Fun with the laser engraver

Monday afternoon I took the Safety and Basic Use class for the Trotec laser engraver at TechShop. The class consists mostly of “lecture”: going over safety considerations, the machine’s controls, and how to use the software (CorelDraw or Adobe Illustrator) to prepare files for sending to the engraver. It was mostly a demonstration with very little hands-on time.

So last night I went up to TechShop and reserved the laser engraver for two hours. The class instructor recommended spending some time doing simple things like cutting out basic shapes or engraving text on scrap material, but I figured I’d do a more ambitious project: engrave a picture onto something.

Having never used Illustrator or CorelDraw before, I spent a couple of hours fiddling with them prior to my scheduled time on the laser. I prepared the picture I was going to engrave and also spent some time just poking around in CorelDraw trying to get familiar with all it can do. I think it’s going to be a steep learning curve.

I also collected a few pieces of cardboard and a small piece of hardboard (Masonite) from the scrap pile. I figured I’d practice on scrap before doing this on an expensive piece of material.

The idea was to reproduce this picture on the laser engraver.

charlie_640I still think that’s the best picture I’ve ever taken of anything. The subject is highly photogenic and I got lucky with the composition.

I first converted the picture to grayscale and ran it through a “pencil sketch” filter to create this:

charlie_Pencil640I also played with the brightness and contrast a bit.

Then I put a piece of cardboard into the laser engraver and printed the picture. It took several passes, including fiddling with the speed and power settings between passes. The result was somewhat curious. This is what it looks like when viewed from directly above.

Charlie_Cardboard1That’s what I saw while watching it printing in the engraver. You can imagine my disappointment. But then I saw it from an angle, which was quite a surprise:

Charlie_Cardboard2I don’t really understand the physics. I know it has something to do with how the light is reflecting off the material, but I don’t know the specifics of it. It’s kind of a neat effect, though.

Aside from that curious effect, though, the picture still isn’t great. But my time was running out and I was annoyed with the cardboard anyway. I suspect that I had the engraver going too fast. I’ll reduce the settings from the recommended value the next time I try to print on cardboard.

Having successfully engraved the cardboard without destroying anything or starting a fire, I put the Masonite in there, input the recommended settings for that material, and printed again. The result was even lighter than on the cardboard. So I reduced the speed from 50 to 20 and re-printed. That produced a very nice picture:

charlie_MasoniteIt’s pixelated on purpose; I had set the thing to do 250 DPI. I might try it again sometime at a much higher resolution. But I’m really happy with the way this one turned out.

I’d call it a successful experiment. I learned a bit about how to use the software, and I got a neat picture of Charlie engraved on hardboard. Might have to hang that one on the wall.

Now, for my next project . . .






Tales from the trenches: Fat Bald Famous Person

The story is true. Names have been changed or omitted to protect the guilty.

When I was in the games business I worked on a game that was named after a famous person. Something like Famous Person’s Fantastic Game. I don’t remember the exact circumstance, but one day we on the development team were discussing the user interface with the game publisher’s representative. The topic of the avatar came up and the publisher’s representative said, in effect, “just don’t make Famous Person look bald or fat.”

So of course the first thing our UI guy did the next day was suck the avatar image into Photoshop, remove the hair, and add some extra pounds. We used that version of the program for internal testing for a couple of weeks. We all got a good laugh out of it.

As part of our contract, we had to submit the latest version of the program to the publisher periodically (every three or four weeks, as I recall) for evaluation. The publisher would typically give the build a once-over and then send a copy off to Famous Person’s representatives for … well, for something. Probably to make sure that we got the branding right, and that we didn’t show Famous Person in a bad light. On Friday afternoon, several weeks after our meeting with the publisher’s representative, we dutifully submitted a new version of the program which we assumed the recipient would review the following week.

About an hour after we sent the new build, we got a call from the publisher’s representative. He was in California, two time zones earlier. He had downloaded and installed the new version, and when he started the program the first thing he saw was Fat Bald Famous Person. As you can imagine, he was not at all happy with that. We immediately swapped out the avatar image, made a new build, and sent it off. The publisher’s representative wasn’t happy, but at least he stopped screaming.

We were lucky. Had the publisher’s representative just passed the new build off to Famous Person without first looking at it, the whole deal could have been blown. Famous Person could have canceled his contract with the publisher, who would be well within their rights not only to cancel our development contract but also sue us for causing the loss of the contract with Famous Person. Even if Famous Person didn’t see it, the publisher could have canceled our contract, taken the code, and had somebody else finish the project. Fortunately, our project manager and the publisher’s representative had a good relationship and we just got a stern lecture about doing stupid stuff like that.

Since then I’ve been very careful not to add “funny” messages or images to programs, even in the earliest stages of development. It’s tempting early on to use placeholder text for error messages, for example. Something like, “Uh oh. Something bad happened.” That’s a whole lot easier than trying to come up with a meaningful error message while my brain’s geared towards getting the overall algorithm right. The problem with such an approach is that I have to go back later and add the real error message. Anybody who’s familiar with product development knows that such tasks often fall through the cracks in the last-minute rush to ship. This is especially true when the text to be changed is an error message that might never be seen during testing.

Come to think of it, my primary task on that project included doing some significant user interface work. The user interface included many buttons, each of which required an image. When I told the project manager that I’m not a graphic artist he said, “Just put something there. We’ll have one of the artists create the real buttons.” If you’ve been in the games business, you’re familiar with programmer art, and you probably can imagine what my buttons looked like. Apparently they were “good enough,” though, because the game shipped with my ugly button images. I was appalled. Since then, if somebody tells me to “just put something there,” I make sure that the art I add is so ugly that nobody would even think of shipping the program without first changing it.

Do it right the first time, because it’s quite likely that you won’t have time to or you won’t remember to go back and do it right later.


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