I design and produce bespoke display items for museums and galleries. As part of this, I frequently work on ideation, testing and prototyping. These processes require you to try things out and then discard them without worrying too much, so production methods and their associated cost are a big deal for me.
I use a variety of techniques. My workshop has tools that haven’t changed in decades but when I need something made ‘exactly’ the right size, I turn to a few options that are fast and affordable such as 3D printing, CNCing and lasering.
Strengths and weaknesses
Each of these has its strengths. 3D printing is additive and allows you to make seemingly impossible things. For large sheet materials (thickness or length), the CNC is invaluable but frequently, I work with small pieces. Then, cutting things out with a laser is quicker and financially preferable.
Lasering is fast, accurate and allows for a good material-choice. It provides good repeatability potential and depending on your chosen material, parts can be strong enough to take a fixing or hold weight.
Different materials for different jobs
For test pieces, things like mdf and plywood are great (see the picture above). They can be used for finished pieces too, but a whole host of more interesting materials awaits you if you want to explore a little.
5mm acrylic is a standard fare and at this thickness (and 3mm) you have an extensive colour palette, so acrylic is always a consideration. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with Forescolor which is a coloured solid core mdf. The whales in the picture at the top pf the blog were cut from Forescolor 5mm. The difference between this and other brands is it comes in 5mm – perfect for laser cutting, and at ~£20 a sheet (2440 x 1220) you can’t really argue.
If you haven’t seen this before, check out ID Surfaces.
Are thin materials not restrictive?
No, if you’re creative you can make this an advantage. I routinely layer thin materials to make thicker pieces – and of course, this method allows you to cut hidden recesses, counter-bores and location slots. Or you can be creative with staggering layers to create finger-grip points and this process on the laser with two bits of 6mm may be quicker than recessing a 12mm piece of material on the CNC.
Layering different colours also allows you to make interesting designs without paint or print. The flood education models for SEPA including the road piece shown above was designed with this in mind.
The laser can also cut tight corners – not possible with a rotary cutter. So from cutting jigsaws to box-joints, you don’t need to compromise in terms of profile.
How you actually get your design to the laser varies with projects and clients but at LaserFlair, Jane can work from vector files like DXFs, SVGs and EPSs or rastered files like JPGs and PNGs. If you have to use rastered files you may need more time to get it right but it can usually be done!
Laser cutting and emgraving are fab. It has changed my speed and ability to make things fast. I wouldn’t be without it and look forward to working with LaserFlair on many more interesting projects!