You might have received a laser cutter as a gift for Christmas and have decided to start creating a business – either as a side hustle, or as the main focus of your work from now on. Maybe you’ve had your makerspace set up for a while, or perhaps you’ve been laser cutting for years as a hobby and now you’ve decided to take your laser cutting to the next level.
Everyone who decides to create a business around their laser cutter takes their own path – and the path to creating profits with your laser cutter isn’t always a straightforward journey. You might have decided to start a business creating bespoke items for weddings, or identified a completely different niche to sell items to – there are plenty of opportunities, after all! But, as you are likely to have discovered, running a business isn’t easy, and whatever stage of your journey you’re at, there are nearly always ways that you can make improvements to help you work more efficiently, and to improve the results that you’re able to achieve.
We’ve thought about some of the best ways to improve your laser cutting, and some of them are incredibly simple – such as rearranging your space to be able to work more efficiently, while others are more time consuming, such as learning how to use different types of design software. If you’re thinking about how you can improve laser cutting in your small business, the ideas in this post should certainly help you get ahead.
Assess your workshop layout
Even if your laser cutting business is still relatively small, with a few orders each day, sometimes things just don’t flow in the way that you would like them to. In many cases, the only thing that you need to be able to work more efficiently is to switch things around in your workshop or maker space. Your laser cutter is pretty quick at completing jobs, but if getting each job set up, or finding the right materials for the job is taking up too much of your time, then you’re going to get frustrated at best – and at worst, you’ll end up delaying orders going out on time.
Delayed orders can add up to annoyed customers, and in worst case scenarios, lead to complaints, cancellations, refund requests and poor reviews. Negative reviews and bad word of mouth can be really damaging for businesses, especially when you’re starting out, and so it is well worth taking the time to check that your kit is laid out as well as possible, so you’re avoiding most of these issues.
In many cases, the key to an efficient workshop setup is to consider your workflow. Each business is different, but an ideal flow might look like:
Your materials being stored carefully at one end of the workshop
Material preparation space next
Machinery (including the laser cutter) somewhere in the middle of the workshop
Finishing equipment situated on the far side of the machinery
If your packing and dispatch area is in the same space, then that should be on the other side of the finishing area, with boxes and mail bags stored efficiently
This set up is an idea scenario, since if there is more than just one of you working on your business, it should prevent team members getting in each other’s way, and prevent bottlenecks from occurring. Unfortunately, we know that in reality, that is often not possible due to the shape of the space – even where workshops are in dedicated premises that belong to businesses, let alone in home makerspaces, as small businesses frequently start.
However, when you think about how much of an impact a delay can have on your business, you’ll almost certainly want to work on making things more efficient. With that in mind, taking some time to really assess the way your space is set out can make a big difference to your everyday work. We know that taking the time to plan and rearrange your space might seem like an unnecessary waste of a few hours (or even a day, depending on the size of the space and what you have got stored in there!) but if it means that you will be able to work more efficiently thereafter, it is time well spent.
If you can’t get your workflow laid out so that you move along the space in the way that we’ve suggested above, think about how you can prevent bottlenecks and congestion, and get orders out the door quicker. For businesses that are working with several team members, you’re almost certain to know where hold ups occur regularly, so see where you can rearrange the equipment to prevent that happening.
Keep on top of maintenance
We feel like we’re banging the same drum every time we mention keeping on top of maintaining your laser cutter, but there is nothing that will cause bigger problems for a business than a piece of equipment malfunctioning – and it is so frustrating when a problem is something that can be avoided. We know, and understand that machine uptime is important, but if you don’t invest time and money in the health of your laser cutter, then you’re asking for trouble. If you don’t keep on top of maintenance activities, then you’re risking problems that will almost certainly lead to bigger issues that take longer to fix. Those delays will ultimately cost your business more time (and in many cases, money too) in terms of customer service issues when delays occur as a result.
Carrying out maintenance on your laser cutter needs to be done according to the recommendations from the manufacturer, but typically, there are maintenance activities that need to happen daily, weekly, and periodically at bigger intervals too – usually annually or twice a year.
After each job, you should be doing a quick visual check, and ensuring that any leftover materials are swept out of the cutting bed to ensure that there isn’t any risk of fire.
