The Eleksmaker A3 Pro Laser engraver – an in-depth, long term review

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When it comes to low power laser engravers there are multitude of available options, however when you start researching them you will find that Eleksmaker is one of the biggest players in this area. They have a solid reputation not just for laser engravers but also for plotters and there is an active community that can give you help should you get stuck which you can find here: http://forum.eleksmaker.com. It’s this community that really sets it apart from the generic small Chinese laser diode manufacturers.

Laser diode vs CO2

The first thing to know about the Eleksmaker Pro A3 2500mW laser engraver/cutter is that it uses a laser diode and not a C02 laser. Co2 lasers are large and require a high voltage and water cooling to stop them over heating, but are far more powerful. Laser cutting or engraving shops will likely use a C02 laser.

Laser diodes on the other hand have a much lower output, you can think of it a bit like a suped-up laser from a blue ray drive. That’s not to say that they aren’t dangerous, the more powerful 2500mW laser I have can cut through 3mm perspex and plywood and even the weakest 500mW laser can blind you in an instant if you are negligent.

Please always always ALWAYS take care and wear safety glasses around this machine, even the reflection of the laser can cause permanent damage. Do yourself a favour and order a few extra pairs of the correct laser wavelength blocking safety glasses when you order this machine. They only are cheap, ship relatively quickly (mine arrived well before my laser engraver arrived) and you should always have a spare pair in case you break yours or have a friend round. I know there is a big temptation to see what it’s doing but even with the glasses you should not look directly at the beam.

Right, warning over. Lets get on with the review.

What model should I choose?

There are various versions of the Eleksmaker Laser Engraver but they fall into two main catagories.

The first is the bed size, the two main variants are the A3 and A5 which logically have a cutting area the size of A3 and A5 pieces of paper respectively. The other variable is the strength of the laser that is shipped with the unit. This ranges from 500mW all the way to 5000mW. You may be temped to think that its better to get the strongest (and most expensive) 5000mW laser but first consider the laser size. Once you start going increasing past the 2500mW laser range the focus dot of the laser starts to increase. If you compare the focused laser of the 5000mW to the 2500mW you will notice that it is much thicker. This actually reduces the intricacy of the engravings that you can do with the machine. The cost of the laser module also goes up exponentially with power, I found the 2500mW to be a good combination of accuracy, power and price.

The Eleksmaker A3 ships in a secure and well packaged and mine arrived with all the parts and nothing damaged. Eleksmaker also includes a few extra components in case you lose some of the bolts or spacers which is a nice gesture. Assembling the machine took me a few hours, the instruction manual is non-existent but thankfully the community is strong and there are a number of detailed Youtube videos that clearly explain how to assemble it such as this one from Elektor

If you are able to assemble Lego or Ikea furniture then you’ll be fine assembling this. The build is pretty forgiving, the only part that you can really make an irreversible mistake is when you screw on the lock nuts or cut the belt to size. All in all it took me around 2.5 hours to assemble it.

Why I like it

The nice thing about the Eleksmaker A3 Pro is that it is so portable. I can literally unplug it and put it on top of my cupboard when I am finished using it. Because it uses a low power laser it doesn’t require water cooling like CO2 lasers and the built in fan is sufficient for low power, shorter jobs. For longer jobs I set up near a window with an ordinary room fan blowing over the laser and the bed which ensures that it is kept cool and also helps clear any smoke.

The low power makes it easier to fine tune when you are trying to cut cardstock. For example I created a bunch of paper photo frames which would have taken hours to do by hand. But because I can fine tune the laser power I can set it so it cuts clean through the outline but only scores the fold line which saves a ton of time.

Prototype cat model from stl file

The bed is larger than most entry level C02 lasers which is nice and gives you more flexibility on how you lay your work out which is good because it doesn’t have zeroing or end stops. Zeroing is a modification that you can add on afterwards with a couple of extra components but I found that just manually moving the laser to where I would like it to start and setting that as the home point worked well enough for my purposes. If you require a lot of repeat-ability or are constantly working close to the beds maximum size then this could be a good addition as end stops will stop the machine from damaging itself should it hit the limit of its cutting area.

