Here’s What Convinced Me to Order a $2,000 Glowforge Laser Cutter

Xconomy Seattle — 

I haven’t told my daughters yet that we’re getting this new tool that has captured my imagination and will soon help them make their own toys—and who knows what else. But I just ordered a Glowforge laser cutter and engraver from the eponymous Seattle startup, and I have to say, I’m pretty excited.

Disclosures: Even though I write about technology, I am not typically an early adopter. The truth is, Dan Shapiro, Glowforge’s co-founder and CEO, sold this thing to me over the course of several interviews and e-mail exchanges during the last year as he revealed his company and raised $9 million from venture investors. I can’t endorse it yet, because I’ve only seen demos; never made something on it myself. My unit, like anyone else who orders during Glowforge’s 30-day launch campaign, beginning today, will hopefully arrive sometime next year.

But I’ll try to explain what convinced me to fork over $1,995 (half off the suggested retail price) plus $99 shipping for a consumer-grade laser cutter, which I’ve managed to survive without until now.

For starters, I’ve realized that I am something of a Dan Shapiro acolyte. I wrote about and subsequently bought a couple of copies of Robot Turtles, his board game for teaching kids how to think like computer programmers, which broke Kickstarter records for its category. (It was Shapiro’s experience cutting out the pieces for Robot Turtles that got him engaged in the world of laser cutters.) My 3-year-old and I play together, and it’s fun.

Shapiro’s enthusiasm for building this laser-cutting tool and the possibilities it opens is infectious. I already enjoy building and using tools, so I’m a pretty easy sell.

That said, there’s something deeply appealing to me about the combination of technologies packed into the Glowforge, and the way cloud-based software does so much of the heavy lifting. It seems so versatile and modern, with few limits on what you can do with it.

It does have some limits: The material you’re cutting or engraving can be a maximum size of 12 inches by 20 inches by 1.5 inches high—so you can’t fit a pumpkin inside. (I had visions of epic 2016 jack o’ lanterns.) Shapiro says there’s a workaround: He sliced off the face of a relatively flat pumpkin, laser-engraved it in the Glowforge, then reinserted the cut piece into the gourd.

Also, the Glowforge’s 40-watt CO2 laser can only cut through material up to a quarter-inch thick in a single pass, but by flipping the material over and making a second pass, you can double that—and the computer vision technology baked in handles the alignment to make this easy, Shapiro says.

A “Pro” model, which costs $3,995 during the early-bird promotion and has an MSRP of $8,000, sports a more powerful 45-watt laser—it’s in the FDA’s laser hazard class IV, whereas the base model is hazard class I—and has the capability to continuously feed in material, meaning you can cut or engrave something 20 inches wide and essentially unlimited in length, with software and internal cameras once again handling the alignment.

The Glowforge cuts and engraves everything from nori to titanium.

The Glowforge cuts and engraves everything from nori to titanium.

The array of materials you can cut or engrave with a Glowforge is impressive: “wood, fabric, leather, paper, cardboard, Plexiglas (acrylic), Delrin (acetal), mylar, rubber, fiberglass, cork, sandpaper, gasket material, silicone sheet, Corian, foods, and more” can be cut and engraved, according to the company’s Tech Specs page. The Glowforge can engrave “glass, marble, rubber stamps, stone, ceramic, tile and coated metals such as anodized aluminum, stainless steel, brass, titanium, and more.” The demo video shows people custom-engraving their MacBooks, among many other things.

So how does it work?

In a demonstration via Skype last week, Shapiro made a votive candle holder. First, he placed a thin sheet of walnut and another sheet of acrylic into the laser cutter’s working bed. It’s not necessary to precisely align the material inside the machine. A wide angle and macro cameras, along with an optical thickness measurement device captured a detailed picture of the material. The picture appeared on the tablet Shapiro was using to control the Glowforge (it only has a start button on the device itself).

Shapiro dragged the design for the votive onto the material. It’s like a WYSIWYG graphics editor for objects in the real world.

When everything was set to go, he sent the job to the Glowforge—it’s all done over Wi-Fi—and pressed the start button. Both the walnut and the acrylic were in the cutter at the same time and were cut during the same sub-15 minute run, with the laser adjusting its power as it moved from one material to the other. Shapiro says the laser in production Glowforge units will be faster and more powerful, thanks to a custom-designed, hand-blown glass tube.

During the demonstration, a considerable amount of smoke and even some small flames came up from the walnut inside the machine as the laser did its work. Fans inside help control that. As for the exhaust, there’s two solutions: Place the unit by a window or buy an integrated air filter for an additional $500 (at the early-bird price), which would allow the machine to run in an office or home without external ventilation.

A candle holder like the one Shapiro made in the demonstration.

A candle holder like the one Shapiro made in the demonstration.

Shapiro slid together the cut pieces of the candle holder in minutes. The design included notches and tabs that fit the pieces together using only friction; no additional fasteners or glue were needed.

That’s part of why the company is marketing these as 3D printers, even though they are technically laser cutters, and their process is subtractive rather than additive. The Glowforge makes building things in three dimensions—a four-foot tall doll house, for example—relatively easy because it cuts so precisely, even if the material is non-uniform.

This part really blew my mind. Wood, as anyone who works with it knows, is rarely uniform. Slight deviations in thickness can mean your doll house walls won’t fit together, ruining the project. The Glowforge’s computer vision system creates a 3D model of the material, precisely measuring thickness. The software accounts for imperfections in the material relative to the plan and adapts the plan and the cuts it makes accordingly, in real time, Shapiro says.

Witness the power of cloud computing—Google’s cloud, to be specific.

“We can dedicate a supercomputer to making your dollhouse for a fraction of a second, instead of having a desktop or an embedded computer cranking away forever trying to figure it out,” Shapiro says.

That’s a prime example of how Shapiro and the Glowforge team approached the challenge of creating an inexpensive (relative to existing laser cutters), easy-to-use consumer device out of an industrial machine. The idea was to use commodity smartphone components instead of robotics equipment and cloud computing power instead of local computing resources wherever possible.

Building 3D objects from the two-dimensional panels produced in a laser cutter obviously requires detailed plans to get all the tabs and notches to line up. (Designs can be made using Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, AutoCAD, and Inkscape.) Glowforge recognizes this might be a barrier to many users, particularly when they’re just starting out. So it has created a catalog of ready-to-go project plans, some of which will cost extra and may come from third parties and brands.

For example, the Glowforge team made an excellent Settlers of Catan board using a variety of hardwoods for tiles. It has an agreement with the game’s English-language publisher, Mayfair Games, Shapiro says. Stay tuned for more, he says.

Another option for making things with Glowforge is “trace mode.” I think this is the one my daughters will engage with first. You can draw directly on the material you’d like to cut or engrave. The Glowforge scans the drawing and then implements the cut. Shapiro says his kids cut out sheriff’s badges for dress-like-a-cowboy day at school (for the win). He says it’s easy enough to do things like make a wrench out of wood just by tracing the bolt he needs to turn.

In addition to premium designs, Glowforge will sell material specially coated with an ultraviolet barcode that the cutter can read and identify easily, automatically adjusting the power of the laser for the given job.

Glowforge isn’t saying yet the cost of premium plans, materials, or a replacement laser. The laser is expected to last more than two years with regular, daily use. The replacement cost will be in the low hundreds of dollars. I have a bit of trepidation about this tool’s lifetime costs, but it obviously wasn’t enough to stop me from purchasing.

We’re also waiting to hear where the Glowforge will be manufactured. Its parts come from manufacturers around the world, but no, Dale Chihuly is not producing the hand-blown glass tubes for the laser. Not yet, anyway.