While everyone is celebrating the impending arrival of the newest member of the Shapeoko Family (the big 3), we can’t forget the thriving community members who are still doing awesome things with the Shapeoko 2. One such individual is Nick Williams who is heading up the LaserInk Project, a laser head upgrade for the SO2 and CNC software package. LaserInk is currently in its initial funding stage on Kickstarter.
I recently sat down with Nick (virtually) to try and understand his vision for the LaserInk project, as well as his motivation as a Maker. (Note: The following statements have been rearranged to appear as a coherent conversation.)
Winston: Could you share a bit about your background? You seem to be a Maker at heart, what are some of the experiences that got you to where you are today?
Nick: Graduated from Sacramento State University California in 94 with a BS in CS. Most of my career has been developing software for industrial applications such as machinery protection and process automation. I currently work at Hamilton Medical where I develop software for liquid handling robotics. Imagine a CNC with a pippetter on the end. I purchased a 3D makerbot printer 2 1/2 years ago and have been heavily involved with Bridgewire, a local maker space during the same time period.
This project was started about 2 years ago. Bridgewire was donated a non operational CO 2 laser. A friend from Bridgewire and I replaced the electronics with an Uno running grbl and brought it back to life. I was not happy with the open source software available for generating gcode to control the laser and decided to start writing my own. At first I only provided support for vector files then came Mono Chrome image rastering, and now I have complete support for image shading.
I started working with CNC machinery about 2 years ago and signed up to support the Othermill kickstarter campaign back in may of 2013. Unfortunately they were almost a year late with the project I finally got it Aug 2014. While waiting I purchased a Shapeoko last January. I started enhancing the software to generate GCode for the Shapeoko with support for 2-1/2 D vector files. I demonstrated the software at the San Francisco MakerFaire last May, and received some positive feedback.
I became aware of a number of projects that were using solid state lasers and that was the seed for what is now the laserink project. These small lasers are really not so different from their larger CO2 counter parts.
Winston: What is your vision for LaserInk?
Nick: My vision in short is to turn the Shapeoko into a multi-purpose machine.
If this project is successful then I would like to do a second project that would provide a 3D printing head for the Shapeoko. Additionally as part of the 3D printer head I would add support to the software that would allow users to work with STL files. At the point that I have implemented the slicer for the 3D printing I will also have the ability to work with 3D models for CNC work. I have done some early prototyping and know that this is possible, it is just a matter of time and effort.
Winston: Could you tell me a bit about who’s involved in the project? Are you drawing on other peoples’ expertise or experience?
Nick: I have been the technical point for this project, having done everything from board design, software, firmware modifications for the grbl, and the 3D modeling. From a work distribution I have spent most of my time developing the software again this has all been done by myself.
I have had a number of individuals help me with many of the business aspects.
Ashley Jennings, was hired on a consultant basis to help with the branding she also traveled to New York with me to the MakerFaire you may have met her there.
Jeremy Osborn, both friend and colleague he and I rebuilt the laser at Bridgewire, it was this project which has been the seed that is now the LaserInk project.
Ryan McMasters, He helped with the Video.
Matthew Hansen, He has setup my website.
Countless others with small contributions.
Winston: For those who aren’t familiar with the project, what are some of the defining features of LaserInk?
Nick: Major Features include:
1) Photo Engraving
2) Vector Support
3) Integrated Software
4) Quick Change from CNC to Laser
5) Dual support for also sending vector files to CNC.
The biggest feature is the photo engraving I have worked hard to make this simple and easy for the user to convert photo into laser art. The only offering that is similar to what I have done is the PicEngraver software I have reviewed there software and I believe that my software has is simpler to use. They do have more features then I do but the work flow is much more complex.
Additionally the firmware mod allows the the grbl to be used as both a CNC and as a laser engraver, again supporting the context of a dual purpose machine.
There exist an open source plugin for Inkscape that allows users to to export GCode from Inkscape. My software is far superior to this because I give the user precise control over which vectors are selected also the ability to set power for each pass and the multi-pass feature is nice.
