Archive | November, 2015

Buying a laser cutter for your Hackerspace

15 Nov15

Buying a laser cutter for your Hackerspace

At my local Hackerspace, many of us wanted access to a laser cutter. I had plenty of ideas of what to use it for and it's also one of the "Maker tools" that are the easiest to get started with. I started looking at DIY lasers like the Lasersaur project, but I felt like they were above my skill level and a little too big in size for our limited space. Now that we've purchased a laser cutter, I've gotten several questions from friends and other hackerspaces/makerspaces about the purchase process, how well it works and what to look for/avoid when buying a China-laser. Here's some of my experiences.

Picking a brand & model

We tried to save up for a laser that we could buy from a local supplier, but it was simply out of reach. Then I started looking into Ebay lasers. Ebay lasers are 3-5 times cheaper than what the commercial suppliers offer here in Norway. The drawback is that they come without any warranty or support. I gave it some thought and decided that we really needed to have a decent laser @ Bitraf - both for myself and for attracting new members.

I scoured different forums, but CNCZone in special and looked for reviews of China-made laser cutters. After much reading, I opted for a Redsail X700. It has a 700x500mm work area, a 60 watt CO2 laser tube, motorised Z-height and that's about it. They claim a lot of other features like auto-focus, but that's not really true. It can move along preprogrammed X, Y & Z paths and blast a laser that moves at up to 300mm/sec. There is no way to runtime-adjust the strength of the laser. It's on or off, but it runs off a PWM output so you can blast it for shorter or longer periods to "fake" that a bit. Setting the laser power on these cheap lasers are basically the same as setting the PWM frequency.

By comparison - a professional laser can tweak this quite a bit and even adjust the focal point at runtime. Using this, you can do a 2cm deep 3D engraving without leaving the wood burnt. With these chinese lasers you can easily engrave and cut at various "strengths" as well, but it's something you set per object. The software that comes with China-lasers are also extremely crappy, but I'll get back to that later.

Buying expensive stuff from Ebay

I looked around and there's at least 5 companies on Ebay that sells the X700. You won't find them by searching for the RedSail brand though, so search for "60W CO2 laser" and then you'll see the listings. After looking around, I went for the ebay seller CNCCheap. I decided this based on the usual thing you do on Ebay, I looked at the buyer ratings. It turns out that this is highly irrelevant for anything that ships in a container and takes longer than the maximum review-period to arrive. This post is in many ways a review of cnccheap and I'll tell you right away - they're not the least professional.

Up until I transferred the money, the sales personell at CNCCheap were really snappy. I asked questions and got replies back by the next day. The list of standard accessories is quite long:

  • Laser Engraving software Package (English Version)
  • User Manual (CD)
  • CW-3000 chiller
  • Air exhaust fan
  • Air Pump
  • Communication cable
  • 3 Reflect optics (installed in the machine)
  • 1 Focus optics (installed in the machine)
  • 1 60 watt laser tube
  • Other tools

These are all things that you'll need. The Chiller is crucial to keep the temperature of the CO2 laser tube where it should be. Water circulates inside the tube and keeps the fancy 3-layer glass tube at just above room temperature. The air exhaust fan and air pump (for air-assist) are also pretty much required, as are the rest of the list. They also offer a good list of accessories:

  • Honeycomb
  • Reddot Positioning
  • Rotary tool
  • Motorised up and down platform
  • Extra optics
  • Extra laser tube

I basically went for the "full package" of accessories with one exception - I did not buy an extra 60 watt laser tube. Why? I had learned that CO2 laser tubes only last about a year and then you have to replace them, so why keep a spare that you'll only throw it away? Turns out this was actually my biggest mistake. More on that later, but always buy that spare tube…

It feels a little odd to buy something worth $3800 via Paypal/Ebay, but not to worry! Ebay has their buyers protection, Right? Just 4 weeks after I hit the Checkout button (and before the laser arrived), the purchase disappeared from my Ebay history. Repeated emails / tweets to Ebay's support never resolved this and I never got an opportunity to leave my 1-star review of CNCCheap as a company. So - keep in mind - don't select your laser supplier based on the Ebay rating. Look around for real-world cases of companies that offer good service. CNCCheap is not one of these. I ordered the laser the 11th December 2014.

