps or weights.
- Designs can be selected and moved in LaserCAD
- It is possible to use the data field boxes to move the design to a particular location. This can be combined with the 'Get Current Position of Laser' to accurately place designs.
The VHS Laser Cutter has a manual height adjustment on the laser head for controlling the height of the focus.
To adjust the focus height:
- Locate the focus height calibration tool
- Move the laser head over the material to be lased using the directional controls in LaserCAD
- Loosen the height adjustment screw
- Position the focus height calibration tool between the material and the laser head and adjust the height of the laser head
- Tighten the height adjustment screw
- Return the focus height calibration tool to its storage location
Note: Do not touch the mirrors or lens of the laser cutter. If they are dirty, please discontinue use of the laser cutter immediately and let the Laser Cutter Committee know. Using the laser cutter with dirty mirrors or lenses could bake the dirt onto the glass and they will then need replacing!
Download job to Laser Cutter
- In LaserCAD:
- Click the Download button in the Machine Control panel. This will open the Download Document dialog box.
- Click Download Document. The job will be downloaded and the laser cutter will beep if successful.
- Click Run Box. The laser head will move in a box at the maximum extents of the job.
- Be prepared to hit the Emergency Stop button is going to collide with the extent of the work bed or a clamp.
- If the position of the material needs adjustment, open the lid, move the material, close the lid, and click Run Box again. Repeat until acceptable alignment is achieved.
- Alternatively, the material can be left in position and the position of the design can be adjusted in LaserCAD. The design will have to be downloaded again with the new position.
- Double check your settings and the ordering of operations.
- When ready, click the Start button in LaserCAD.
- Watch the laser cutter carefully and be prepared to hit the Pause Button or Stop button in LaserCad if required.
- Be prepared with the waterbottle to deal with flare-ups (See FAQ entry below)
- Remain within reach of the E-Stop
- If for any reason you need to leave the proximity of the Laser Cutter, press the Pause button. Press it again to continue when you return.
- The laser will beep when the job is finished.
- Allow a few seconds for fumes to clear before opening the lid.
Shutdown and Clean Up
- If you wish, save your files in the appropriate location.
- Exit LaserCAD.
- Close any browser windows, especially if you used them to login or transfer files.
- Toggle the Laser Access System switch to 'OFF'. This will automatically start powering down the laser cutter and the peripherals. The fume extraction system and chiller will continue to run for several minutes.
- Clear the laser cutter's top, bed, and catchment tray of any material.
- Return usable material to the material storage area. Dispose of unusable material scraps in the garbage.
- Replace the laser safety goggles into their proper storage case.
- Use the Laser Access System to power on/off the machine. There is no need to turn the main power key above the control panel.
- Do not use the Emergency Stop button to power-off the laser cutter. It is for emergencies, and using it as a regular power button will only confuse the next operator as it will appear that there was a catastrophic event.
- There is no need to power off the Laser Cutter Computer
LASER CUTTER ETIQUETTE
The Laser Cutter is one of the most popular and heavily-utilized tools at the space. The following tips, tricks, and behaviors may help maximize lasing and minimize frustrations.
Use Time in Front of Laser Effectively
- Setup your design as much as possible on a different computer
- Assign colors in your design file that correspond to different operations before you import to LaserCAD
- Transfer designs to the Laser Cutter Computer using the Network Drive or USB stick, if possible.
- Use simulation tool to estimate how long your cutting / engraving will take
- Separate engraves that are separated by whitespace into separate colors/ operations
- Let next member login and setup operations while you finish clean up
Treat the Laser Safety Goggles With Respect
- Case or Face - don't leave them lying around
Keep things clean and tidy
- Return usable material to storage
- Dispose of unusable material in the garbage, breaking it up if necessary.
- Clean out the catchment tray
- If necessary, clean accumulated dust of the exhaust mesh using the dish scrubber brush
Minimize Nasty Fumes
- Let the fumes clear for a few seconds after cutting before opening the lid to reduce fumes
- Open the back window, turn on the exhaust fan. Use other fans at main entrance to blow air into the space
- Clean the mesh screen in the bottom of the laser cutter with a dish brush
Use material effectively
- Use the coordinate placement trick to accurately position your designs relative to the material
- Position multiple designs close together, or use packing software (e.g. http:\\svgnest.com) to reduce wasted material.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Can I book the Laser Cutter? There is currently no scheduling system for the laser and it operates on a first-come, first-served basis. However, good etiquette includes working as efficiently as possible and limiting long operations when there is a long queue.
How do I move the Laser Cutter head? Use the directional controls within LaserCAD on the Laser Cutter Computer. Do not use the control panel on the laser cutter.
Why won't LaserCAD import my design? LaserCAD can't handle certain elements in dxf files, which may cause it to import a design incorrectly or not at all. The following may help:
- Ensure all entities are converted to paths. No objects.
- Ungroup all entities.
- Ensure text is represented as a path
How do I deal with Flare-ups? Flare-ups happen frequently when using a laser cutter; it's simply the nature of the tool. Most flare-ups will self-extinguish as soon as the laser beam (the heat source) has moved away from the area being cut, or if the laser is turned off (by completing the cutting job, the Stop or Pause buttons being pressed, or by pressing the Emergency Stop button).
If a flare-up has been going for more than a few seconds, or shows any signs at all of fully igniting or burning through the material, immediate action must be taken to stop the fire. Your material/work piece is lost at this point - act quickly and do not hesitate.
- Hit the Emergency Stop button on the control panel of the laser cutter (the big red button on the front-right corner).
- Douse the area with the spray bottle.
- If the spray bottle proves insufficient to extinguish the fire, use the fire extinguisher immediately.
The laser cutter isn't powered
- Make sure that the main power key above the control panel on the right hand side of the machine is in the on (turned clockwise) position.
- Make sure that the Emergency Stop button is not activated. If so, twist it gently to de-activate it.
- If neither of these steps work, notify the LCC.
The work area is full of smoke
- Check the screen in the bottom of the laser cutter workbed. If it's clogged with ash and dust, and if use a brush to clean it off
- If cleaning the screen doesn't improve the smoke removal, there's likely something wrong with fume extractions. Cease operations and notify the LCC.
The laser isn't cutting effectively or requires more power than normal
- Check to see if the focus is adjusted properly
- If correcting focus doesn't improve cutting, there's likely something wrong with optics. Cease operations and notify the LCC.
The laser is cutting very differently depending on the location within the workbed
- Likely a problem with the optics. Notify the LCC.
Beyond the steps described above, * DO NOT ATTEMPT ANY REPAIRS, CALIBRATION, OR MAINTENENCE OF THE LASER CUTTER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! The laser cutter is not treated like the other tools at VHS in this manner. The laser cutter is not a do-ocracy.
- Stop using the laser cutter immediately, with the Emergency Stop button if necessary.
- Follow the normal shutdown procedures above.
- Put a sign on the laser cutter that says “OUT OF ORDER - DO NOT USE”.
- Notify the Laser Cutter Committee by posting to the #laser channel on Slack and by posting a message on the Forum. Include the following information at a minimum:
- What is wrong with the laser cutter.
- What you were doing at the time it stopped working.
- What the current state/condition of the laser cutter is.
- What you think needs to be done to fix it.
Questions may be directed to the Laser Cutter Committee.