Eight ways to completely ruin your laser cutter
When you’re buying a laser cutter – whether that’s a laser cutter for your business, or a laser cutter for your home workshop – you’re going to be spending a significant amount of money, whichever type you decide to go for. That means you’re going to want to avoid making mistakes so that you don’t need to spend additional money correcting those errors! Here at Hobarts, we see, and hear about some really expensive mistakes that you really don’t want to make for yourself – and so in this post, we’re rounding up some of the biggest mistakes that we see when buying, setting up, and when operating your laser cutter, so you can avoid making them yourself.
Not taking enough care when installing the laser cutter
Some of the biggest issues that we see are due to laser cutters having issues with installation. From being set up on a surface that isn’t completely level, to simply not ensuring there is enough space to get the machine through the doorways leading to knocks and scrapes, there are so many avoidable problems that can occur before the machine has even been set up.
If you are buying a laser cutter for business use, and your income is going to depend on your machine being operational, you’ll want to be certain that your new asset will be set up perfectly for your needs, and to avoid these types of issues. It is possible to avoid many setup issues completely by purchasing your laser cutter from a knowledgeable, professional supplier that knows exactly what they are doing, and that can install your laser cutter for you.
For those that are buying a hobby laser cutter, or a laser cutter for at home then professional installation may not be an option for you, and that’s OK. Let’s say you’re buying a cheap laser cutter (perhaps a laser cutter from China) then as long as you read and follow the instructions for set up carefully, then the chances of you managing to ruin your laser cutter at this point are minimal. Don’t forget, if you’re unsure about an aspect of installation, there are plenty of online resources where you may be able to get advice from other enthusiasts.
While we’re talking about installation, let us get a point in about safety. Whether you’re installing at work or at home, while you’re setting up your new laser cutter, be sure you also buy the right types of safety gear and emergency equipment. If you’re using the machine correctly, with materials that are safe to be used in a laser cutter, the risks are minimal – but you still need to ensure you have the right types of fire extinguishers, Personal Protective Equipment and so on available, just in case.
Not buying quality peripherals
When you’re investing a significant amount of money in your laser cutter, and you need it to perform reliably, it doesn’t make sense to scrimp on the peripherals and consumables. Since it is possible to do that with other technology – particularly with PCs and IT equipment where the standard of generic brands has increased significantly over the years – some people assume it is the same with laser cutting equipment.
While it is possible to buy peripherals at lower costs from manufacturers overseas (mainly in China), that at best, you run the risk of incompatibility, and for the parts to be a much lower standard of quality, and at worst – well, completely ruining your new laser cutter.
If your laser cutter needs an assist gas, or a coolant, then you should ensure that you always have the correct type required by the machine, and depending on what thickness of material you are going to be cutting. If you’re unsure, check with the manufacturer or the company that installed your laser cutter.
Not getting the setup perfect
Even when you actually read the manual, prepare the space ahead of time and ensure that the delivery will fit along corridors and through doors, there are still mistakes that can occur – particularly if you’ve never owned a laser cutter before. Getting screws tightened sufficiently, ensuring that ventilation and exhaust systems in place correctly, as well as ensuring there is sufficient airflow are all essential steps to get right.
If the laser cutter requires a compressed air assist, this needs to be installed correctly too, as does any proprietary software, and power and speed settings. Getting all these things correctly configured can be a challenge, and so we return to our earlier point: if you’re buying your new laser cutter from a company that specialises in this type of technology, then if they offer an installation service, whether free of charge or at a small cost, it is well worth taking them up on this. As professionals, they will be able to ensure that the setup of your new laser cutter is done perfectly, and minimise the risk of any potentially costly mistakes.
Leaving the laser cutter unattended during a job
You might be just popping into the next room to grab a coffee, but when the phone rings and then you accidentally spend longer than you thought away from your laser cutter, there is a much greater chance of something going wrong.
When you’re laser cutting most types of materials, there is a risk of fire – even if it is a relatively small risk. That means that no matter how safe you believe the job to be, or how many times you have completed the same type of job, you should never assume that the outcome will be the same every single time. Even if you maintain your laser cutter flawlessly, as the machine ages, so the risks can increase. That’s not to mention that not all materials will be exactly the same every time, particularly when it comes to natural materials. Different amounts of oils, resin and so on may be present in them, which can increase the chances of fire.
