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Design by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp

Design your own one-of-a-kind lamp.

Design by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp

Codeable Objects is a library for Processing that lets anyone design and construct an artifact using geometric computation and digital fabrication. This tutorial will show you how to use the library to make a laser-cut lamp.

Steps

Step #1:

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • The laser cutter is an amazing tool that anyone can use! Unfortunately, the majority of computer design software is difficult to use, and requires significant expertise and time to design something unique. We take a new approach by showing users how to use programming and geometric computing to quickly design and build a unique laser-cut lamp.
  • If you don’t know how to program, and the words “geometric computing” sound like some form of math-based punishment, don’t worry. The methods we use are easy and accessible for anyone, even novice coders. This tutorial teaches you everything you need to know. If you’re an experienced coder, this technique also offers an opportunity to stretch your legs and experiment.

Step #2: Assembling your physical materials

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • 1-3 square feet of ¼” plywood.
  • 1-3 sheets of 17” x 14” Bristol board, or some other similar weight paper.
  • 1-3 sheets of semi-transparent vellum or high-grade tissue paper. (You can use normal tissue paper as well, but it might result in a less durable finished project.) You can purchase both of these papers at most art and craft supply stores. Choose any color you like for both papers.
  • One pre-made light fixture. We recommend using one that has a socket diameter of around 20-40 mm and accepts a candelabra-style bulb. This is the one we use in our tutorial.
  • 1 light bulb. We recommend getting a low-wattage bulb, (around 25 watts), or a compact fluorescent.

Step #3: Download and install Processing

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • Processing is a popular Java-based programming environment that allows people to learn and experiment with programming in a simple and straightforward context. If you’ve never used Processing before, it’s extremely useful for a range of projects. You will need to download the Processing IDE (which is free), here.
  • For tips on how to install Processing after you’ve downloaded it, check out this page. Follow the instructions on installation, based on your operating system. Note: This tutorial covers the basic elements of Processing, but should not be considered a lesson in Processing in general. For that, check out http://processing.org for some great tutorials.

Step #4: Download the Codeable Objects library

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  • Processing’s functionality can be augmented by user-created libraries. Codeable Objects is one such library that we created to facilitate this project. You can download the library here.
  • Locate the Processing sketchbook. This is the default directory of all of your Processing sketches. On a mac, this will usually be: /Users/Username/Documents/Processing on a PC, it’s probably: c:/My Documents/Processing/ You will need to place the Codeable Objects library in this directory. It should automatically have been created when you installed Processing. In this directory, there should exist a folder called “libraries”. Unzip the codeableObjects.zip file and place the resulting directory here.
  • If a directory named "libraries" does not exist, you will need to create one before placing the Codeable Objects library in it. Once you’ve done so, quit and restart Processing if it’s already open, in order to allow it to recognize the new library. Then, open a new sketch by selecting File→New and check to see if the library was found by going to Sketch→Import Library. If you placed the library in the correct directory, then "codeableObjects" should show up among your installed libraries in the menu. You won’t need to import it now, but you can if you like.
  • Note: The process detailed above is the same process for installing any other processing library.

Step #5: Familiarize yourself with the library

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • The library includes several examples to demonstrate how to use the library in Processing. They are located in the examples folder within the codeableObjects directory. The code contained in each example is identical with the exception of the part that controls of the type of decorative pattern it will generate. If you want to generate your own file, you can create a new Processing sketch and copy the code from one of the examples into it to modify. For now, open the circle example by going into the "circle" folder and double-clicking on the spiral.pde file.
  • The code in the file might look intimidating if you’re not familiar with Processing, but there are only a few parts you need to change to design your lamp.
  • All of the code that you write will be contained within the setup() function. Setup is a pre-defined function that is automatically called by the Processing environment exactly one time at the start of the program when the program is run. Any code placed in between the curly brackets of the setup function will be executed once.
  • The first line of code, size(), controls the size of your application window. You shouldn’t need to adjust this. The second line creates an instance of the library controller class called “point controller”. You will use this instance to execute the library methods that structure your lamp.
  • Each lamp has a press-fit frame that is constructed of a set of ribs that fit into a top and bottom base forming a circular structure. The code listed in this section lets you design this structure with varying parameters. There are 11 parameters you can set with these programming methods.

Step #6: Design the form of your lamp

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • If you look in the "spiral" example, you should see a line containing each of these methods with a value that specifies the dimension. For example, pointController.setWidth(170) will set your lamp width to 170 millimeters. The setWidth command is constrained between 100 and 300 millimeters.
  • At this point you can press the "play" symbol at the top of the Processing code window; this will compile the code and open the application as a Java applet. You should then see a 3D wireframe model of the lamp with the parameters specified in the code. If you close the applet, either manually by closing the window or by pressing the "stop" symbol in the Processing sketch window, you can and change some of the values of the sizing commands and re-compile it again. You should then see the changes reflected in the model. A complete listing of all 12 of the commands can be found in the code.