Cutting and Engraving performance

I have seen some reviews say that this laser is able to cut through 3mm MDF and perspex and some that it struggles to cut through thin cardboard. I’ve had the Eleksmaker Pro A3 for close to a year now and have it pretty well dialed in. Here are some of the materials that I have cut and engraved.

Perspex

Perspex – I can cut through 3mm Perspex in 12 passes with 80% power at 200mm/min. I would recommend black as this is the easiest colour to cut and your mileage may vary with other colours. As it cuts using light it is not able to cut through any transparent materials.

Cardstock

I can cut through cardstock easily snd routinely cut through 160g/cm cardstock in a single pass at around 50% power and 400mm/min. I could definitely reduce the cutting time by increasing the speed but I found that the accuracy decreases as the carriage speed increases. This is likely because the table that I am using to hold the lasercutter has wheels and is shaking slightly as the carriage moves around. If I were worried about time I would definitely invest in a more solid base.

I am also able to dial down the power and only lightly score the surface of the cardstock which is an absolutely fantastic ability and reduces the time to make my papercraft substantially. I found that white cardstock is hard to score however as a higher power level is required to get it to actually burn, but then as soon as it does start the paper turns black which immediately absorbs far more heat and cuts clean through instead of scoring.

2mm Balsa

This cuts through easily with 2 passes and 80% power at 200mm/s. Because it is so much faster to cut through than 3mm plywood I use this to try out new designs. The wood does scorch fairly easily and I recommend covering it with packing tape before cutting to reduce the burn marks. Packing tape gets cut through like butter.

3mm Plywood

I used lasercutter compatible plywood and with the correct laser alignment I can cut through it consistently in about 15 passes at 80% power and 170mm/min. Laser focus is critical to being able to cut through 3mm Plywood and you should definitely read the section on cutting through thicker materials to save yourself some frustration.

Corrugated Cardboard

This was something that I had not seen other reviewers try to cut which I found strange as I have an abundance of corrugated cardboard and think its another great material for prototyping.

I can cut through the thinner 2mm cardboard with 4 passes at 80% power and 200mm/min and through the standard 3mm cardboard box type cardboard with 6 passes at the same settings.

Leather

I tried a few leather cuts and managed to get through about 2mm leather after 7 passes. However it left behind a lot of black char on the sides of cut so I would not recommend this. It also smells a lot! So make sure you are outside or have a lot of ventilation if you are going to try this.

Tips for cutting through thicker materials

After successfully cutting through 3mm MDF initally. I  ordered a large batch of MDF laser grade plywood but much to my frustration found that I could not cut through it even with 20 passes.

Luckily I had managed before and so did not give up at that point but instead started trying to find out why.

After making the below adjustments I am now able to cut through 3mm MDF consistently in about 15 passes on 80% power.

First I used a couple of 3mm pieces of MDF to elevate the corners of the piece that I am cutting from the bottom. I found that this reduces burn marks to the under side of the wood and also lets me easily see when the piece has been cut out as it will drop down.

The most important step is to focus the laser on the top of the supports, this will be the very bottom of the piece that you are cutting. But putting the focus point at the bottom of the piece I found that I was able to cut through plywood and perspex every time.

As a side note you should do this in a well ventilated area, when cutting thicker materials I move my laser cutter next to my sliding door and have a fan blowing on it.

The fan also aids with additional cooling, heat build up is the enemy of your laser diode. You’ll notice that the laser is encased in a pretty big heat sink with a small fan on top. Even with this I found that cutting on high power for more than 10 minutes would lead to the laser getting noticabally hot. By keeping an external room fan on during the process this temperature is kept at a much lower temperature and also allows the duty cycle ratio of the laser to be increased as you can reduce the cooling off time between passes. I found that around 30s was more than enough for the laser to return to room temperature.

I am using 80% power as I am not sure if the 2.5W diode is actually a 2W diode that is being over driven and would rather take slightly longer but keep the current down. I have been using this for close to a year now and have not seen any laser degradation at all.

Some things you need to know before you buy

The Eleksmaker A3 Pro is a great machine for the money, it really doesn’t get more barebones than this and there are a few things that you should be aware of before you delve into the world of laser engraving and cutting.

