This isn’t a complex question really, I’d say buy a second hand laser cutter and then get Studio T to repair or service it. They often come with software called RDWorks which is ok, but isn't great. You can purchase a newer and user friendly piece of software called Lightburn, which is much easier to use and supports a variety of machines. For a DSP licence it's around £96 and this allows it to be used on three computers. You can renew the licence every year for updates or just stick with the version you have if you don't renew. Note this software doesn't work on Leetro controllers.
Why is that?
Laser cutters haven’t changed much in their design in many years and most of the Chinese built lasers like Boxford, HPC, ThunderLaser haven’t changed much, if at all. The parts for these machines are also available from ebay and Amazon for much cheaper than the Laser Company will sell them to you. They will tell you the parts you are buying from the internet are inferior and theirs are better quality. This may be true, but not worth the price they are charging. Sometimes it’s unavoidable to buy these parts from the original company and some can be reasonable, but certainly for lenses and mirrors this is not true. The exception to this is with ThunderLaser, who we work closely with and can pick up parts on our way to you.
What kind of Laser Cutters shouldn’t I buy?
It depends. If you want a machine that’s very quick at engraving, machines like Universal, GCC, Trotec are fast. However, they are expensive and use closed wall proprietary systems. Often the parts are only available from the original seller and are very expensive. You can easily expect to pay £800-£1200 for a new controller, £500 for a motor and fitting is on top.
In addition to this, there is the thorny issue of the air cooled Co2 Laser with these machines. When they run out of gas, you can pay from £3000 upwards for a re-gas. Sometimes, if the machine is old, the re-gas company will refuse to re-gas it and tell you need to buy a new laser unit. This can be around £10,000. They don’t tell you this when you buy a machine. This is especially a problem for schools as they can buy a whole new machine for less. Factor this into your budget every year if you want to keep the machine. In contrast to this, a 100 watt laser tube that fits in an HPC etc would cost around £500. Finally some of the software and controllers for these machines haven't been updated in years and are still being sold with it.
There is one other type of laser cutter I wouldn’t buy. The cheap Chinese machines – usually red and black with a warning sticker on them that doesn’t make any sense. You can take a complete risk with these machines and get a good one, or a Friday afternoon machine and it will be an absolute nightmare. You’ll end up throwing money at it and it will never work reliably.
What if I still want to buy a laser cutter new for VAT reasons etc?
If you want established brands, you cant go wrong with the previously mentioned HPC, Boxford and Thunderlaser. You get UK support free for a year to begin with. The components tend to be the same but with these machines the chassis is the key and they are solidly built. If you want to, buy a new machine, get the free years support and once the year has expired contact us. Why would I do that you ask? HPC and Boxford often will quote, for example, £600 but tell you they cant come for 4 weeks till they are in the area. Studio T usually works on a week to two weeks schedule.
Which Laser Cutters are the safest?
All of the previously mentioned are the safe. Boxfords particularly have complicated relay system. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering but it seems a little over engineered.
Can I expect any issues with these machines?
HPC and Boxfords water flow sensor often break so the laser wont fire.
The auto focus on Boxfords tends to break but this isn’t a design fault. This happens on all auto focus machines. When the machine switches on, it homes and drags the tip of the auto autofocus probe through the honeycomb bed.
The red dot, I hate the red dot. They always break, they aren’t really necessary when you have been using the laser cutter long enough, but they always break on all machines.
Boxfords have the chiller in the back of the machine sometimes and if you want to change the water this is a bit of pain. My main criticism of HPC is some of their 80 watt machines are sold with a water pump and plastic tub for the water that cools the laser tube. I really don’t know why they don’t just increase the price slightly and sell them with a chiller. All Laser companies sometimes sell their laser cutters with a CW3000 chiller. Like a bucket of water, this will only cool to the ambient temperature in the room. If your environment gets to 30 degrees C in the summer because of a metal roof, your chiller will be at 30 degrees C and this is too hot for the laser tube. You are far better off buying a CW5200 which is real chiller.
Most laser cutters come with a bed with adjustable height, they are a little useful if you engrave things like boxes. If you use them often they always seem to go out of alignment and aren’t parallel to the laser head after a while. This is for all laser cutters, not just the ones mentioned. I prefer to just adjust the barrel height and to the material.
Winter, freezing and thermal shock.
Water starts to expand at around 2 degrees when the temperature starts to drop to freezing. This can crack the co2 laser tube. You can avoid this buying laser friendly anti-freeze. Great I hear you say! It isn’t quite as simple as that. If the temperature is below 10 degrees C and you start to use your laser cutter to cut through some 6mm material the temperature can drastically increase; the change in temperature cracks the tube (thermal shock) and you have a dead tube. Optimum operating temperature for a laser tube is at least 15 degrees C, although you can get away with around 10 degrees C, just warm the tube slowly by either having an inline aquarium heater that you can switch on temporarily or use it on some light engraving.
Summer, insufficient cooling and forgetting to put the chiller on.
If you have a CW3000 chiller or a bucket of water and it's hot in the room, once the Co2 laser tube gets above 30 degrees C you may see the power decrease to the point that the tube stops firing. Co2 Laser tubes ideal maximum operating temperature is 25 degrees C. This isn’t necessarily a problem once or twice, but it can break the tube completely.
A note about fume extractors for laser cutters.
If you can, extract the fumes outside through a wall or window but not somewhere where they can blow back into a room or affect others outside. Filters cost around £500 a set and there are usually two - the pre filter and combined filter. According to BOFA technical support the combined filers should be changed every year because they are hygroscopic and will absorb moisture from the air. If they are full of moisture they can't absorb the fumes. If within a year the fume extractor shows as full, first change the pre filter. If the extractor still says full change the combined filter. However, it's best practice to change both at the same time.
It is up to you if you want to take the risk of using the filters for more than one year. If you you have an environment where several people could breath in fumes - there could be a H&S issue and it may affect your insurance. We would advise you to factor in a filter change into your budget every year. We can do this for you if you don't feel confident, but it is a simple job and can be done by anyone. It is not a technical job. Sometimes it may be ideal to combine this with a yearly service and we would only charge for the filters on top, no more than just a service.