Even when you’re certain that you’re on for an uneventful cut, do what you need to do before you start the job. Once you start the cut, you can have one eye on YouTube or Netflix as long as you stay aware of what is going on in your laser cutter! The crucial thing is that should a mishap occur, you’ll be able to stop the cut before the issue escalates, and prevent any irreparable damage to the machine.
Attempting to cut a material that your laser shouldn’t cut
We shared a lot of information about different materials that laser cutters can cut in this post, and we went into depth about the types of materials that definitely shouldn’t be cut with laser cutters too. It is so important to ensure that the materials that you’re using in your laser cutter are the correct type! Before we look at the materials that should never be cut, here’s a quick recap of the different types of laser cutters, and what they can cut:
- Gas laser cutters (also known as CO2 laser cutters) can cut glass, some plastics, some foams, leather, paper-based products, wood, and acrylics. Some metals can be cut with gas laser cutters, but it is best to check the manual or the manufacturer’s website before doing so.
- Crystal laser cutters can cut plastics, metals, and some types of ceramics.
- Fibre laser cutters are used for cutting plastics and metals, as well as other non-metal materials.
There are a number of ways that the wrong material can ruin your laser cutter, so whether the material releases gases, catches fire easily, or has sooty smoke when it burns, simply don’t risk it.
To recap, these are the materials that you should never even think about cutting with your laser cutter:
- PVC, vinyl, and artificial leathers – they release chlorine gas, which can absolutely ruin your laser cutter’s optics, metal parts and control system, not to mention that it is pretty nasty for humans too. Chlorine gas is horribly irritating to the lungs, and in high concentrations can kill within 30 minutes.
- Thick polycarbonate – this is pretty likely to catch fire, and the long thin trails of soot that are given off from polycarbonate fires can cause severe damage to your laser cutter. Any type of smoke inhalation isn’t good for your lungs, and there is the danger of the fire spreading from your machine to other parts of your workshop too.
- ABS – the tough, super strong material that we all recognise and love as Lego should never be used in your laser cutter. Not only is it prone to catching fire (with all the related damage to the optics and so on that can be caused), but it will also leave a nasty mess on the cutting bed of your machine. Add to that the fact that it can release the poisonous gas hydrogen cyanide – which can be deadly pretty quickly – you’re going to want to avoid attempting to cut this one.
- HDPE (milk bottle plastic) – while it can be tempting to use your laser cutter to repurpose or upcycle old milk bottles, it isn’t worth the risk. HDPE is highly likely to catch fire and melt in your machine, causing damage to the cutting bed if it melts, with potential damage to almost every other part of the machine from the smoke.
- Polystyrene foam – another material that catches fire and burns quickly, with the related damage that is likely to be caused, such as damage to the optics. After a polystyrene foam fire, there are often melted deposits left on the cutting bed of the machine – so it really isn’t worth the risk.
- Polypropylene foam – there are many uses for polypropylene foam, but many of these require cutting it to specific shapes, which is why so many people think that cutting it with their laser cutter is a great idea. But it catches fire fast, and during the fire, it is likely to drip, and those drips continue to burn, causing further damage. After the fire is extinguished, any drips set rock solid, meaning that the cutting bed of your laser cutter is ruined, alongside any other damage to the optics or other parts.
- Epoxy – this is another material that burns, it is best to avoid getting epoxy anywhere near your laser cutter. It doesn’t just risk fire either – when epoxy burns, it releases poisonous fumes that can cause damage to the lungs too.
- Fibreglass – since fibreglass is made up of epoxy (which we just mentioned as being bad news for both you and your laser cutter) and glass, which also doesn’t cut well in a laser cutter, it is best to avoid cutting fibreglass. The risk of fire, potential damage to the optics of your laser cutter, as well as poisonous gases – it simply isn’t worth trying to cut fibreglass with your laser cutter.
- Coated carbon fibre – while some thin carbon fibre mats can be cut with lasers (albeit with the risk of material fraying, but that won’t ruin your laser cutter), any coated carbon fibre should be kept away from your machine. Aside from the risk of toxic fumes being released, where the material that coats the carbon fibre is unknown, you’re risking fire, burning material drips and damage to all parts of the machine.
- Materials with sticky glue backing – cutting materials with any types of glue are likely to be bad news for the lens of your laser cutter. When glue vaporises as the material is cut, it can start to coat the laser lens – which then heats, and can potentially crack the lens. Add that to the increased risk of fire, and it is just not worth the risk.