No End Stops or Zeroing

What I didn’t like about the Eleksmaker A3 Pro is that it doesn’t have end stops or zeroing. Which means that it can be a bit fiddly to set up if you are trying to position something that will just fit on your cutting surface or want to make a more permanent clamp to hold pieces. Because it doesn’t have end stops you have to make sure that the laser won’t hit the side while cutting, the included software has a feature that will trace the extremities of the image with the low power beam on which helps to center the piece that you are cutting or engraving and you can add end stops and zeroing afterwards with a few limit switches and different software if you need to. I generally don’t cut out things larger than A4 size due to the slow speeds required to cut through thicker material.

Power

To be fair this machine is listed as an engraver, which is really where it excels. You can do some cutting with it but it is not nearly as powerful as even the most entry level C02 machine. If you are wanting to cut through anything large or thicker than 3mm I would suggest going the C02 route. The reason for this is that cutting through thicker material requires multiple passes – often 12 to 15 – and this has to be done at a slow speed, I generally cut at around 200mm/min. This in itself would not be terrible if you are not in a hurry, but the real limiting factor is the duty cycle of the laser. The instructions say that it should not be on continuously for more than 10 minutes at a time, when you are engraving this is not an issue as the laser is at low power and often cycling on and off and I have done many multi hour engravings with no issues. However when you are trying to cut something the power is high and after a few minutes of cutting I can feel that the laser module starts to heat up. In the T2 laser software you are able to set a cooldown period between passes but if each pass is more than 10 minutes of continuous cutting then there may be a risk of overheating the laser module and damaging it.

To increase my run times I made the travel speed while the laser is off very slow which gives the laser time to cool down while it moves between areas that it needs to cut. I also have a fan blowing onto it while it is cutting which helps dissipate the heat. Ideally I would like the option to pause the laser for a set time after 5 or 10 minutes and then have it automatically resume, but I have not found software that does this easily. If you are comfortable with Gcode you could export it and add in your own wait signals but something more user friendly would be nice.

Noise/Light/Smell

I didn’t find the noise to be much of a bother there are 3 stepper motors which are audible but quickly become background noise once you are a few meters away. There is also a small cooling fan on the laser heat sink but again this becomes background noise. I would say that it is slightly louder than a desktop PC with the fan going and you can definitely work in the same room without it disturbing you.

The light and smell is a different story, it should be obvious from the pictures that there is no enclosure for this laser. When you are cutting there is a lot of light that is reflected off the object, while this residual light is much lower power than the beam it is still a good idea to avoid looking at it. A simple box frame blocks out most of it and makes for a much more pleasant working environment. Likewise, because there is no fume cupboard any odours from cutting will waft into the room. The only time that this really became much of an issue for me was when cutting leather (don’t) and perspex. I got around it by moving the printer to the open door and pointing a fan at it to blow any fumes outside.

When cutting other things like paper or even balsa wood there are not many fumes, you can smell a little bit of the burn paper but nothing over powering. I have a sensitive smoke detector that goes off when I am cooking sometimes but it has never been triggered by the lasercutter. While you can cut these materials indoors it’s best to make sure you have adequate ventilation.

Basic software

The software that comes with the laser engraver is fairly basic, it has enough features to test the laser and to engrave and cut out basic shapes but I would really recommend upgrading the software. I am using a piece of software called T2 laser, which is not free but worth the cost. I am not affiliated with T2 and paid full price for my license, I have just found it really useful. The most useful features for me have been grayscale engraving instead of just stock black and white, the ability to import dxf files from your CAD program and set the power output based on line colour. The ability to set multiple passes and cool down times between passes has also saved me a great deal of time when cutting thicker materials. Zax, the creator is very knowledgeable and quick to respond to any queries and the software is constantly being improved. What I don’t like is the registration process, you have to by a license for your specific computer hardware which means that you are tied to that computer and if you ever upgrade your computer you will lose the license. There is a more expensive option where you get sent a USB stick with the license on it but then you have to keep hold of the USB and move it from computer to computer.

Overall though this software is basically required to get the most out of your lasercutter and I would recommend factoring it into the cost of your machine.

