Cabin Digital LLC is a small company in Fredericksburg VA. We provide rapid prototyping services to the government and commercial clients. About 18 months ago we made a decision that a CNC laser cutter/engraver might be a good next tool to complement our CNC Plasma cutter, 3D printer and the rest of our team’s tools.
That started our journey and we share this with our fellow potential Kern users. Cabin Digital LLC was founded by my wife as a logical growth of another business she owns. While we are a small company with about 20 folks most of us are seniors in major corporations, I’m the CTO for a 3 billion dollar defense contractor. So while we’re small we like to think we had some really smart folks on our team and that helps when you make big decisions.
For a small company buying a CNC Laser is a big decision. For Cabin Digital it would be one of our larger assets. We did our research and really came down to two choices–a Kern system or a Chinese produced system. We looked at the specs and the Kern was clearly a better system. We looked at the price and for Cabin Digital we had a really hard time justifying the significant price difference between the two systems. We did as much research as possible even looking for used Kern systems.
Finally we decided that the Chinese Laser was the best option for us and then placed an order for about $25K.This is when the reality of the challenges became clear. The company sought payment via PayPal and needless to say we felt concerned dealing with global transfers of money to China. We were committed and said as a team I hope we actually get a machine–not a good feeling.
About 2 weeks passed and we were contacted to arrange customs clearance. Now we were a bit surprised because our deal included shipping… Shipping yes but customs no… We then spent about two weeks finding an agent and providing all of the use papers. The Chinese company offered to declare the system “parts” we declined not desiring to commit import fraud. Sure we want to save money, sure we thought these costs were included but we’re not going to break the law.
We negotiated a tailgate delivery as we didn’t have a forklift at our shop were the laser was being installed. Big mistake! They sent the system it made it across the ocean and arrived at our shop about 2 months after we paid for it. The driver backed up with his lift gate truck and said how are you going to unload this? I said lift gate right? He replied it’s too big for the lift gate…With some quick scurrying we got the tractor with forks (no forklift) and combined the lift gate with the tractor to get the crates out–so much for “free” shipping.
We unloaded and got the machine in place. This was a large 1200mm x 1600mm 150W CO2 system and included the chiller and associated accessories. Wait, where is the honeycomb? Where is the rotary option? Several emails later and eventually I had to provide a copy of their email to them with those promises. That resulted in a request for me to pay additional shipping and customs–my reply no! I offered to have the machine returned at their expense and suddenly they sent the “extra” parts.
Now on to machine setup…we had a space ready and quickly had the machine in place and the vents, power and air. The machine didn’t have a computer with it–you provide that but the software and software key were included so we hoped that would be easy. First we powered up the system and the laser head moved to the back right corner and when almost there sounded an alarm and shutdown. We looked and tried a restart and had the same problem. A few days and a few more emails and we had a cause–seems a proximity sensor has been tilted and needed to be bent back into place. Not good but at least it was easy to fix.
The system also allowed the blowers to be controlled through switched outlets and we plugged them in and tested that–low and behold the fans power up and then stopped… Go to the back of the machine and what do you find old style push and turn buss fuses. Both blown… Replace repeat, replace repeat and decide to finally replace with two breakers. Looking inside the machine these wires for the fans are clearly undersized–not to mention that the outlets don’t have a ground pin…Our decision we’ll power and control the fans outside the system. It works and it’s easy…
On to software. We have a clean XP machine and load the software following the scattered directions. All seems fine and we try to connect to the machine and get driver errors… For a minute I was transported back to the 80’s when every computer device seemed to complain and tell you to contact the vendor…
A two-week session of emails and lots of trials and errors suggested that the controller or display was bad and they would send a new one… Ok wait on DHL and soon we have a controller and do the install and test… Guess what same problem… Another 2 weeks of emails and even some YouTube videos sent to the company and still no answer. Cabin Digital is an engineering company and has a few good software developers. Up to this point we doubted ourselves. Were we were doing things wrong or did we have a hardware problem? After a bit of file-by-file inspection it became clear the machine shipped with the wrong configuration files and was trying to configure incorrectly. We asked for the correct files and after a bit of “You should have that”, “We don’t”, they sent the right file.
About three months and untold hours we were finally up and running. The laser was finally cutting and engraving and earning its keep. Overall it did a pretty nice job, of course we didn’t have a comparison. We were excited that the system was working and as we learned the software things settled down. We run the machine for about a year and over that time replace a lens and mirrors based on debris but again we didn’t have a reference point. About once a month the laser required an alignment that takes about 2-3 hours to get right… The mirrors have classic springs and screws but when you tighten the jam nuts the alignment changes–it was a long trial and error to get the alignment process to work across the entire table. It never cut perfectly everywhere and occasionally we would have to recut one part. That slowed us down as we couldn’t confidently cut and entire sheet or engrave a large area with consistency. Still we pressed on and in a year our laser business was growing–actually growing so well these problems were beginning to be a big pain.
At this same time Keith from Kern called and said he had a machine we might be interested in and we had a chat. Cabin Digital had a discussion and decided it was time to move on and make the financial commitment and buy a Kern. It didn’t take long to sell the Chinese Laser and suddenly I was at Kern in training on the new machine.