- Foodstuffs – while you could cut food in a laser cutter, with just the increased risk of fire to worry about, it isn’t worth the risk to your machine. Different types of food will release smoke, oil and may catch fire when it is being cut, which can cause a mess on the cutting bed that can be hard to clean, and depending on the food, you might also cause damage to optics. On top of that, if you have cut any materials that are potentially toxic prior to cutting whatever food you’ve put in there, then you risk cross-contamination, with dodgy tummies (and worse) occurring by cutting food with your laser.
Not testing a sample of your material
Failing to do a test on a sample of material before starting a cut is a big cause of laser cutters being ruined. As we’ve already touched on, you can’t assume that every sheet of material will be exactly the same as the last, and if you’re cutting organic materials such as wood, or leather with your laser cutter, there may be different amounts of resin or oil in the material.
Aside from knowing whether the material will create the best finish, you need to know if the material might start to smoke or burn easily. You’ll only know that this is the case once you’ve done a test, so be sure to factor in testing your materials before getting started.
Not maintaining your machine properly
You wouldn’t buy an expensive sports car and expect it to run perfectly forever without any maintenance. The same goes for your laser cutter! Once you have set up your laser cutter, ideally the first thing you need to look at (OK, maybe after you’ve done your first cut or two – we understand the excitement of having a new bit of kit!) is that you know what you need to do for maintenance, and how often those tasks need to be performed.
Different types of laser cutters and those from different manufacturers will have different requirements, but there will be some tasks that need to be done daily, some weekly, some monthly, every six months or less frequently. Once you’ve established how often those tasks should be carried out, put them in your calendar, and be sure to stick to the schedule – these tasks aren’t optional extras if you want your laser cutter to last, and to continue to perform.
If you’re not using the laser cutter daily, you may be able to do some of those tasks less frequently (such as after a set number of hours of operation). If that is the case, you need to ensure you keep accurate records so that you can avoid missing any essential maintenance tasks, and to keep your laser cutter in good working order.
It isn’t only the laser cutter itself that you need to ensure excellent maintenance of though. Peripherals such as gas assists, air dryers, and regulated power supplies have their own maintenance requirements, and you’ll need to stick to these carefully too. You don’t want them to malfunction at a critical moment, or end up out of service, because when those peripherals are out of service, so is your laser cutter.
Not preparing the machine for periods of inactivity
When your workshop is shut down for a period of time – the Christmas break is a good example – then you need to prepare your laser cutter for that too. If your space is going to have the temperature maintained constantly, then you may not need to do much apart from switching everything off. But if your workshop doesn’t have heating, and the outside temperatures are expected to drop significantly, this could cause an issue.
Always check the manufacturer’s recommendations for shutting down for longer periods of time, and be sure to check your premises are closed up securely – an open window will greatly reduce the temperature in the room. And of course, when you’re back to the laser cutter after a break in service, be sure to do the necessary checks before you start your first job.
How to ruin yourself (or your team) with your laser cutter
Although keeping your laser cutter in perfect working order is essential, particularly if you’re using it for your business, keeping yourself, and your staff safe when using your laser cutter is definitely a much bigger issue. While laser cutters are generally regarded as a low risk device (when they are being used as they are designed to be!), there are points at which there could be issues for the people that are using them.
Manipulating the safety features – this is almost certain to lead to trouble, and the worst case scenarios are pretty horrendous. The high energy laser beams in laser cutters can cause severe injury to eyes and burns to the skin if they are exposed to the beam – and when you think of the materials that lasers can cut and etch easily, you can easily start to imagine the level of damage that can be caused.
Not preparing for fire – if you’ve got a functional maker space or workshop, and you’re using your laser cutter for business use, chances are that you’ll already have adequate provisions in place for emergencies such as fire. But let’s make it super clear: you must have the right type of fire safety equipment, including extinguishers in place, and you need to keep them maintained correctly too. There are plenty of companies that offer this service, but if you’re not sure, you can contact your local Fire and Rescue Service – they may be able to advise you.
Failing to use fume exhaust, or air filtration systems – this is so easy to avoid, but there are still some users that risk their health by neglecting to use the air safety systems that are in place. It isn’t worth the risk to your health.