At the end of each day, you will need to check the lens, and the mirror, to ensure that you’re always getting great results. Doing so will help you avoid the need to use lower speeds or higher power – and if we think about the absolute worst possible case scenario, will help to prevent fire or damage to the lens. Cleaning the lens on a laser cutter is simple, as long as you have the right equipment. You simply need cotton tipped applicators, lens cleaning tissues, and the right lens cleaning fluid. Don’t be tempted to buy generic cotton buds, or use regular tissues – they aren’t designed for use on laser cutters, and that means there is the potential for avoidable damage to be caused. Glue content, or wood pulp in regular tissues, when mixed with cleaning fluid, can cause scratches and clouding on mirrors and lenses. Our lens cleaning kit contains everything you need to clean safely in a single pack, so don’t risk getting it wrong.
Weekly, (or more, or less often, depending on how much use your laser cutter is getting) in addition to giving your machine a once-over, it is important to maintain your air filter. Refer to the manufacturer’s guidance for this, as the procedure may differ, as may what you require in order to clean it effectively – or to replace the filters.
Before the winter, you may need to prepare your laser cutter for the colder temperatures. Generally speaking, laser cutters need to be kept above 0°c, but this temperature can be higher, so be sure you have checked the manufacturer’s recommendations, especially if your workshop is chilly. You may need to use an approved antifreeze to keep your laser cutter in working condition.
Less often, depending on how often your laser cutter is in use, you will need to carry out bigger servicing. For most users, that means annually, or twice-yearly. For most businesses that are using their laser cutters all day, every day, having their laser cutter out of use simply isn’t acceptable. Carrying out thorough annual servicing, (or more often, where it is required) in addition to daily and weekly maintenance can help to avoid any downtime.
Annual servicing is a specialist job though, and requires in-depth training. If you are a small business, you may not have that expertise yet – and indeed, you may never get to that level. Luckily, our technicians have – and we invest heavily in regular training to ensure our staff are up to date with the latest technology, so we can provide annual servicing for our clients. When they visit, they carry out our comprehensive 100 point check, ensuring that businesses are able to avoid most breakages, and that malfunctions that require emergency callouts are rare.
When you consider what the costs of a laser cutter being out of service are for a business, it simply doesn’t make sense to be without expert maintenance. Our service plans are incredibly affordable for businesses – particularly in comparison with lost earnings if the machine is out of order – and will help you to keep your business running the way that you, and your customers, need you to. If you haven’t secured a maintenance plan for your business yet, you can see our service plans, with full details and pricing, here.
Don’t forget your PC maintenance
While we’re talking about maintenance, don’t forget to do the maintenance that is required for the PC that is connected to your laser cutter too. We know that applying updates is usually inconvenient, since they take time that you don’t feel you have. We’ve been just as annoyed by them as you have – and we’ll never understand why they nearly always want to install when you’re in a hurry to get something done!
Although they’re annoying, if you don’t apply updates to the operating system, your antivirus and anti-malware packages, as well as individual programs as soon as they are available, you’re risking your PC being out of action, and you could be putting your business at risk unnecessarily. Where you can, try to schedule updates to install when the PC is being shut down or inactive overnight – then you’re less likely to run into that inconvenient timing and mandatory PC restarts.
Learn different computer packages
When you know how to use one type of program for your laser cutter, it is tempting to just stick with it – and if you’re getting the results you want from the one you use currently, why would you bother learning others? But when you learn how other types of 3D modelling, and laser cutter packages work, there is the potential to uncover much more about what your laser cutter can do, and you might find that there are better ways to achieve different effects.
Whichever package you started out using, there are some pretty excellent 3D modelling software that you can learn. The open source community has completely embraced laser cutting, which means that there are plenty of free software packages to download and install, and it is easy to learn them on your own timescale, since there are loads of training and ‘how to…’ videos available on YouTube.
If you’re considering learning, or just having a play with different packages, then LaserWeb4, Inkscape and SolveSpace are all excellent open source options, or you can have a look at Solid Edge 2D Drafting, which is created by Siemens and is free to use. The great thing about open source packages is that if you’re keen on playing with code, and you want to achieve something entirely new and different with your laser cutter (or just set up the functionality differently), then you can access the code for open source packages, and edit them for your own specific needs.
