There has been much fanfare around 3D printers in recent years. Meanwhile, you rarely hear about the laser cutter in mainstream media. Honestly, I am not sure why.

Perhaps it is because the laser cutter doesn’t have a charismatic evangelist like Bre Pettis. Hey laser cutter manufacturers, I’m pretty charismatic and available, wink wink. It seems to me like it should sell itself. They had me at frickin’ laser! But at the big end of year ball, everyone wants to dance with 3D printer, and the poor laser cutter is the wallflower.

Here is the thing, just because the laser cutter isn’t on the prom court doesn’t mean that it isn’t just as good looking. Let me preface what I am about to say, by saying, I love additive manufacturing. However, I think additive manufacturing has some limitations. 3D printers can be slow, have limited material options, tend not to produce finished-looking parts without a lot of post processing, and don’t handle large thin parts well, as they tend to warp. I love the laser cutter because it succeeds in all the ways that I believe the 3D Printer fails. Ultimately, my view is that there is no magic one size fits all tool to do everything. No magic bullet. No panacea. Rather, I believe the best approach is to use a combination of different tools, harnessing the strengths, and understanding the limitations, as appropriate.


Case Study: Batman

When Batman needs to, planned or impromptu, scale the exterior of a building or wall he uses his grappling hook. The grappling hook is a great tool for the job, ideal even. But you can’t clean up the city just walking up vertical surfaces all day! This is why he has a utility belt full of other tools he uses for other aspects of crime fighting.

So, let’s add a Batarang and few freeze grenades to that utility belt of yours!


A Brief Description of the Laser Cutter

The laser beam follows a vector path to cut your design out of a sheet of stock material. The laser beam can cut a wide array of plastics and rubbers and even organic materials like wood, cardboard, cork, felt, paper, and leather. The thickness that the laser can cut varies, depending on the power of the laser. Be aware that the laser can’t cut metal and certain other materials, like PVC, that release toxic fumes when cut (see, no one tool can rule them all).

Typically, to create a design you export a vector image from your CAD package, and then import it into a vector graphics software package, like Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw, or Inkscape. But because you are cutting in 2D, you can skip the 3D software part altogether, which makes this tool so nice for the uninitiated. In the vector graphics software package, you can change the line thickness and color based on if you want to cut or engrave. There are a few things to be careful of, like scaling and the laser kerf, which you can learn more about online.

Next, you send the file to the laser’s print driver where you adjust the laser settings for the material you are using. Then you lay/position your material on the bed of the laser cutter and press go. That’s the basics, pretty simple really. But within this simple framework lies a world of creativity, because you can turn 2D flat objects into 3D objects using joints, adhesives, or brackets. Now things get interesting. Think of those 3D dinosaur bone or historic landmark puzzles you did as a kid. People are doing amazingly clever and creative things from 2D flat patterns, like animal trophy heads, and folding ukuleles, as well beautiful artwork, and ornate mechanisms. Words don’t do these things justice and the best thing to do is see for yourself.


Why Prototypes are Like Tacos

When it comes to prototypes – and tacos – my two favorite words are fast and cheap.

Also, both prototypes and tacos have caused me a significant amount of stomach pain over the years. The laser cutter is frickin’ fast. Generally speaking it takes minutes, whereas a 3D printer takes hours. This is because the laser is removing material as opposed to adding it. And because you’re using regular old stock material – as opposed to special filaments, powder, or resins that 3D printers use – the laser is cheap; you can literally use pieces of scrap or cardboard you have lying around and turn trash into treasure.

One very popular application is for project boxes. Other practical design applications include gaskets, gears, sheet metal prototypes, display panels, stencils, and custom wrenches, just to name a few.


Where to Gain Access


Okay, so, whether superhero or deranged supervillain, I’m sure you are wanting to get your maniacal hands on a laser by now. You can’t talk about laser cutting without talking about Ponoko. Ponoko is an online vendor that will take your file and cut it out of a large array of materials stock. Check out their online showroom to get some inspiration and get a sense of what can be done. They also have a great blog with lots of tips and tricks. Another online vendor is Pololu. What is nice about Pololu is they will let you ship them your own material.


Because of its ease of use and simplicity, the laser cutter is a staple of most makerspaces. It is usually one of the first machines they recommend to get trained on and the one that is booked the most. At makerspace TechShop, because of its addictive quality, and likelihood of getting you hooked on a downward spiral of CNC makery, they call it their “Gateway drug”. As always, having access to one is best, because you can learn about the nuances, and do rapid fire iterations without waiting for shipping or getting others involved.


Best yet, buy your own, and then be my friend.


Finished-Looking Parts

One of the things that is so great about the laser cutter is that parts can look production quality without any tooling or post-processing.

Certain materials in particular, like wood, and acrylic, come out great. You can stain or paint or do other things but it isn’t required. The laser does burn certain materials, but this can be used to create effect. This makes the laser cutter ripe for small business opportunities. It is sort of a gold rush at the moment. If you want to make some money, just start laser cutting mustaches on things. LITERALLY ANYTHING! Free business idea – laser cut little handlebar mustaches that you can clip on your glasses so your eyebrows look like mustaches. From a design standpoint, this means that these parts can also be used for final production pieces of a larger assembly.


The Laser Cutter is Frickin’ Fun!

Yeah, I said it…did your monocle just fall into your tea cup?

Beneath my stern looking titanium exoskeleton is actually a big kid at heart. I make gifts on the laser all the time. Key chains, ornaments, jewelry, displays, and costume props. There is something so satisfying about creating something that is customized and one of a kind. Imagine the possibilities of having an idea in the morning and then having the result in your hands that night. There are even some advanced features, such as the rotary option, where you can engrave stuff on pint glasses or aluminum bottles. Also, you can engrave pictures. So, basically, from frat reunions to Mother’s Day you are covered.

There you go, current and future laser-heads. Have fun with it and add it to your repertoire. And remember, as Batman says: “It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you”.


Dan Slaski is the Lead Renegade for Renegade Prototyping and your new secret weapon/best friend for design domination. A Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineer with a long list of credentials to accompany his years of industry experience in fields including the medical, robotics, and military sectors. He has designed assemblies with hundreds of unique parts and moving components that have gone high into the earth's atmosphere, deep below the oceans and everything in between. All of this has contributed to his vast portfolio of knowledge dealing with difficult engineering problems, and a wide repertoire of skills in prototyping, manufacturing, and sourcing. Yet he still finds a way to remain humble. If you have a project that demands success you need to get on his client list ASAP.