Jul 22, 2016 | By Andre

In the second half of 2015 we reported on a Russian team of entrepreneurs called Endurance and how they were able to successfully modify an existing 3D printer into a working laser cutter. They did this using what they called the L-Cheapo module (online for $195). The device is capable of cutting through paper and wood up to 3/16th of an inch thick.

Since then, the one question they've been getting over and over from would-be customers is in regards the ability to engrave onto metal (such as aluminium) using their technology. Considering aluminium has a melting temperature of around 600 degrees Celsius (with the surface aluminum oxide at around 1000 degrees) one might feel a $195 laser adapter wouldn’t have a chance.

But in reality, all that’s needed is 9 - 12 volts of charge, salt, the capacity of the dielectric (plastic works), a nail, water, and of course their the L-Cheapo laser module. The following steps will give you a fairly quick and straightforward overview of how to get it done.

First off, you need to prepare a bitmap image where the laser software can decipher one portion to be etch and another to leave untouched. Nothing grayscale or too complicated or things might not turn out right, but the below image is a perfect example of what sort of thing should work.

Next up, you need to cover the aluminium surface that you're hoping to etch onto with a protective film (tape or paint would suffice) before placing it on the laser modified 3D printer build platform. The L-Cheapo laser adapter can now be used to engrave through the tape (or paint). Remember, the laser isn't powerful enough to etch into the aluminium by itself but the laser will cut through the tape (with a minimum dot size of 0.1mm) very easily and that's all that is required as the current driven salt-water solution in the next step takes care of the rest.

From a compatibility perspective, the L-Cheapo laser can be installed on just about any open-source 3D printer or CNC router and proper instructions on its use can be found here.

Of course, other cutters are also capable of engraving through the tape but the L-Cheapo can be had without breaking the bank, so it's certainly the most affordable way to get engraving onto aluminium under way.

Next up, you need to cover the aluminium surface you’re hoping to engrave onto with a protective film (tape or paint would suffice) before moving things over to the laser modified 3D printer build platform and let the software take care from there.

This is where things get a little tricky. The team of makers now asks you to place the aluminium plate in a plastic container of salt water (NaCl) and hook up positive and negative clips to the terminal (included in the L-Cheapo module) and turn it on.

Once activated, the electrolysis process of etching in the solution takes place. Depending on the concentration here, the time this takes can vary from 3 - 5 minutes. Once you shut things down, all that’s left to do is separate the aluminium plate and if done correctly, you should have whatever you wanted etched nicely into the aluminium.

It’s suggested that the process can be done in both home and workshop environments and that a little practice can go a long way. This think outside of the box approach to engraving onto aluminium with a inexpensive laser add-on is fairly impressive. When I was in the business of laser cutting, we got by with a variety of Thermark metal engraving sprays because physically breaking through the metal with most cutters is only possible with incredibly powerful machines.

The team over at L-Cheapo have figured out a way to get it done for just over $200 all in (providing you have an open-source 3D printer on hand). I should note, the quick little tutorial above mostly demonstrates the steps necessary to get the job done. If you are ready to take the dive, sending a quick few questions or concerns you might have to the Endurance team is strongly advised. Lasers after all.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printer Accessories

 

 

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