Of course, if you’ve got some room in your budget, there are plenty of packages that you might consider – Lightburn is one of the cheapest, through to TurboCAD (Platinum is £1299.99) and SOLIDWORKS, who don’t advertise their pricing. However, know that there are many successful companies that rely on open source packages, rather than paying for their laser cutting software – so don’t feel that you have to pay for software if you can get the results you want from open source packages.
Although we’ve said that learning different computer programs can help you to do better with your laser cutting, we’re not saying you have to use them all, or even use more than one regularly. Feel free to carry on using whichever one is your favourite, but having used some of the others may help you improve upon how you use your favourite – and of course, if you move to a different setup, (or change employer!) you won’t be coming at it fresh.
Experiment with different presets for regular tasks
Presets can be really helpful if you’re doing similar jobs over and over, with similar materials, and you should be able to save a number of these for use with your laser cutter. In most cases, you’ll find this functionality in the software provided by the manufacturer, and you can save each preset with specific names, making it easy to do quick cuts and engraving work.
A point to note with presets is that you’ll need to make sure you save each preset with a logical name, especially if there is more than one of you using them, so create a naming convention that can be applied to other presets easily. ‘Acrylic #1’, or ‘wood’ doesn’t give you any information, and when you realise how useful presets can be, you’re likely to want to use them more – so get descriptive.
Get the hang of using layers
As you’ll have undoubtedly already understood already, getting better at laser cutting and engraving means a lot of experimentation, and maybe not getting things quite as spot on as you would have liked on the first time around. While this can be said for pretty much everything when you’re learning and improving, one of the things you can learn quickly to improve your use of programs include cutting or engraving parts of a file at a time using layers within your graphics program.
Layers can be thought of as though different aspects of the job are drawn on different transparent sheets, so that you can see the whole image when they are placed together. There are other ways that you might use them, but some of the most common reasons to use layers in your laser cutting or engraving jobs include:
Being able to control the order of cuts, which means you can create different effects
Keeping different parts of the design and even different designs in one file, meaning you can prep some areas of the cut or engrave job before applying other aspects of the design
If you need to create guides to make your design work, or there’s a target required, then you can place these in their own layer, and remove the layer that you don’t need
Enhancing efficiency in your business
If you’ve been laser cutting for years then you’re likely to have mastered all these tips, so feel free to skip ahead, but if you’re relatively new to laser cutting, then these tips should help you to get things moving a bit faster.
1. Monitor timings
Keeping track of your jobs and how long they take might seem like an unnecessary task to add to your day – especially if you’ve already got a massive backlog of work to get through. Even if you’re only creating a few orders a day, if you’re not working in the most efficient way, then you’ll be wasting time, and as the old saying goes… Time is money! Knowing the metrics for your business is important, and will become even more important as you scale your business up.
Beam-on time, delays in transit, bottlenecks (where you haven’t already eliminated them by rearranging your space) and maintenance timetables should all be monitored, so that you can continue to identify where improvements can be made.
Keeping track doesn’t have to take up all that much time, and many laser cutter programs include production monitoring, which allow you to access the information you need to inform how well you’re performing. With this data, you’ll be able to identify where there are delays that can be avoided, where improvements can be made, and if you need to make changes to make things better.
2. Create multiples in a single batch
If you’re cutting, engraving, or etching similar designs and patterns, then completing those jobs in batches, with multiple items on the cutting bed will help you save time – possibly more than a third time savings. The size of your machine will depend how many you can do at once, and you’ll need to create design files that allow you to use the full area of the cutting bed. Just be careful to space items out carefully.
3. Use the best resolution for engraving
Working with images that have higher DPIs will take longer to engrave – and although of course you need a clear image, if the finished effect is a simple one, then you can potentially cut the amount of time it takes to complete the job by lowering the resolution of the file a bit. Make sure you have played around with this before you go ahead and use this technique, to make sure you get the effect that you want.
4. Prep items ahead of schedule
If your business sells products that have been personalised with names, you can speed up cutting and engraving time by carrying out the generic areas of the engraving ahead of time, in periods that you are less busy. Let’s say you are engraving wooden photo frames with a pattern, and only one part of the design is personalised. By finishing batches to near completion ahead of your busy period – in this case, likely to be Christmas or wedding season – you can get orders out the door much quicker, leading to happier customers, and you’ll have used quieter times much more effectively.
