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For $130, what could go wrong? Naturally we ordered two of this tiny, 1W laser engraver tool, because that’s just how we do things. One device arrived DOA (seemed to be the controller board), one worked (as well as expected, that is to say, there’s no comparison to a real machine).
What’s in the Box
The laser machine, some sample materials, a 5V 2A power supply, and a USB stick, because who wouldn’t trust a USB stick, amiright?
Fit and Finish
On the working device, while the laser head was attached, it wasn’t attached well. Two screws were complete missing (the top two), the bottom two were quite loose. Tightening them required moving around the head using the included software and a small screwdriver–this is not a machine built for trivial fixery.
The top is removable via plastic tabs, but it’s a pain. The top is more or less required for reliable operation since it keeps the Y axis rails in place–if you take off the top, before doing much printing, you’ll either need to put it back on, or replace it with something that’ll hold the rails.
It comes with a 5V 2A power supply with a too-long barrel jack that occasionally falls out. The USB port is far enough in that some cables won’t fit, meaning it also fell out. We didn’t mean to lose connection 🙁
Once both USB and power are plugged in the laser turns on (low) for help in positioning. We needed to re-focus ours; just turn the lens cap until it’s as close to a pinpoint as possible. Use white, non-shiny paper for this step.
There’s an acrylic piece you can put on the front, which is great for keeping your eyes safe(r), but there are no side panels. Even though it’s just a 1W laser, you can be hurt by even scattered light, so be careful… None of us are blind yet, but we did occasionally get zapped with scatter enough to notice it.
There’s an “exhaust fan” on the back which does actually pull out smoke from the cutting area (more or less) but it’s not going to save your life or anything: cut responsibly.
Well, it’s software, sure enough, but holy smokes, you sure can’t do much with it. And what you can do is largely guesswork, at least on the Windows version. We haven’t tried the OS X version yet, and our Linux machines are left in the lurch.
There’s a collection of sample images we used for our initial testing. You can scale the images using the “Scaling” slider (upper-left) and if you don’t, you’ll get tiny, burned chunks. Larger, clean images will work best. You can add text using whatever fonts you have installed, but with zero means to align anything anywhere, your composition options are limited.
Homing the machine? It just moves until it grinds in the corner then pops out a little bit. Laser intensity? “Depth adjustment of engraving”. About 5-10-ish is decent enough, and it takes about three minutes for their sample Lexus logo image to etch on cardboard, but again, finding the sweet spot for the material being etched is sketchy, especially since you can’t enter a number directly–sliders all the way, baby!
It often failed to print the entire image for no reason we could discern, like the Big Bang Theory image. Sometimes it would skip parts of an image, as in the Bentley logo’s “L” and part of the “N”. Again, finding the intensity sweet spot was very hit-or-miss.
Cutting paper seemed… essentially impossible with the software. Fine for us (although it’s a potentially handy feature) but doesn’t make any sense for even the simplest of laser devices. We couldn’t find any way to do much of anything except raster images, which could be used to cut, but it’s slow, and even a 1W laser should have no problems cutting out hairline vectors.
Either try the higher-powered one (a clone with 3W laser) or get a real laser. This might be a useful toy, but as shipped, it’s not worth the effort we’re putting into it.
Total hackage, of course: since we had a working device for testing, and a non-functional device, we wanted to bring it into the fold of devices we could use across our operating systems and usecases.
Unfortunately, the computer doesn’t talk GCode to it, meaning that either (a) the protocol had to be reverse-engineered, or (b) replace their controller board with something more-standardized that would work with other software out-of-the box. True to form, we chose (c), all of the above.
In Part II we’ll look at their native comms protocol and see if it’s worth dealing with at all (hint: nah). Then in Parts III and IV we’ll take our dead unit, graft a controller onto it, and turn it into the device we wanted in the first place: take it to a workpiece, burn it with lasers, and run away.