Shipping and getting it in the door

I read about the shipping process online and it's pretty straightforward. The seller will ship the laser to the nearest harbor and they'll also help you organise the last part as well. A local shipping company will then pick it up when it arrives, do the paperwork and after you've paid them - they'll deliver it to your door. Pretty straightforward. Due to unforeseen circumstances (these apparently happen all the time in shipping), the laser took quite some time to arrive in Oslo, Norway. I received the laser the 25th February 2015

The package was huge! It was well packaged and secured and had no obvious damage. Unpacking the laser we quickly realised that getting it up the stairs would be an issue. One of the Bitraf members had one of these neat electrical trolleys for moving heavy loads up stairs. Immensely useful, so if you have stairs - find someone that has one of these!

Assembly and sparks flying!

Setting the machine up was easy enough. Not because of the incredibly crappy documentation offered, but due to some videos I found on Youtube (from RedSail, not CNCCheap). The documentation was 10 pages of assembly for a different laser cutter and then 120+ pages on a different software than what we received. The software itself (AutoLaser) was delivered on a recordable CD. So much for "original software"? Me and Jon assembled the machine the same evening but it didn't work at all.

When we hit the Pulse-button, sparks flew about inside the laser Powersupply. A laser excites the gas inside the laser tube by shooting 27.000 Volts though it. You don't want to be near it when this goes wrong. Here's how it sounded:

The rest is a fairly long story that I'll condense here for brevity, but a log is here (in Norwegian) and my chat-log with the CNCCheap salesperson Lucy is here. Here's some dates and briefly what happened:

  • 2015-03-15 We confirm by testing that the laser PSU is working and that it's the lasertube that is dead
  • 2015-03-16 CNCCheap was told about the problem. They recognised the problem and said that they would ship a new tube.
  • 2015-03-25 The package arrives in Norway, but it's declared as worth $5. We need a proper invoice to get it out and CNCCheap takes forever to supply us this
  • 2015-04-07 We get the package and discover that they didn't send a laser tube - they sent us another power supply?
  • 2015-04-08 Despite solid proof, the seller refuses to send a new tube since they don't believe us. I get tired of arguing and order a tube from someone else.
  • 2015-04-14 New tube arrives and works on first attempt!
  • 2015-04-15 CNCCheap is told about the working tube and they still protest. They even go as far as claiming that we are past the 3 month warranty. Then I explode….
  • 2015-04-27 CNCCheap finally admits that the tube does not work, but insist that we smash the old tube. Apparently, they really don't trust us despite our problems…
  • 2015-05-04 Two and a half month after telling them about the defective tube, we receive the replacement.

Five and a half month after ordering it, we eventually have a working laser cutter on the cheap. We also realised that we never received the exhaust fan promised, but the non-working laser made that quite irrelevant. With the help of members Peter, Mubin, Kyrre, Vidar, Torfinn and Jon we finally got it up and running, but without their debugging experience from high voltage circuits I'd never make this. Thanks a bunch guys! I suggest that you find some allies that know a bit about high voltage circuits before buying.

Among the things we solved:

  • The interlock switch was loose
  • The safety connector to the chiller may be inserted the wrong way despite having a notch
  • Soldering the anode and cathode wires are incredibly hard. Use stranded wire as shown in this instructable, wind it really hard around the anode and then solder. Don't forget to add the isolation before soldering!
  • If the display does not light up, check the red emergency button. It's of really low quality.

Big thanks also go out to the other RedSail owners on CNCZone. They deliver much better support than the resellers or Redsail themselves. If you want to see how it looks when you intentionally break a laser tube, check the video below:

Breaking the old tube was a requirement from CNCCheap. They wanted to ensure that I did not try to fool them into sending me a new tube while the old one was actually working.

How we like it

Despite the incredibly unprofessional behavior from CNCCheap, we're happy with the machine. You really should avoid CNCCheap at all cost and I truly think that RedSail should kick them as a reseller for treating customers like this. They are not the only bad reseller though, so be sure to check for good reviews by trusted sources.

Overall I'm pretty impressed with what we can do with this thing given the price. We can engrave lots of different materials and we can cut the following with good results:

  • 8mm clear acrylic
  • 6mm MDF board
  • 6mm plywood
  • leather

These are the max thicknesses we've cut. Anything less also goes fine obviously. 

