If you were to venture into any maker space in the world today, chances are you would find at least one 3D printer extruding away. But 3D printing isn’t the only manufacturing technology found within these innovative Fablabs. Once seen as a strictly industrial technology, laser cutting is increasingly used by small businesses, product designers, makers, and even hobbyists.
When deciding whether you should utilize 3D printing or laser cutting, there are a number of factors to consider. In some cases, a laser cutter might prove to be the most advantageous manufacturing technology for your specific application.
Here’s everything you need to know about home & desktop laser cutter before pulling out your wallet.
Unlike 3D printing, laser cutters create designs and patterns by cutting into materials instead of building them up layer-by-layer. This subtractive manufacturing technology uses a powerful laser beam source to melt, burn, or vaporize material away. A desktop laser cutter typically follows directions from computer numerical control (CNC) or G-code.
The process starts with an extremely small laser beam that is emitted from a tube when a current passes through. This current causes the laser to reflect off a partial mirror and point through a focal lens in the machine head. Following the vector file that holds the 2D design, the laser beam cuts away at a material until the image is completed. These laser cutting machines are highly capable of creating finely detailed patterns with a high-quality surface finish. There is a wide range of laser cutting techniques and compatible materials that you can use.
Depending on the type of laser that is utilized, there is a wide range of compatible materials available. With the CO2 laser cutter, you can use wood, leather, acrylic, glass, plastics, foams, as well as cardboard and other paper materials.
When using fiber or neodymium lasers with higher intensity, the material options expand into metals, more types of plastics, and even some ceramics.
Here are the most common laser cut materials:
When creating a design or pattern for laser cutting, you can use either 2D or 3D design software. Laser cutters essentially function like an average 2D inkjet printer but come with drivers that allow the laser cutting machine follow specific designs. While these specific drivers are highly common in 2D design software, there is less support from 3D software.
Graphic design software like Adobe Illustrator and free drawing tools like AutoCAD are ideal 2D programs for laser cutting technology. But 3D software like Solidworks, Autodesk Inventor, and Autodesk Fusion can also be utilized to create certain types of designs and patterns.
When it comes to selecting the best manufacturing technology for your application or project, there are many factors the make laser cutting more beneficial than 3D printing. While additive manufacturing is useful for prototyping purposes, the current lack of material properties makes it a tough sell for user-end production. Laser cutting is a subtractive manufacturing technology that cuts away from a material, rather than building a design up from scratch.
But with laser cutting technology, existing materials are able to maintain their mechanical advantages after being cut or engraved. While both are considered go-to tools for rapid prototyping, laser cutters provide more versatility with 2D geometries.
CNC milling, another computer controlled manufacturing method, shares a lot of similarities with laser cutting. While both use a cutting head to carve through various materials, CNC uses metal cutting heads that move up and down on a third axis. This allows for more design freedom and the ability to produce more complicated shapes.
As laser cutting becomes more accessible and affordable, we’ve seen a major shift in the consumer market. What was once a tool strictly for industrial purposes, you can now find laser cutters in schools, maker spaces, small businesses, and even homes. Here are a few of the most popular desktop laser cutter manufacturers on the market.
If you’re looking for a high quality laser cutting machine that can fit on your desktop, look no further than the Orion Motor Tech laser cutter. This compact machine offers an engraving/cutting area of 300 x 500mm. This laser cutting machine has a resolution ratio of 0.001 in 0.026mm/4500DPI, and operates at a maximum speed of 500mm/s while engraving and 80mm/s when cutting.
What set the Orion laser cutter apart from others is the user-friendliness and low price of around $450. The Orion laser engraver operates with a 50W water cooling laser tube and high-precision stepping motor. You can utilize a variety of materials, including plastic, leather, stone, crystal, and more. However, beware, if you decide to buy the Orion laser cutting machine, there are other components you will likely need alongside it. This includes a CO2 laser engraver, smoke pipe, smoke fan, water pump, power wire, USB cable, and USB dongle key.
Orion also offers a 40W CO2 laser cutter at a reduced price. You can check that out here.
Makeblock’s LaserBot is a desktop laser engraver developed on an open-source platform. This minimalistic home laser cutting machine is equipped with 1.6W 445nm high-power solid-state lasers. This is ideal for the tinkerer looking for a cheap laser cutting machine than can be fully adaptable.
The LaserBot includes a simple H-shaped structure made from high-precision anodized aluminum alloy. It is also Arduino compatible and can engrave up to 0.1mm. This laser cutting kit allows you to build up your machine, giving a first-hand look at the laser cutting process. Priced at around $350, this laser cutting kit is a bargain for makers with a fair amount of time on their hands.
This desktop laser cutter from CNCShop is for someone looking for a larger machine that isn’t afraid to pay a pretty penny for quality. This laser engraver and cutter is powered by a 130W CO2 sealed tube, and also comes with a USB interface. You can use a variety of materials with this laser cutter, including wood, leather, rubber, bamboo, plexiglass, marble, and more.
