We’ve recently added laser cutting to our offerings at Sculpteo. While laser cutting offers many advantages such as a good cutting precision, strong repeatability, and cost-effectiveness, there are a few things you should consider before trying it for your project. These considerations are important whether you are using our service, or using a home laser cutter.
1. Laser cutters only support vector files
Simple pictures or non vectorized drawings are not enough to create an object with laser cutting because they do not contain the information necessary to enable the machines to cut or engrave it. What you need is a vector file.
New to CAD design? You can find ready-made vector files on dedicated websites or ask a designer to do it for you. But it is also very easy to create your own vector file with software such as Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, or Sketchup. Whatever software you use, you should not forget the design guidelines that must be respected, depending on the material you want to use. Finally, always make sure that your design is in the right format so you can send it to the laser cutting service. For example, at Sculpteo we accept vector files in .SVG, .DXF, .AI or .EPS format.
2. Find the right material for your project
Each project is unique and each design needs to find its adequate material to turn into an object. But before diving in, you need to be aware of the different properties of each material. If your object is gonna be exposed to humidity or heat, you might want to avoid cardboard or MDF and have a closer look at acrylics. On the contrary, if you have a tight budget or want to try a prototype design, then cardboard can be a good option.
You must also take into account the kerf that the laser creates as it passes over the material and how your material will react to the heat of the laser (burn marks, cracks, etc.). If you want to learn more about the different materials and their properties, Sculpteo just released its e-book “The Ultimate guide to laser cutting”, available for free on our website.
3. Turn a lasercut-friendly design into a lasercut-proof one
Once your design is ready, rethink it! Is it suited for laser cutting? Narrow parts, superfluous details, wide engraved surfaces could damage the final result of your piece or increase the price of your design. Keep in mind that if you optimise the line work, you will achieve faster cuts and save money.
First of all, clever designers will figure out the best way to maximize the use of materials. Look carefully at your design and get rid of anything that could be considered superfluous. You should remove double lines as well. A laser, as powerful and precise as it may be, doesn’t have a brain and it doesn’t know you don’t want to cut the same line twice! It may sound obvious, but be careful when you create your design on a software. Fonts must also be vectorized otherwise they won’t be included in the pattern. Finally, we strongly advise to reduce raster engraving as much as possible since it is the most time consuming operation.
4. Keep in mind the kerf when you design for assembly
One of the good things with laser cutting is that parts that are cut can easily be assembled. In order to do that you must plan for a minimum space between each of the parts to assemble. Make sure to build your design in a way that allows space for the kerf.
If you want your objects to fit into each other you must take the kerf into account, which means subtract half the size of the kerf from the frame’s parameter, and add the other half of the kerf to the inner part. It takes some time but that’s the only way to prepare a project like this:
If you wish to make pieces fit into each other and make sure they’ll stay connected, you absolutely need to add in nodes. Nodes are small bumps situated in a piece’s slots or tabs, that allow to compensate the thickness variations of the material and the kerf. Nodes get compressed when the pieces are assembled and they concentrate the friction on specific points rather than on the slot’s whole surface. This way, the slots can be larger without coming apart, allowing the pieces to stay together.
In order to make sure the pieces stay fixed, you must place the nodes on each side of the slot opposite to one another. Depending on the length of the slot, you can place several nodes. This will minimize the tension that could potentially occur if the nodes were not aligned or if one was missing. They must be smooth and long enough to ease the interlocking. Depending on the material’s density, the nodes’ width may be increased or decreased. The higher the material’s density, the smaller the nodes’ width should be.
If you want to learn how to make the shape featured in this picture, while saving material and respecting the kerf, Sculpteo has specific tutorials on the subject.
5. Laser cutting can be great for 3D objects too
Laser cutting and 3D Printing are both wonderful digital manufacturing techniques! Freedom of design, super low set-up fee, speed… so many advantages that you can play with. Both techniques represent a powerful tool, useful for designers who now need to rapidly design, prototype, iterate and produce. And it’s a real pleasure to create products that combine these 2 techniques. But you need to think out of the box!
As you know, laser cutting allows you to make 2D shapes, but it can also be used as an efficient solution to create 3D objects. Sometimes it can even suit your design idea better than 3D printing would. The use of laser cut parts for production requires thinking in 2D in order to assemble in 3D. Designing in 3D by using laser-cutting may seem a brain teaser, but it can save you a lot of money!
If you want to learn more about laser cutting, Sculpteo just published a free ebook: The Ultimate Laser Cutting Guide (free registration required)!