The AutoLaser software is notoriously bad. It's unstable and only imports DXF format without crashing. It does work fairly well apart from those very noticeable flaws. The undocumented meny system on the machine may seem like a joke as the English is very poor. There's also three different "Enter-buttons" depending on what part of the menu you are in, so the usability of this thing is practically zero.

The most important thing you need to know is that "Back" actually means "Home" and that the X700 has several undocumented (but nice) features. To zero the X-height on the material, you either click 12 times in the crazy menus, or use the undocumented command of pressing the dot-button and then pressing Enter. To show the outer bounds of the area to be engraved, press the Range-button and then enter. There might be more of these, but it's hard to tell. These we stumbled on by random chance.

We started using the machine without a filter. Then I built a DIY filter. It did well for a while, but now we're getting a commercial grade filter. My self-built filter sent all the warm air out of the building. This is convenient during summer, but not so much during winter. The commercial filter will clean the air enough that we don't need to vent it outdoors.

Below is a video of the most elaborate project I've made thus far. It's a timing gate for the Nerdy Derby race at Teknisk Museeum in Oslo. I learned quite a bit from that - but primarily that objects made of laser cut wood should not be in public spaces were kids run around…


React with Javascript package managers

13 Nov15

React with Javascript package managers

One of the best ways to learn new software is to take on a commercial project and force yourself to use it. I do this all the time and with all the cool kids ranting about React, I felt that it was time to do a project based on it. It's been a bit painful, but I've come to enjoy the way React works. It's actually quite beautiful!

I've used Angular before and React feels much more solid and natural. It does require that you learn how React thinks (or want you to think), and that part might take a little time. Here's some of what I've learned while using React.

Javascript - the new frontend AND backend favorite

To create a HelloWorld on the web, all you need is a HTML page with a few lines of inline JS. How can a 200+ file download possibly be an upgrade from that? It just does not make sense that a simple HelloWorld-project should become a folder with 139Mb of Javascript based libraries, right? Like it or not - Javascript is the language that takes over both frontend and backend development these days.

You can use it old-style (and write it all by hand) or use one of the many hundred frameworks that are out there to make your life easier. So while the initial download may be large when using frameworks, the files will normally be cached by the browser. If you use a CDN for your framework, odds are that it's already cached.

I've always known JS and it's very close to Actionscript. Learning React has not only been yet another nail in the Flash coffin (it's really completely dead). Learning React has also taught me several new programming concepts that I'll keep using for other projects.

How React is different

I've had to do lots of refactoring every time I've understood how a new thing worked in React and that’s been a bit painful. Initially I tried to fight against how React worked since I wanted to be in control. The React way of doing things is to not do things directly, but to always do things based on state. The data model controls the GUI in reactive programming. React only re-renders if an object has changed, so to change something on screen, you need to implement a visual change in response to an object/variable changing. This happens asyncronously since the React DOM and the browser DOM are two different things. With React, you never manipulate the DOM directly. It always happens because of a change in the data model of the app.

Changing an object/variable to change the GUI sounds cumbersome until you've used it. The super-neat thing about this is that if you do things correctly, you'll be able to start your app from ANY state and also to change it while it's running! You just set the variables and the app will render straight to this state! No more clicking 20 times to get to a certains state for debugging. Now you just set the data of that state and you're there? Understanding how to solve things "the React way" is what really takes time, but once you get the hang of it you'll wonder why not all software is based on this principle.

A React application starts at a root component, that then renders sub-components that renders sub-components. It takes time to understand where in such a hierarchy certain data should be, how it's passed most effectively and how to implement the visual changes in response. I won't say I'm completely on top of this yet, but I really feel that I'm getting a lot back from this approach of working. The very clean separation of responsibilities between each component makes you much less afraid of breaking stuff than with other ways of working with code. You basically jump straight to the module you want to work on and do your thing, knowing that it won't break stuff. I really recommend trying out this way of developing web apps if you haven't!

Getting up to speed

When you start out with React, you'll most likely start like me using the in-browser JSX transformer to convert JSX to pure javascript at runtime. This process is called "transpiling", since you're not really compiling but rather converting the React's custom JS format (JSX) to plain ECMAScript JS. Following the official docs from Facebook, you'll get your project started but to really grasp the full power of React, you should go through setting up the NPM and JSPM package managers.

