As a break from the pick and place posts, in this article I’d like to aggregate my research about laser cutters and my experience importing a chinese laser cutter. There’s a wealth of knowledge scattered around the web, and this article won’t meet everyone’s search criteria, but hopefully this will be a resourceful stop for those that are in the search for a similar machine on a budget that can achieve the same results as a high end laser cutter/engraver.
I’ve been laser cutting my stuff at Techshop Detroit for a while since as an instructor I had free access to their shop and CO2 Epilog Helix lasers. That was cool but I didn’t have class very often and often when I had an immediate need to cut/engrave on the laser I would have to burn the gas and time to get there, about a 30 mile/35 minute drive (no traffic). Also I had to make sure to schedule well in advance to reserve a spot. And to top it off, they had a major ventilation issue for several months so cutting acrylic was restricted to 1 hour, not nearly enough to do what I needed. A single 24×18″ panel full of SwitchMote covers would take 45 minutes just to cut. Not counting setup, adjusting the machine, making sure it’s clean and ready to go, testing a few cuts on scrap, etc. In short, this was not scaling very well.
So I decided to look for a better alternative, knowing my laser engraving needs would only grow. The common denominator answer was to get my own CO2 laser cutter! Yikes, both exciting and scary thought. Exciting because it would solve all the issues I mentioned and save me tons of time, scary because it’s a big thing to haul around, noisy, hazardous, dangerous if mishandled, requires ventilation, maintenance, liability, etc. Doh…
Anyway, so what were the options?
US made lasers like an Epilog or Universal Laser Systems. Then one day I realized that Trotec Laser‘s USA headquarters and showroom is in my backyard, so I checked them out. Instantly impressed with the build quality and I learned their lasers are made in Austria, as good as German engineered. Both Epilog and Trotec are high end quality professionally engineered. The software is also very easy to use right from CorelDraw or Illustrator, the lasers act as a printer where you can configure the power/speed/cutting/engraving/etc, very straight forward. The only issue with these was the price. The small Epilog laser is around $15K, the smallest Trotec Speedy 100 was close to $20K if I recall and then you’d have to get the air filter, etc, all adding on top. Not really my kind of budget for the tool. I found this interesting discussion about Trotec pricing at trade shows vs. showroom, worth a read if you’re in the look.
Laser cutter kits. Worth mentioning here – there are apparently folks that have built an open source laser cutter which you can buy parts and assemble yourself. This was an interesting read but wasn’t willing to risk doing something wrong, plus the wait for all the parts and then days/weeks to get it right, lots could go wrong. I needed one delivered and ready to work so I skipped this option.
For more detail:Importing a laser cutter from China