Random Musings About Lasers

I’m not sure what is going on in the world of Home/Small Business Lasers.  Just a couple of months ago they were relatively easy to get, and now suddenly they are nearly unobtanium.  Kind of like last year when Coronavirus hit and you couldn’t buy a bicycle to save your life.  Everyone all at once decided to buy bicycles.  So it goes with the larger CO2 lasers right now.  I think a lot of folks have decided to do the side hustle thing and laser engraving from home is a viable and sometimes profitable endeavor.  I refer to my lasers as “$20 bill vacuums”.

I belong to several forums regarding lasers, and software and they are filled with first time users who have no idea at all what they are doing.  And, let’s be clear……..there is nothing wrong with that.  That’s what forums are for………helping each other and learning.  When I bought my first laser I had no idea what I was doing either.

If you buy a Chinese Laser …… YOU ARE ESSENTIALLY ON YOUR OWN.  You might get some limited support, but you better be able to be self-sufficient.

Laser engravers and cutters are pretty complex systems that require at least some technical skill.  Larger CO2 lasers consist of a few different subsystems such as:

  • High powered laser
  • Precise Optical Alignment system with mirrors
  • Water cooling system
  • Air Assist system
  • Electronics – power supply, controller, switches
  • Machine settings in firmware and software
  • G-Code – you may just have to pass some G-Code settings to your machine manually

And I’m really oversimplifying things here.    Once you ship a machine half way around the world, it may or may not have problems upon arrival.  Your choices are then:

  • Send the Machine back and wait for the reseller to fix it or provide another machine, which by the way is unobtanium at the moment.
  • Deal with the problem, whatever it is.

On the other hand there are a lot of super users out there with great web pages and video instruction that are free for the taking which allows most people to work through most things.  But once you get one of these devices even the manufactures don’t tell you have to do most tasks. They have to be learned.  For example, if you want to do rotary operations and engrave round things like cups and tumblers at some point YOU HAVE TO DO SOME SIMPLE GEOMETRY.  Just once, but you have to do it in order to tell your device how many little movements your stepper motors have to make to complete one rotation around the circumference of your item.

So it goes in the world of hobby lasers.  If you get lucky your laser works right out of the shipping crate……….you are happily cranking out signs and vacuuming up $20 bills and then the power supply blows up because, a) the power supplies in these units are cheap AF, or b) people hook things up to them wrong doing upgrades.

I’m not knocking anyone………..no way.  But here are some common issues I see on the forums.

One popular upgrade is to add LED strips to the inside of the laser so you can see better.  Imagine possessing no electronic skills whatsoever and then having to solder a 24 volt LED strip and connecting it to the main power supply unit for the laser electronics system.  It is a recipe for disaster. I see it happen over and over again.  I solder REALLY GOOD, but LED strips have tiny little solder pads on them.  Not only that they have a Voltage pad, a ground pad, and sometimes a data pad.  Short those pads together and fire up your laser and at best you’ll blow a fuse in your power supply.  At worst, you’ll blow up all the electronics in your laser.

Another good one is selecting the WRONG voltage LED strip in the first place.  Looks like a 1970’s Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert when you turn things on…….for a second, until the fuse in the power supply blows.

At that point your laser is a POS.  Not your fault, by golly, this is a POS.  I see it time and time again.

As an electronics guy I can tell you that these power supplies are pieces of shit.  Also every one of these machines can have a larger laser tube put in it.  Your 50 watt machine can be a 60, 70, 80, etc.  In the K40 laser world I’ve seen people upgrade to 50 watt laser tubes and a frequent recommendation is “your same power supply will work”.

Yeah.  Maybe.  Depends on the power supply.  Remember these things ARE THE CHEAPEST POWER SUPPLIES THE CHINESE CAN FIND TO TURN A PROFIT.

Maybe the bigger issue in LaserLand™ is mirror alignment.  It seems like the darkest of dark arts.  Everyone is terrified of taking it on.  Everyone who is terrified of taking it on takes what should be the most tiny and precise tweak to the alignment and makes it 1000x’s worse. And then they declare the laser to be a POS with no manufacturer support.

