If there’s one Seattle-area startup making something I really want, Glowforge is it.
The company just raised $9 million from Foundry Group, True Ventures, and leaders of 3D-printing company MakerBot to build a consumer-grade “3D laser printer”—more commonly known as a laser cutter and engraver.
Co-founder and CEO Dan Shapiro said Glowforge aims to have its eponymous device for sale to the public by the end of the year at a price of less than $2,500. That would significantly undercut current prices for a tool that typically has the longest queue in maker spaces, despite the greater buzz around 3D printing.
Glowforge enables anyone to easily produce the work of an accomplished wood carver, leatherworker, engraver, or printmaker, Shapiro says. He also sees potential customers in people who make and sell crafts in online marketplaces like Etsy, but have been unable to scale-up without going to a third-party manufacturer.
“I think about this as reinventing what it means to be homemade,” Shapiro says. “It means you get the low cost and speed and convenience of a factory, but you get the precision and personality and quality of something [made by] a craftsperson who spent decades polishing their work.”
At 20 inches deep, 30 inches wide, and 8 inches high, the Glowforge can sit on a desktop. Shapiro keeps his in the garage. It plugs into a standard wall outlet and consumes about as much power as a computer. He says it’s as safe as a DVD recorder or laser printer. “There is no possibility of the user being exposed to the laser beam,” he says.
The Glowforge he’s building today is a far cry from the first laser cutter Shapiro used: an industrial CO2 laser, which weighed 770 pounds, cost $11,000, took up most of his workshop, required auxiliary cooling and airflow systems, and was controlled by terrible software. Despite its shortcomings, the laser cutter at its core is “incredibly precise and quick and accurate magic,” Shapiro said.
He used the industrial laser cutter to build a 3D version of Robot Turtles, the Kickstarter record-setting board game that teaches kids programming fundamentals. That experience of making something of quality, quickly and easily, led directly to Glowforge, which he co-founded last year with Tony Wright and Mark Gosselin.
They aim to make a laser cutter and engraver that costs a fifth of the machine Shapiro first used, and to make it consumer-easy.
Shapiro describes the Glowforge as a very precise tool, capable of resolutions as high as 1,000 dots per inch. It can engrave a wide range of materials—wood, acrylic, leather, paper, cardboard, chocolate, nori seaweed paper, metal, stone, the back of your smartphone—and do so at varying depths to create a high-resolution grayscale image. It can cut through many materials up to a quarter-inch thick. (Shapiro declined to say what kind of laser the Glowforge will employ.)
The Glowforge doesn’t have a keyboard or screen. The controls on the unit itself consist of a single button on the front and a power switch on the back. It connects to the Internet and can be controlled with any cloud-connected device, cutting and etching designs made in software such as Adobe Illustrator and Autocad.
“The hard part is coming up with the vision of what you want to do,” Shapiro says. “From then on, it’s just printing.”
Shapiro says the company hasn’t decided whether it will market Glowforge with a crowd-funding campaign, direct retail sales, or another model. (A company called Full Spectrum Laser in Las Vegas, NV, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for a desktop laser cutter and engraver in 2012. It now sells the units for $3,500. Other potential competitors include Epilog Laser in Golden, CO; Trotec Laser in Canton, MI; and Universal Laser Systems in Scottsdale, AZ. Shapiro expects Glowforge to be dramatically less expensive than models made by these companies.)
“The competitor for the Glowforge, I hope, is not some other form of home fabrication. I hope it’s Amazon Prime,” Shapiro says. “There’s a whole host of products that are better, cheaper, more beautiful, higher-quality, and personalized, than what you would get buying the same thing from a store or over the Internet, and in fact, you can have them more quickly.”
The funding Glowforge has raised so far is enough to take it through an initial manufacturing run, with plans to have units available by the end of this year, Shapiro says. “We know we’ve got what we need to be successful and deliver this,” he says.
The manufacturing location is still to-be-determined. It’s a complex piece of equipment, combining technologies and techniques including welding, injection-molded plastic, power supplies, lasers, machinery, smartphone sensors, and a software stack that Shapiro hopes will make it easy to use, and less costly than competing devices that lean more on the hardware.
Glowforge’s new investors—who join an A-list of angel investors from Seattle and beyond who helped seed the company—bring expertise in the arena of at-home manufacturing. Both the Foundry Group and True Ventures were early MakerBot investors. MakerBot’s founder and former CEO Bre Pettis, as well as his erstwhile successor, Jenny Lawton, also invested in Glowforge.
“These are the people who understand this business better than anyone and have had more success than just about anyone,” Shapiro says. “It’s standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Shapiro and his team—now numbering eight with plans to double that soon—believe that laser cutters are much more satisfying to use than consumer-grade 3D printers, which, he says, are often more about the process of getting them to work than the result. Maker space operators I’ve talked to confirm that people come for the 3D printers, which have received lots of attention, but stay for the laser cutters.
“You spend hours tuning up your 3D printer and you try print after print and each one takes half a day and at the end you get a little blobby piece of plastic,” Shapiro says. “People enjoy the challenge of making it go, but the results are oftentimes not worth it.”
He sees Glowforge fitting into a resurgence of urban manufacturing, allowing professional craftspeople to scale-up their businesses in ways they couldn’t before. Shapiro says about 1 percent of Etsy creators use a laser cutter now, despite their current high cost.
“We think this brings laser technology beyond the 1 percent that’s discovered it already and lets creative designers and artists scale-up their creativity without losing that homemade touch,” Shapiro says.