First impressions–Holy Cow! The Kern folks have a great design, factory and their acts together not to mention the folks are super nice!
As I began to look and learn there are some clear MAJOR differences in the design and operation of the machine.
First the Kern uses a RF laser and hence the power and control are far better. This nice large aluminum “box” took the place of our glass tube in the Chinese laser.
Second, the Kern Laser is mounted on the moving gantry–this seemed strange but as I looked it suddenly became clear this means that only 1 mirror moves in the Kern. The Chinese laser moves 2 mirrors. That might explain the alignment challenges we had with the old machine.
Third, the entire optical path was enclosed and uses purge air–unlike the completely open Chinese design–that might explain the mirrors and lens damage.
Fourth, the Kern is clearly fully integrated, tested and functional the system and software play well together and even in training I was already seeing new and better things Cabin Digital would soon be able to do with this great machine.
So what did we learn so far? The money we saved on the Chinese laser was mostly spent in delays, and problem solving. The system is just really a large version of a non-commercial design and would never be a decent production machine. The Kern machine is a clear solid design that solves the problems we were having with the Chinese Laser system. If we had it to do over we would have started with a Kern… It’s a lesson learned and one we are sharing with you.
Cutting mild steel with a CO2 laser isn’t just possible, it’s an excellent choice for those seeking clean, consistent and precise cuts. In this post, we’ll be discussing tips for laser cutting mild steel.
When equipped with the laser cutting option, Kern’s CO2 lasers are quick and efficient at mild steel cutting.
The following tips will help operators be successful…
1. MATCH MATERIAL THICKNESS AND WATTAGE
As you likely know, the wattage of a laser will dictate the thickness of mild steel you’re able to cut, and the speed at which you’re able to cut it.
Check out the manufacturing specifications of your laser’s system to see what thicknesses of mild steel different laser wattages can cut. While there may be some variation, the manufacturer recommendations provide an excellent guide.
2. PIERCE YOUR MILD STEEL
An important part of cutting mild steel is the moment when the laser first pierces the material. Keep in mind that the settings during the piercing process will be different than the settings during cutting. The pierce point requires lower power, about half the air pressure and steady contact for 1-2 seconds.
3. DON’T CLIP YOUR BEAM
Laser beam placement is a key component of cutting mild steel. The goal here is to align the beam so that it goes directly through the center of the nozzle.
The copper nozzle on Kern laser systems has an opening size of about 60/1000 of an inch. If the beam is not centered, the nozzle will clip the beam. A clipped beam spells all sorts of trouble for cutting mild steel.
First, it will decrease the power, which can prevent the beam from having enough strength to pierce the material. Additionally, it will prevent the laser from making clean cuts. Instead, it will leave the mild steel with burrs and unclean edges.
4. ADJUST YOUR FOCUS POINT
In order to effectively cut mild steel, the copper nozzle needs to be at a distance of 0.010″-0.020″ from the material being processed. This provides the laser beam with the ideal focus point for the laser to perform optimally. This also allows the assist gas to penetrate into the cut to help clear away debris and create a precise clean cut. If your nozzle is too high, not only would your nozzle be out of focus, but the assist gas would be dispersed over the cut leaving debris within the cut.
This same principle is in effect when using a magnifying glass to concentrate the sun’s heat. Making slight changes to the height of the magnifying glass affects how powerful the beam is, just like adjusting the height of your laser’s copper nozzle affects the beam’s power.
5. CHECK YOUR OPTICS
A laser outfitted with bad optics is not going to cut mild steel effectively. Check your mirrors and your lenses to ensure they are free of debris.
6. CHOOSE YOUR ASSIST GAS
When cutting mild steel, choose either oxygen assist or regular shop air. For thicker mild steel, choose oxygen assist with a lower psi.
7. ADJUST YOUR POWER SETTINGS
Although it does take a fair amount of power for a CO2 laser to pierce and cut mild steel, too much heat will leave burn marks on the material. As a rule of thumb, less heat is better for mild steel.
Instead of defaulting the power setting at 100%, try to figure out the lowest power setting that will still allow you to cut the material. The lower setting will help you prevent marks and dross on the back side of the mild steel.
CUTTING 18 GA MILD STEEL
In this video, Jake Shaw will lead you through the basics of cutting 18 gauge mild steel with a 400W CO2 laser.
If you have additional questions about cutting mild steel with a CO2 laser, please contact us. We would be happy to provide you with additional information.
HOW-TO MINIMIZE DOWNTIME WITH LASER SYSTEM MAINTENANCE
October 19, 2020
When’s the last time you had to shut down to wait for laser repair or maintenance? Whether you’re operating a laser out of a job shop, small business or for a larger production outfit, downtime due to equipment failure is never a good thing.
Nowadays, profit margins are tighter than ever, and CO2 laser repair services aren’t always easy to access.
By paying attention to the needs of your laser system and providing it with appropriate, ongoing maintenance, you can extend the life of your laser system, prevent costly downtime and keep the laser’s processing capabilities at peak performance.
