Assignment 1: The Laser Cutter

Brainstorming and Ideation

When I was brainstorming for the project ideas on how to make 3D things from 2D cuttings, I was mainly browsing laser cutting projects on websites (like instructables and ponoko) and looking for inspirations (which was really helpful for me to understand different things laser cutter is capable of). The project ideas I came up with are mainly in three categories: explaining technology (dissect a mobile phone), making things to move (stop animation box and wave automata), books and storytelling (object in the book and 360° storybook).

I was intrigued by the idea of showing the what’s inside a smartphone, which I thought might be a good start to explaining technologies to people who have a hard time with technologies (like older adults). For this idea, I am thinking laser cutting each layer inside the phone, and assemble them together with some level of transparency that let people see what’s inside.

Reference photos for this idea
Sketches for this idea

This idea was inspired by the laser cutting stop motion project on ponoko and the shadowbox. In addition to the different layers for different frames of an animation, I am thinking adding some LED lights to each layer, which can be programmed to loop through all layers (and I have no idea at all if this is going to work or not).

Reference photos for this idea
Sketches for this idea

When searching about how to make things to move, automatas came up. The mechanism of automatas seemed simple but fun so I think it would be fun to make a moving wave!

Reference photos for this idea
Sketches for this idea

This idea was inspired by the cardboard laser cutting project (top left in the following picture) and pop up books. Besides cutting and assembling 3D objects from layers, I think it would be interesting to give some context to the objects (like a book) when setting them up.

Reference photos for this idea
Sketches for this idea

I am a big fan of Yusuke Oono’s 360° books and I am definitely up to use this assignment to make a 360° storybook! It was a little bit tricky to think about the best story and scenario for a 360° storybook, since there probably needed to be some center, symmetric 3D object in the scene (I am thinking mushroom in my sketch).

Reference photos for this idea
Sketches for this idea

File Work

After discussing the ideas with our instructor, I decided to go with the mobile phone idea, as we both agreed that this one is something new and more interesting to explore. Besides, I found this blog post discussed about how new media technology are often presented to public, as well as the gap between the parts of technology that people interact with (softwares) and the physical components of these technologies. I think it would be interesting to do my version of laser cutter exploded view diagram for iPhone.

After searching iPhone exploded view on Google Image, I decide to focus on four layers of the structure: front, circuit board, battery, and back (with camera). With the circuit board, I thought it would also be fun to highlight some key components on the board, like processor and sensors (e.g., accelerometer and gyroscope). The outline of the iPhone came from the iPhone template I found online, where I took the very outline of the template, adjusted it to real iPhone size, and modified for the back of the phone. The circuit board and battery were created from tracing images online (see the reference photos below). For some pieces that needed to be more explanatory by themselves, like the battery icon, I found them through noun project.

Here is an overview of the final file work, where I grouped layers based on material I was thinking:

The most challenging part with file work was trying figure out the actual dimension for different layers, which I will talk more about in the following section.

Prototyping and Iteration

For the first test cut, I just wanted to focus on getting an idea about how the model might look like. I also wanted to try out the idea that this can either be a displayed piece (more like an architecture model and closer to the exploded view diagram), and also be more like a real phone. Hence, I just try to cut the layout of each layer I was thinking, as well as try to cut some separators that can be put between each layers.

I was using 1/8 cardboard for this test cut, although it’s not the material I would use for final cut, but the thickness is the same as what I was thinking. From this test cut, I found out that I probably need to increase the width of the iPhone cut out a little bit to support the holding of each layer better, as well as leaving some space for putting magnets (the size of magnets I found was 1/8 x 1/8). And because I do like the flexibility that I can change between two set-up, I planned to use magnets to connect between each part.

The second cut was planned for trying out different materials. I tried to cut from 1/8 plywood, 1/8 MDF, 1/16 Acyclic with space for putting magnets.

During the 2nd test cut, I realized that I need to put contact paper on both front and back of the material to prevent burns on the material. Although plywood did feel nice for the front and the back, I decided to go with MDF for all layers, as the engraves and details looked better on MDF. After calculating the height, I decided to go with 1/16 MDF and 1/8 acrylic for the front, 1/16 MDF for the middle two layers (since I only planned to put magnets in the front and the back, I needed to reduce the thickness of the middle for them to hold), 1/8 and 1/16 MDF for the back.

After adding more details to the middle two layers, I was wondering if I could raster on both sides of the material, which would be nice to look at if the layers were taken apart. When doing the final cut, I cut out stencils on the material so I could plug the circuit board and battery layer back for rastering the back. Although it seemed like there were not perfectly aligned, the outcome looked great enough for the final assembly.

And because we all learn from our mistakes… here are some notes about the things I learned from the final cut. The most important thing is doing a test assembly before putting super glue on them! I realized that I forgot the fact that some layers were mirrored from each other and glued the wrong side of magnets…. Also, I need to be extra careful with acrylic and super glue. There were some glue stains on the acrylic screen which I forgot to clean out immediately, which I wish I could just do an extra cut to fix this problem (but I was also running out of extra magnets)…

Final Assembly

Here is an overview of all the pieces that were ready to be assembled:

The front layer was combined with (a) and (b), glued together with super glue; the circuit board layer and battery layer didn’t have any extra steps for assembling, but just three plug-in pieces (c); the back layer was combined with (d) and (e), glued together with wood glue. All the holders/stands (f) were glued together with super glue, and all the magnets were glued to the layers/stands with super glue.

Here are the two setups for the model:

Display Setup
Phone Setup

The final product was far from perfect (like the glue stain I talked before and there was a little mis-alignment in some layers or between layers and magnets… But in general I am happy with how it turned out at the end and how experienced I become with laser cutter! Also, I have always had this project idea about understanding how we can explain technologies to people (especially older adults, where I have the assumption that this might enable them to better utilize technologies), and I see this project as a very first effort for doing so!

HCI Researcher & Technologist, PhD Candidate @ GroupLens, University of Minnesota