How to improve laser raster images with tuning

Adjusting the “tuning” in the Universal Control Panel (UCP) can make a dramatic difference in the clarity of raster images. For GCC/LaserPro machines this feature is also called tuning. On Epilog it is called “Laser Match.”

Last autumn I added a second laser to my shop. One day I saw a live auction listing and the next I was the slightly nervous and very excited owner of a machine that I’d never seen powered on. The first text tests were barely legible. One of the many steps to refine the output was to adjust the tuning.

The following diagram demonstrates the result we would like to achieve.

When a raster image is sent to the laser the driver splits it into horizontal slices. Each slice represents a pass that the laser head will make in the X direction of travel.

Tuning changes the distance that the X belt moves before the laser begins to pulse in each row. Poor tuning will cause a misalignment of an etched line in the right-to-left direction versus the left-to-right direction.

The fix is fairly straightforward. First, draw a solid, long thin rectangle. Change the raster settings to use the lowest image density (lines per inch). Etch on a material that has very high contrast. Anodized aluminum is fantastic; since I didn’t have any on hand I used a dark black paper that shows a nice mark.

The desired result is for the left and right edges of each line to be flush. The following image shows an example of running this test. The first column shows the original ragged line. Next, I moved the line over, adjusted the tuning, and ran the job again. This is the value I chose; the next two tests use different tuning values and are slightly ragged again.

After fixing the tuning my sample text was still slightly blurry compared to the results from my other laser. The accelerating/decelleration curve didn’t seem as good on the older model. That is; it wasn’t slowing down enough to give a really clean etch. By lowering the speed I finally saw the crisp text that I demand.

If the tuning value you need to use seems unusually high or low you should check the laser’s X belt; it may be too loose.

Overriding the ULS interlock

Enclosed lasers such as ULS and Epilog have a safety feature where the beam won’t fire if the doors are open. On my system the front panel shows a blinking red light when the doors are open and a green light when they’re shut. Yesterday the red light kept blinking even when the doors were shut.

Now, this is a very big problem, since it rendered the laser inoperable.

Hamlin 59140 miniature flange mount sensor

The interlock on ULS systems uses flange mount sensors (Hamlin 59140), two on each door. The sensor is mounted to the cabinet and the actuator to the door. When they touch the circuit completes.

There are at least five possible failure points:

  1. Sensor plug
  2. Lead from the plug to the main system
  3. Sensor
  4. Connection between sensor and actuator
  5. Actuator

The easiest route would be to rule out the connection and actuator first, but I didn’t know how to properly use magnets to do this (more on that later). Instead, I started by unplugging the sensors, inspecting them, and plugging them back in. Still no green light.

Permanently defeating the interlock

The next step was to take the sensor out of the equation. With the machine powered down, I unplugged the sensor and wrapped a piece of tinfoil around the two wires of the plug, completing the circuit. I got lucky with the first sensor I tried, and the light was once again green when the laser was powered up. Now that I knew which sensor was acting up and that the lead to the main system was okay, I could temporarily leave the tinfoil in place and figure out how to test the connection to the actuator.

Overriding the interlock with magnets

The standard trick to temporarily override the interlock is to use magnets. Some laser operators use this technique to engrave items longer than their laser bed. The front door is opened and the item projects past it. Some systems have a front and rear door for full pass-through. Safety glasses must be worn if the doors are open!

To allow the laser to fire, position magnets over the two front sensors on the cabinet. The magnet should be placed on one half of the sensor only; it will not work if it covers the entire sensor (this was the mistake I made earlier).

Removing the tinfoil and using the magnet test, I got a green light again, so the sensor was okay.

Now that I knew the problem was either with the connection between the sensor and actuator or actuator itself, I took a closer look with the door closed. There did seem to be a decent gap between the sensor and actuator, but I wasn’t sure if that was the problem. Since this just started occurring I thought it would be strange that the distance was suddenly too great.

Testing the actuator

With a magnet on one sensor, I unscrewed the actuator for the other and placed it directly on top of the sensor. Green light. Pulled it away a bit, still green light, a bit more, flashing red. I screwed the actuator back in on one side only, so that I could push the other side out a bit, making it closer to the sensor. Success!

Now, why did this happen? This problem occurred on my new-to-me laser, which is not yet in production. It’s been moved around quite a lot lately. First for workshop electrical upgrades, then a hardwired exhaust, and most recently to test tubes and try to get the beams aligned. My theory is that all of this moving has caused the front door to shift slightly so that it is closer to one side than the other. The tiny extra distance is too much for the sensor to pick up. I have tried moving the door back to center but no luck.

