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January 24, 2012 AT 7:34 pm

An answer to your question! #2 “What is the best way to explain what a 3d printer, laser cutter, cnc machines and plasma cutters are used for?”


S.Shaffer asks:

What is the best way to explain to noobs what a 3d printer, laser cutter, cnc machines and plasma cutters are used for?

Well lets see. All of the equipment you have listed is used in the process of design, prototyping and fabrication of material objects. At school, we instruct with these tools to give our students a better understanding as to how designs are taken from CAD software and brought into the material world. I will explain each:

3D Printer:
I refer to our 3D printer as a “rapid prototyping machine” which is a class of equipment that uses additive manufacturing technology to deposit typically layers of material in succession. This material can be really anything that can be deposited in a controlled manner (i.e. plastics, metals, cupcake frosting,….) Utilizing a controller and piece of software that converts a solid model into a series of vector movements or CNC(computer numerical control), the machine is capable of creating 3D objects, much like the Star Trek Replicator…..except not as tasty. One of the prohibitive aspects of commercial 3D printers is the price, this is where MakerBot and the RepRap movement has made such an impact.

Laser Cutter/Engraver:
Ah, my favorite. A laser cutter is another CNC machine that uses a series of lenses attached to a XY gantry to redirect high power laser light onto the material its cutting. Unlike the 3D printer, most laser cutters are only capable of cutting in two dimensions. You will notice the popular “Interlocking T-Bolt Construction” or T-Slot found on MakerBot’s and other laser cut designs used to make 3D objects from 2D pieces. Laser cutters have a Z axis that is used for focusing the laser for varying thickness materials. The laser technology dictates that types and thicknesses of material you can cut, wether it be fabric or steel.

CNC Machines:
Are machines that are numerically controlled by computers. The computer follows the path created from a CAD model that has been deconstructed into mathematical coordinates based on the desired materials properties, available cutting tools, federates, etc. This is most commonly G-code. The computer then controls a series of motor/stepper/servo controllers to recreate the model out of the chosen material using the necessary tools.

Plasma Cutters:
Another fun one. Like the laser cutter, a plasma cutter typically cuts only in two dimensions, with the Z axis used to “focus” the jet. The plasma torch super-heats a jet of compressed gas through an electric arc until the point that the gas turns to plasma. This jet of plasma is hot enough to remove a small amount of material following the path determined by the computer. Due to the high operating temperatures and the need for a complete circuit are restricted to only cutting metals. The one I use is capable of cutting anything from thin sheet steel to 1-1/4″ mild steel…..it is really quite amazing to watch it cut!

An alternative to plasma cutting is water-jet. The water-jet machine is capable of cutting almost any material and uses a high-pressure jet of cutting fluid containing an abrasive, like garnet. The advantage to water-jet is the lack of smoke and soot found when plasma cutting.

I hope this answers your question! Up next is A.Kahn with a question about IR Sensors!

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