I have received more than a few inquiries about the laser I use and how much it cost. Without further adieu, I will share the setup with you. I have been interested in "rapid prototyping" for some time, especially the ability to create fast visualizations for my architectural practice. I have used various lasers, and have owned more than one CNC Mill. In my opinion, physical models have the most utility when they can be realized quickly and simply. Delays or complications in production interrupt the design process, and drive up costs. For those reasons, I favor simple, proven technologies.
The laser I chose for my own use is the 40Watt Deluxe Hobby Laser by Full Spectrum Laser in Las Vegas, it sells, ready to "rock and roll", for $2350.00 direct from their site: http://www.fslaser.com . I chose to pick mine up in Las Vegas. In addition to the laser, you will need a PC running Windows 7. If you do not have a CAD or drawing program, you will need one. Several free packages are available. I recommend Draft Sight: http://www.3ds.com/products/draftsight/overview/ . The Full Spectrum Laser handles both vector and raster well, though I tend towards vector due to my CAD background. I did purchase a beam combiner, but in the end felt it was unnecessary, and took it out of the machine--preferring to keep the laser path as simple as possible.
The key benefit of the Full Spectrum set up is their proprietary USB board and print driver--these seem to be native to Net Framework 4.0, and operates flawlessly on Windows 7. I attempted an XP install first, however, I switched to Windows 7 in short order. This set up allows you to "print" to the laser from most of the programs one would presume to use. I put "print" in quotes, because what you are really doing is creating a .xps and opening it in the Full Spectrum software. People with more costly lasers will take this for granted, however, the other imported lasers that look similar to the Full Spectrum unit do not sport this ease of use.
What the folks at Full Spectrum have done is to take a relatively inexpensive import, and have several upgrades made to the chassis, and as stated before, the interface. The lasers use an older style of water cooled tube--Those tubes cost $300.00-$350.00. Getting a new tube for a US laser, or having a US tube rebuilt is more on the order of $1000.00. It might not be the newest technology, but it is entirely adequate. They also have physically brought the units to the United States; if you are located in the US, you are not having a delicate machine shipped from out of country. All of the units are tested and calibrated in Las Vegas. That is primarily why I chose to pick the unit up--I did not want to disturb any of the settings.
I have used the Universal equipment, and the Epilog Equipment (teaching at various schools of Architecture). If I had $12,000.00 to spend I might buy a Universal. The Universal Versa Laser is sharper and tighter machine--it is also at least four times the price. I have seen samples from the Epilog Zing, and the distinction, to my eye, is not as great. The difference in performance, by the way, makes virtually no difference for my purposes. My choice was not between buying a Universal or Epilog (their Zing is $8,000.00) and a Full Spectrum; my choice was between Laser or no Laser. True enough, one could do engraving on the side--but I already have a full and part time job--I don't need another. I was able to buy this machine with cash. Given the use of the machine, I saw no reason to incur debt.
The Full Spectrum Laser has filled an important market niche--essentially giving a lot of people who might never have afforded a laser a chance to own one--with a simple purchase process to boot. I would gamble at least some of those people will go on to buy higher end lasers as they develop their businesses.
On to the set up:
In setting up my bench, I gathered all of the essential functions (cooling water, exhaust fan, and air assist) into a single power block, which also powers the laser. This prevents any accidental firing without cooling water. The other side of the power block powers the computer. I power it all off at the end of the session.
I keep a 5 gallon pail of distilled cooling water under the bench with a dust cover (I used a hole saw to make a tidy hole in a bucket lid). I have made it a habit to check the return tube before firing the laser, visually verifying water flow. I went to change the water after a month, however, the dust cover was so effective that water change was not necessary. I also monitored the water temperature during my first few sessions--I am amazed at how effective 5 gallons of water is as a heat sink (James Joule, this one's for you!) Water is circulated by a little aquarium pump. I made a more robust attachement for the tubing, as the included attachment did not seem entirely trustworthy--if you are handy enough to use a laser, you can make good connections. "Aquarium Pump" might sound a little cheesy--but it works--and remember, the laser cost under $2500.00. . .
I was going to use the shop air compressor, but found the included compressor (visible hanging behind the Laser cabinet in the top photo) more than adequate, and the folks at Full Spectrum indicated that they found this unit was well matched to the Laser. The only reason I might ultimately change is to get the noise of the compressor out of the room-it is the only thing that makes much noise. Hanging it definitely cut the noise down, and it is not too offensive.
The panel is decidedly retro--and has more buttons than you actually need. The air switch operates a controlled outlet on the back of the unit--I skipped using these at Full Spectrum's recomendation. I like the power block set up I have as an alternative--no absent minded errors (I tend to be absent minded when I am focused on work. . . ). The top two green switches pressed together will test fire the laser. This is helpful for setting the power initially, and for testing alignment with a pin prick.
The current regulator knob sets the over all laser power. Laser power should be limited to 15mA in order to ensure maximum tube life. I set mine at just under, and leave it alone--checking it once in a while. When cutting with the laser, you can control power as a percentage of total--a lot of my etches are at a fraction of a percent (in paper). With these very basic settings, and manipulating the speed and number of repeats I can do everything from etching paper to cutting Masonite. While Styrene is not a recommended material for the sake of the fumes and its tendency to glue itself back together I have found that I can in fact cut it by manipulating the cut order and passes--when I absolutely feel the need. 99.9% of the time I stick to paper and acrylic like materials. A big part of cutting well in my mind, is thinking through the cut order, and setting up your drawing to cut well.
I will cover the "printing" process, focusing and cutting in a subsequent post. While your mileage may vary, I can say that I am entirely pleased with the Full Spectrum Laser--and, you can see the quality of the results in the preceding posts.