Around the end of February I ordered a 40W “Hobby Laser” from Full Spectrum Engineering. Other lasers such as those offered by Epilog were simply way out of my price range. If I had a business built around a laser I might have sprung for one, but for a personal tool that was out of the question. However, I did really want a laser.
After much research I settled on Full Spectrum which arrived a couple of weeks ago. Now that I’ve had time to get it up and running and actually have some knowledge of it, I thought it time for an initial review.
What I ordered:
http://www.fullspectrumengineering.com/co2laserv2-40w.html No need to write out the parts list here when you can see for yourself!
The closest thing to a bell or whistle only comes with the Deluxe Model: a USB interface and printer driver software. Otherwise… the stage can be raised and lowered to focus the laser via a bolt that sticks out the bottom of the case (and which is hard to reach and turn). The laser output is monitored by a simple analog ammeter and controller by a knob with no markings except to indicate that clockwise is “more power” and counter-clockwise is “less power”. It’s a big, sturdy enclosure with lots of open space around simple, get-the-job-done components. None of these things are drawbacks to me — I’ll explain why shortly.
Like any tool of this sort, it takes calibration, experimentation and a bit of fiddling to get good results. Laser cutters are NOT laser printers! If all you want to do is etch a few pictures onto a few items then, yes, you can get up to speed very quickly. However, if you really want to use a laser as a tool for precision cutting you have to know what you’re doing. This machine will not hold your hand through the process any more than any machine shop tool would. Don’t buy it if you think otherwise!
The Big Plusses
I previously mentioned that the lack of bells and whistles and the big open spaces weren’t downsides to me. The lack of fancy bits means it is affordable and easily maintained by me. This isn’t a machine that requires regular visits from a vendor service tech. The simple design and lots of space also mean that the system is HACKABLE. What do I mean by that? I mean that it is going to be extremely easy to upgrade this machine with features that I want. Things like a stepper motor to adjust the build platform height, an Arduino power monitor/controller for the laser power, a flow detector for the cooling water (it doesn’t tell you if you forgot to turn on the cooling pump!), etc.
Well, the exhaust fan died after a few days, but that was because the manufacturer didn’t tie a knot in the power cord inside the fan. That resulted in fatigue where the wire was screwed in to the terminal and the wire broke. I fixed the break and reinstalled the wire WITH a knot to keep it from breaking again. Also, the air assist compressor stopped working while I was setting up and calibrating. It had been humming away for a hour or more and apparently overheated. I turned it off for about 15 minutes and it has been fine ever since. The lack of a beam combiner (an optional upgrade) does mean that the red dot pointer is an approximation of where the laser will actually strike. Finally, the big rim on the honeycomb table cuts down your cutting area quite a bit — you lose a good 1.5 to 2 inches in each direction. Finally, my z-platform is not quite leveled properly, so I need to remove the belt and tweak that (not a problem in most cases, but cutting larger objects in 1/4-inch acrylic needs accuracy).
The Full Spectrum Engineering Laser is *exactly* right for me. I’ll upgrade the basic bits to suit my desires along the way. I’ve already cut a 1/4-inch acrylic z-stage for my Makerbot (took some time to get it dialed in just right, but I figured it out). I’ve also had good luck with 0.002-inch Kapton film for use in printed circuit board solder stencils. Etching is, of course, even easier and is giving me good results as well. The laser does a great job, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you were looking to do custom laser cutting/engraving as a commercial enterprise. I think it’s up to the job, mind you (at least the actual laser itself), but a more expensive laser will save you a little when you are swapping materials in and out all day long by offering a few more bells and whistles. Also, the air exhaust and compressor are a bit more entry-level than I would want to run for 8 hours a day. Of course, Full Spectrum states clearly in the name that this is a 40W hobby laser, so that’s not a real criticism either. Overall I am very satisfied and won’t hesitate to recommend it to other makers/hackers/hobbyists looking to add a laser cutter to their tool set.