If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—I wish that age-old expression was valid in maintaining our laser engravers. Just think about all the spare time that we could have if we didn’t have to roll up our sleeves and spend time cleaning optics, cleaning the rails, checking the home position, cleaning the exhaust system out and on and on.
The list of things that we should look at when it comes to laser maintenance can be a bit intimidating; however, once you make your mind up to perform regular scheduled maintenance, you will find that the necessary tasks will become simple to do and take a minimum of your time. This discipline in performing regular servicing will give you big rewards in consistent, high-quality engraving and minimizing wear on your laser system.
The absolutely first thing to do when starting to do laser maintenance is to GET YOUR MANUAL OUT AND READ THE SECTION ON MAINTENANCE! Sorry to be a grinch about this, but far too many laser owners have not read and re-read their owners manual when it comes to maintaining their laser. This must be so, as too many shops do not adhere to the regular maintenance schedule(s) that are recommended by the manufacturer of their machine.
I know that when your laser is busy and the customers are pushing you to get their order out, shutting down and doing the necessary maintenance is just not what you want to do. The “I’ll get round to it tomorrow” expression seems to justify postponing the necessary work until another day. Unfortunately, the longer you put off the maintenance, the more you risk damaging your optics or producing poor quality work. Laser manufacturers are to be commended on the robustness of their machinery. Laser engraving machines have evolved into trouble-free hardware that consistently produces high-quality engraving.
There is a cost to achieve this goal: do the basic maintenance that the manufacturer suggests, and you will be rewarded with minimum down time, excellent graphics reproduction and high through put.
Each manufacturer has their own specific list of items to be maintained but the basics are as follows:
CLEAN THE OPTICS
When you laser engrave wood, acrylics, painted metal or hot-stamped plastic sheets, the laser beam vaporizes some of the material that you are engraving. This residue becomes airborne and is vacuumed out by the exhaust system that is attached to the output port of your system.
Regardless of how well designed the exhaust manifold is at the rear of the laser, some of the residue will remain in suspension in the air inside the laser cabinet. Inevitably, some of this residue will attach itself to your optics.
As this residue coating builds up, it will absorb some of the beam energy and will be baked onto the optic. If too much buildup occurs, the optic will absorb more and more laser energy, and the glass will heat up. Too much heat will cause the optic to crack, and you will stop lasing. Thus, it is essential to inspect your optics daily and see if they are in need of cleaning.
If in doubt, take them out and clean them. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions to the letter. The procedure that they recommend has been developed over years of experience, and although the process may be a bit fussy, remember that the coating on the optics is prone to scratching if too much force is used in the cleaning process.
Clean optics will give you maximum transmission of laser energy, thus deeper burns, crisper engraving and maximum engraving speed.
CLEAN THE RAILS
The same lasered residue that will coat your optics will also adhere to your “x” and “y” rails. This build up of residue will, in a short time, cause your axis motors to work harder, as the carriage will have to overcome this added resistance caused by the residue build up.
You will also find that some of your fine engraving work is developing the “jaggies”. This is a direct result of build up on the rails of the lasered residue. Cleaning the rails on a timely basis will insure that the quality of your engraving will always be of the highest caliber and that you will get the maximum life out of your “x” and “y” axis motors.
CLEAN YOUR EXHAUST SYSTEM
As the lasered residue is sucked out of the laser cabinet, it starts to cool, and some of the residue will coat the inside of the exhaust system all the way up to the exhaust stack. The speed of this buildup will vary depending upon what materials that you are engraving. Solid-wood engraving will exhibit a moderate buildup while plastic engraving residue and MDF residue will build up faster.
You should check your exhaust system every three months to see what sort of build up is taking place. If there are signs of build up, a cleaning with soap and water will usually eliminate the problem.
I have seen exhaust systems that have been left unchecked for two years; the air flow in the system had been badly restricted by the residue buildup to a point where the smoke from the laser cabinet was hardly being exhausted to atmosphere. This resulted in incredibly dirty optics and rails.
You will be well rewarded by your efforts to maintain your laser system on a regular basis. The rewards will come in the form of high productivity, minimum down time and quality engraving—and by the pride of owning an efficient, smooth-running laser.