Kerf widths, inside cuts and Illustrator

Cutting art with fine details requires accounting for the kerf of the laser beam. The laser beam’s center follows the center of the vector path. Some material will be burned away; the width of the removed material is called the kerf.

The kerf depends on a few factors, including the size of the lens, the type of the material, and the speed of the cut. For example, when cutting cardstock with a 1.5” lens a ULS 4.60 there is a 0.003” kerf on straight cuts and a 0.007” kerf on round cuts. Since the beam is centered, we only need to account for half of the kerf. In practice I’ve found that a 0.003” addition to the art allows for a good approximation of the original art.

Normally in Illustrator CS4 I use the appearance palette to add a Path->Offset Path… to account for the kerf. However, this doesn’t work correctly with inside cuts.

For example, from this art:

we would like to end up with a frame.

However, the kerf (purple) will cut from the exterior and interior, leaving a frame with a narrower width than intended.

Original art (two nested squares)

Desired cut (inner square cut from the outer, leaving a frame)

Frame narrower than intended

With Offset Path… only, both paths become larger.

The final frame is bigger all around.

Squares shown scaled up

Narrow scaled up frame

One easy change is to set the outer square to a positive offset, and the inner square to a negative offset. However, with complex artwork it is tedious to select every inner and outer cut separately.

Instead, select the cuts and use Object->Compound Path->Make. Then with the compound path selected apply the Offset Path.

Now the kerf is correctly accounted for and the desired frame is achieved.

Outer square has outer outline, inner square has inner outline

Final correct frame

Candyspotting specializes in laser-cut paper. Contact me for a free estimate.

I’m lucky to have a friend who’s incredibly passionate about energy consumption. It makes me think about how my business and my family can reduce our draw. Since we have a baby in cloth diapers we start out pretty poorly — the washer, dryer, and dishwasher are run every day. We’ve made three recent changes to help our impact.

1. Replace the thermostat with an ecobee. I love our programmable thermostat. It makes it dead simple to keep the heat off or low when we don’t need it. Best of all, there’s an iPhone application so that when we’re out of the house we can remotely turn off the heat. It feels like the future when I can check the temperature of the house when I’m not inside it.

2. Go car-free. We were living “car light” for several years; we both used alternate forms of transportation to get to work. Portland’s public transportation is generally good and there are three Zipcars in walking distance from our house. We decided to sell the car and budget the money we would be spending on insurance for car rentals. Three months later, our son is much happier on the bus than strapped in his car seat, we don’t have the hassles of car ownership, and we get more fresh air! We’ve also successfully used Zipcar for a middle-of-the-night urgent care visit.

3. Sign up for energy offsets. Portland’s energy company, PGE, has a great program where you pay a bit extra to have your electricity offset with renewable energy. I like this program since it’s clear where the money is going. Most of the renewable source comes from wind. Who doesn’t love that? My laser was the motivator for signing up for this program. It doesn’t consume a huge amount of power, but it’s enough to make me conscious of it. I did some tests with a Kill A Watt with these results:

ULS 4.60 50W laser cutter

17W plugged in (“vampire” cost). The laser has a dedicated power outlet controlled by a switch, so I try to remember to turn it off.

86W turned on but not running

115W – 880W running – since it’s unusual for me to cut anything other than paper my actual usage is at the bottom of this scale. The few times I’ve cut acrylic or thick matboard I’ve had to crank up the power.

Quatro SPH-426 exhaust

107W – 128W. Again, this is normally at the lower end of the scale since I don’t need to run the exhaust at 100% when I’m just cutting paper. Since the exhaust is partway across the room I always turn it on and off via the dedicated wall switch, so I didn’t measure the vampire draw.

Up next? Insulating the garage and having a “blow test” done on the house.

It’s only fitting that my first video upload is shaky, poorly lit, and has a mystery time gap, but there you have it.

Illustrator graphic styles for ULS

Here’s a set of graphic styles you can use in Illustrator to take full advantage of the ULS print driver.

  1. Download Illustrator graphic styles for ULS laser
  2. Move them to ~/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Adobe Illustrator CS4/en_US/Graphic Styles
  3. In Illustrator, open Window->Graphic Styles
  4. Open Graphic Style Library->User Defined->uls

The top row of styles is for etching, the bottom for scoring and cutting. Once the job is in the ULS Control Panel you should see the same colors that were used in the document. If everything displays black instead, double check that the document is using RGB (File->Document Color Mode->RGB Color). If it’s not, change it to RGB and reapply the styles to the document.

When testing a new material I use every color to test as many settings as possible at once, like so:

Illustrator screenshot with 7 vector settings

Rastering the setting numbers takes extra time but it creates wonderful documented samples.

Laser cut felt showing the settings used