Step #7: GUI

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  • When you compile the code, you will notice that there is a set of buttons in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. The top 3 allow you to toggle between different views of the lamp structure. If you click the “parts” button, instead of seeing a 3D model you will see a 2D view of the tool paths of the lamp that will be cut out by the laser cutter.
  • You will also notice a set of sliders on the right-hand side of the screen. These sliders control all the same parameters as those listed in the code above. By moving them, you can see your design change in real time. Note: while you can use these sliders to design your lamp and see the changes reflected in your tool paths, if you close the application and recompile it the lamp settings will revert to the values you specified in your code.
  • Deciding on the width(s), height, and number of sides is pretty intuitive, and all of the ranges are constrained to ensure that what you make will fit together properly. You will need to decide if you want the light fixture to come from the top or bottom of the lamp and set the diameter of the top hole or bottom hole to correspond to the diameter of your light fixture.
  • Similarly, you will need to set both the width and the diameter of the hole for the side opposite the light fixture to be large enough for your hand to fit inside to change the light bulb. For example, if your light fixture is 26 millimeters in diameter and will go on the top of the lamp, then set the top-hole width to around 28 millimeters. Similarly, you would set the bottom width and bottom hole to a minimum of 80-100 millimeters. Hand sizes vary, so it’s a good idea to measure your hand and see what is a comfortable-sized opening for you.
  • The values for the top and bottom circle positions will determine how close the bases of the lamp will be to the top and bottom. The choice is yours, but we recommend placing the base without the light fixture as close to the end of that side as possible (20 mm).
  • Also, if your light fixture is on the bottom of the lamp, make sure you make the bottom base high enough to prevent your light fixture from sticking out of the bottom, which would result in a lamp that is unbalanced. To prevent this, measure how tall your light fixture is and set the bottom base position to something 5 or 10 millimeters greater than that.
  • If you are using ¼” plywood, you don’t need to change the notch width and height settings. They have been pre-defined for that size of material. If you want to try a different thickness of material, you will need change to these settings, but realize that it may take some experimenting with the laser cutter to get the correct value and a good press-fit. A good rule of thumb is to set the notch height to slightly less than the thickness of your material to account for the kerf that will be burned away by the laser.

Step #8: Design the pattern of your lamp

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • The decorative patterning of your lamp is also controlled by code in the setup function. Specifically, the patterns are generated using a Voronoi diagram, a special type of spatial subdivision that, when given a set of point sites, generates cellular divisions around each site consisting of all areas whose distance to that point is not greater than their distance to any other site. The library takes care of the logistics of generating the diagram. All you have to do is give it a set of points to base the diagram on.
  • To specify a single point in Cartesian space, you use the addCartPoint() method and pass it an x and y coordinate. For example, to place a point at (15,10), you would type pointController.addCartPoint(15,10). You can also use some of Processing’s preset system variables, (width and height), to place points in specific locations. Typing pointController.addCartPoint(width/2, height/2); will place a point in the very center of the screen.
  • Once you’ve added the points you want, you can compile the code again and use the “pattern” button in the GUI to switch to the pattern display. You will then see a rendering of the Voronoi diagram generated by the points you specified. If you hit the “points” button, located below the scene toggle buttons, you will see the locations of the points themselves. The pattern will automatically be clipped to fit inside the dimensions of your lamp.
  • You can also add points in polar space instead of Cartesian. This comes in handy when trying to draw radial patterns, like a circle, with points. To add a point in polar space use the addPolarPoint() method and pass it the x and y coordinates of the origin, the angle in radians and the radius. For example, the code pointController.addPolarPoint(width/2, height/2, 6, 100); will place a point that’s 100 pixels away from the center of the screen at an angle of 6 radians.
  • Note: if you’re more comfortable thinking in degrees than radians, you can use a predefined Processing method to convert from degrees to radians by calling radians() and passing it the degree value. Refer here for details.