Why? For one thing - most of the example code you'll find online will require it. Package managers are great tools since they keep track of all the dependencies used in your project and they download all dependencies from CDN's. The most important is however that they can convert your app to a pure JS class that is much faster than the runtime-compiled JSX script.

So how do you get started with Package Managers? There's several to choose from, but if you've played with Node.js you probably already have "npm" installed? If not, click here to learn how to install it. Once you have npm installed, open a terminal window (or CMD command line on Windows) and type:

  sudo npm install jspm -g

This will install JavaScript Package Manager (JSPM) on your system and make it easy to install any library you want to use. JSPM seems like a solid choice among a flurry of others that pop up and then disappear and it can pull in code-packages from both npm and github.

To create a new project from scratch, you'll make a new folder, go into it and type the following:

  npm init
  jspm init

This will create a couple basic files that the package manager needs to keep track of what libraries your project is using. It will also download some base packages you need to start developing: Systemjs makes it easy to include libraries on your app. Babel compiles JSX to a variety of JS (including ECMAScript 6 / ES2015), makes sense out of error messages and adds support for missing features in some browsers. You'll find these and some others in a folder called "jspm_packages". With these files in place, you'll want to get ready for React programming by installing React itself:

  jspm install npm:react

These are now added as dependencies in the package.json file in your folder and you can start using React with a package manager to ease your development.

JS and it's blazing speed of development

This talk from Jack Franklin was of great help to me in learning JSPM, but it's also quite typical in the JS-world that the talk from May (6 months ago) is already full of "bugs". JS libs are rarely consistent over time, and if you try to run his code, you'll get errors like:

  Warning: React.render is deprecated. Please use ReactDOM.render from require('react-dom') instead

If you then try to use that code, you'll realise that you didn't install the package "react-dom" since that wasn't needed 6 months ago. Looking at the official documentation from Facebook you'll see that you should not use the import-statement as Jack does, but rather use "require" like this:

var React = require('react');
var ReactDOM = require('react-dom');

Running that will give you the error:

  Error: require is not defined

Facebook just takes it for granted that you've installed the "browserify" package. This is what give you the require-statement and other goodness since there's no such thing in JS. They take this for granted in all their doumentation, so be aware that you'll need that to have browserify or webpack installed if you want to just cut and paste their examples. They do actually mention it on their Getting Started page, but if you're new to Javascript package managers, it's quick to skip that single mention.

But - armed with your new knowledge about JSPM, you could just pull it down

  jspm install npm:browserify

The problem is that this requires that you reconfigure your app from scratch, and since you're now following Jack's great tutorial, you should rather do the following:

  jspm install npm:react-dom

Once that is in place, you can use "import" rather than "require" like this:

  import React from 'react';
  import ReactDOM from 'react-dom';

I don't find these error messages intuitive at all, so I thought I'd better jot this down for Google to find, so others can skip some frustration

Using "import" or "require" syntax is just a matter of preference. You can use both, but since none of them actually exists in JS they're implemented as Polyfills - placeholder syntax for methods that may or may not end up in the ECMA language.

Why Javascript should become what students learn first

When I started using Node.js on both the server & client some years ago, I never thought it'd become as popular as it is today. Now that I'm teaching a bit, I keep thinking that it's crazy that students don't learn JS in school. Think about it - why should students not learn a language that can cover both the client and the server? It is after all the programming concepts you should be tought at school, not the syntax. The Syntax is bound to change and keep changing, but the general concepts of programming is something that you'll carry with you from one language to the next.

If I could affect the students carriculum at University and higher education, I'd use Javascript as the first programming language to learn. Once students know the basics of the language, I'd make a frontend and a backend track. Having one language for both makes it quicker to get past the syntax and tooling stage, and get into the concepts and useful stuff. The frontend track would be focused on using React, Angular and other frameworks. It would be more about how to learn frameworks than creating big projects. Knowing how to learn a new framework is much more useful than focusing on the fine details of a language.

The backend track would be foused on Node.js making multiuser apps and games, controlling hardware and persisting data. Compared to starting with Java, C,C++ or PHP, this would be much more useful to the students. They'd get results faster, they'd learn skills that are instantly useful in a job situation and they'd have a huge and great community to learn from. Once they've learned JS, they'll easier pick up the more advanced features in more mature languages. JS is basically a much better starting language.