Building with Acrylic: Thickness Variation

Thickness failIn the previous post, the laser cutter kerf was successfully compensated, admittedly in a way that left plenty of room for improvement in the future. This post will look at a different challenge of building with acrylic: variation in thickness of acrylic sheets. So far experience showed different sheets of “6 mm” acrylic can actually be anywhere from 5.31 mm to 6.03 mm.

Since most laser-cut acrylic projects are 2D in nature, any variation in acrylic sheet thickness usually goes completely unnoticed. But when building 3D structures out of multiple interlocking pieces, the thickness dimension has a significant impact.

Fortunately for us, while thickness can vary across different sheets, the thickness is relatively consistent within a single sheet. There may be some variation from one corner of a 4′ x 8′ sheet of acrylic to another, but once cut into smaller pieces that can fit in a laser cutter, the thickness can be reasonably treated as constant.

This allows us to treat thickness as a parameter in a Fusion 360 CAD file. Any slots cut for acrylic pieces will need to reference the parameter. So that when it comes time to generate the cutting profile, the thickness parameter can be updated with the thickness of the actual sheet of acrylic, and Fusion 360 will automatically recompute all the slot widths to match.

Which brings us to the attached picture illustrating human error: the assembly on the left is built up to the proper dimensions. In contrast the assembly on the right was too thin. I made the mistake of measuring on one sheet and cutting on a different sheet that turned out to be 0.29 mm thinner. 0.29 mm is a small difference, but when the assembly is built by stacking seven pieces together, it results in a significant dimensional error of over 2 mm.

Building With Acrylic: Kerf Compensation

After learning my 3D printer’s inability to hold dimensional tolerance, I went back to practicing building with acrylic. Laser cutter kerf may be annoying but it is at least consistent. Now that I know my choice is between a consistent kerf or an inconsistent extrusion width, I choose to deal with consistency.

A bit of Google confirms laser cutter kerf compensation is a fairly common problem people have sought to deal with. What’s less common are actual practicable solutions for designing 3D structures intended to be built up from laser-cut pieces of acrylic. While 2D work on a laser cutter is common, construction for 3D structures appears to be less so.

A laser cutter workflow usually ends in a series of vector graphics commands. Common formats are DXF, DWG, SVG, and PDF. All are good for describing lines, but they only describe where to cut. They don’t contain information on which side of the line is the desired output. So while it is possible for an automated script to offset all lines, it doesn’t know which direction is “inside” vs “outside” in order to perform the proper offset for kerf compensation calculation.

The CAD software (Fusion 360) knows this information, so I thought it’s an obvious place for such mechanism to exist. Google knew of people who have devised some very clever workarounds to make it happen, but not an actual feature in the CAD software itself. Before I started using other people’s workarounds, I thought I’d try to do it manually first, adding to the kerf amount to the dimensions of individual components to CAD.

The result was very encouraging, the laser cut pieces came out at the desired dimensions and pieces fit together with their edges well aligned. This validated my manual process but added mystery. What I did was tedious for a human, simple for a computer, but for some reason the software doesn’t do it. Perhaps I will find out why as I continue learning about laser-cut acrylic construction.

Successful kerf