CO2 lasers have 3 mirrors in them and typically the beam fires from the laser and hits a mirror and takes a 90 degree turn.  It then hits the 2nd mirror where it takes yet another 90 degree turn until it strikes the laser head where it makes a final 90 degree turn, only this time the turn is downwards.  It is really not that complicated yet I see people selling their machines over a simple alignment and then buying new machines or buying into a new system or ecosystem.

There are some systems that are designed to be SIMPLE such as Glowforge and while I don’t own one, nor will I own one they seem to be SLOOOOOWWWW and 100% reliant on being hooked to the internet and connected to the Glowforge servers.  I wonder what happens when the day rolls around when Glowforge goes out of business or even the day when the cable internet goes out at your house.  You’re done.  Your $5000 machine can’t do anything.

Anyway, I’m not knocking anyone here.  Everyone has a right to buy a laser and try to make a side hustle or run a home business.  Everyone has a right to learn the hard way but there are some things every laser user should anticipate:

  • Your diode laser or your CO2 laser tube will weaken over time. It will.  Nothing you can do about that.  Then you have to change it.
  • If your laser doesn’t have an air assist, you’re going to need to add one.
  • Internal air assist pumps have a high failure rate.  So high that my reseller sent me a spare one in the Pouch ‘O Parts.
  • Water pumps fail.
  • Water Flow Sensor switches leak..
  • Your CO2 laser power supply is kind of a high failure item.
  • Mirrors crack.  If they don’t crack on their own you’ll drop one cleaning it and it’ll crack.
  • Lenses get the coatings burned off of them
  • Optical systems fall out of alignment even when the machine doesn’t move.  Once I dropped the door too hard on my laser tube area and a retainer and spring fell out of the mirror throwing the whole system out of alignment.

I think most people think buying a $2000 to $5000 system,  that said laser will work forever with no user intervention and if it doesn’t that it is a POS.   The truth is that no matter what you do, your laser SYSTEM will probably work a year, or two, or three before it needs some serious maintenance or alignment done to it.  I fear this surge of buying every laser in sight the moment the manufactures list them for sale will end up with a flood of broken machines on Facebook Marketplace a year or two from now.  Heck, I’m already seeing that.

Lets also not forget that these things are MADE IN CHINA.  And while quality seems to be improving one needs to understand how Chinese businesses operate.  I speak from experience here.  I dated a Chinese bar owner for 6 years.  You got a shot of whiskey from her and it came in a top shelf bottle at top shelf prices but what you were getting was watered down rot gut shit.  Her principle goal was to MAKE PROFIT.  I’m not saying she was a bad person but this was pretty typical of her, her friends and most Chinese businesses in general.  Make profit, and to hell with how you make that profit.

Buy the CHEAPEST, least reliable parts, slap them together and sell them, then obfuscate, stall, confuse or ignore your customers when they have issues.   When you are communist and get a taste of capitalism you make that money any way you can.  I lived in Asia for 16 or so years and its just the way it is.  Not saying it is right or wrong or indifferent, I’m saying…….that’s just the way it is.

So don’t expect a high quality power supply.  Don’t expect a top of the line built in air pump. Don’t expect that your laser tube was built to exacting standards and will live as long as it is supposed to.

So I just bought an $1800, 50 watt laser.  The pros, and people with some longevity on these machines will tell you “Yeah, it works but you’re gonna want to change” …………..

  • The power supply
  • The laser tube
  • The water flow sensor and switch
  • The air pump

That’s almost all of the components in the machine!  And I believe this sentiment to be 100% correct.  My laser needs to stay in an operational status.  I am acquiring spare parts for it so I can fix it ON THE SPOT when it breaks.  I’ll buy everything but the laser tube as they degrade sitting on the shelf as well.

I digress.  This is my blog, my opinion, and this is how I feel.  Mark my words though.  In a year or so when these things start breaking and the users don’t possess the requisite repair skills they will be selling these machines on Facebook Marketplace in droves.

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