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Torch through stuff on the fly with portable laser cutter

Crave writer Michael Franco catches up with one of the creators of the Origami laser cutter, now blasting through a campaign on Kickstarter.

The Origami, sporting a blue ribbon it won at the New York Maker Faire. Red Ant Laser Company

Though 3D printers seem to be getting all the attention these days, there's another valuable tool that's been quietly getting smaller and smaller to let at-home makers create precision-built items: the laser cutter. Instead of using an additive manufacturing process like 3D printers, laser cutters can be thought of as using a subtractive process. They blast through things like wood, glass and thin sheets of metal like supersharp knives to create pieces and parts that can be assembled into larger constructs. They can also etch intricate patterns into the surfaces of many materials.

In an effort to bring laser cutting to the masses, a group known as the Red Ant Laser Company has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for a portable cutter called the Origami. You can read all about this unique blaster on the fundraising page, but to fill in some of the details I found lacking about this little-known piece of tech, I caught up with Red Ant co-founder Anthony Oliveiri (Ollie) through an email interview. Here's what he had to say:

Q: Can you tell me more about the laser itself? The video says it's a 40-watt CO2 laser. I never realized that lasers even used gas, so that's how much I know. What is the significance of the CO2?
Oliveiri: CO2 is the gas that's trapped in the tube. A CO2 laser tube works almost exactly like a neon light. If you trap neon in a tube and energize it, the tube emits light. That's very similar to how CO2 lasers work. CO2 in an energized tube emits invisible infrared light, and mirrors in the tube columnate it into a laser beam.

There are different types of lasers: diode, CO2, NDYAG, fiber, etc. What all those mean is waaay outside the scope of this email. What you should know is that CO2 lasers are the most popular types of lasers for prototyping, art and making. The laser light from a CO2 laser collides with and ablates [or,essentially, vaporizes] organic materials such as wood, leather, fabric, acrylic (plastic), delrin (plastic), rubber and paper. A CO2 laser can also etch hard materials such as glass, ceramic and stone. The Origami laser is 40 watts -- which means it's comparable to desktop laser cutters already on the market.

Is that what makes it portable?
Oliveiri: The Origami is portable because it folds up, can be easily carried by one person and has a self-contained cooling and ventilation system.

CO2 laser cutting and etching machines have been around for a long time. But just like 3D printers 10 years ago, the industry is dominated by large companies selling large, very expensive machinery. They make laser cutters/etchers that are about the size of an oven. Even then, the cutting beds are fairly limited.

What inspired you to create this type of equipment?
Oliveiri: I wanted to laser etch the city skyline of Pittsburgh into the top of my coffee table, but my coffee table is 4 feet long. Popular lasers on the market have a cutting bed and enclosure that are typically 20 inches by 12 inches. My coffee table wouldn't fit into those.

What I imagined was a laser cutter/etcher without an enclosure or bed. With our laser, I can etch half of the skyline on half of my coffee table then move it over and do the other half. And when I'm done, I can fold the arm in and carry the laser off. You can see Red Ant co-founder Scott Ardisson here unfolding the Origami arm:


How is the Origami different from other laser cutters?
Oliveiri: Laser cutters need to carry smoke away from the material being cut within their enclosure. There's generally a fan inside that sucks the smoke out of the enclosure and out a port on the back. To get rid of the smoke, you have to route a dryer hose from the laser to a nearby window. And some desktop models don't even have internal cooling. So you have to run the dryer hose out a nearby window for the smoke and then set a bucket of water next to the laser and dangle some cooling hoses down into the bucket -- what a setup.

Our cooling system is internal, so you don't need the bucket. And our ventilation is internal and includes an activated carbon filter. Instead of just sucking smoke out of the enclosure (which we don't have) ours sucks the smoke away at the laser cutting head and drags it to a filter inside the back of the unit. It's all self-contained so you can take it anywhere. Or fold it up and put it out of the way on a shelf in your maker space.

How much does it weigh?
Oliveiri: The Origami will be around 30-40 pounds when it ships. We're also providing a shoulder strap with an internal metal cable (padded inside the strap) to easily carry it.

How do I send information to the machine? I assume it interfaces with standard CAD-style design software? Or does it need special software? (As you can tell, I know nothing about this industry!)
Oliveiri: That's OK! Hardly anyone knows about laser cutters. 3D printers are supercool, and we love 3D printers, and they get a lot of press. And now, everybody knows about them. There's no press about laser cutters. Nobody knows about them. So you're in good company.

The company's namesake in acrylic, made from parts cut out by the Origami. Red Ant Laser Company

Information is sent to the machine from a laptop or desktop. To cut something on a laser cutter it has to be a vector drawing made in programs like CorelDRAW, Adobe Illustrator, Autodesk AutoCAD or the free open-source vector drawing program Inkscape. After you make your drawing, you then import it into the laser controller software, where you can set the power level and speed of the laser.

Once set, a control file is sent to the laser cutter through a USB cable wired to your laptop or by USB stick drive -- which also lends to the portability. You can take the Origami and your favorite designs on a USB drive to a park near your house and run them on your choice of medium. Or you can take your favorite designs to a job site and use the Origami to laser etch a mural on a wall or etch a name or logo onto a window. (You can watch us use the Origami vertically on a wall on our Kickstarter page.) All of the required control software is provided on a setup disc with the laser itself and it's very easy to install and use.

What size machine in the industry does this compare to?
Oliveiri: Our laser is the same power and almost the same size as a Full Spectrum 5th Gen Hobby Laser (which runs $3,500). That's a 40-watt CO2 laser. Their cutting bed is 12 inches by 20 inches. Our cutting area is about 17 inches by 20 inches. Their laser doesn't have the internal cooling and exhaust, so you have to do the bucket and dryer hose trick, which adds a bit to the initial cost of operation. The Origami works right out of the box with no additional equipment required.

How long does it take to cut the ant in the video? (And what's that stuff you squirt on it?)

Oliveiri: I think it took about 20 minutes to cut that ant out completely. The liquid is Weld-On, a type of acrylic glue, just to hold the ant together better.

Can you tell me how the machine differentiates between cutting and etching? Is it a setting on the machine itself, or in the software?
Oliveiri: The software differentiates between cutting and etching. Cut lines are created as vector drawings. And etching is done from bitmap style images. You can cut and etch from the same file in the laser controller software -- just import the etch file and the cut file into the software and align them.

Can it etch pretty much any image into lots of different surfaces?
Oliveiri: It will etch pretty much any image into almost anything organic, or into certain hard materials that absorb infrared light, such as glass, ceramic and stone. Of course, some images are going to laser etch or cut better than others and some experimentation has to be done with power levels and speeds. This is common with all lasers. To get the best etch or cut from a laser, a few tests runs should be done on cardboard and a scrap piece of your material -- say a scrap piece of plywood or a remnant of the leather you want to use.

And to get your image to the machine, you simply bring it into the laser controller software we provide, and set your power and speed levels, then send it to the laser. The laser also has an internal memory and it can keep a few of your latest designs on board. So, if you already have the file downloaded to the laser, you can run it again and again without reloading from a computer.

With 13 days left in their campaign, the Red Ant guys have thus far raised about half their goal of $80,000. If you want to get in on the laser-cutting action it'll cost you a cool $4,200 (about £2,614, AU$4,780), but just think of all the fun you could have with it at your next party. Custom-made coasters anyone?