CO2 laser engraving and cutting machines are now in extensive use in many different signage applications and can present hazards if not selected and operated correctly. Director of HPC Laser, Steve Cockerham examines some of the fundamental issues that should be considered. It is a common misconception that the visible red laser is responsible for providing the engraving and cutting function in a laser machine. This low power device is only used for positioning and is the much more powerful invisible beam, usually generated in a laser tube in the rear of the machine that provides the more powerful beam for the engraving and cutting functions.
Similar to the way in which the sun’s rays can be focused and intensified using a magnifying glass, CO2 laser engraving and cutting machines work by passing this invisible laser beam of typically 6-7mm diameter through a focusing lens. This reduces the beam diameter down to microns at the correct focal height (usually around 50mm from workpiece to lens) and increases the intensity of the beam sufficiently to enable cutting and engraving of suitable materials.
Once the unfocused beam has passed the focal point it begins to diverge, weaken and scatter around the machine cabinet. This scattered beam is then absorbed by the coated metal surfaces of the machine. Because of the relative ease in which the focused beam weakens and becomes harmless, it is considered more hazardous, particularly due to its ability to travel long distances while losing only a small proportion of its power.
It is most important never to operate the machine unattended while in operation, however tedious the cutting or engraving process. A properly functioning compressor delivering a good supply of air to the machine nozzle clears away smoke, debris and fumes and minimises the risk of igniting flames during processing. The effectiveness of the air assist compressor should therefore be checked periodically.
HPC Laser operate a strict policy in terms of training in machine safety. There are warning labels on each of our machines, warnings and notifications in our operating manuals and machine supervision is a very clear element of our training programme when we supply a new machine. As part of our standard training programme, every customer is fully briefed regarding the risks of leaving the machine unattended.
Cleanliness is a very important factor in fire risk mitigation. While cutting some materials such as wood and plastics, potentially flammable deposits can collect on the machine bed. If allowed to accumulate, these can increase the risk of ignition. Addressing this risk is straightforward: simply clean deposits from the machine bed on a regular basis.
Always keep an easily accessible fire extinguisher by the machine. Because electricity is involved and you may have to tackle a fire while the machine is still plugged in, we recommend a CO2 or additional electrically-compatible extinguisher. HPC Laser recommends the training of appropriate personnel in the use of fire extinguishers. Keys to operate the machine should only be accessible to suitably trained and qualified persons.
Basic machine housekeeping is always recommended as good practice. Keep your machine cabinet clean and free from dust and material offcuts. Adopt a policy of regularly cleaning and maintenance as part of your operating regime. Regardless of the brand of your laser machine, never allow it to be operated unattended or by unauthorised persons.
Because of the flexibility of modern laser engraving and cutting machines, it is easy to forget that not everything can be safely processed. PVC, for example, produces hydrochloric acid, carbon monoxide, dioxins and chlorinated furans when burned and can seriously damage the machine but more significantly present significant health risks to any personnel in the vicinity of the machine.
If you are in any doubt, it is imperative to discuss your requirements with the material manufacturer and obtain a copy of their appropriate health and safety documentation before starting work.
Buyers of laser machines often overlook the matter of compliance with the appropriate CE safety standards. The relative ease of buying potentially non-compliant and hazardous machines either directly from an overseas manufacturer or through a UK supplier brings with it a potentially serious safety risk.
In compliance with international standards, laser machines are classified from class 1 to 4 depending upon the level of laser radiation emitted from the machine during operation. A DVD player, for example, would be typical of a class 1 system where the laser beam cannot escape and no special safety provisions are required.
Class 4 laser systems would typically have a means for the operator to make direct contact with the laser beam such as open slots in the machine cabinet or the absence of a lid safety switch.
Operators of such machines should be aware of the safety requirements of a class 4 laser system, including the requirement to wear laser compatible safety glasses. The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that class 4 machines are acceptable for use in industry but the appropriate safety requirements must be observed. They state that class 4 laser machines are not suitable for use in an education environment. This view is reinforced by CLEAPSS, an impartial organisation providing health and safety advice to education and recognised by the HSE, the DFE, DEFRA and the Home Office.
Any equipment imported into the EU must be compliant with the appropriate EU directives which specify the legislative requirements of the equipment. Various ISO and EN standards offer product-specific guidance on how to comply with these directives. It is this combination of directives and standards that form the basis of the CE compliance assessment that must be carried out.
Once an assessment of the product has been undertaken and compliance is proven, a technical file of supporting evidence is compiled.
The file owner is then able to create their own CE declaration of conformity which states the directives and standards that the machine is compliant with. The wording of some standards can be open to a degree of interpretation by the reader and good practice is to ensure that assessment is carried out against the most stringent interpretation of the standard.
HPC Laser’s 2019 range of Laserscript engraving and cutting machines now incorporate industry leading Allen Bradley CE marked safety switches on all machine panels required for operation and maintenance. These panels include the machine lid, any drawer or panel that can be removed or opened for debris recovery and the door containing the laser tube itself. Such switches serve to ensure that under all reasonable circumstances the operator is unable to gain access to the potentially hazardous unfocused laser beam. CE compliance requires the machine supplier to offer a comprehensive operating and maintenance manual with the equipment. Such documentation should include instructions for safe location, handling and operation and a map of all machine warning labels with instructions on how to obtain replacements should any be lost.
Laser engraving and cutting machines are more popular than ever due to their flexibility and relative ease of operation. When selected and operated correctly they can provide safe and reliable operation for many years.