Making use of layers in your design program is likely to be key to your success with this approach – so make sure you’ve figured that out before you start working this way.
5. Make use of the manufacturer’s software
Most hardware manufacturers provide their own software for their items (if you’ve ever changed your printer to a different brand, you’ll know the frustration!) and laser cutter manufacturers are no different. They know that there are many different types of jobs that you’ll want to be able to do, and for the most part, they have built that functionality into their software. With that in mind, functionality that allows you to save and replicate jobs, as well as providing time recorders, and the type of materials you’ve worked with is often included in software from manufacturers, allowing you to work much more effectively. It might not be the software you rely on for your design work, but don’t ignore it completely.
6. Know the difference between raster engraving and vector scoring (and when to use each)
At this point, you are probably well aware that there are two different types of design files that can be used for laser engraving, and knowing when to use each type of file will help you to work more efficiently. In the simplest terms, raster graphics are made up of pixels, while vector graphics are made up of lines or paths, although it isn’t quite as simple as just that – and you can read more about the differences and when you should use each here.
When the laser cutter is doing a raster engraving job, it will engrave each line in the file point by point, similar to how printers apply ink to paper. For vector engraving, the lines are marked slowly onto the material with the axles moving simultaneously, but more slowly.
There are advantages too using each type of engraving – raster engraving tends to be used when the area to be engraved is larger, with vector engraving better suited when thinner lines are required. Vector engraving is usually much, much quicker, and using techniques like defocusing the vector lines means that you can not only speed up the job, but also create different effects – softer lines and deeper corners, for example.
7. Identify when it is time to trade up
If you started your business as a hobby that became a side hustle, and you’ve managed to grow your business sufficiently, there will come a time that you’ll need to move from a budget, or starter laser cutter. Moving up to a desktop or platform laser might seem like a big investment, but the additional speed and functionality that you’ll get will mean it is well worth it. Having funds available for trading up to a higher spec model can be a tricky thing though, especially if you’re still navigating the first couple of years of being in business – but without the higher spec machine, you can’t scale up. It can be a difficult situation to get past without incurring debt, which presents significant risk, and if you’re risk averse, then you won’t want to take the chance.
With that in mind, we set up rental arrangements that mean that smaller businesses don’t have to find cash up front, with payments made monthly, quarterly, or annually. These arrangements benefit from warranty, installation, training, maintenance, full technical support, and servicing being included, so there are even fewer things to worry about, and you can get on with running your business.
For businesses that were able to buy their first laser cutter up front, we may be able to offer refurbishment and resale for laser cutters that are in excellent condition and have been serviced regularly, particularly for Universal Laser Systems models. If this service is something you may be interested in, then get in touch – call us on 0333 900 8700 or email us firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eliminate accidental mistakes
We wrote a whole post a while ago about some of the ways in which you can completely ruin your laser cutter, and so if you’ve got a laser cutter that you want to keep in working order, it is worth checking out the advice we gave in that post for more information. But essentially, if you’ve taken sufficient care with installing your laser cutter, you’ve bought quality peripherals and you’ve got the setup perfect, then you can keep from making accidental mistakes by:
Closely following guidance from the manufacturer (and always double checking if you’re unsure)
Ensuring that the laser cutter is always monitored when it is in use
Keeping a close eye on anyone who is still in training
Checking that you’re not trying to cut materials that are unsuitable for laser cutting and could damage your laser cutter
Testing a sample of each material before doing a bigger cut or engrave job
Preparing the machine for shutdown periods such as during holidays
Not messing around with safety features (they are there for good reason!)
With almost every type of machinery there is scope for accidents to happen – especially when humans are involved! But if you’re operating safely, and you have the required protective gear and safety equipment like fire extinguishers, then you can reduce the chances of damage to your machine, and to any employees. If team members, or your machine are out of action, then your business can’t run the way you need it to – and then you’ll be dealing with customer service issues.
There are plenty of ways to improve your laser cutting, and although you’ll be making improvements every day as you carry out different types of cutting and engraving tasks, in this post we’ve identified some of the ways that you can level up your small business. If you’re still in the early stages of growing your business, check out our posts about building profits, and starting a business.