Someone walking into Cabinetry by Design in Deer Park, N.Y., or Forest Millwork in Ashville, N.C., might think they've accidentally wandered onto the set of a Star Wars movie.

After all, lasers flashing back and forth are the stuff of science fiction movies, right?

Wrong. Lasers have begun to make their way into small cabinet shops. And, according to Cabinetry by Design and Forest Millwork, it's making their work easier and more efficient.

How it works

Both Cabinetry by Design and Forest Millwork use the 4002 laser projection system built by SL Laser Systems in Charlotte, N.C. The unit, which is about the size of a tool box, is mounted on the ceiling over their CNC routers.

The system uses a diode-type laser to project the outline pattern of a part onto the CNC's table surface. This allows the operator to position vacuum pods and material in just a few moments.

The system generates an image from common CAD design and construction drawings via a PC interface. It then projects a single laser dot at high speed on both the X and Y axis. The speed of the laser dot is such that the human eye sees a single standing image.

Making the leap

Cabinetry by Design purchased its laser projection system in January 2005 at the same time it bought an Anderson Stratos Pro CNC router. According to Michael Ciuffo, vice president, installation of the laser projection system was quick. "The installers drilled four holes in the table to hone out the laser," Ciuffo says. "The laser always has to set itself and recalibrate, so there are four pinpoints that it looks for."

An SL Laser projection system was bundled in with the Homag BOF 711 CNC router that Forest Millwork purchased from Stiles Machinery Inc. in June 2004. According to Mike Miller, CNC operator and programmer for Forest, the installation of Forest Millwork's unit was a smooth one as well. Tweaks and adjustments in the system have been easy and quick.

Great for details

At Cabinetry by Design, Ciuffo will draw a project in his office, such as a fluted column. Then he'll export it as a DXF file to the router via a central shop server. Next, he goes into the computer at the router and tells the laser to shine down on the table.

"The laser will show me the actual route of the flute," Ciuffo says. "So I can see that I'm say, down from the top of the column 2 inches and up 5-1/2 inches from the bottom. It's like I can actually see my rout before I rout it," Ciuffo says.

While Ciuffo admits that the shop doesn't use the laser every day, it has become an important piece of equipment when it comes to intricate detail work. "It's great if you're someone who makes a lot of custom parts, and does a lot of pod work. If a customer wants a nice mahogany grill and they want it a certain custom way, I couldn't do it if I didn't have the laser," Ciuffo says.

The laser increases Ciuffo's comfort level with the CNC router as well. "If you have the laser up there and you're doing a lot of nested-based and pod work, it's great for locating things. And it's great for checking your tool path if you want to make sure that you're not overlapping on another part. I find it good that way. I always use it to double-check things. The laser will assure me that I'm doing the right thing," Ciuffo says.

Enhanced accuracy

Miller echoes Ciuffo's observations regarding accuracy. "We have a 1-inch grid matrix table and the pods are located manually. The question is always Where do you put them?' " Miller says. "I used to use a tape measure. Now I just project it with the laser. The laser helps me identify where the cutting edge is so I can place the pods," Miller says.

Material handling has become much easier, according to Miller. "I don't have to use a tape measure all the time; I can just view the outline of my part. As long as my pod doesn't hit the outline, the router isn't going to hit my pod," Miller says.

Miller has also found that placing multiple parts on the table is much easier as well. "We project the outline of the parts and then put the pods in around the parts. Once that's in, I can project to the bed level, or to the pod level, or to the top of the part above the pod, so when I lay the part on the pod it projects the outline once again. Then I can move my part around, see where the laser's hitting, and then I know my cutting edge is going to cut without missing the part," Miller says.

Maximizing material

If Miller is running sheet stock, he says it's not necessary to use the laser. However, he has found that the laser is useful for getting the best-looking results from his material.

"When we're doing drawer fronts on a cabinet, you want the grain to look aesthetically even. It's not critical as far as the functionality of the cabinet, but you don't want the grain to be lopsided, you want it center-matched," Miller says. "So I can take my sheet up there and project my laser, and move my sheet left and right and get my grain to where it appears it's going to be pretty well center-matched. Short of using a tape measure, that would be hard," Miller says.

Using the laser to project door cuts gives Miller a chance to see and avoid undesirable cuts. "I can look at my sheet before I even cut it and see, 'Oh, there's a bad piece of grain here. If I slide the sheet over a bit I'll miss that,'" Miller adds.

Good for shop owners

Both Ciuffo and Miller agree that using the laser projection system in connection with their CNC work has made life in their shops easier. "I think there are a lot of things I couldn't have made if I hadn't had the laser," Ciuffo says. "It can do a lot."

Miller admits that he wasn't sure about the laser system at first. "I had my doubts. But once I started using it, I started developing needs for it," Miller says. "I started saying, 'Wow, I can do this, and I can do this...' Before, I would have said, 'Aw, we don't need that.' But now it's a necessity. It's become a helpful tool. A very helpful tool."

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.