Not all colours are created equal

Because this machine uses a laser diode instead of a CO2 laser it is affected by the colour of the material that you are cutting. The more of the blue light from the laser that the material absorbs the easier it is to cut. This means that if you are trying to cut thicker materials then you should opt for a darker colour. The dependency on the colour of the material means that you have to record your settings for not just the type of material but also for the colour – I keep a note where I record the material, colour and cutting/etching speeds and power which helps increase the consistency.

It also cannot cut or engrave transparent material, so no etching glass or cutting transparent perspex windows. There are ways to get around this such as drawing with a a black marker on the area that you want to engrave which stops the light from passing straight through. Using this technique you are able to etch transparent perspex and can even do simple glass etching by painting the area with black nail polish, burning away the part you want etched and then using etching cream, I wasn’t able to come close to cutting through though.

It can leave a charred edge

The laser cuts by burning, which can leave some black residue. I found that having the correct power levels minimises the amount of residue that is left behind but it is still more than a CO2 laser. If you are engraving or cutting something like perspex which can be rinsed then this is not really an issue, but if you are cutting paper then you should use some blue tak to clean the residue off the edges else you may risk smudging. If I am cutting something like these paper frames then I fold it in such a way that the side with the laser engraved fold lines are on the inside which gives it a cleaner look.

No safeties

Last but definitely not least this thing has no safeties and requires constant supervision. If your computer goes to sleep halfway through a job then the machine will just stop where it is. If the laser was on when this happened then the laser will stay on. There is no protective enclosure so be careful when it comes to reflected light from the machine, if you want to reduce the smoke and light that is given off then check out some of the cases that the community have built to house their machines.

The laser will also briefly fire when it is first powered on while the computer connects to the microcontroller. So make sure that the low fire button on the laser module is pressed so that it won’t burn whatever is under it.

I have the very short checklist that I go through whenever I use the laser cutter and has stopped any incidents.

  1. Computer set to not sleep
    (I use the free program called Amphetamine but there are many ones available).
  2. Laser module in low power mode.
  3. Connect USB.
  4. Connect main laser power.

Upgrades

The Eleksmaker A3 Pro comes shipped as a great laser engraver/cutter but as you’d expect from a machine with vibrant community, there are a number of upgrades floating around.

The only things that I would really recommend doing is ordering some extra glasses and splurging on the T2 Laser software. You’ll also want to make sure that you have a piece of scrap wood under your laser cutter so that you don’t accidently cut through your piece and damage whatever is underneath.

There are other modifications like belt tensioners that you can print out if you have a 3D printer handy and reduce the any tension errors in the belts; but I found that the machine was accurate enough for my needs. If you are concerned about the stepper motor noise or are using it for something like circuit board etching where micrometre accuracy might be required then I highly recommend that you watch the below video on upgrading to trinamic stepper drivers.

There is also a neat modification where you can replace the laser module with a pen holder which effectively turns it into a plotter and opens up another avenue. I’ve just ordered one so watch this space for the review!

Conclusion

This lasercutter is great for a hobbiest that is looking to cut out the occational design however it is really important that you know what you are getting.

There are no safeties on this machine and if left unattended then there is a legitimate possibility of it starting a fire if your computer goes to sleep while it is cutting. There is also no enclosure or ventilation system so the smoke from anything you cut will drift into the room. The lack of enclosure means that you need to be extra causious not to look at the beam while it is on, I would recommend creating some sort of enclosure if you think you will be using it regularly.

This thing cuts SLOWLY, I cut at around 200mm/min when cutting through perspex and require 12 passes. At this rate if I am cutting a small 5cmx5cm square it will take me 12 minutes of cutting time with a 30 second cool down between each pass equals 17.5 minutes to cut out a tiny square. This is fine for hobby level activities but I would not recommend this if you are trying to scale.

But if you are willing to accept all its faults it will serve you well and is a fantastic machine for the money. I have come to love the simplicity of it, not having to worry about things like water cooling means that I can just unplug it and put it on top of my shelf when I am done using it which is super convenient.

It’s really become one of those things that has helped me unlock my creativity, create custom gifts for friends and undertake projects that would be daunting  or impossible without it such as my wall of photo frames.