By integrating the ability to select artwork (Photos and vector files) then opening communication to the instrument and then sending the files directly to the machine, I have created a simpler work flow this simplifies life for the user.
Quick Change from CNC to Laser:
I have designed the hardware and software to allow the users to quickly go from using the the Shapeoko as a CNC to a laser in a few minutes. I have seen other Shapeoko’s modified to do laser work but I think what I have done is far superior and simpler.
Dual support for also sending vector files to CNC:
I have also added software support for the CNC while similar to Maker CAM and Easel in its support for vector files I have the ability to allow user to order there cuts based on the colors of the original vector drawing allowing the user to design the vector files and use color as part of the design work.
Winston: Any plans to expand support for various platforms and laser-types? (I know you mentioned LaserBlade in the Kickstarter) If so, what would be the hardware requirements to get the LaserInk software to work with other laser heads?
Nick: I currently do not have any concrete plans for supporting other lasers (as in other laser machines), if this project is successful then I would like to focus on added a 3D printing head to the Shapeoko. I believe that my software is compatible with the Laser Cube (Another successful Kickstarter grbl based Laser) out of the box they would just need to use the Mono Chrome options with rastering turned of. The Laser Cube does not support sending power setting to the laser, i.e. shading. I still need to verify this before advertising this feature.
It is a different issue for other laser modules. The hardware design has the laser and the heat sink as a separate module. I do want to allow for other laser diodes there are two pins on the power modulation board replacing or up grading the laser is a matter of plugging in these two pins. If an upgrade is done then the user will need to reconfigure the power board. The board will support 5 amps at 20 volts, this is a lot of power and at these level additional cooling requirements are needed. As a frame of reference I am configuring the board to deliver 5 volts at 1.8 amps. I am very cautious of offering different laser modules as I want the out of the box experience to be easy I would need to do significant test with any alternative choice. DTR offers a laser module that is 5 watts ($350) that should be completely compatible with my hardware but I have not tested and verified this so I am hesitant to make that claim, it is however on my to-do list.
I currently have a working relation with the Laserblade group my software has been sent to them for testing. I am going to get an early release of the LaserBlade so that I can verify the software compatibility, and Dominic (the head guy) has been reviewing my kickstarter. There are no hardware requirements, only software. For the LazerBlade the user would have an additional option on the front page and Z movements would be disabled. The generated code is a little different from mine but the concept of moving the machine with small line segment is identical.
Winston: Any system requirements? I know you recommended Win7 for the build that I’m using. Will that be “officially” expanded to Win 8? Other OSes?
Nick: The software I shipped you should work on Win 7 32/64 and Win 8 (not sure if they offer a 32 bit version???) I do not plan on supporting XP but in theory it should still work because of the architecture and components being used. I only brought this up when I shipped to you because I have not done platform testing and I know from my professional career that occasionally issues arise.
There exist a path to convert the software to run on both the mac and linux machines I may offer this as a reward level but for the initial release at this time I only plan to support windows. I have actually removed features that would hamper this effort. Originally I had pretty graphics that were seen when the application first started but these graphics were not supported by MONO(lib that allows my stuff to run on Linux and Mac) so I removed it.
Winston: What’s the complete list of stuff you get with the LaserInk kit?
Nick: What you get is:
Laser Ink Kit,
4 ft Cat 5 Cable to connect Laser Head to Power Module
The laser head will consist of
1) bolts needed to attach to Shapeoko Gantry
2) 445nm M140 Diode & Three Element Glass Lens (i.e. The laser)
3) The head also contains a Flex Mod P3 Driver to control power to the laser.
Power Module will consist of
1) 12 volt power supply with connector
2) on of switch
3) cat 5 connector to laser head
4) screw in terminal for grnd and signal to go to uno or other controller.
Winston: If people have any specific questions about LaserInk, how can they
get in touch with you?
I want to thank Nick for taking the time to share some of his background, as well as answer some of the more technical questions that you simply could not fit into a Kickstarter project page. LaserInk launches today and you can check them out here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1923304356/laser-ink.
I recently got a chance to try out LaserInk for myself, and you can see a video of that right here: