Laser Finances...or how to replace $30-40K worth of lasers every 2yrs


TLDR: By collecting a laser fee, when these machines need replacing, we are not putting a $30,000-40,000 burden on the General Fund every two years. The risk is spread out among the laser users in proportion to their rate of usage. The fee is a pittance compared to commercial rates and still adequately meets our needs. This leaves more funds available for our sister and brother committees.

Nick and David have raised a persistent misconception.
If they have it, so do others.
Clarifying this is worthy of its own thread.

The original financial model for Laser was based (past tense) on tube life.
Our membership was a fraction of the 2200 we now have.
We had one or two lasers, which limited the number of Laser Basics classes that could be taught without tying up the machines.

Much has changed: more lasers, more training, more members, more authorized users, more usage.
Which all comes down to wear-and-tear and decreased service life.
Therefore, the financial model is now based on machine life.

  • The service life of a laser is estimated at 5-7 years under ideal conditions: 1-3 trained, experienced operators in clean conditions with daily maintenance, using known materials.
  • Since 02/2018, less than a year ago when we started collecting login data, 622 different members have logged onto the laser PCs at least once, subtracting the admin logins. That is 28% of our current membership.
  • Login attempts over 11 months, minus admins:
    Blitzen: 2521
    Donner: 2784
    Big Thunder: 2905.
    Zing: 1013
    TOTAL: 9233
  • Our lasers are located in dusty conditions near exterior roll up doors, woodshop, and metal shop.
  • Our volunteers perform regularly scheduled monthly maintenance, not the manufacture recommended daily.
  • We do not know if improper materials are being lasered. Improper materials are lasered.
  • Users do not report issues in a timely manner, so the effects compound.

The wear-and-tear is showing on the machines.

  • The machines are breaking down weekly.
  • Repairs are consuming more and more volunteer time (a more finite resource).
  • Burnt, cracked lenses are being replaced almost weekly.
  • The build up in the exhaust fans is accumulating at an increasing rate.
  • This weekend, @sixvolts, @JoshW, and @pinewoodnut spent a combined 15 hours restoring Big Thunder: testing the tube, taking power levels, replacing parts, and running test cuts.
  • One big enough accident can permanently damage a machine. Witness Blitzen’s severe (and unreported) head crash 3 months after installation…she no longer cuts plumb.
  • One use of improper materials can permanently damage a machine. Witness the corrosion in Blitzen from non-laserable rubber.

We have come to accept that the machines themselves are consumables.

  • Big Thunder is $15,000. At only two yrs old, she is at the end of her Makerspace service life.
  • Donner and Blitzen are $8000 each and one year old. We have one more year with these, fingers crossed.
  • That’s $30,000+ to be spent in the next year…not including expansion costs and additional lasers.
  • Should Zing need replacing: that’s $8,000.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I know it was long.


Sure we do, right? Improper materials are totally being cut, probably by mistake, on a regular basis. Hopefully less of knowingly cutting improper materials.

Great analysis. Thanks.


Agreed. Thank you. Will correct original.


Thanks Stephenie, I agree with your analysis. Laser is one of the most utilized committees at the space. It’s likely the machines will need to be replaced every few years to handle the usage load.

Given the number of users, I think we should explore higher quality machines so that we can increase the average time to failure/repair. With more members using laser, we need equipment that can support more (ab)use. Better machines exist, but at a much higher cost. We will need that accumulated cash to afford those machines that are the next step up.

This is something we’ve been discussing regularly at laser meetings. I would encourage anyone interested to attend our monthly committee meetings.


The problem with this is that it doesn’t matter where in the price range your laser is, a single user cutting PVC without realizing it will destroy 90% of the value of the machine.


Will the new room help with the dust issue

I expect maintenance to be an issue across the space


Putting woodshop in quarantine by itself, hopefully with better dust control should make it better for everyone else. And while laser will have more walls than they do now, they will have one end open to the walkway between the new and existing spaces.


But they will be away from auto and those doors


I have always felt like the laser pricing model was very good: the lasers see steady use yet the modest fee encourages more efficient usage and also allows users to sustain both the committee’s OPEX and CAPEX.


Andrew - do we have access to MTBF or MTTR numbers for any of the candidate lasers? If we don’t have MTBF numbers, do we know how other Makerspaces handle this problem, and/or what brand(s) of lasers they buy?

This seems to be an increasing trend across DMS. Heavier usage - frequent breakdowns - and what seems to be a much faster growth of users than volunteers. I don’t have an answer, but it’s not obvious that our all-volunteer paradigm will support our geometric rate of membership growth.


We don’t have failure statistics yet because we don’t have a way to track all issues in a single place. I’m hoping we can use the touch screens we are adding to the machines to help track and report usage and failures eventually. We’re focusing on collecting usage data first to make everyone’s experience simpler while using the machine.


@heyheymama do you have any information on the laser committee’s revenue?

How well are we currently funding the committee to cover the anticipated expenses?


I actually meant the manufacturer’s predicted MTBF for various competing manufacturers. You suggested that there were better machines available, so I wondered about their statistical MTBF.


I don’t have hard data relating to a manufacturers estimate. But I agree with @sixvolts, the makerspace should pursue higher quality machines in order to reduce the frequent breakdown and high costs of parts that should not be considered consumables (I.e almost weekly lens replacements)

I ran a ULS laser in a university makerspace for 3 years and in that time replaced the lens once, and never saw the machine go out of alignment. The machine racked up over 1800 hours in that time and was run by numerous students. Several times the head was crashed and once the carriage was put back on the gantry no realignment was needed.

Higher quality machines generally have better optics, more protection against fumes, debris, and impacts, more consistent tubes with longer service lifes. I understand the concern of jumping up half an order of magnitude in price for what on paper sounds like a similar laser but in my experience the difference is night and day.


I am a proponent of decision-making based on life cycle cost of ownership rather than the initial investment. I just don’t know how to do that without data. Your experience with ULS is a useful data point.


Thanks, sorry if it seemed like I was ranting, that wasn’t the intention.


Thanks @michaelb . This helps answer something that I was wondering about…whether a higher quality laser actually equates to longer life/lower operating costs/less maintenance. If a laser twice the price lasts only 50% longer, that’s not a great choice. On the other hand, if it’s close to a break even point, a better quality laser totally makes sense because presumably the higher quality results are worth something.

@sixvolts On a related note, I think the kiosk concept discussed at the committee meeting is going to work to DMS’ favor, but only if login is required to activate the laser. I know this is probably some additional integration work and a step beyond what’s set up today. If there is to be accountability for abuse on the lasers, which significantly reduce the life of the machine, “last login” is one way to do this. This only works if login is compulsory.


Higher quality lasers are great but repairs can be more costly as well. Just buying a better made laser does not prevent basic dumb mistakes. For that you need to look at the quality of training. How do people take the class yet don’t know there is a list of materials that should NEVER be cut?

Same with lenses, they are primarily damaged by contaminants on the surface that then absorbs heat to the point they crack/shatter/burn etc. With the air assist on there should not be a way for smoke to get to the lens. I would think the mirrors would have a harder life as they are in the open on these machines.

I suspect that the majority of laser issues are a lack of care or concern for the equipment by users. That would not change by buying better lasers.


We have proficiency testing for the multi cam and other mills/cutters- is this not a possibility for laser as well?


Regarding the optics, there are features on higher quality lasers that would reduce the number of issues we have. We’ll always have a lack of concern for the equipment, but higher quality equipment is generally easier to use (easier to teach), and stands up to the eventual misuse better.

At least, that’s the idea.