To avoid putting your health, or that of your team at risk, be sure:
- Never to modify, adapt or disable any safety features implemented by the manufacturer
- Never use a laser cutter unless the covers are in place and locking parts are functioning correctly
- Never look directly into a laser beam
- Never use a laser cutter without the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Never cut the wrong types of materials, or materials that are listed as safe to cut by the manufacturer
- Never leave the laser operating unattended
- Never operate the laser cutter without a correctly maintained fire extinguisher close by
- Never attempt to take materials from the cutting bed before they have cooled
- Never leave the laser cutter littered with debris and dust – always be sure to clean up after a job
- Never use the laser cutter without an exhaust system
- Never use the laser cutter if the exhaust system or air filtration system is not in correct working order
In addition, if you’re using a laser cutter at home, be sure to:
- Never use the laser cutter unattended (even just to pop to the loo!)
- Use appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Keep the area clear of debris
- Keep pets and young children away from your laser cutter (if you have older children, education may be appropriate, particularly showing them how to use PPE correctly)
Why you need a maintenance & service plan
When your business depends on your laser cutter to be active, having your machine out of service for any length of time can start to cost you dearly. Not only is your productivity is down, if you’ve already taken time-sensitive orders from customers (such as if the cut is for a birthday, or wedding gift, for example) then you may find that you end up with cancelled orders, and potentially reviews or comments on your social media that don’t tell the truth about your business.
To avoid your machine being out of service, and to minimise the risk of those potential customer service headaches, invest in a laser cutter service plan. Even if you’re confident in maintaining your machine day to day, having an expert attend to your machine periodically can prevent any potential issues turning into something even bigger. With the right type of service plan, you’ll rarely find your machine out of order, but just in case you do, you’ll also gain access to emergency call outs, meaning that your laser cutter can be back up and running within a couple of days.
If your business is new, you’re uncertain of the longevity of your business and so you don’t want to commit to an annual plan, or perhaps you have taken a chance and purchased a previously owned laser cutter, then you can access one-off servicing. Often this type of servicing can be a little slower to access, and may cost more (depending on what the engineer finds) but when you consider that you’re getting the same standard of service to those that have invested in annual plans, it is very much worth the investment.
Choosing a company to provide your laser cutter maintenance and service plan is simple. Start by identifying the businesses that specialise in the brand of laser cutter you own, then narrow it down to which companies provide the level of service that you want. Ideally – especially when your business depends on your laser cutter being operational – the company that provides the servicing should carry parts, so that any replacements that need to be done can be done quickly. You don’t want to wait longer for your parts to arrive, and then be fitted.
Finally, don’t forget about servicing your extraction system. This type of servicing is required by law, and should be done every 14 months as a minimum.
If you’re looking for laser cutter servicing, then you’ll want to know that the team at Hobarts:
- Are the leading Universal systems distributor in the UK, and have more than 15 years of experience in the industry
- Are the only UK distributor qualified to install and train customers on the Industrial Laser Series (ILS)
- Ensure that our engineers always carry spare parts with them, allowing us to resolve any potential problems immediately
- Carry out a 100 point check on every laser cutter that they service
- Complete stringent, and preventative servicing methods to minimise the chances of any emergency visits being required
- Resolve 95% of support requests during a call, with no attendance required by an engineer
- Order DBS checks for our engineers as standard, allowing our customers to enjoy peace of mind and meaning that in school or college settings, chaperones are not required
- Have technicians that can test your extraction systems
We offer a range of service plans that are excellent value for money – and you can find out our current prices here.
Do I need insurance for my laser cutter?
Before we offer an answer here, let us state that although we’ve been in business using laser cutters for a long time, we’re not insurance specialists, so be sure to do your research and make your decisions based on your own findings.
If you’re operating as a business, then you need to ensure that you have an insurance policy that covers your premises and machinery, as well as your stock, in terms of both raw materials and completed items. Because all businesses that use laser cutters will have unique requirements, it is likely that you’ll need to speak with a specialist broker. In addition to covering your laser cutter and any accidental damage, if you have members of the public attending your premises, you may need different levels of Public Liability insurance, and if you employ people (even if it is just one employee!) Employers Liability is legally required too.
For owners of laser cutters at home, it is well worth speaking to your home insurance company to find out whether you’re covered. Although laser cutters are low risk when used correctly, some insurance companies may decide not to pay out in case of fire or other accidents, particularly if the laser cutter isn’t noted on your policy – and having your insurance invalidated because you didn’t mention it could be an expensive mistake.
While these are some of the most common ways to ruin your laser cutter, these aren’t the only ways. Some of the stories we have heard (and seen the aftermath of!) are – in some cases – quite unbelievable! We’ll save some of the horror stories for another post, but we hope that what we’ve covered here has been informative and will help you to avoid completely ruining your laser cutter.