RECEIVE PROPER TRAINING
From one laser to another, you’re going to find a lot of similarities, but no two systems are exactly the same. Understanding the specifications and quirks of your system will help you to provide it with proper maintenance and more effectively troubleshoot issues when they arise.
Choosing a laser system from a company that provides training is a great way to ensure you know the ins and outs of its maintenance requirements. Additionally, always review the operator’s manual of a new laser system. It will provide maintenance directions and usually include a maintenance schedule as well.
KEEP THE SYSTEM CLEAN
Across the board, keeping your laser system and work area clean is a recipe for success. Some materials create a high volume of dust and debris during processing. Failure to clear away dust and debris can get in the way of laser processing and lead to end products with diminished quality. It is always recommended to keep your work area clean and debris-free.
INVEST IN A LASER DESIGNED FOR EASE OF MAINTENANCE
Any way you cut it, a laser system is a big investment. It’s true whether you’re upgrading from your current laser system to a bigger, faster, higher wattage system or you’re considering making the move from a more manual process to laser processing.
With a big investment, it pays to do your due diligence to not only keep your machine running properly, but to make sure that whatever product you choose is one that makes maintenance accessible.
As we’ve established, all laser systems require maintenance, but it’s worth noting how much maintenance a system requires and how difficult it is to provide that maintenance as it will differ from system to system.
In some instances, you’ll find systems designed for easy maintenance. Basically the nooks and crannies you need to get into are easily accessible and the same goes for wear parts. Those systems are going to save you time and frustration over the lifetime of ownership.
At the end of the day, a well-maintained laser system is going to provide consistent performance over long stretches of time. In order to get the most out of your laser system, give it the maintenance it needs and deserves. By receiving proper training, keeping the system clean and investing in a laser that’s designed for ease of maintenance, you’ll be well on your way to reducing downtime and growing your profit margins.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT LASER CUTTING BASICS
October 2, 2020
When you’re in the laser business, you get a lot of questions. Below, we’ve answered 10 of our most frequently asked questions.
CAN A CO2 LASER CUT METAL?
Yes. A properly outfitted CO2 laser can cut metal. We’ve developed a metal cutting option, which allows CO2 lasers to cut metals with relative ease. We’ve been doing it for years.
HOW THICK OF MATERIAL CAN I CUT?
It depends. More specifically, it depends on three primary variables:
If you have a particular metal you’d like to discuss, you can always contact us to discuss the specifics of your material. We will help you determine how or if you’re able to use a CO2 laser cutter to process your desired thickness.
It depends. Laser cutting speeds depend on three primary variables:
For example, let’s look at how wattage impacts CO2 laser cutting speeds.
If you’re cutting ⅛” acrylic plastic on a 150W laser, it’s going to cut 3-4 inches per second. Now, if you take that same material and cut it on a 400W laser, it’s going to cut at about 6-7 inches per second.
HOW FAST CAN I ENGRAVE?
Engraving speeds on Kern Laser systems are anywhere from 100 inches per second to 150 inches per second. These speeds are for surface engraving, which typically uses a lower power to mark the surface of a material.
3D engraving, which involves putting depth into a material, anywhere from 3/16” to 1/4″, has speeds that vary from 20 inches per second to 45 inches per second. 3D engraving speeds depend on the intricacy of the pattern.
HOW DOES THE LASER CREATE THE DEPTH OR 3D EFFECT IN THE WOOD?
The laser engraves at varying depths to create a 3D effect using grayscale. Our KCAM software is able to read 256 different shades of grey, and those shades tell the laser what depth to engrave to.
For example, if you drew a three-inch square and made half of it black and the other half light gray, the laser could engrave it at around 30-40 inches per second. The black part of the square would engrave much deeper into the wood than the light gray would.
WHAT IS THE MAIN SAFETY CONCERN WHEN OPERATING THE LASER SYSTEM?
Overall, operating a laser system is safe. Like all CNC equipment, when operating an open bed (Class 4) laser system eye protection is required. Always rely on your company’s LSO (laser safety officer) to determine the correct laser safety glasses. And remember, enclosed (Class 1) laser systems — like our FiberCELL and LaserCELL — do not require safety glasses.
IS THERE A RADIATION HAZARD INVOLVED WITH YOUR LASER SYSTEMS?
No. This is an infrared radiant energy that is produced when operating the laser. It’s the same energy that is used in commercial and residential appliances like microwaves. It is a well-tested, very safe way of creating heat.
WHERE ARE YOUR SYSTEMS BUILT?
We design and build all of our systems in our factory here in Wadena, Minnesota. It’s been this way since 1982. Everything in the system is American-made.
WHAT OPTIONS CAN BE ADDED TO KERN LASER SYSTEMS?
Pipe rotary, k-vision, metal cutting, Z12 monument package, fume scrubbers, PhotoGrav software, and LaserMech programmable beam delivery.
Yes. We have a technical support team capable of helping with any issue you have. When you call Kern Laser Systems during business hours, you will be greeted by a live receptionist. We pride ourselves on providing excellent customer service. Please check out our testimonials to hear from our customers about their experiences with tech support.