Technical

Pew, pew, pew! An Exhaustive Look into Laser Cutting at Mindtribe

Look around you. Look, there are lasers everywhere: in our CD players, grocery store bar code scanners, and laser pointers. On second thought, don’t look at the lasers, because they can cause blindness if you look directly into them. 

Think about lasers. Think about how great and powerful they are. Some lasers are powerful enough to cut through billets of aluminum or pulverize kidney stones. Although the laser we’ll be looking at– I mean, thinking about today does neither of those things, our recently acquired laser cutter has breathed new life into the phrase “Build less, faster” at Mindtribe, adding a new dimension to our internal prototyping capabilities and workflow.

 

The laser cutter (fondly known as just “the laser”) at Mindtribe is a BOSS L1630 that houses a 100W CO2 laser. The laser is capable of cutting through sheets of wood, MDF, fabric, cardboard, paper, and plastics like acrylic. In fact, the laser cuts through 1/4-inch acrylic sheet like a warm spoon through Country Crock.

Although such astounding power does not come without consequences. One of the first major challenges of operating a laser in a small office was exhausting the vaporized fumes. These fumes haunt the shop and office like ghosts of the vaporized material, tormenting their mortal captors with the haunting tones of a warm campfire or the nauseating stench of methylmethacrylate when cutting acrylic sheet. Laser cut Delrin irritates the eyes like a freshly cut onion. A ghost onion.

 

A conventional solution to this problem is to use a fume extractor to remove the smell and harmful toxins from laser cutter exhaust, and deposit the filtered air back into the room.

Our first fume extractor (much to the dismay of the office) was woefully incapable of keeping up with the volume of plastics being cut for our prototypes, and consequently the whole office would reek of molten acrylic whenever it was cut.

Fortunately, our second fume extractor, a BOFA AD1000 IQ, was considerably more powerful, removing even the most pungent stenches and toxins exhausted by the vaporizing plastics. This robust filtration system would allow us to cut prototypes and personal projects alike with a guilt-free conscience and fume-free lungs.

And so began a new era of laser cutting at Mindtribe. Whereas before we would rely upon a local laser cutting vendor or trek down to the TechShop, prototypes requiring the appropriate resolution could now be manufactured at blinding speed, right in our own shop. 

Not to mention personal projects! Right in time for the holidays. 

Although the software accompanying the laser cutter is peppered with colorfully translated text (“Welcome to use the laser system of cutting”, “Copy to memery”, and my personal favorite, “ÍÑ»úÎļþ±£´æ³É¹¦!”), it also has some very useful bitmap handling and dithering tools built-in, allowing us to raster etch handsome engineering managers into wooden coasters. 

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The most ambitious personal project built with the laser yet are Kerry’s masterfully crafted custom mechanical keyboard enclosures. With colorful acrylic scraps in hand and the power of the laser at his fingertips, Kerry meticulously designed, cut, hand-soldered and assembled a total of 4 different keyboard enclosures. He even used acrylic cement to achieve a sleek, fastener-free look (which is no easy task).

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One of the most useful tools made using laser cutting was a tool for the laser cutter itself (whoa, so meta), a small reference swatch of material designating differing levels of power and speed and their effect on the material for both vector cutting and raster etching, courtesy of Telind and Jason.

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Every holiday season, Mindtribe sends out a small trinket to clients and partners in celebration of another successful year. In the past, we’ve had the presents made by a third party in the form of a personalized screwdriver or wine opener, but thanks to the laser cutter we could now mass produce a unique gift in our own shop with relative ease. 

This year, we decided to create a present that would illustrate one of Mindtribe methods: build less, faster. What better way to represent this principle than an illustration of the laser itself? Using a nifty capacitive touch dimmer USB LED module we found on Amazon, we created a nightlight depicting a 2-D projection of the Mindtribe logo being laser cut. 

Starting with a crude model of the laser head (complete with anodized knurl), we brought a .DXF projection into Illustrator and added a rectangular piece of stock around the Mindtribe logo and a laser beam extending out of the cone, along with a simple slogan adorning the laser head. 

Afterwards, we modeled an appropriate sized hole and platform for the LED module to mount to in Solidworks, and consolidated all the geometry in RDWorks. The LED module is held in via a nut and bolt mounted to a laser cut platform perpendicular to the laser image. 

 

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Eureka! The result is a touch-sensitive laser cut Mindtribe-branded night light to illuminate your hallways and prevent you from falling on your face while stumbling to the kitchen for a midnight snack. 

Here’s the dimming in action. 

 

The entire construction is made of two pieces of ¼ inch acrylic, an LED module, one nut and one bolt. Of course, even with such a simple design and a laser cutter, making more than 100 of these gifts is no quick task! Each 12” x 24” sheet of ¼ inch acrylic took 58 minutes to fully etch and cut, yielding 14 pieces per sheet. 

That’s a lot of vaporized material! Fortunately, the fume extractor took the near 10 hours of cutting ¼ inch acrylic like a champ, leaving even the most sensitive nostrils in the office untouched by the wretched smell of acrylic vapor. 

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And thus concludes our abridged tale of lasering at Mindtribe. 

Abridged, of course, because not shown above are all the pictures of the cool prototypes we’ve been laser cutting. Having a laser cutter on-site has revamped our prototyping workflow by allowing us to iterate faster than we could with a 3-D printer or laser cutting vendor. It has also allowed us to offload internal prototyping onto two machines rather than one, especially with geometries not requiring the extra-axis afforded by 3-D printing. Apart from prototyping on client projects, the laser cutter has reinvigorated personal projects at Mindtribe. 

We’re excited to see what’s in store for the laser in the new year. Happy building!