Step #9: Specify points via iteration

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • You can manually specify each point position, but it’s much quicker and much more interesting to use code (and a little math) to quickly generate a lot of points in varying patterns. To do this, we use a common programming structure called a for loop. A for loop is an iteration statement that allows code to be repeatedly executed. To initialize a for loop, we use the following syntax:
  • for (int i=0; i<limit; i++) { // code to be executed }
  • i is a variable that specifies the loop value, limit is the value that will terminate the loop once i reaches it, and i++ indicates the addition that will happen to i on each iteration of the loop. Suppose we set limit equal to 10. The for loop will instruct the program to start i at zero and check if i is less than 10. If it is, the program will execute any code in the curly brackets and then add one to i. It will then check if i is still less than than 10, execute the code and so on. Once i is no longer less than 10, the loop will terminate.
  • If we want to create an ordered structure of points, like a spiral, we can use a for loop as demonstrated in the example. Let’s go through the code in the // ========= GENERATE SPIRAL =============== // section.
  • Here, we’ve set a starting variable called centerLimit to 100. This will control the number of iterations of the for loop. It also specifies the number of points in our spiral. There’s also a variable called rad that’s set to zero. This value will control the radius of the spiral. In the for loop directly below this code we see that we’re checking the value of i against the centerLimit variable.
  • On each iteration, we’re adding one to rad and then calling the addPolarPoint() method and passing it the center of the stage (width/2 and height/2) as the origin point, and the value of rad as both the radian value and the radius. Because we’re increasing rad with each iteration, the effect will be 100 points that gradually radiate out from the center of the stage producing a spiral effect. Execute the code, and toggle to the pattern view to see this result.
  • Try changing the value of the centerLimit variable to increase or decrease the number of points in your spiral, or increasing or decreasing the amount you add to rad during each iteration to change the distance between the points. You can also call the addPolarPoint() method multiple times each loop with different origins to create multiple spirals in different locations. Spirals aren’t your only option for designing. The other examples contain code samples that show you how to generate points using circles, sine and cosine waves, polar roses and random values.

Step #10:

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • Prep your files: Once you’re satisfied with the form and pattern of your lamp, you can save out the files you will use to cut your parts on the laser cutter by hitting the save button in the lower right-hand part of the application window. If you look in the folder where the example is located, there should now be three files, “parts.pdf”, “shade.pdf” and “pattern.pdf”. Each file contains the tool paths for the 3 different parts of your lamp. These parts correspond to the 3 materials, wood, tissue paper or vellum and Bristol board.
  • When you preview your files, you may notice that some of the pieces in the “parts.pdf” file appear to be cut off, depending on the size of your lamp.To fix this, you may have to go into a vector editing program and release and delete the clipping mask surrounding the parts. You can do this easily in Adobe Illustrator, or in Inkscape, an open-source free vector graphics program.

Step #11: Cut your parts

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • This process will vary depending on the laser cutter that you are using. Different laser cutters have different control software that varies in file format requirements. Many laser cutter applications accept files with a .dwg or .dxf extension. You can use Inkscape or Illustrator to export the PDF files to this format. If you don’t have access to a laser cutter, you can use an online fabrication service to cut your files. A good choice is http://ponoko.com, though many others exist.
  • The laser cutter's power and speed settings will also vary depending on which laser cutter you use, so consult with the technician to figure out the best settings for cutting plywood, Bristol board and tissue paper, respectively.
  • You should cut the parts in the "parts.pdf" file out of the plywood, the "shade.pdf" pieces out of the tissue paper and the "pattern.pdf" pieces out of Bristol. Make sure you cut the correct number of pieces for your lamp. (If you specified 6 sides, cut six wooden ribs, 6 shades and 6 pattern pieces, and one top and one bottom base.)

Step #12: Glue your shades

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • Once the cutting process is complete, you will need to first assemble the shade pieces. Lightly apply glue to the back of one of the Bristol pattern pieces. (The back is the side that was facing down on the laser cutter bed when cut, and generally contains some scorch marks on it.) We recommend using clear liquid glue like ITOYA O'Glue to glue the paper pieces together, but you can experiment with other options.
  • Line the Bristol piece up with a piece of the cut tissue paper or vellum and glue the two together. Do the same for all of the remaining pattern pieces. Note: If you want a subtler effect, you can also glue the Bristol on the inside of the shade, so that it will only be visible when the lamp is on. To do this, apply glue to the front of the Bristol (the side without the scorch marks), and glue it to the shade.

Step #13: Assemble your frame

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While your shade pieces are drying, snap the frame together. If your measurements on the notches are correct, the frame should hold together by itself. However, if it’s a little loose, you can glue it together with Elmer’s glue or hot glue.

Step #14: Attach the shades to the frame

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Design by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut LampDesign by Code: Laser-Cut Lamp
  • You will need to glue the shades to the frame, one at a time, using either hot glue or O'Glue. Start with one rib of the frame and apply a dab of glue to both the top and bottom sections of the rib. Take your first shade and line up the right top and bottom corners to the rib where the glue is. For the first shade, we will wait till the end to glue down the left side. Wait till the glue is dry and move on to the next shade.
  • This time, apply glue to the top and bottom sections of the rib that you just glued the first shade to, and also to the top and bottom of the next rib to the right. Line up the corners of the next shade and glue it so that it slightly overlaps the first. Wait till the glue has dried and repeat the procedure for all of the remaining shades, rotating around the frame in a clockwise direction as you go. When you get to the last shade, glue it down to the remaining rib and then glue the left-hand side of the first shade on top of it.

Step #15: Connect the light fixture

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  • Fit your light fixture through the appropriate hole in the top or bottom of your lamp and fasten it in. Screw in the light bulb, plug in the lamp, step back and admire your handiwork!
  • To see more examples of lamps created with this process, visit this site.

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