The CNCShop laser cutting machine has a maximum cutting size of 1400 x 900mm and a max speed of 1,000mm/s. While sizable, the laser cutting machine offers a position accuracy of 0.01mm. Additional parts can be added to modify the machine, such as red dot function, up-down worktable, autofocus, and more. However, this 400kg laser cutting machine will require a lot of space to operate, and therefore is best suited for a small business or ambitiously sized workshop. You can purchase the CNC Shop laser cutter for around $3,000.
Epilog has a vast product line consisting of different size laser cutters, from desktop to industrial. You can start off with their Zing Laser Series, which is their entry level desktop laser cutter range. The Zing 16 and Zing 24 are both considered low-cost and high-quality machines. The 16 is estimated to cost just under $8000. Find out more information on their massive range of laser cutter on the Epilog website.
Recognized as one of the most affordable laser cutting manufacturers, Full Spectrum can put a capable machine in your home or office for under $5,000. Hobbyists and makers would be intrigued by their Muse Laser Cutter (starting at $5,000) and Hobby Series Laser Cutter (starting at $3,500). Find out more information on their low-cost laser cutting machines on the Full Spectrum website.
If you’re on a tight budget and don’t mind owning a product without a name brand, you might want to look into importing a desktop laser cutter from China. A quick search on eBay or Alibaba will net you a wide range of imported product. While you can probably find yourself a home laser cutting machine from China for less than $500, it’s definitely worth shelling out at least $1000 to ensure that you’re receiving an adequate machine. These are ideal for tech-savvy users who don’t mind upgrading and modding the night away. While the bundled software leaves much to be desired, the low price point makes it hard not to consider the option of importing from China.
If you don’t want to splurge on a desktop laser cutter, or just have one project to undertake, you can utilize a laser cutting service bureau. There is a wide range of manufacturing services that offer both 3D printing and laser cutting. Here are some that are best known for the latter.
This service provides over 100 materials to choose from, allowing you to make anywhere from 1 to 100,000 laser cut products, parts, or prototypes. Ponoko also offers same day production and shipping, as well as design templates to ensure your idea is properly executed.
This expansive design and manufacturing service offers laser cutting, 2D printing, 3D printing, and even design assistance. You can print ink designs on a card and have it laser cut to add a unique effect that literally stands out.
Offers CO2, Neodymium, Fiber, and other custom laser types. As a business unit of the medical component company Amtek, Laserage seems best equipped to take on projects in the medical sector. They also take on aerospace, electronics, and other industrial endeavors. This manufacturing service provides laser welding and drilling services as well.
Even 3D printing service bureaus like Sculpteo now offer laser cutting services as well. With over 60 possible material combinations, the French company claims to work around your workflow and template. If you have an idea that necessitates both 3D printing and laser cutting, Sculpteo is the service for you.
Can’t decide between a desktop laser cutter or 3D printer? Why not both! There is a vast array of hybrid 3D printers that offer laser cutter capabilities. Here are a few of the most popular:
Arguably the best all-in-one 3D printer on the market, the Polish company ZMorph has created an extremely versatile hybrid machine. The ZMorph 2.0 SX functions as dual extrusion printer, laser cutter, as well as CNC mill. Simply swap out the tool heads and you can go from extruding paste materials to engraving patterns into wood. With a simple design and expansive ability, this printer is ideal for those who consider themselves a jack of all trades. Depending on how many tool heads you buy along with the printer, the retail price can run you up to €3500.
Targeted for the beginner market, the XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0 1-in-3 is perfect for those looking to dip their toe into 3D printing and laser cutting technology. Manufactured by the Taiwanese company XYZprinting, this printer is the most affordable option for those hoping to purchase an all-in-one option. The da Vinci 1.0 1-in-3 is equipped with a laser engraver that allows you to laser cut cardboard, leather, wood, and more. While the printer itself costs €490, the laser engraving module will bring the total cost to around €670.
After collecting over $80,000 on Kickstarter, the BoXZY has taken the maker community by storm. This hybrid machine offers 3D printing, CNC milling, as well as laser cutting and engraving. One of the few highly touted crowdfunding success stories, the BoXZY team has already delivered their product to campaign backers. You can pre-order this compact all-in-one printer now for $2,999.
Now that we’ve explained laser cutting technology and provided some insight into the desktop laser cutter market, there’s one important question left to answer. What can you create with a desktop laser cutter? Well, in reality, the possibilities are endless. But here are some of the most popular uses of this marvelous manufacturing technology.
Here are just some ideas:
Those are just a few popular uses for a desktop laser cutter, but there’s much more where that came from.
And last but not least, when shopping for a laser cutting machine, be sure to research thoroughly and find the machine that best suits your budget and needs.
License: The text of "Best Desktop Laser Cutters & Laser Cutting Services of 2017" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.